The Influence of Folklore and Fairytale on The Witcher: Season One
Updated: Jun 9, 2022
Based on an award-winning book series and popular video game series, Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’ officially burst onto the small screen in 2019, where it quickly climbed the ranks to become Netflix’s second most-watched show (though it has since been dethroned). The creator of the original book series is Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and clear influences from European folklore and fantasy have made their way from the book into the show.
The series follows protagonist and titular Witcher, Geralt of Riviera, a man mutated by science and magic to give him the strength and skills to fight the terrifying monsters that prey on humanity. In addition to a slew of potions which (among other things) allow Geralt to heal faster and see in the dark, Geralt also carries two swords – one made of steel for fighting men, and one made of silver for fighting monsters.
Silver has long been said to have healing and protective properties – and there are many legends of silver being used to kill various monsters. The most famous of these is, of course, the werewolf, which is said to be killed by a silver bullet. However, other creatures are also said to be susceptible to the metal. Vampires, for example, are thought to be repelled by silver, and this is in fact the origin of one of the more popular vampire traits – their inability to appear in mirrors. Mirrors were once made with a thin silver backing which, as it repelled vampires, would not show their reflection. This was once said to be a sure-fire way of identifying the terrifying creature.
The swords come in handy in the first few minutes of the show, in which Geralt battles the horrifying Kikimora, a creepy spider-creature that attempts to drown Geralt in a swamp during the opening scene. While the Kikimora of folklore may be equally creepy, it is far from the monster that appears in ‘The Witcher’. A household spirit, in Slavic folklore the Kikimora may appear as a friendly guardian, or as a malicious spirit, usually described as feminine in appearance, though often with a duck’s bill or a dog’s snout In her more benevolent form, the Kikimora may help with housework, and watching over household pets, though even she will make a nuisance of herself – breaking plates or making noises at night – if she feels that the house is not being cared for properly. The more malevolent Kikimora is, however, far scarier. She has been accused of causing sleep paralysis by sitting on the victims chest, give people terrible nightmares and even causing death. Seeing a Kikimora was said to be a sign that someone would soon die.
While Kikimora are usually said to live inside the house, there are some accounts of them living in swamps, and only coming into the house at night – given away by the wet footprints they leave on the floor. Covering up your keyholes or burying something silver in front of your door was supposed to keep the Kikimora from entering your house. In ‘The Witcher’ Geralt does indeed use silver to deal with the Kikimora, though in his case he uses his silver sword to decapitate it, taking the head with him as proof of the kill.
Another major monster that Geralt encounters in ‘The Witcher’ is the dreaded Striga.
There are a number of similarly named creatures across Slavic and Romanian mythology such as the strigoi, strzyga and shtriga, which tend to be described as similar to either witches or vampires as they involve a creature - usually rising from the grave - to devour the blood or organs of humans. The author of 'The Witcher', Sapkowski is said to have been specifically inspired by a Roman Zmorski fairytale in which a cannibalistic, monstrous princess is born of an incestuous union between two siblings.
As in this fairytale, the Striga, encountered by Geralt in episode three, was the princess of Temeria. Her mother, Adda, had been cursed by a man bitter with unrequited love and jealous of Adda’s relationship with her brother, the princess the result of this sibling’s affair. 'The Witcher' however goes into more details about how precisely this daughter came to be so monstrous. Adda died of the curse while still pregnant, and the curse transferred to her unborn baby which later emerged as the Striga. The Striga attacked and killed many villagers, eventually leading to Geralt being called in to deal with her. Upon learning of her tragic birth, Geralt found a way to cure the Striga, returning her to a human girl.
In myth, the origins of the similarly named Stryzga and Strigoi are different than in 'The Witcher'. The Stryzga are said to be the result of a person born naturally with two hearts, two souls and two sets of teeth, when that person dies, one soul moves to the afterlife while the other remains terrorizing and devouring humans. The Strigoi can be created a number of ways, including born a seventh son or seventh daughter, dying by suicide, or being cursed by a witch (as in 'The Witcher'). While there are some similarities, these methods do not necessarily apply to unborn children, as the Striga is.
There is however a resemblance between the origins of the Striga in 'The Witcher' and the origins of another mythical creature that we talked about earlier - The Kikimora.
While there are many legends about how a Kikimora is made, a large number of them do centre around children. Kikimora are sometimes said to be children kidnapped and raised by other Kikimora, children cursed by their own parents, babies who died unbaptised, or children who were miscarried or stillborn. While none of these are exactly what happened to the princess in ‘The Witcher’, the circumstances certainly fit the theme of an unborn, cursed child. Unlike with the Striga, there are no accounts of these creatures being cured – once a child or infant becomes a Kikimora, they are a Kikimora forever.
The Striga is not the only ‘monster’ that Geralt choses to save. He also assists the golden dragon Villentretenmerth, protecting the dragon’s egg. Geralt initially joined a hunt for the dragon, before turning on his fellow hunters to protect him and his egg. While many had joined the hunt due to a promised bounty, the mage Yennifer had joined due to rumours that a dragon heart may cure her infertility. There is some basis for this belief in mythology. Various body parts of dragons do appear in myth and legend with a variety of qualities – some of which are healing. A dragon heart famously appears in one Germanic myth, in which the hero Siegfried kills a dragon and consumes its heart. However, the heart is thought to have imparted upon Siegfried the wisdom of the dragon, and the ability to understand the language of birds, rather than serving as a fertility cure. Whether or not Villentretenmerth’s heart would have cured Yennifer’s infertility, goes unanswered as, with Geralt and Yennifer’s help, the dragon and his egg successfully defeat the hunters.
Another monster who appears in the show and has some basis in Germanic legend is one that Geralt never encounters. A shapeshifting Doppler assassin – based on the German doppelgänger. A doppelgänger, usually used in modern times to mean two people who are coincidentally identical, is a spirit, supposedly identical in every way to a person. While everyone is said to have a doppelgänger, most will never meet them, and should be grateful for that. Superstition states that to meet your double is terrible luck. It is said to mean that a person will die soon. That is certainly the case for those who encounter the Doppler in ‘The Witcher’, though this is not due to any bad luck, but instead the Doppler itself, killing its victim and then taking their place. Though the Witcher’s Doppler is otherwise not particularly faithful to legends of doppelgängers, its name and shapeshifting abilities are a clear reference to the myth.
It is not only folklore that serves as inspiration for the creatures and characters that appear in ‘The Witcher’, but fairytale as well. While a Witcher’s purpose may be to battle monsters, the first major antagonist that Geralt faces is a young woman named Renfri – also known as Shrike.
While Renfri fights against Geralt and, ultimately her is forced to kill her, she is portrayed as a sympathetic character, and her death has a lasting impact on Geralt throughout the rest of the season. She is said to have been born during an eclipse called the Black Sun – girls born during this eclipse were said to be destined to bring the end of humanity. While her father initially ignored these predictions and cared deeply for his daughter, her life changed when her stepmother arrived. Aridea claimed that she had seen Renfri killing and mutilating animals, as well as attacking her maid. The mage Stregobor sent a man to kill Renfri, but instead Renfri killed the man and escaped. In Renfri’s account, however the story ends quite differently. In her version, Stregobor’s assassin raped her, and let her go.
Renfri’s past is intended as a far darker version of fairytale’s Snow White. The princess Snow White also found her life changing with the arrival of a stepmother. Snow White’s stepmother however was jealous of her stepdaughter’s beauty while ‘The Witcher’ focusses more on Stregobor’s own distrust of Renfri and belief in the prophecy of the Black Sun, rather than Renfri’s relationship with her stepmother.
In both stories the princess is followed into the woods by a man who has been given orders to kill her. In Snow White this man is a huntsman who has orders to kill Snow White and bring the queen her heart – or sometimes her liver – as proof. While the huntsman does initially agree he is struck by Snow White’s beauty and lets her live. Renfri’s version also involves her almost murderer letting her go, though for a far more horrifying reason.
Sadly, Renfri’s final end is far more tragic than that of Snow White as well. Where Snow White was placed into a death-like, enchanted sleep, Renfri died. Determined to make Stregobor pay, she took a village marketplace hostage in order lure out Stregabor so that she could kill him. Instead Renfri fought and was killed by a reluctant Geralt. Though Renfri’s story is far darker than the legend of Snow White, their stories run along similar paths, and the elements of Snow White’s story that inspired Renfri’s own are clear.
Folklore and fairytale have both long played an important role in fantasy. The elves, goblins and dragons popular in the genre all originating in myth and legend. While ‘The Witcher’ adapts and changes the mythical and fairytale figures that populate its story, it is still fascinating to look at where they came from, and how they differ from the original legends.