Geek Etymology – The Lich

Today I bring you yet another post in the Geek Etymology series. This time we will be exploring the origins behind the name of another fantasy creature: the lich! Credit goes to Lilly for the suggestion of this word.


To start with, what exactly do we consider a lich to be today? It is generally described as an undead creature, usually a human corpse in various states of decay, from zombie-like to completely skeletal. The main distinction between a lich and other undead or zombies is its higher level of intellect and powerful magical abilities. Liches are usually formed from the bodies of powerful mages and sorcerers who use necromancy to cheat death and remain for eternity to continue growing their power and gaining knowledge. Another key feature of liches is that they keep their essence or soul separated from their body in a container, usually referred to as a phylactery. This is often used as a weakness that needs to be sought out by heroes looking to defeat the lich, especially in roleplaying games. . In nearly every fantasy setting in which liches appear, they are evil or at least antagonistic, although there are some exceptions.

The lich of 1st edition D&D

So where do liches appear these days? Well obviously we find them in various fantasy works. One of the more famous examples is the ‘Lich King’ of the Warcraft series. We can also see them in various other games such as Final Fantasy. Even The Elder Scrolls has some, such as the Dragon Priests in Skyrim, which could be considered liches. To find out where this all started, and how the concept of a lich has entered the modern geek’s vocabulary, as usual we need to go back to early Dungeons & Dragons! For the original D&D rule set, the lich was introduced in its first supplement, Greyhawk in 1975. It is described as a skeletal monster that was formerly either a magic-user or a cleric in life. The lich was further developed in Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry. Gary Gygax, the co-creator of D&D, stated that he based the description of a lich included in the game on the 1969 short story “The Sword of the Sorcerer” by Gardner Fox. There are also similar monsters found in earlier classic sword and sorcery fiction. 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 1929 novella “Skull-Face” 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.

But why has this particular word ‘lich’ been used in this manner for so long? As is always the case, the word didn’t simply appear out of thin air. Unlike some of the other words I have looked into though, this one is quite straightforward! The word is a Middle English term for a dead body, or corpse. The term still survives in some circumstances, such as in the word ‘lichgate’ or ‘lychgate’ which is the entrance gate to a graveyard that features a small roof under which a corpse would be laid to await the arrival of the clergyman during a funeral. The word obviously derives from Old English, where it was ‘lic’, and in turn comes from the proto-Germanic word ‘līką’. Following this common line of Germanic English word origins, we inevitably end up at the common ancestor of our language tree: Proto Indo-European. Here we end up with ‘līg’. Interestingly this appears to be cognate with the Lithuanian ‘lýgus’ which means equal, level, flat, even. The relation to something meaning flat and even may be due to the fact that a dead body is generally… horizontal? Either way, this word also becomes the modern English ‘like’ which obviously is also a synonym for equal. In fact, there are many Germanic languages where the modern word for ‘like’ and ‘corpse’ are exactly the same, such as ‘lig’ in Danish and ‘lik’ in Norwegian and Swedish. There are also some loose similarities in other related languages.

Well there we have it. This word didn’t take us on any huge twists and turns like some others, but at least we have found out that the word used for an undead creature literally means ‘dead person’, great! If you’ve found this interesting then be sure to take a look at the other Geek Etymology posts I have done under the tag!

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