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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: