Being a tech-head at a gaming party filled with writers and game designers sparks some interesting conversation. One discussion lead me to ask, “What exactly is a phylactery?” The Writers, being the knowable and vocal creatures, quickly perked with various answers. One thing lead to another and here I am today writing about Liches.
Liches in Real-World Mythology
The word Liche comes from the German word Leiche for “corpse”. In Roman Chatholicism, the world lychgate describes the covered area near the entrance to the cemetery, where the casket awaits the priest before a proper burial.
The idea of eluding death by arcane means and other black arts can be as early as the ancient Egyptians. But the most interesting folk lore is in Eastern Slavic fairy tales: a being called a Koschei is similar to that of a liche. A Koschei is an evil ugly man who evades death because his soul is stored in “the eye of a needle, which is inside of an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest, under a green oak tree on the island of Buyan in the middle of a vast ocean.”
In modern fantasy fiction, a Liche’s Phylactery contains its soul, but in the real world a phylactery is an amulet or talisman. Phylactery comes from ancient Greek word phylacterion meaning “to guard, protect.
In the Jewish tradition, men wear a phylactery or tefilla during their morning prayers. This type of phylactery is a small leather case containing biblical scrolls — in accordance with Deuteronomy 6:8. In the early Christian Church, a phylactery was a receptacle containing a holy relic or a small mummified body part of a saint.
Liches in D&D
The lich is another classic D&D monster, first appearing in the Greyhawk campaign setting in 1975 where it was first described as a skeletal monster that was formally a magic user or cleric in life. Later editions saw the birth of lich subtypes such as the demilich, archlich, and even a good lich.
In all versions of D&D, their ecology remains consistent: A lich was once a living mage who converted herself into a skeletal monster through necromantic rituals. The ritual results in the magician’s soul being stored in a phylactery. Destroying a lich’s body isn’t enough to stop this undead creature; her soul will return to the phylactery and its body reanimated by power of an unholy pact.
Liches in Eberron
The most famous lich in Eberron is Lady Vol, also known as Erandis d’Vol or more commonly as “The Lich Queen.” She is the last heir of the House of Vol , the elfin house that bears the Mark of Death. Erandis was born to an elf mother and a dragon father, and was to be the embodiment of peace between the two warring races. Unfortunately, both elf and dragon forces formed a joint pact to destroy Erandis, seeing the unification as an abomination. The result destroyed the House of Vol, but in a desperate attempt to save her daughter, Erandis’ mother transformed Erandis into a lich and hid her from annihilation. Rumors say that Lady Vol is the secret ruler of both the religious cults The Blood of Vol and The Order of the Emerald Claw (so named after Erandis’ father The Emerald Claw). It is said that The Lich Queen uses both cults as tools in her plans for revenge.