Like most high fantasy stories, The Witcher 3 is packed with a plethora of beasties and creepy crawlies.
The difference here is that as an eponymous witcher, it’s your job to study and kill these monsters. You are a hunter and you need to know your prey. That’s why we have Dandelion’s bestiary.
The bestiary tells us everything about these creatures – what they’re weak to, what category of monsters they fall under. However, there are lots of things it doesn’t mention. Sure, everyone knows the difference between a werewolf and a wyvern, but where did erynias come from? Is there more to nekkers than meets the eye? And what about benevolent Conjunction creatures like Johnny the godling? As it turns out, almost all of these monsters are at least partially based off real mythological beings – and the ones with names we don’t immediately recognize are sometimes even more intriguing than their infamous counterparts.
A beefed-up version of Skellige’s serpentine sirens, ekhidnas are formidable foes, even against a witcher. It’s no wonder then that their name is derived from “Echidna,” who is often credited as Greek mythology’s mother of monsters.
While Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer’s, described Echidna as “half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin,” other poets painted more horrifying pictures of the beast. In his poem Dionysiaca, the Greek epic poet Nonnus described her as “hideous,” specifically mentioning her “horrible poison.”
In Hesiod’s words, Echidna lived “beneath the secret parts of the holy earth… deep down under a hollow rock far from the deathless gods and mortal men.” In The Witcher 3, the ekhidna known as Melusine lives in an isolated, drowner-ridden cave, where she has been taking vulnerable travellers to their deaths for hundreds of years. Mother of monsters or not, Melusine is no match for Geralt (In Greek mythology, it was the Greek giant Argus Panoptes who eventually slew the mighty Echidna, catching her off guard in her cave, much like Geralt does to Melusine in The Witcher).
Another kind of hybrid monster, The Witcher 3’s erynias are etymologically based on the Erinyes of Greek mythology. Although this is their official name, they’re more commonly referred to as the Furies.
In The Iliad, Homer writes: “the Erinyes, that under earth take vengeance on men, whosoever hath sworn a false oath.” Often seen as the oldest deities in all of Olympus, this powerful trio were radically different to the erynias of the Witcher series, who are basically just bigger, angrier harpys.
The Furies may have been named for the vengeance they wrought on those who had wronged others, but the erynias of The Witcher 3 are not so specific about their victims. In the official Witcher bestiary entry, it says they often eschew their regular diet of carrion for fresh, warm meat – like that of a human. To be honest, the Erinyes would probably kill The Witcher’s beasts for their crimes in a heartbeat.
In the world of The Witcher, chorts are closely related to fiends. Although smaller in stature than their distant cousins, chorts are just as powerful and malignant as their fiendish relatives, often wreaking havoc on entire villages.
The word “chort” is derived from “czort,” or “czart.” In Slavic folklore, several descriptions of chorts exist, including some that discuss a singular, Proper Noun Chort. While these tales differ in detail, almost all of them describe chorts as demons, devils, or something equally sinister.
This idea of conflicting mythologies is actually echoed in The Witcher. While Chort was seen to be a trickster by some cultures, chorts were described as beings of pure, concentrated evil by others. So the fact that the citizens of Velen often confuse sylvans (other devilish creatures) with chorts reflects this in a way that highlights the real danger of associating with such dark and powerful beings. As the bestiary entry for chorts in The Witcher 3 reads:
“Legends often mistake chorts for sylvans, ascribing to them the ability to speak, stand on two legs, gobble up cabbage, play pranks and work mischief around the household. The arrival of a true chort in a region soon puts an end to such tales.”
Sylvans are mostly harmless and would rather spout riddles than engage in fisticuffs, but chorts are a different prospect entirely. Both may be called devils by those who are ignorant to their ways, but witchers like Geralt are well aware of which of the two is the real monster.
One of the most interesting creatures you can encounter in The Witcher is a godling. Often mistaken for lutins, buccas, or phoocas, godlings are guardian spirits that watch over small villages. While they may look like children – and act twice as mischievous – they are incredibly powerful beings who care deeply about the people and animals that live near them.
In the Polish version of The Witcher 3, the godling Johnny is referred to as a bożątko, which is the diminutive form of the word “bożęta,” and by extension “uboże.” This last word refers to a benevolent spirit taken directly from Polish mythology, who performs similar duties to the Irish púca, the French lutin, the Russian domovoy, and the Cornish bucca.
Godlings, like their mythological influences, are shy and would rather not communicate directly with those they protect. However, they do have a soft spot for children – probably because they’re always up for a bit of trouble.
Vampires are a little bit more recognizable that erynias and ekhidnas, sure, but what about bruxae? Alps? Ekkimaras?
What’s great about the depiction of vampires in The Witcher is that it separates them into categories. Higher vampires resemble the kind of tall, dark, and handsome archetype inspired by Bram Stoker’s landmark novel, “Dracula,” whereas vampires like fleders are more animalistic in appearance (and mannerisms).
Some of these vampire types come directly from history and mythology. Take bruxae, who were plucked out of Portuguese folklore. Although they’re shapeshifters that regularly take on the form of bats and birds, they’re also known to disguise themselves as young, dark-haired women – which is exactly what they look like in The Witcher. Also, bruxae in The Witcher are associated with their avian aficionados; as stated in the bestiary:
“If you must travel through the woods, steer clear of any places where you can hear several different kinds of birds at once. That sound means you’re entering a bruxa’s territory and can kiss your life farewell.”
As well as Irish and Portuguese folklore, The Witcher draws from Sumerian religion – the ancient religion practiced by the first literate civilization of all time. The lower vampires known as ekimmaras were derived from “ekimmu,” which is a bastardization of the word “edimmu.” Edimmu were demons that didn’t just suck blood from their victims, but life itself – which is probably the reason ekimmaras are so brutal in The Witcher. As Geralt’s vampiric pal Regis puts it in Sapkowski’s Baptism of Fire:
“From what I know alpors, moolas, bruxas and nosferats don’t mutilate their victims. On the other hand, fleders and ekimmas are pretty brutal with their victims’ remains.”
Nekkers might seem like little more than a nuisance in the world of The Witcher, but their source material is fascinating. Despite the fact that their phooca cousins come from Irish folklore, nekkers strike parallels with Flemish, Scandinavian, and Dutch mythology.
However, the nekker rarely shares more than its name with real-world mythological creatures. The Flemish/Dutch variant is associated with water, being more of a malevolent river fairy than the burrowing ogroids we see skulking across the plains of Velen.
Meanwhile, Scandinavian folklore features tales of “necks.” Also associated with water, necks lure their prey to the edges of rivers and lakes in order to pull them in and drown them. As a result, traditional nekkers and necks are more like drowners and sirens than anything else in The Witcher. Sapkowski’s nekkers are very much their own thing.
Leshens are my personal favourite. Guardians of the forest, they wear a deer’s skull as a head and are basically walking trees.
The word leshen comes from “leshy,” which means forest in most Slavic languages. Like leshens in The Witcher, leshys were champions of the woodlands they protected, commanding respect from neighboring villages and animals alike. However, although leshens in The Witcher are very aggressive, leshys weren’t necessarily malevolent beings. They just put the forest first no matter what, which is fair enough because that’s what their name means.
Well, according to some tales, at least. In some cases, leshys are compared to Chort, who we discussed earlier. Not the prankster version of Chort, though – the malignant, evil, child-abducting one.
Funnily enough, according to foklorist Josepha Sherman, the only way to find your way out of a forest after encountering a leshy was to turn your clothes inside out and put each shoe on the other foot. I’m not sure why that worked, but that was the belief. Otherwise, you’d likely become leshen food before you could say “chort.”
As far as I can tell, the hym is a creation of Sapkowski’s. However, it does resonate quite heavily with the Polish zmora, which is connected to Mara – Chort’s mother and the demon of winter.
The Polish zmora is similar to the mare, which is popular in Germanic folklore. When this ethereal shapeshifter influenced the dreams of unsuspecting sleepers, it distorted them, making them visceral and horrific. It also drained them of energy ahead of the following day, and some sources go as far as to say that the mare drained their blood too. The phrase “riding the night mare” eventually resolved itself into the term “nightmare,” which we still use today.
The hym is a lot stronger than a mare though, feeding on guilt while its victims are awake as well as when they’re vulnerable in slumber. They slowly drive the person they’re afflicting mad, hoping to edge them towards taking their own lives, as the more susceptible they become to guilt, the stronger the hym grows. When the hym that was affecting Jarl Udalryk manifests itself in The Witcher 3, it looks like a wendigo-figure. Jet-black, horned, and hunched over, this mysterious and blood-curdling specter is the stuff of nightmares – literally. Sapkowski basically took a centuries-old spooky myth and made it even more scary, just for a laugh.
Although they look almost identical to the regular werewolves we see in The Witcher 3, Skellige’s two Ulfhedinn are very different to regular victims of lycanthropy.
Much like the berserkers that Birna Bran springs on Kaer Trolde, the famed Úlfheðinn of Norse history drank cocktails of mushrooms and beer in order to induce a kind of frenzy that could make them even more fearsome in combat. They also dressed as wolves in order intimidate their enemies, which may or may not have been because of the fungus cocktails.
It’s no wonder then that the word Úlfhéðinn conflates the Icelandic word for wolf (ulf) with a word meaning “jacket of fur” (Heðinn). These ferocious warriors literally wore jackets of wolf fur, after all.
However, they weren’t proper werewolves. Unlike the cursed ones of Skellige, they could choose when they wanted to don their fur. As a result, The Witcher’s Ulfhedinn aren’t respected like the historical Úlfheðinn, but are instead feared by anyone with enough sense to see how vicious they are. The mushrooms aren’t going to wear off any time soon, so it’s probably best to steer clear if you see a massive, bipedal wolf with white warpaint on its face.
The fact that the Crones are largely based on the witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth isn’t made particularly subtle. As their bestiary entry reads:
“Sister crones, hand in hand, terrors of the sea and land, thus do go about, about: thrice to thine and thrice to mine, and thrice again, to make up nine.
Macveth, Act 1, Scene 3.”
However, there’s a lot more at play than “Macveth” when it comes to the Crones. From Greece’s Moirai to Norse mythology’s Norns, several mythological cycles feature their own mysterious sisters powerful enough to tamper with fate and destiny.
The Crones aren’t based on Moirai or Norns though; instead, they’re based on Slavic folklore’s Baba Yaga. An amalgamation of three sisters, all of whom bear the same name, Baba Yaga is an ancient being steeped in ambiguity. In most depictions of the mythical figure, Baba Yaga wields a pestle and flies around in a mortar, which is something I really wish the Crones did. Also, her house is located deep in the woods and it stands on chicken legs.
Baba Yaga is not inherently malevolent, but can’t be counted on for benevolence either. While she looks after those who live in her territory, she has also been known to steal and eat children, even using candy to lure them out into the woods like the Crones do in The Witcher 3. As stated by Downwarren’s ealdorman:
“No gods nor masters watch over Velen. The land is no man’s. He who wants to survive must seek his own protectors.”
It seems fitting to conclude this bestiary breakdown that way. With so many ferocious beasties roaming the mountains of Skellige and the swamps of Velen, it’s probably smart to keep a few protectors handy.
That’s where Geralt comes in, I suppose.
Read more: a fifth anniversary interview with CD Projekt Red, and why The Witcher 3 is game of forever.