Antisemitism and the Origin of the Lich's PhylacteryWed 03 February 2021 by George Dorn
Accusations of D&D's bigotry are raised from time to time, often with merit. From dwarves and orcs carrying racist baggage from Tolkien to calling monster clerics "shamans" to Oriental Adventures to naming a class "Warlock" to even using the word "race" instead of "species".
And don't even start on the origins of the half-orc.
But one that keeps popping up as an example of malicious antisemitism is the lich's phylactery:
"For a more explicit example of villainizing Jewish objects and folklore, take the Lich, a powerful being who has cheated death by becoming something unholy. Liches separate their souls from their bodies and put them in special places called a “phylacteries” so they can never die [...] [Gygax] made the choice that an undead wizard king would keep his soul in something that Jews use for daily prayers."
"Gygax straight up took the word phylactery from Judaism and made it something used for evil."
"the antisemitism in [D&D] was deliberate and malicious [...] the creators of [D&D] thought it would be a good idea to name the evil undead spell casters evil box with their soul in it, after a Jewish ceremonial object."-- twitter thread I'm not linking
What Is A Lich?
A lich is a powerful, intelligent, undead monster, the result of a powerful spellcaster turning to necromancy to unnaturally extend their age.
Over the years, liches have become a classic, go-to villian monster, from Acerak in "Tomb of Horrors" (1974) to Vecna to the obscure Githyanki queen Vlaakith. They can live forever, control other undead, cast powerful magic, and are generally well-suited to being Bond villian masterminds. They've also changed and evolved continuously in the nearly five decades since their creation, until what we have today. As they appear in Fifth Edition and Pathfinder, along with dozens of derivatives and retroclones:
- liches are villianously evil undead
- liches use necromantic magic to bind their own souls and (sometimes) the souls of others
- liches use a specific item to do that magic, an item called a "phylactery"
What Is A Phylactery?
In modern usage, outside of Dungeons and Dragons, "phylactery" most commonly is used as another word for "tefillin" - a small box containing Torah verses that many Jews wear tied to their arms and heads while praying. "Phylactery" itself is from an ancient Greek word (phulakterion), though that word was likely an ignorant misunderstanding; it literally means "amulet", particularly protective in nature, but it referred even then to the Jewish practice. Ironically, many current D&D players make that same mistake, though Gygax clearly understood the word when he adopted it:
Phylactery -- An arm wrapping with a container holding religious writings, thus a form of amulet or charm.
—Dungeon Master's Guide (First edition, 1979)
So at face value, we have a powerful, unholy creature using an item of Jewish religious significance to perform evil, necromantic magics. Not a great look.
How did we get here? Let's follow liches and phylacteries through the history of D&D.
Supplement 1: Greyhawk (1976)
The first appearance of the lich appears in the first published supplement to the $5 pamphlet edition of D&D, often referred to as the "Brown Book" or "Original" edition. Like all monsters of the era, their description is brief. It makes no mention of phylacteries or soul-trapping:
LICHES: These skeletal monsters are of magical origin, each Lich formerly being a very powerful Magic-User or Magic-User/Cleric in life, and now alive only by means of great spells and will because of being in some way disturbed. A Lich ranges from 12th level upwards, typically being 18th level of Magic-Use. They are able to employ whatever spells are usable at their appropriate level, and in addition their touch causes paralyzation, no saving throw. The mere sight of a Lich will send creatures below 5th level fleeing in fear.
Original D&D was less interested in flavor text; it was not paricularly interested in explaining the origins of monsters in great detail, instead spending its few words on combat and other mechanical details.
That edition (in the main pamphlet, 1974) also contained Magic Jar, a 5th-level Magic User spell that uses any inanimate object to house the life force of the caster indefinitely and allows attempts at posession. While not directly tied to lichdom (and castable by any Magic User of 9th level or above), this effect will make additional appearances in later editions.
AD&D First Edition (1977)
Here we have the first appearance of phylacteries, both as treasure items usable only by clerics, and in posession of liches.
A lich exists because of its own desires and the use of powerful and arcane magic. The lich passes from a state of humanity to a non-human, non-living existence through force of will. It retains this status by certain conjurations, enchantments, and a phylactery.
No further explanation of the phylactery is given; it's flavor text, not mechanical, and hints at the recurring theme that liches use both religious and arcane magic to "live" forever. Most notably, liches have still not gained any specific powers from it; they do not return from the dead once destroyed, and no mechanical effects for stealing or destroying the phylactery is given.
In the Dungeon Master's Guide, in addition to the glossary entry above, Gygax uses the term for a religious item usable only by clerics and introduces three magical phylacteries as treasure items:
- Phylactery of Faithfulness: warns the wearer if they're about to take an action that would offend their alignment or god
- Phylactery of Long Years: slows the aging of the wearer to 75% of normal (unless cursed)
- Phylactery of Monstrous Attention: a cursed item, causes the wearer to draw the attention of hostile creatures of the opposite alignment
(A side note on probability: while two of these are meant to be good and one is meant to be bad, ~82% of the phylacteries found at random are good, roughly on par with finding good vs cursed items in general.)
This paints a very different picture of Gygax. He did not adopt the phylactery as the item responsible for the lich, and the association between liches and phylacteries was a single word of flavor text.
Dragon Magazine #26, 1979
In "Blueprint For A Lich" (pg 36), Len Lakofka finally describes the ritual by which spell casters become liches:
The lich needs these spells: Magic Jar, Trap the Soul, and Enchant an Item, plus a special potion and something to "jar" into. [...] To get out again, the MU/Cleric must have his (or another’s) recently dead body within 90 feet of the jar.
Lakofka envisions the ritual as the creation of a special version of Magic Jar, and while this does seem to be the origin of some of the mechanical features of the lich's phylactery of later editions, he never refers to the it by this name. In fact, it can be any item of sufficient value; gems and jewelry are given as examples.
Far more detail in put into the mechanics of how the jar works (it's far more complex than later versions) and the preparation of the potion fed to the human to be sacrifice (requiring two dead infants slain in extremely and oddly specific circumstances and a virgin, though gender is not specified).
Basic D&D (Red Box, B/X, BECMI and Rules Cyclopedia)
Mentioned here only for completeness, the lich of the "Basic" branch gains some additional powers (mainly summoning other undead) and variations (mainly levels of Cleric or Magic-User), but they never gain the power of item-based immortality that their counterparts in the AD&D line do.
Also, the word 'phylactery' never comes up in the core rules; while amulets, scarabs, talisman and medallions are mentioned, no phylacteries ever made the jump, either as treasure items or as mechanical devices related to a monster.
AD&D Second Edition (1989)
1989's Monstrous Manual may be the first time the life-extending necromancy mechanics and the word "phylactery" appear together, 13 years after the creation of the Lich and long after Gygax's departure from TSR.
In all cases, a lich will protect itself from annihilation with the creation of a phylactery in which it stores its life force. This is similar to a magic jar spell. In order to ensure the final destruction of a lich, its body must be wholly annihilated and its phylactery must be sought out and destroyed in some manner.
For the first time we have the lich's phylactery as a major plot device, an item you must find and destroy to defeat the evil villian. Yet at the same time, the definition of the word in the Lich's description seems to have gotten lost:
The phylactery, which can be almost any manner of object, must be of the finest craftsmanship and materials with a value of not less than 1,500 gold pieces per level of the wizard.
The three magical treasure phylacteries are also retained in this edition, and in various magazines and modules added another three, but the glossary definition is lost, along with the specifics from the treasure phylacteries. One, the cursed and rare Monstrous Attention phylactery, refers it as an "arm wrapping" and the other two explain even less.
Later, the somewhat obscure Encyclopedia Magica (1995) collects these and clarifies the explanation from the 1e glossary:
Phylacteries are talismans that are usually worn on the forehead and wrist, but are occasionally wrapped about the upper arm or the thigh. They contain small black boxes of prayers.
D&D Third Edition (2002)
WotC turned the Lich from monster into a template (introducing some variety and flexibility) and simplified some of the mechanics. Not only was the phylactery retained, the definition in the lich's description was adjusted to again reflect the real-world meaning:
The most common form of phylactery is a sealed metal box containing strips of parchment on which magical phrases have been transcribed. [...] Other forms of phylacteries can exist, such as rings, amulets, or similar items.
3e ditches two of the treasure phylacteries, retaining the Phylactery of Faithfulness and adding the Phylactery of Undead Turning, an important item for a cleric specializing in destroying powerful undead (such as liches.) It also describes the Phylactery of Faithfulness more carefully:
This item is a small box containing religious scripture affixed to a leather cord and tied around the forehead.
D&D Fourth Edition (2008)
This edition retains the lich's phylactery and mechanics:
The phylactery, [...] usually takes the form of a sealed metal box containing strips of parchment on which magical phrases have been transcribed in [the lich's] blood. [...] Other kinds of phylacteries include rings and amulets [...].
4e dropped all of the beneficial phylacteries. This was almost certainly not with deliberate antisemitic intentions, but rather a side effect of the overhaul of the treasure system. Many items that did not grant simple combat bonuses or specific skill bonuses for use in the extremely mechanized non-combat skill challenges didn't make the cut.
Pathfinder (2009 and 2019)
1st Edition Pathfinder's lich (and its phylactery) is a direct copy from D&D 3e. The of the treasure phylacteries, the Phylactery of Faithfulness is retained, but the Phylactery of Undead Turning is not. Instead it adds Phylacteries of Positive Channeling and Negative Channeling, improving damage to undead and healing to living, and vice-versa.
2nd Edition Pathfinder's lich retains the 1st Edition description and adds an additional power, Drain Phylactery, allowing the lich to cast spells from the item.
The Phylactery of Faithfulness is the only treasure phylactery in 2nd.
D&D Fifth Edition (2014)
Curiously, 5e liches are strictly wizards, removing the religious connection that made the phylactery even vaguely suitable. The lich's phylactery behaves much like 2nd through 4th editions:
A lich is created by an arcane ritual that traps the wizard's soul within a phylactery. Doing so binds the soul to the mortal world, preventing it from traveling to the Outer Planes after death. A phylactery is traditionally an amulet in the shape of a small box, but it can take the form of any item possessing an interior space into which arcane sigils of naming, binding, immortality, and dark magic are scribed in silver.
An additional evil twist is added, however:
A lich must periodically feed souls to its phylactery to sustain the magic preserving its body and consciousness.
All of the good phylacteries are also missing, probably the result of treasure being cut back drastically, but leaving no positive association with the word. For the first time in D&D history, a popular edition of the game says, perhaps accidentally, that a phylactery is only for liches!
When Gygax first introduced the word, he clearly understood its contemporary meaning. But it wasn't an item exclusive to liches nor an item of particular importance to the lich. Liches were as religious in origin (however twisted) as they were magical, but the significance of the lich's phylactery, as a macguffin you must hunt down and destroy to beat the villian of the game, simply wasn't there until long after Gygax left TSR.
In short, Gygax's liches just don't work the way later liches do.
Later writers, probably out of ignorance of the meaning of the word, combined the Magic Jar effect with the word they didn't know from Gygax's writings to create that macguffin. But even then, the phylactery was a religious item for good clerics, too. It was awkwardly appropriated and ill-suited to the polytheistic cultures of almost all of the game's settings, certainly, but not locked to a single villianous purpose.
But a newer player, with the 5th edition as their only Dungeons and Dragons experience, will never see the word outside of its use with liches. The only time it'll appear as treasure is as a quest item for defeating not just a lich sustained by it, but a lich that in turn sustains the phylactery by feeding it souls.
This is obviously a recipe for a bad impression, and confused arguments between new players who see only this version of the word's usage and older players who recall a longer and more complex history.
How's Your Campaign?
Brightwater: the Meatgrinder
Over the weekend, I hosted a one-shot kickoff funnel game. I used the module Meatgrinder, a free zine-style adventure for Dungeon Crawl Classics.
The rules are cobbled together from Basic (especially B/X) and Dungeon Crawl Classics. The idea of a funnel is from DCC; a funnel is a ...
On-the-fly Multiclassing Rules for BECMI / BX
As much as I like Basic's simplicity, I miss the flexibility of multiclassing that 3.5 and 5e had. 5e's is even more reasonably balanced than 3.5's.
The key to the flexibility is not having to decide to be multiclass until after you've played a ...read more
How to die in D&D
Avoiding death is a primary motivator for most adventurers. Whether by avoiding combat and traps or defeating enemies and subverting dangers effectively, most decisions PCs make are heavily influenced by the risk of death. Obviously, then, the rules by which characters die (whether a temporary inconvenience or permanent affliction) have ...read more
A history of gaining experience in D&D
A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of murder hobos, whether they're the pinnacle of D&D play-as-it-really-happens, and what to do about it. Many OSR blogs point out (often correctly) that older editions downplayed the "kill" part of "kill stuff and take their loot" but ...read more