A relative newcomer to the ghostly lexicon, the Lich has nevertheless become a fixture of fantasy mythology. But did it spring from an author’s mind or is there something real behind the myth?
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: how do you pronounce Lich? The typical American pronunciation is “litch”. The correct way to pronounce it is Germanic, which would be “lichh”, where the ich is kind of like a slurred “ick” sound. My German teacher used to describe it like Ernie on Seasame Street’s laugh. Pronouncing it as “lick” would also be somewhat correct. However, “litch” is the way most people would say it.
Where did the word come from, though? Well it comes from old German and old English. In German, Leiche means corpse or cadaver. In old English, the word is Lîc, and means the same thing. In English, however, it is usually used as an adjective modifying something else: for example, lich-house (mortuary). In fact, the most common use in English was “lychgate”, a church gate where bodies lay in wait for burial.
So what makes a lich different from any other member of the undead? Well first, technically speaking a lich is not a ghost, but rather a physical entity. A lich is said to be the body of a dead sorcerer who through magic a seer evil will lives on after their mortal death. More specifically, the wizard is said to have trapped their soul inside a physical object, which is known as a phylactery. So long as the phylactery remains intact, the lich cannot be killed.
Because of their great power and intellect, the lich is usually considered right up there with vampires in terms of how dangerous they are. They have no true vulnerabilities other than their phylacteries, which they will usually hide in as obscure a manner as possible, and maintain the powers they had in life. The one good thing about liches is that they are usually solitary, and don’t have the need to feed on living people like zombies or vampires. They simply endure for centuries, locked away in their lairs, studying magic or whatever an immortal evil sorcerer fancies.
The concept of the lich as something more than just a zombie like creature probably comes from the Russian myth of Koschei the Deathless. Koschei was a Russian wizard whose soul was in a needle, which was in an egg, which was in a duck, which was in a hare, which was in an iron bound chest, which was buried under an oak tree on the island of Buyen. If someone managed to find the chest, the hare would run away, and if they killed the hare, the duck would fly away. If they got their hands on the egg, they could control Koschei, and simply moving the egg around would fling him physically about.
Unlike more modern interpretations, Koschei wasn’t shown as a skeletal corpse, but rather as a normal man who simply could not die. The ghoulish look of a lich comes more from descriptions by the authors of Dungeons and Dragons, who brought the lich out of obscurity. The lich became a staple of gaming throughout the 70’s and 80’s, with Vecna, the lich-lord of Greyhawk, probably the best well known. The lich again rose to prominence in gaming with Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and Arthas, the Lich-King, in the 2000s.
There have been surprisingly few non-game related appearances of liches in the media. As funny as it may sound, Skeletor, arch-nemesis of He-Man, could likely be called a lich, though not in his appearance in the horrible live action movie. In Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer, the antagonist, Arawn Death-Lord is similar in many respects to a lich. Clark Ashton Smith referred to liches, but mostly used the term to simply describe a dead body, but he did write of dead necromancers battling one another. Robert E. Howard also made use of what could be termed a lich in his story, Skull-Face.
The lich is much more a mythological creature than something encountered in modern times, but it remains a figure of dread and a source of nightmares.