Mythical Creatures in Writing, Part X.
One of my all time favorite creatures has to be the many types of necromancers – they’re dark, sometimes undead and wield magical powers. I love Clark Ashton Smith’s gripping tales that follow necromancers’ true nature. And on a totally different genre hop, I also love Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series (she’s a modern necromancer, you could say.) It could be just me, but there’s something so mysterious and deadly about an intelligent corpse who commands other undead – think of the possibilities. H. P. Lovecraft and Robert. E. Howard both went there.
What is it?
Lichs were once living necromancers that have become powerful enough to live on after death as an undead necromancer or lich. Unlike a zombie, which is often depicted as mindless and/or under the control of some magician, a lich retains its independent thought and is as intelligent as a living human – and often, far more so.
The underlying idea of eluding death by means of arcane study and black magic can be traced to Middle Eastern folklore. The method of achieving immortality by placing one’s soul in a phylactery, usually hidden in some vast fortress, is suggestive of the burial practices of Egypt. Many cultures have similar stories, such as eastern Slavic mythology which includes stories of a powerful dark wizard or a demon, Koschei the Deathless, who evades death by having his fiery soul placed in the eye of a magical needle.
Ability / Power
With a strong power of immortality gained by using spells or rituals to bind his intellect to his animated corpse, lich become super powerful in the undead form, so it’s easy to see the attraction necromancers have over wanting to take lich form – they’re power-hungry. They have the ability to command the dead, using them to do their bidding.
While some of their appearance may vary depending on the story or game referring to a Lich, generally they are depicted as cadavers with a skeletal appearance.
Appearances in Fiction
Various works of fiction have used lich as a term to refer to a corpse, animated or inanimate, such as Clark Ashton Smith’s Empire of the Necromancers, which I highly recommend reading. But after the 1977 Monster Manual for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game by Gary Gygax was released, the term lich was used for a specific type of undead creature. Liches are common in many fantasy role-playing games and MMORPGs such as Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, Everquest, Nethack, Forgotten Realms, Guild Wars etc.
- Dungeons & Dragons game – a lich is a spellcaster who seeks to defy death by magical means. They are necromancers who are unsatisfied with the level of power that they currently have, wish for longer lives, and seek to unburden themselves from the necessities of bodily functions so that they might dedicate every moment of their existence to the attainment of knowledge and power. Liches convert themselves into skeletal undead creatures by means of black magic and necromancy, storing their souls in magical receptacles called phylacteries. With their souls bound to material focuses, they can never truly die. If its body is destroyed, a lich can simply regenerate or find a new one. According to the Dungeons & Dragons mythos, the only way truly to destroy a lich is first to destroy its phylactery, thereby removing its anchor to the material world, and then to destroy its physical form.
- In the collectible card game Yu-Gi-Oh!, there is an effect zombie monster named “Lich Lord.”
- In the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, there is a series of cards that use the word “lich,” most of which turn a resource into an effect on the player’s life.
- In Raleigh, North Carolina, there is a video game company named ‘Lich King Studios’.
- In David Wellington’s Monster Trilogy a lich is a zombie whose body was forced oxygen after death, allowing the resurrected zombie to retain most, if not all of its former human intelligence and memories, as well as acquiring various supernatural powers.
Did you know? In Roman Catholicism and the Church of England, the word lychgate refers to a covered area at the entrance to the cemetery where the casket awaits the clergy before proceeding into the cemetery for proper burial, lych being a word meaning body or corpse derived from Old English.
Previous Mythical Creature Posts:
Marchosias: A Kick-Ass Creature, Ningyo: The Deadly Mermaid, Abatwa: Riding Ants To Victory, Cait Sith: It Gets Into Your Mind, Anka: The Goliath Bird, Huldra: Norse Forest Lady, iele: Romanian Nymphs Of The Air, Manticore: The Man-Eater, Hantu Demon: Legendary Spirit