I used to spend at least half of my childhood summers up in the mountains. Think ten to fifteen houses, a few creeks, an old church, and a Daedalian labyrinth of forests and rocky roads that no car could really drive on.
But it was a lot of fun. The otherwise abandoned village came to life around June, with many families seeking shelter from the hot sun of summer. Every day, around noon, a few friends and I would meet at the small square and begin our adventures. There was a lot to do, believe me.
Clear paths, explore the forgotten riverside town, help the shepherd find that one goat that kept running away visit the Rock at the side of a steep bend at the beginning of the thick woods.
Yes, you can say that we had many responsibilities to keep the village running. And we were proud. We didn’t hesitate to take risks. After all, we trained with wooden sticks and other DIY weapons for those dire moments we needed to act quickly!
Indeed, our days were never boring. I could fill pages with our shenanigans.
The older population fueled the fire. I remember the priest saying, “There’s a fairy near the river, my grandfather saw her when he was a kiddo,” and we’d run trying to catch a glimpse of the creature (we did…).
This kept going for years until most of the gang moved away or stopped coming. Now, I have sweet memories filling me with nostalgia whenever I visit the old stomping grounds.
Fast forward to 2021. I’m an adult now. Sort of. No time for childish imagination, right?
Well, the truth is, I always felt that there was something deeper behind these make-believe adventures. I found my answers in fantasy books. From an early age, I recognized them for what they were; mythology.
Our civilization’s sacred traditions and atemporal archetypes were distilled and reiterated in novels, epics, and mythopoeic sagas. One of them is “The Witcher” series.
How European Folklore Tales Inspired the Mythology of The Witcher?
How do fairy tales and myths even emerge?
Well, I think I’ve answered this question in the introduction. Our active imagination, our need to explain and experience the unknown, is what drives us to write them.
But you’ll notice there’s local influence, rumors that started hundreds of years ago and have now become a full-blown legend.
I’m sure everyone has read the classic children’s stories—little Red Riding Hood, Hansel, and Gretel, etc. The Grimm Brothers managed to collect and organize the oral traditions of the European countryside and provide bedtime stories for noisy children.
What differentiates the Witcher from other epic mythopoeic sagas is that the author placed Geralt of Rivia inside a universe where these children’s stories and local legends were more than a rumor or a myth.
They gained flesh and bones, sometimes teeth and a fiery belly! The Witcher takes the forgotten fragments of European mythology, not the grand epics and complex cosmogony. Still, the stories we whisper around the camping fire and stitches them together to create a vibrant, alternate reality.
One where the distant sounds of branches breaking might be a Stynx or a Witch looking for shrooms.
7 Myths and Folklore Tales You Will Encounter in “The Witcher.”
It’s interesting to look deeper into these stories. A lot of what you’re about to read is, of course, legend. Yet, there are nuggets of truth, words of caution, hidden under the layers of the plotline.
After all, you can always trace folklore tales back to a rumor about large animals tormenting the area, a wise woman at the edge of the village that hexed the mayor, or a madman abducting children.
#1. The Witcher
The Witcher is a fictional vocation. Or is it?
Of course, no one can be a witcher nowadays. It’d require magic, mutations, and supernatural powers. But that didn’t stop people from hunting monsters, performing traditional magic, and getting paid in the process.
Andrzej Sapkowski took inspiration for his vagabond protagonist from vedmaks, male witches, that dwelled in villages and small communities.
During the early medieval times and up to the middle of the 19th century, serfdom was common in the vast lands of Poland and Russia. Poor peasants were practically slaves under feudalism. Their education was nonexistent, and they held a lot of superstitious beliefs.
They made easy targets for grifters pretending to possess supernatural powers they could use to bless or curse.
One cobbler, to earn the bread of the day, claimed that he killed a dragon. Sapkowski replaced the half-torn shirt and worn-out boots of the peasant with shiny armor and a silver sword. That became the Witcher.
#2. Baba Yaga
An evil mythological character in Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is an ogre-like witch, dwelling in her hut with her long chicken feet stretched from one side to the other.
Many accounts of such a figure in Eastern European mythology, yet she takes different forms and personalities in every story.
Is she a witch that will help you find your way out of the forest? Or it’ll snatch your baby when you don’t look like it did in Robert Egger’s movie “The VVitch”?
She is an ambiguous, almost abstract, cluster of different folklore tales. Sometimes, Baba Yaga denotes three witches, Shakespeare’s Wayward sisters in Macbeth, or the three old ladies of the wood, which appear in the Witcher’s video game adaptation.
Faithful to the original tale, they possess immense power over their land. They’re vindictive, petty, and jealous. But they can make things happen. Keep reading! Not without a cost.
#3. Hansel and Gretel
Everyone knows this tale. It’s about two children who follow the trail of treats only to find themselves captured by an evil witch.
At first, it seems that she’ll help them find their parents. Eventually, Gretel outwits the witch, which is Baba Yaga, and cooks her on the stove! She’s feeding them sweets and pies. But the end goal is to make them fat and juicy, so she can devour them!
This theme of deception via sugary treats, cannibalistic tendencies, and the transformation of the witch from an old lady to an ogre-like creature appear in The Witcher as well.
In the game, before the Witcher encounters the Old Ladies, he starts hearing rumors about kids disappearing. Indeed, when he investigates the nearby marshes, he spots a Trail of Treats!
He finds an abandoned village, where the kids are roaming free and eating well! You can tell where this is going, right?
In one of the largest houses, three witches are living. They’re preparing – grooming – these children for a hearty dinner!
(How many times have your parents told you never to take treats from a stranger? This isn’t new! We created a whole story, a cautionary tale, to implant this message to the minds of careless children)
I remember reading that one-third of Europe’s population had seen a dark, tall figure near the bed when they woke up in the middle of the night. Maybe it’s a hypnagogic hallucination, or it’s the Kikimora!
In Slavic mythology, the creature is a female spirit living in the cellar, making weird noises akin to mice rumbling around. It is said that it can enter your room through the keyhole and try to strangle you during the night.
The suffix -mora is usually translated as nightmares. We now understand that this phenomenon is connected with sleep paralysis and lucid dreams.
In the first episode of the Netflix show “The Witcher,” the mutant has to face a spider-like creature in the marshes. Indeed, in some variation, the Kikimora dwells in swamps as woodland spirits.
#5. The Doppler
Imagine walking down the street and seeing someone with the same physiognomy appearance as you—your Doppelgänger.
We encounter the myth of an “evil twin” in many different cultures but with different names. Essentially, a ghostly emanation that takes your form and steals your memories. It is considered bad luck.
Many myths denote a similar pattern. The Finnish Etiäiset is an emanation of Haltija, your guardian spirit, that does things before you do them. To either protect you or test you.
You have the Egyptian Ka, your spirit double, experiences what your body experiences and holds the same memories. We also see something similar in Greek mythology and tragedies. Vardogen is a ghostly spirit in Norse mythology that will perform your actions beforehand.
In the Witcher, the Doppler has agency and consciousness. They make for skillful assassins since they take form and memories of anyone they kill.
#6. The Wild Hunt
The third installment of The Witcher video game focuses on the folklore motif of the Wilde Jagd.
Even though there are many different versions and interpretations of this myth across Europe, the concept of a group of ghosts, spirits, deities riding on their horses is the common thread. In Germanic mythology, it was Odin who led the cavalry.
But sightings of a ghostly group of riders, souls of the dead, have been documented in Britain, Scandinavia, and Central Europe. Usually, it’s associated with catastrophes such as war, famines, floods, etc.
In many cases, the Wild Hunt also represents an initiation to nature’s wild, cthonic aspect. Some people believed that the Hunter could pull you out of bed and force you to join their cavalcade, often leading you to the land dead or the kingdom of the fairy.
The Witcher has to face a sinister force that is looking to take over the world. Even though it bears some similarities to the Proto-Germanic myths, it raises the steaks much higher.
#7. Signs and Sigils
Witchers are known to possess some magical abilities. Perhaps not as diverse and powerful as sorcerers, they can cast sigils to light their enemies on fire, lock them into place or influence their minds.
These signs are inspired by real sigils used widely in medieval Europe for protection, divination, and trapping different spirits or even demons. There’s a loose connection between alchemical symbols and some of the signs.
For example, Igni, fire, is represented by a triangle. Quen, Earth, by a reverse triangle, with a line piercing through.
In the early 20th century, Austin Osman Spare established sigilization, which is the encryption of meaning in sigils to “cast” them and cause a specific effect.
To what extent the author was inspired by it, we can’t know for sure, but there’s a great resemblance.
Witchers carry two swords—one for humans, one for monsters.
The first one is made out of steel to cut through chainmail and break shields. The latter is made out of silver. Because silver, according to mythology, is the only metal that can harm chthonic creatures.
In pre-Christian times, silver was associated with the sun, so it inherited its properties. Medieval alchemists noticed that the metal had antimicrobial properties, and it didn’t rust, like gold. Pure, uncorrupted silver seemed like the perfect weapon for the “tarnished” demons and vampires.
If you read the Iliad, you might imagine armies marching and cities burning. The fate of the world is determined in front of your eyes.
If you watch the Lord of the Rings, you’ll be in awe by the mere scale of the land. The grand battle of Good vs. Evil is unfolding.
The Witcher is quite different. It deals with the grey zones, the human aspect of the hero.
It lets you walk the muddy roads of a forgotten village at the heart of the forest. The rain is whipping your coat, but you see the light at the local inn. The warmth hits your face as you enter. The smell of bread and the idea of a cold beer makes you feel relaxed.
You sit down. A company next to you is talking about the sightings of a large animal, a few feet away from the river; long hair, hunched back, bubbling inane words. You listen carefully, a myth, a local legend, a children’s story is born…
P.S. – Geralt keeps repeating the phrase “wind’s howling.” There’s a deeper meaning behind this phrase. Make sure to sign up here to never miss emails that explore these little details!
Writer. Seeking to discover my private mythology through dreams.