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A lich from the game The Battle for Wesnoth
Grouping Legendary creature
Sub grouping Undead
Similar creatures Zombie, magician, revenant
Other name(s) Liche

In fantasy fiction, a lich (/ˈlɪ/;[1] from Old English 'līċ' meaning 'corpse') is a type of undead creature. Often such a creature is the result of a transformation, as a powerful magician skilled in necromancy or a king striving for eternal life using spells or rituals to bind his intellect and soul to his phylactery and thereby achieving a form of immortality. Liches are depicted as being clearly cadaverous, bodies desiccated or completely skeletal. Liches are often depicted as holding power over hordes of lesser undead creatures, using them as soldiers and servants. Unlike zombies, which are often depicted as mindless, a lich retains independent thought and is usually at least as intelligent as it was prior to its transformation.

Various works of fantasy fiction, such as Clark Ashton Smith's "Empire of the Necromancers" (1936), had used lich as a general term for any corpse, animated or inanimate, before the term's specific use in fantasy role-playing games. The more recent use of the term lich for a specific type of undead creature originates from the 1976 Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game booklet Greyhawk, written by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz.[2]

Historical background[edit]

Lich is an old English word for "corpse", the gate at the lowest end of the cemetery where the coffin and funerary procession usually entered was commonly referred to as the "Lich Gate". This gate was quite often covered by a small roof where part of the funerary service could be carried out.[3]

In literature[edit]

The lich developed from monsters found in earlier classic sword and sorcery fiction, which is filled with powerful sorcerers who use their magic to triumph over death. Many of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories feature powerful wizards whose magic enables them to return from the dead. Several stories by Robert E. Howard, such as the novella Skull-Face (1929) and the short story "Scarlet Tears", feature undying sorcerers who retain a semblance of life through mystical means, their bodies reduced to shriveled husks with which they manage to maintain inhuman mobility and active thought.[4] Gary Gygax, one of the cocreators of Dungeons & Dragons, stated that he based the description of a lich included in the game on the short story "The Sword of the Sorcerer" (1969) by Gardner Fox.[5][6] The term lich, used as an archaic word for corpse (or body), is commonly used in these stories. H. P. Lovecraft also used the word in "The Thing on the Doorstep" (published 1937) where the narrator refers to the corpse of his friend possessed by a sorcerer.[7] Other imagery surrounding demiliches, in particular that of a jeweled skull, is drawn from the early Fritz Leiber story "Thieves' House".[8]

An earlier mention of the lich can be found in "The Death of Halpin Frayser" (1891), a short story by Ambrose Bierce. Halpin Frayser is found dead with a poem written in the style of Myron Bayne, his maternal great-grandfather. Through investigation and flashbacks, the reader finds that Frayser becomes possessed by Bayne, his distant ancestor, who senses that a lich named Catharine Larue has risen from her grave to kill Frayser. Myron Bayne takes possession in order to finish one last poem before Frayser's death. At the end of the story, the men investigating the murder conclude that Catharine Larue was Frayser's heartbroken mother, who had died some time before the murder. Bierce describes liches thus:

"For by death is wrought greater change than hath been shown. Whereas in general the spirit that removed cometh back upon occasion, and is sometimes seen of those in flesh (appearing in the form of the body it bore) yet it hath happened that the veritable body without the spirit hath walked. And it is attested of those encountering who have lived to speak thereon that a lich so raised up hath no natural affection, nor remembrance thereof, but only hate. Also, it is known that some spirits which in life were benign become by death evil altogether."

In popular culture[edit]

  • In the Dungeons & Dragons game (and other works of fantasy fiction that draw upon D&D for inspiration) a lich is often a spellcaster or someone assisted by a spellcaster who seeks to defy death by magical means.
  • World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King features the continent of Northrend, the realm of the eponymous Lich King and his undead minions.[9]
  • In Gothic story "The Death of Halpin Frayser".
  • In the Harry Potter book series, the primary antagonist, Voldemort, is a dark wizard who separates his soul from his body using magic, and then imbues these soul fragments into various objects, creatures, and people. He is thereafter unkillable until said vessels are destroyed, making him and his horcruxes very similar to the concept of a lich and its phylactery. The demilich, a more powerful subtype of a lich in Dungeons & Dragons, can likewise store portions of its soul into eight or more different phylacteries.
  • Liches are prominent in the Might and Magic series of video games, appearing primarily as enemies, but also as playable characters in several installments. They are equally prevalent in the spin-off series Heroes of Might and Magic, where they appear in most installments as recruitable creatures, but also as heroes. One of the most prolific liches in New World Computing's old continuity was Sandro, appearing in many titles and referenced in many more. The primary antagonist of Heroes of Might and Magic III: Restoration of Erathia is also a lich: the former king of Erathia raised by necromancers.
  • In The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, liches are powerful undead enemies the player may face in certain ruins. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim features dragon priests in Nordic tombs that are considered[by whom?] to be powerful liches. Liches also appear in The Elder Scrolls Online.
  • In the game Dota 2, Lich is one of the playable heroes.
  • In the Adventure Time television series, the main antagonist is an evil, undead being known simply as "The Lich". He describes himself as an ancient, cosmic being who is the manifestation of the inevitable death of all things, while Finn is his opposite, a being of life and goodwill. Both are manifestations of Catalyst Comets, colored comets that broke off the Cosmic Comet, the source of life. The Lich is born of the Green Comet while Finn is born of the Blue Comet.
  • In Ready Player One, a novel by Ernest Cline, main character Parzival first earned the Copper Key by defeating a lich two games out of three at the arcade game Joust.
  • In the light novel series KonoSuba, as well as its manga and anime adaptations, the supporting character Wiz is a lich. She has a human-like appearance, unlike many other liches in fiction.
  • In Wolfenstein, the mutated SS officer looks like a lich and has the ability to use weapons and magic.
  • In the game Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army, there is an occult general who looks like a lich, resurrects the dead and is invulnerable due to the skulls being the phylactery.
  • In Mysticons, the undead sorceress Queen Necrafa is a Lich-Queen. Her power is suggested to originate from something called the spectral hand, the nature of which is as of yet unknown.
  • In the webcomic The Order of the Stick, the main villain Xykon is a Lich.
  • In the 1997 animated film Anastasia, the character of Rasputin is an example of a lich. Rasputin lives beyond death by storing his soul in Phylactery described as an "unholy reliquary," which must be destroyed by the film's protagonist at the conclusion of the film.
  • In the game Enter the Gungeon. Lich is the final boss located in Bullet Hell.
  • In the film The Black Cauldron, the character of The Horned King is hinted at being a lich with his skeleton-like appearance and immense magical power.
  • In the novel Taran Wanderer, Book 4 of the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, the title character Taran meets a wizard named Morda who placed his soul into a finger and hid it. Taran is unable to harm Morda, nor Morda him, until Taran recognizes and destroys Morda's phylactery.
  • In Catacomb 3D and related games, the main antagonist is a lich named Nemesis.
  • In Magic: The Gathering, several cards represent liches.
  • In the Guild Wars game franchise, the character Palawa Joko is a lich.
  • In the Balance Arc of D&D-based podcast and fantasy series “The Adventure Zone” the characters of Lup and Barry Bluejeans as well as antagonists Lydia and Edward are all known liches.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Lich" The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 Apr. 2000
  2. ^ Gygax, Gary (1976). Grewhawk. TSR Rules. p. 35. LICHES: These skeletal monsters are of magical origin, each Lich formerly being a very powerful Magic-User or Magic-User/Cleric in life, and are now alive only by means of great spells and will because of being in some way disturbed. 
  3. ^ "Encyclopædia Britannica". Retrieved 11 October 2017. 
  4. ^ The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard (Vol 1 ed.). Cosmos Books. July 2007. pp. 194–320. ISBN 0809562367. 
  5. ^ "Morrus' D&D / 4th Edition / d20 News - View Single Post - The Lich (Origins)". EN World. 2007-01-29. Retrieved 2009-06-15. 
  6. ^ "Morrus' D&D / 4th Edition / d20 News - View Single Post - Gygaxian Monsters". EN World. 2007-10-05. Retrieved 2009-06-15. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ D&D Monster Origins (L-M).
  9. ^ "Champions of the Lich King". Blizzard Entertainment. Archived from the original on November 24, 2010. Retrieved November 14, 2014.