16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology

Steve - May 22, 2019

Based on a collection of fantasy short stories and novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher is a fantasy series that has since developed into a global franchise. Encompassing most prominently the critically acclaimed video games series, in 2019 the beloved world will be brought to life by Netflix on television. An immensely detailed and rich world rivaling the greats of the genre, Sapkowski’s fictional universe includes an array of ferocious and terrifying monsters. Drawing inspiration from his own cultural roots, much of Sapkowski’s creation is borrowed from traditional Slavic and European folklore and refashioned for modern audiences unfamiliar with the less child-friendly stories of yesteryear.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
Promotional still of Henry Cavill as the eponymous Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, for the upcoming Netflix series “The Witcher” based on the popular franchise.

Here are 16 times The Witcher borrowed from real-world mythology:

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
The “Trail of Treats”, from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. CD Projekt.

16. The “Trail of Treats” found in The Witcher 3, serving to guide children to the witches of the forest, is a clear homage to the famous German fairy tale Hansel and Gretel

In the course of The Witcher 3, Geralt is forced to enter Crookback Bog in search of the Bloody Baron’s lost wife. Signposting his route through the bog to the crones supposedly residing within the claustrophobic swamp, sweets and candy litter the path and even appear to grow from the trees themselves. Serving to guide orphans seeking the “Good Ladies”, many parents of the surrounding villages, suffering from too many mouths to feed, abandon children in the bog believing their offspring will “never want for anything again, for the Ladies are kind and generous”.

A clear homage to the German fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, recorded by the Brothers Grimm and first published in 1812, whereupon the young children are led into the forest by their father and subsequently abandoned. Initially leaving a trail of pebbles to find their way home, the following day the parents return them to the forest once more. This time, Hansel’s efforts to leave a trail are immediately thwarted, for having used breadcrumbs the siblings discover their tracks were eaten by birds. Arriving at a gingerbread house, in more modern versions located by following a trail of sweet wrappers, the children find a bloodthirsty witch disguised as a kindly woman.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
“Rabbi Loew and Golem” by Mikoláš Aleš (c. 1899). Wikimedia Commons.

15. Serving as a subtle allegory to the oft-overlooked Jewish history of Central Europe, the golems of The Witcher originate from Hebrew folklore, including even a faithful reproduction of the famous “Golem of Prague” narrative

A minor story housed within The Witcher 3, the tale of “Man’s Most Faithful Servant” strongly mirrors real-world mythological parallels concerning golems. Detailing how nonhumans suffered persecution at the hands of humans, including a night of mass violence reminiscent of “Kristallnacht” in 1938 Germany, a dwarf – Bonaventura – responds by sculpting a ten-foot-tall humanoid from clay in his workshop. Taking his own life to grant the creation sentience, his golem wreaked vengeance upon those slaughtering his brethren. Bearing noticeable similarities to various stories in European folklore, the depiction of golems by the franchise strongly mirrors the most famous such narrative: “The Golem of Prague“.

Centering around Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a prominent rabbi from Prague during the late-16th century, facing expulsion or death under the rule of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, Rabbi Loew allegedly “created a [g]olem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks”. Offering a subtle reinforcement to the association between Jewry in Medieval Europe and the treatment of dwarfs in the world of The Witcher, the chief moneylenders, notably Vivaldi, are commonly dwarfs.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
A representation of “Lady Midday”, also known as Poludnista, from the Dictionary of Slavic Mythology (c. 1996). Wikimedia Commons.

14. Symbolizing the risk of heart attacks during hard labors, Lady Midday of Slavic mythology is replicated in the world of The Witcher in the form of noonwraiths

Appearing in picturesque fields on windless days, noonwraiths are monsters who only appear around the climax of the sun’s arc. Hovering above the ground, taking the form of a sun-burned elderly woman in white robes, these wraiths are the spirits of young women and girls who fell victim to violent deaths prior to their weddings. Driven mad by anger, these spirits, unable to leave the world, roam the fields seeking unfaithful lovers to punish. Drawing from Polish folklore, noonwraiths from The Witcher are evidently inspired by the Południca: a female supernatural figure that wanders fields inflicting a host of ills upon the villagers.

Also known as Lady Midday, due to the belief she commonly appears during the middle of hot summer days, the spirit attempts to engage workers in conversation. Failure to answer or reject the topic results in the murder of the individual by the wraith. Widely believed to have been a mythological personification of heatstroke, with delirious conversations with imaginary individuals a frequent symptom of the condition, Lady Midday was commonly blamed for the deaths of workers whilst farming due to heart attacks. For fear of her, however, it became common practice for farmers to take breaks in the middle of a summer’s day to avoid her.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
Odysseus and the Sirens, as represented on an eponymous vase by the Siren Painter (c. 480-470 BCE). Wikimedia Commons.

13. Borrowing from the legendary classical work by Homer, the character of Hjalmar is clearly inspired by the ancient King of Ithaca, Odysseus

During The Witcher 3, Geralt is contracted to discover the fate of the lost son of Crach an Craite, Hjalmar, who, having embarked upon a voyage to Undvik, never returned. Found still attempting to complete his quest to defeat a giant, Hjalmar, having suffered a series of misfortunes, is the last surviving member of his crew. Of particular note, Hjalmar and his warriors arrived on Undvik after crashing into rocks whilst attempting to evade sirens in a similar manner to the story of Odysseus. Clogging his ears to protect himself from their singing, Hjalmar’s helmsman was unable to hear warnings concerning rocks resulting in their ship’s destruction.

Part of the legendary classical work by Homer, the Odyssey charts the return journey of Odysseus after the fall of Troy. Offending the Greek Gods, the journey takes ten years, during which time Odysseus and his crew endure immense hardships. Among these, one of the most prominent encounters is with the Sirens. Tying himself to the mast in order to safely hear their song, the remainder of his crew plugged their ears with beeswax so to successfully navigate the dangerous waters. In addition to this classical reproduction, in a previous story, Hjalmar was forced to be tied to his own mast to avoid being shipwrecked, a clear connection to the legendary King of Ithaca.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
Illustration of a Kikimora by Ivan Bilibin (c. 1934). Wikimedia Commons.

12. Although diverging from the historical mythology greatly, Kikimores nevertheless have made the transition from Slavic mythology to the modern Witcher franchise

Resembling larger-than-average insectoids, Kikimores in the world of The Witcher are organized into hives akin to real-world ants. Defending their colonies from outsiders aggressively when forced to do so, these creatures remain entirely passive until otherwise provoked, preferring to focus on their everyday chores. Although diverging from the traditional mythological portrayals in Slavic folklore, the Kikimore as depicted stem from the legendary “Kikimora”. Juxtaposed with the “good” spirit of the domovoy, who acts as the goddess of the house in Russian folklore, a kikimora serves as a “bad” female house spirit.

Inhabiting a residence or human dwelling, the kikimora was believed to make her home behind the stove or in the cellar. Making noises similar to those of mice, the purpose of the kikimora is to disturb the inhabitants of her chosen home, particularly men. Entering the room via its keyhole whilst people are asleep, the kikimora attempts to suffocate her cohabitants in their beds. Traditional methods of countering the monster included placing a broom by the door, a belt atop the sheets, and to make the sign of the cross upon a pillow. Today, it is believed the kikimora was a primitive attempt to explain the medical phenomenon of sleep paralysis.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
“Åsgårdsreien”, by Peter Nicolai Arbo, depicting the Wild Hunt descending (c. 1872). Wikimedia Commons.

11. Borrowing from their eponymous mythological counterparts, the Wild Hunt of The Witcher are inspired by historical legends of spectral horseman terrorizing villages and bringing damnation upon their victims

The Wild Hunt, also known as the Wraiths of Mörhogg, are a group of huntsmen who gallop across the sky in pursuit of their prey. Believed by the inhabitants of the world to be ghostly specters, in actuality, they are merely a brigade of elves. Initially formed to capture slaves from other worlds to serve their people, the Wild Hunt betray this purpose in pursuit of power and glory for themselves. Leaving behind a trail of death and destruction, the Wild Hunt of The Witcher is heavily inspired by the eponymous real-world legend.

A recurring motif throughout European folklore, the Wild Hunt takes many forms in Middle Age mythology. From the “Wild Jagd” in Germany, the Herlaþing in Anglo-Saxon England, to the Asgårdsreia in Scandinavia, the Wild Hunt is broadly seen as a harbinger of catastrophe. Captained by a figure often associated with the Norse deity Odin, who by the Middle Ages had fallen into disrepute and was more feared than revered within German paganism, stories involving the Hunt included the abduction of persons to serve in the underworld, the coming of a great plague, as well as the slaughter of those who laid eyes upon the horsemen.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
A Botchling, from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. CD Projekt.

10. Borrowing from both Scandinavian and Slavic folklore, botchlings are a composite creature inspired by the myths of the “myling” and “drekavac”

A prominent part of one of the most iconic storylines of The Witcher franchise, a botchling is a grotesque infantile zombie denied the pleasure of death after having been aborted or discarded without being properly buried or given a name. Hunting pregnant women at night, the botchling drains the prospective mother of her strength before violently attacking and killing both her and the fetus. Leaning heavily upon traditional Scandinavian mythology, where, prior to Christianization, the abandonment of children born with deformities was a common cultural practice known as “utburd”, botchlings draw inspiration from the legendary “myling”.

The phantasms of unbaptized infants discarded by their parents, mylings allegedly jump onto the backs of travelers and demand to be taken to a graveyard. Becoming heavier and heavier, should the traveler prove unable to complete their task, the myling murders the unfortunate individual. Similarly, the botchling is influenced by the Slavic “drekavac”, literally translated as “the screamer”. Comparable to the banshee of wider European folklore, among the many sources of a drekavac is believed to be the souls of unbaptized children, rising from the grave to haunt its parents and seeking to persuade people to baptize it.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
Naglfar – the ship of the dead – as depicted in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. CD Projekt.

9. A vessel built from the nails of the dead, Naglfar originates in Norse mythology as the vessel carrying an army of the dead to meet the gods in battle on the day of Ragnarök

A demonic vessel supposedly constructed by demons using the finger and toenails of the dead, Naglfar is believed by the inhabitants of Skellige to signal the impending final battle between good and evil known as Ragh Nar Roog. Allegedly carrying an army of the undead to this conflict, the vessel is actually manned by the Wild Hunt to travel between worlds. Replicating Norse mythology and the story of Ragnarök, Naglfar, built from the hair and nails of the dead, is foretold in the Scandinavian legend to sail to Vígríðr carrying hordes from Hel to wage war against the gods.

It is believed the longstanding myth both stems from and contributes to a central part of the ancient Proto-European custom of the ritual disposal of the hair and nails of the recently deceased. Offering a more subtle wink to the story of Ragnarok found in the Poetic Edda, the ice giant Myrhyff can be found on the island of Undvik building a gigantic longship. Planning to sail his creation to meet the gods in battle at some unknown destination, Myrhyff is a clear homage to the character of Hrym: a jötunn who supposedly serves as the captain of the Naglfar en route to Ragnarök.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
A 16th-century sculpture representing a succubus, found in a former coaching inn at 25 Magdalene Street, Cambridge. Wikimedia Commons.

8. Immensely sexualized beings, the succubi of The Witcher have more in common with the benign mythological “faun” species than their eponymous counterparts from the Middle Ages

Portrayed as hyper-sexualized monsters, albeit not requiring killing due to their benign nature, in the world of The Witcher a succubus is a half-female, half-goat creature, possessing horns on their head, who attempts to seduce passersby. As the appearance and design of the creature suggest, succubi of the fictional universe enjoy more in common with the “faun” of ancient legends than their eponymous counterpart. Stemming from Roman and Greek mythology, fauns were half-men, half-goat beings who borrowed their original depiction from the Greek deity Pan. Symbolizing fertility, although foolish, fauns were merely tricksy and clumsy rather than malevolent creatures.

However, whilst a succubus in The Witcher merely seeks pleasure, succubi from real-world traditions are far more dangerous. Stemming from Lilith, the first wife of Adam according to the Jewish tradition, a succubus, upon closer inspection, possesses multiple deformities rendering her beauty a mere figment. Encouraging immoral men to engage in sexual intercourse, the succubus subsequently stores the male semen for use in reproduction. Alternatively, some historical legends contain reports of succubi forcing men to perform oral sex upon their diseased vulva, most likely stemming from puritanical Church teachings which strongly opposed the practice of cunnilingus between sexual partners.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
“The Nightmare”, by Johann Heinrich Fussli, depicting an Alp sitting atop a sleeping females chest whilst observed by a Mara (c. 1790 or 1791). Wikimedia Commons.

7. Loosely inspired by Germanic folklore, alps are a race of vampiric monsters whom, according to real-world mythology, attack sleeping females and partake in devilish pranks around a farm

A race of vampiric monsters, the alps of The Witcher bear only partial resemblance to their real-world counterparts. Enjoying drinking the blood of men and young children, these female monsters otherwise behave more in a manner similar to common vampires than in their eponymous legends. Portrayed conversely in The Witcher as purely female, whilst in traditional mythology alps were entirely male and the female version of the creature is instead known as a “mara”, according to Germanic folklore the creature attacks female victims whilst they sleep. Inducing horrific nightmares and controlling their dreams, the alp is another creature apparently originating from the inexplicable condition of sleep paralysis.

Sitting atop the chest of their victim, an alp becomes increasingly heavy, gradually crushing the sleeper in their bed. Forcing them to awaken from their nightmare or otherwise die, the individual is unable to move or scream until the attack subsides. Not entirely evil, however, the alp was also regarded as a mischievous race fond of trickery. Among the many pranks known to delight, alps are included the placing of infants back into soiled diapers, the replacing of fresh milk with soured milk, and draining a mother of her breast-milk.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
“Kashchei the Immortal”, by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (c. 1926 or 1927). Wikimedia Commons.

6. The King of the Wild Hunt in The Witcher, Eredin is based on the Slavic folklore tradition of an immortal warrior and raider known as Koschei

The King of the Wild Hunt, Eredin Bréacc Glas is one of the foremost antagonists of The Witcher universe. Murdering his own king to usurp power, Eredin traverses the many worlds abducting individuals to serve his cause and advance his goal of acquiring greater strength. Stemming from Slavic folklore, the ominous horseman is based heavily upon the legendary figure of Koschei, commonly known as “the Immortal” or “the Deathless“. An archetypal evil villain appearing in a range of stories, Koschei is capable of evading death by hiding his soul inside an object, frequently a nested egg.

Typically seeking to abduct the protagonist’s lover or companion, as is the case in The Witcher – first with Yennefer of Vengerberg and subsequently with Geralt’s adopted daughter Cirilla – Koschei serves as an allegorical personification of an evil that never is truly defeated and always seeks to return once more. Originating from an unknown source, it is likely the concept of a marauding warrior seeking to abduct a hero’s wife developed in Eastern Europe after the growth in armed encounters with the Cumans during the Middle Ages. A nomadic Turkic people, the Cumans were forced from their ancestral lands by the advance of the Mongol Empire, settling the fringes of Europe thereafter.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
The “Mouse Tower” in Kruszwica, constructed in 1350 and reproduced faithfully on the island of Fyke in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Wikimedia Commons.

5. Borrowing from multiple similar stories found across European traditions, the “Mouse Tower” story, whereupon a tyrannical lord is eaten alive by mice, is based on both Slavic and Germanic folklore

Appearing in The Witcher 3, Lord Vserad, caring not for his subjects, retreated into his tower with enough supplies to outlast a famine ravaging his lands. Disappearing soon after, a semi-true legend is propagated in the local region that a host of mice invaded his tower and proceeded to devour everything and everyone housed within. Influenced heavily by the story of Prince Popiel II, a 9th-century ruler of the West Slavic tribe of Gosplans and Polans, the last leader of the Popielid dynasty supposedly met his end in a similar manner. A cruel and corrupt ruler, caring only for feasting and fornicating, he ruthlessly murdered his twelve uncles and cast their bodies into a nearby lake.

Facing rebellion, Popiel and his wife took refuge in a tower near Lake Gopło. Having consumed the corpses from the lake, a horde of ravenous mice chewed through the walls and ate the couple alive. This legend itself mirrors a late-10th-century account concerning Hatto II, the Archbishop of Mainz. Exploiting his people and gathering a huge surplus of grain, Hatto attempted to sell it at a huge profit during a famine. However, his tower was besieged by an army of thousands of mice, who, eating through the doors, ate the cruel archbishop alive.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
Conceptual artwork depicting a Plague Maiden from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. CD Projekt.

4. The Plague Maiden, one of the most iconic monsters of The Witcher, is closely inspired by the Scandinavian “Pesta” who served as the physical embodiment of the bubonic plague in traditional folklore

Responsible for one of the more nauseating moments of The Witcher 3, plague maidens are reminiscent of the aforementioned noonwraiths. Taking the appearance of a woman, coated with scabs and rotting flesh, commonly accompanied by rats, the creature delights in causing suffering and pain to nearby mortals. Spreading disease and pestilence in her wake, the plague maiden is closely inspired by the Scandinavian mythological creature known as a “Pesta”. Becoming the physical embodiment of the Black Death, which ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351, approximately one-third of Denmark and half of Norway died in just this brief period.

Envisioned as an elderly woman wearing black robes, legends involving the Pesta affirmed that the spirit would journey from homestead to homestead carrying the plague. If she was carrying a rake, then only a handful of people would die, whereas a broom would signify mass fatalities. An attempt to rationalize the sudden calamity without the modern understanding of virology and epidemics, tales of the Pesta were surprisingly scientifically aware, including having the ghostly presence often travel by boat: one of the most common means of transmission of the bubonic plague.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
A depiction of a Leshy, by Ivan Yizhakevych (c. 1904). Wikimedia Commons.

3. Drawing from both Slavic and Native American mythological culture, the “leshen” of The Witcher is inspired by both the Leshy as well as the Algonquian Wendigo

Among the most visually distinct monsters of The Witcher, the leshen is an ancient creature that dwells in dense woodlands. Hunting its prey cautiously, the leshen is capable of manipulating the proximate plant and animal life to assist it. Drawn from Slavic folklore, the fictional recreation is a reinterpretation of the traditional “Leshy”. Meaning “he from the forest”, the Leshy is a spirit who rules over the forest in which he dwells and commands the creatures within. Capable of assuming multiple likenesses, although often, as in The Witcher, bearing horns and surrounded by packs of wolves, unlike his fictional counterpart he is far more neutral in personality.

Although retaining a proclivity for abduction, the Leshy is also known to help those who are polite and respectful of his domain. Consequently, comparisons have instead been drawn also between the fictional leshens and the wendigos of Algonquian folklore. Similarly capable of appearing in a variety of forms, but once again preferring that of a humanoid with the antlers of a deer, these murderous creatures supposedly roamed forests seeking to devour humans. Strongly related to environmentalist concerns among Native American culture, it was commonly thought the arrival of a wendigo symbolized a critical imbalance with nature.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
Adda the White as a Striga, from The Witcher. CD Projekt.

2. Gradually becoming the popular monsters known today as vampires, the Striga of The Witcher were inspired by the Slavic mythology of both the Strzyga and Strigoi

A woman transformed by a curse in a monster in The Witcher, a striga is a hateful creature that seeks to kill and devour any humans it encounters. Only hunting during a full moon, the monster is possessed of great strength and can only be cured by being prevented from returning to its lair by the third crow of the rooster. Noticeably influenced by the Polish “strzyga”, a vampiric creature found in Slavic folklore, a strzyga is created when a person is born with two hearts and, consequently, two souls. Upon natural death, the second soul would resurrect the individual who would subsequently be transformed into a monster.

Preying upon humans and sucking their blood, it was believed that the decapitation of the corpse, staking of the deceased, as well as reburial, could cure the curse. Equally, both the striga and the strzyga retain similarities to the more famous “strigoi”. A troubled spirit risen from the grave, with the power to transform into an animal, become invisible, and gain strength from the blood of its victims, the strigoi originates from 16th century Croatia. Inspiring the modern-day vampire, the folklore was quickly adopted by nearby Transylvania and was immortalized in 1897 by Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

16 Times “The Witcher” Borrowed from Real-World Mythology
Baba Yaga as depicted by Ivan Bilibin, (c. 1902). Wikimedia Commons.

1. Inspired by the Slavic mythological character Baba Yaga – “one of the most memorable and distinctive figures in Eastern European folklore” – the Crones of Crookback Bog are a trio of evil and malicious witches

Known also as the Ladies of the Wood, the Crones are a trio of witches who reside in the swamps of Velen. Making their home in Crookback Bog, the powerful sisters dominate their surroundings, communicating with the outside world predominantly via an enchanted tapestry. Offering both benevolent services as well as inflicting punishment, the Crones successfully compel the nearby villages into cult-like worship of themselves. Adopted from Slavic folklore, the Crones are unquestionably inspired by the prominent supernatural figure of “Baba Yaga“. Represented as either an individual or as one of a trio of sisters all bearing the same name, Baba Yaga is a deformed maternal character commonly depicted as an old woman with the legs of a chicken.

Residing deep within a forest, Baba Yaga is one of the most recurrent figures in Slavic fairy tales. Ambiguous in morality and nature, appearing as both a savior and as a villain, Baba Yaga may elect to either help or hinder those who approach her. First recorded in 1755, various cultural interpretations of Baba Yaga have induced a highly enigmatic and emblematic figure, with modern commentators remaining disputed whether or not she was meant as a didactic lesson concerning the human condition or merely a stock character designed to frighten disobedient children.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“The Witcher: Everything We Know About the Crones of Crookback Bog“, By Jennifer Melzer, CBR, Published Jan 20, 2021

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