The Northern Kingdoms of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt [official site] is a realm ravaged by war, pestilence, and greed. And, try as he might, Geralt continually finds himself trapped between the political maneuverings of the Northern Kingdom's most ambitious contenders. So it's easy to forget that Geralt's true calling in life is as a monster slayer. Lucky for him the Northern Kingdoms has no shortage of monsters.
While some of these beasts have enjoyed plenty of spotlight in other fiction, CD Projekt Red have dug deep into their own Eastern and Northern European ancestry to bring to life a mythology underrepresented in the echelons of generic fantasy creatures. We're all familiar with dragons and vampires, but what about the lesser known beasts that bloody Geralt's blade? The leshen, alps and botchlings? I've rounded up some of my favorite monsters from the Witcher series and the legends that inspired them so that we can contrast their depictions in the game, while getting a mythology lesson at the same time.
Sadly, alps within the Witcher universe aren't nearly as wonderful as their mythic counterparts. In The Witcher, they exist as little more than blade-fodder for Geralt. Seen as scaley, naked women, they tend to behave more like common vampires than the beasts from which they share their name. In German folklore, however, alps become infinitely more interesting. Though they are sometimes likened to vampires, they are infact more closely related to the traditional idea of elves (alp is even a variation of the word "elf").
Contrary to the Witcher, alps are actually male, while "mare" or "mara" tend to be the female version of the same creature. (In German they can be known as "Nachtmahr"). Alps seek out female victims during the night, controlling their dreams and twisting them into horrific nightmares (in German, "Alptraum" or "elf dream" means nightmare).
When alps attack, they sit upon the chest of their sleeping victim, becoming heavier and heavier until the crushing weight forces the sleeper awake. Terrified and breathless, they are unable to move or scream and must wait for the attack to subside. Interestingly, these types of attacks from various creatures are so common across different cultures that the modern belief is that victims were actually suffering from sleep paralysis.
Aside from terrifying night attacks, alps also are known to be quite the mischief makers. They enjoy such perverse acts like putting babies back in soiled diapers, souring milk, and even crushing small farm animals. Oh yeah, remember when I said they're often likened to vampires? That's because they like drinking blood from the nipples of men and young children. They also enjoy breast milk too, if that helps at all. At this point, I'm starting to understand why alps weren't adapted as faithfully into The Witcher universe. Could you imagine a quick-time event to prevent an alp from sucking Geralt's nipples off?
One of the most visually striking foes of The Witcher universe is undoubtedly the leshen. These gnarled, root-like monstrosities can be found in dense, ancient forests and are fiercely territorial. Their attacks manipulate nature itself, using roots and branches to assail their opponents.
Fortunately, leshen made the jump from Slavic folklore to the Witcher 3 relatively unchanged. The biggest difference being their appearance and name. In the Witcher novels and in Slavic folklore, leshen are actually called "leszy" or "leshy".
In terms of appearance, leshen seem to have drawn inspiration from popular depictions of "wendigos", a spirit of the Algonquian people from the Great Lakes region of Canada and America. Though wendigos can appear in a variety of forms, they are often seen as humanoids with the skull and antlers of a deer, an appearance similar the Witcher 3's leshen. In Slavic folklore, however, leshy are said to simply take the likeness of a woodsman. In their native forests, leshy are rumored to be as tall as the trees, shrinking down to blade of grass if they step outside of their forest.
In both depictions, they are guardians. Whereas in the Witcher they are downright hostile and violent, in folklore, leshy tend to be more mischievous. They like kidnapping children and leading travellers astray.
Your first encounter with a noonwraith in the Witcher 3 is an unforgettable moment. As far as monsters go, they have enough tricks up their sleeve to seriously confuse a new player, and their tendency to only appear during the midday makes them an especially memorable foe to discover.
In folklore, however, noonwraiths are much less unsettling. In fact, they serve merely as the personification for heatstroke that laborers risk suffering out in the fields during the hot summer months. In Poland, she is referred to as "Poludnica", which in English can be translated as "Lady Midday". Unlike her ghoulish appearance in The Witcher, Poludnica takes the form of whirling clouds of dust and carries a scythe or shears. In art, she was often depicted as a young woman robed in white, though it isn't uncommon to see her shown as an old woman either.
Lady Midday was also the inspiration for "The Noon Witch", a symphonic poem written by Antonín Dvořák that tells the story of a mother who conjures Lady Midday to discipline her disobedient child. Startled that the spirit actually arrives to take her son, she attempts to flee with him before losing consciousness. When she awakes, she discovers that she smothered her child to death while attempting to protect him.
You can listen to the piece below, and you should because it is beautiful.
Perhaps the most famous series of quests in the Witcher 3 has to do with the botchling of the Red Baron. I won't spoil the events of the quest just in case you haven't experienced it yet (and really, you should), but these tragic monstrosities are actually derived from an equally tragic Slavic and Scandinavian lore.
In the Witcher, Botchlings are grotesque infant zombies denied the peace of death because of the trauma of being discarded or aborted without burial or a given name. Botchlings hunt at night for expectant mothers, looking to enfeeble her and drain the fetus of its strength. After several successful attacks, when the mother is too weak to defend herself, the botchling violently assaults her, sucking her and the fetus's blood until both perish.
Now, that's pretty horrific. Fortunately, the myths surrounding botchlings aren't nearly as nightmarish, but are sadly just as tragic. In Scandinavian folklore, botchlings share similarities with "mylings", the phantasms of unbaptized infants who are discarded when the parents are unable to care for them. They are said to jump on the backs of lone travellers, demanding to be taken to a graveyard and receive a proper burial. As the traveller nears a graveyard, the myling becomes heavier and heavier. If the carrier cannot make it, the myling kills them in a fit of rage.
Slavic mythology has a similar spirit known as the "drekavac" which translates literally to "the screamer". Compared to mylings, drekavac aren't nearly as frightening. That said, they do share a terrifying similarity with "banshees", as both possess a blood chilling scream. The legend of that scream is so strongly woven, that drekavac sightings have happened as recently as September 2011.
Of all the creatures that Geralt encounters on his journey, few are as sexualized as the succubi. Not wanting to spoil the potential for interesting "role play", CD Projekt Red has always ensured that every encounter with a succubi is a memorable one. In fact, they're one of the few creatures Geralt encounters that doesn't ever involve drawing a sword (at least not the silver kind).
In the Witcher universe, however, succubus actually have more in common with the "faun" than the ones told of in most legends. In Roman and Greek mythology, faun are half-men, half-goats with horns on their head. Though they used to be quite distinct, they are now often confused with "satyrs", who were Dionysius' permanently erect soldiers with horse-like qualities. In most forms of folklore, succubi are portrayed simply as stunningly beautiful women, cloven hooves optional.
Where succubus are often considered as erotic seductresses in The Witcher 3, the folklore they draw from is more disturbing. They may appear lithe and sexual from a distance, but closer inspection of a succubi can reveal alarming deformities like claws or tails. Even worse, the act of sexual penetration is, by some accounts, likened to entering a cave of ice. Other legends tell that a succubi might force you to perform oral sex, the result of which is probably better left to the imagination.
In the Witcher 3, plague maidens share a similar appearance with their sisters, the noonwraiths. Even so, the plague maiden is without a doubt the more disturbing of the two creatures. This is mostly due to a contract that Geralt can undertake to lift a curse on a tower on Fyke Island that results in one of the most repulsive and tragic moments of the whole game.
Plague Maidens are derived from "Pesta" of Scandinavian folklore. An elderly woman, robed in black, is the embodiment of the pestilence and disease that ravaged Europe when the Black Death rolled into town. From 1346 to 1353, the bubonic plague devastated entire populations and communities. Denmark lost a third of its population, with Norway losing almost half.
The legend of Pesta states that she would travel from farm to farm, bringing with her the ill omen of the plague. If she was seen carrying a rake, people believed that only a few of the populace would die, but if she was seen carrying a broom, the settlement would not survive the disease.
The Wild Hunt
Perhaps the most iconic adversaries of the whole game, The Wild Hunt are a spectral horde of elves from another dimension. Atop their ghastly steeds, this throng of hunters rides across the night sky, harbingers of war and death. They are heavily armored soldiers that pursue their foes by teleporting between dimensions, striking without warning, and wherever they go a crippling frost precedes them.
In mythology, the Wild Hunt are actually quite similar but lacking the refinements needed to make them a suitable antagonist. Their legend is spread across most of Europe and, interestingly enough, remains fairly consistent from culture to culture. As in the game, they are depicted as a phantasmal group of huntsmen riding horses and accompanied by vicious hounds. Unlike the heavily armored warriors of The Witcher, however, the Wild Hunt tends to be more humbly armed.
Like the game, the WIld Hunt is known for kidnapping those unlucky enough to cross them, taking them back to the world of the dead. Though the legends change from country to country, it is also common for the King of the Hunt to be an established character from that cultural folklore. In Germanic folklore, the King is often thought of as "Wodan" (the German name for Odin).
Much of the established lore of the Hunt is owed to Jacob Grimm, the famous German mythologist who in his book "Deutsche Mythologie" coined the term "Wilde Jagd" to describe the riders. In his interpretation of the legend, Grimm believed that the Hunt and its King were a natural transformation of the image of Odin, who had lost his more sociable persona to become a dark and troubling spectre.
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