Exploring The Twisted Slavic Folk Tale That Inspired The Witcher

Hayley Elise
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The striga is one of the most fearsome beasts Geralt has hunted over his many dangerous years as a Witcher – a cursed, monstrous woman filled with a mindless rage and murderous fury. The story of this high-stakes hunt kickstarted The Witcher story back in 1986, and helped introduce us to the video game version of Geralt in 2007. Yet its history goes back much further than that – to an equally twisted folktale from author Andrzej Sapkowski’s native Poland.

Sapkowski has often described the story of Geralt and the striga as a satire or a parody of a rather messed up folktale chronicled by Polish writer Roman Zmorski. While he took the classic fairytale and turned it into a high fantasy short story, many of the more grotesque elements of the original story survived, laying the foundation for The Witcher universe’s uniquely grim atmosphere.

So, in order to understand the harrowing and captivating world of The Witcher, let’s take a look at Zmorski’s original tale (from a translation of the Polish original), and see how Sapkowski’s famous retelling turned this beloved piece of folklore on its head.

A Monster in the Church

The Striga as depicted in ancient Polish folktales.

The original folk tale tells the story of Marcin. He is the epitome of a folk hero and, well, the antithesis of the grim Geralt. Marcin is a brave and pious young orphan, who despite hardship has never given up his faith. He quickly shows this virtue by bravely rescuing a helpless old man being tormented by a villain on the road. Early on, one of the biggest differences to Sapkowski’s version is apparent: the folk tale is a strongly Christian story, while in The Witcher, Geralt is motivated more by money than love for any kind of deity.

As the folk talk goes, after he wanders into a local inn, Marcin and the mysterious old man overhear that the king is offering a tremendous reward to any who can save the enchanted princess in the church. The other inhabitants of the inn agree that even the richest king’s reward is not worth spending a night with the horrors that reside in that church.

Thankfully, the gosspy innkeep is all too happy to blab about the tale to Marcin and his companion. It all began when the sinful king began an incestuous relationship with his sister – a perversity that wasn’t just invented for the darker Witcher version of the tale. The two conceive a child, or rather a monster – “black as coal”, with a wide mouth full of sharp fangs and claws on her hands and feet. The name of that monster? The striga.

The slightly more terrifying Witcher depiction of the striga.

After her mother dies of the ordeal, the monstrous infant soon starts to speak, blaming her incestuous father for her curse. She tells him that he must bury her in a full-sized coffin in the royal crypt under the church, and that there must be a living man roaming the church every night after she is buried. Horrified and stricken with grief, the king agrees– and as he does, his daughter immediately dies.

Distraught and confused, the king has little left to do but dutifully follow his daughter’s instructions. After a few weeks pass, however, he realises that none of the guards he sends to the church have returned. Going to investigate, the king is shocked to discover their gnawed remains piled up in a dark corner of the church. Wrestling with a guilty conscience, his majesty eventually decides that he must honour his daughter’s wishes — and so, he starts sending criminals to the church each night.

Unfortunately for our unlucky monarch, however, his solution is only a temporary fix. Soon there are no more criminals left to offer to his insatiable daughter, and the king is forced to import slaves from far away countries in order to keep his promise. If that wasn’t harrowing enough, it’s a detail made all the creepier by the direct translation from Polish reffering to these slaves as “human food”.

A Witcher in the Palace

As you’ve probably gathered, this folk take isn’t exactly one for all the family. Between incest, human trafficking and a demon child hungry for the flesh of living men, this aging fairy tale has its fair share of dark themes to draw on. Not content with that level of frivolity, however, Sapkowski’s take on the old legend for The Witcher is even more twisted.

In The Witcher, Geralt starts his stay in the village of Wyzim by murdering three disgruntled locals, and only after this excessive display of force does he reveal that everything’s fine — because he’s a professional monster slayer.

While this may just sound like the world’s worst excuse for murder, this concept of being a hired mercenary is the core of Sapkowski’s version of the striga tale – and the catalyst for Geralt and the witchers to come into being. It’s far from the norm, either.

Folk tales so often focus on innocent and unlikely youths saving towns and countries from incredible evil, so Sapkowski chose instead to imagine a professional exterminator, well versed and experienced in the ways of these creatures. “I was hoping that this joke that the monster was thrashed by a professional would be legible for the recipient,”  explained Sapkowski in what can only be described as a slightly awkwardly-translated interview.

Geralt is the complete antithesis of the traditional folk tale hero.

The backstory of Geralt’s striga, then, is largely the same – King Foltest of Temeria gets his sister Adda pregnant, and she births something horrific. Mother and daughter (both confusingly named Adda) are buried together in the crypt, the monster comes to life and starts murdering the local citizens. You know, typical family stuff.

The king is — once again — desperate for a fix. Yet, in this reimagining of the story, the characters who would traditionally be heroes end with their entrails “spread over a considerable distance”. In comes Geralt – armed not with blind faith and compassion, but with a hearty arsenal of potions, sorcery and specialty weapons.

In both stories, the lowly hero meets with a king desperate to get his terrifying daughter un-cursed. The original folktale is content to jump directly into the ‘how’ – dropping Marcin pretty much straight off at the princess’s hunting grounds and closing the church gate behind him.

The Witcher is far more interested in the ‘who’, however, taking the chance to expand on the cast of characters and their motivations. In folk tales, a recurring motif warns that nothing is ever as it seems, though usually that just means that a beautiful woman may actually be an evil hag, and a rampaging, demonic beast may actually be a beautiful princess. In The Witcher, this is more to do with the nature of human beings.

They made the striga hot in the game, because, of course they did.

Foltest warns Geralt not to harm a hair on his daughter’s head, but later comes to the witcher disguised, revealing that he understands the difficulty of the situation, and will spare Geralt’s life if he has to kill the princess.

We also meet the nobleman Ostrit, ostensibly interested in getting the striga taken care of, though at the last minute he tries to bribe Geralt to leave the beast alive, as a way to terrorise King Foltest and destabilise his rule. In the middle of all this is Geralt, and like a true professional he just wants to do his damn job.

The Rule of Three

Marcin, like many folk heroes, has to follow the rule of three to defeat his striga – a common theme in folklore where actions or words have to be repeated three times to have power. Other than this rule, likely referencing the Christian Holy Trinity, Marcin has very little to help him in his task other than a bit of advice from a strange old man and his blind faith.

Eagle-eyed fans will notice what looks very much like a Striga in the recently released teaser trailer for the upcoming Netflix series.

On the first night, Marcin hides in a pile of bones and manages to escape the striga’s fury (with the help of some prayers to God, of course). He’s found alive and everyone celebrates his survival, though the princess is not yet saved.

On the second night, he climbs up into the church’s choir-loft, and draws the sign of the cross on the door to the stairs to keep the striga from following. The striga piles up coffins to try and reach him, all the while yelling angrily at the boy, but ultimately can’t get to him. Again, we know Marcin’s ordeal is not yet over.

On the third night, he creeps into the coffin, draws a cross on the lid in chalk and then hides inside while the striga desperately tries to get back into her tomb – a scene that will be very familiar to those who know Geralt’s version of the tale. After the clock strikes two, Marcin opens the lid to find a beautiful fourteen-year old girl, lying in a malaise.

While Geralt mentions that it may indeed take him three nights to break the curse, he manages to complete his job in one. Interrupted in his preparations by Ostrit, he uses the corrupt nobleman as bait, in case you needed a reminder that this is not a good, pure, churchgoing hero.

Unlike Marcin, Geralt is as prepared as you can be to fight a hellish creature who lives only to tear men apart. He drinks a number of specially-brewed potions to ready his body, and takes out his now-iconic silver sword, as well as a silver chain to subdue the beast. Even his armour is covered in monster-repelling silver. When he distracts the striga long enough to sneak into her tomb, he uses the magic glyph Yrden to seal the monster out, rather than a sign of God.

A Fairytale Ending

The folk tale ends as most folk tales do – Marcin gets to marry the now beautiful princess and eventually becomes the king. After his experience as a poor, abused orphan, he rules fairly and kindly to all. Heartwarming stuff.

We wouldn't recommend it, mate.

If you were looking for this level of closure and satisfaction in Sapkowski’s version of the tale, however, you’ll be sorely disappointed. In fact, his original plan for The Witcher was to have Geralt die at the end, though we’re glad he didn’t go through with it. Instead, the witcher is very badly wounded when the striga attacks him in her last moments of transformation into a human.

Former striga Adda is no fairytale princess even after she’s fully human again. She’s described as ugly, and her mind is undeveloped from her time as a striga – though the game adaptation of The Witcher flips it back again, revealing her to be quite an attractive young woman and a potential love interest for Geralt later in the game. Turns out those fairytale tropes are still of interest after all.

Despite the game’s bawdy love scene, Geralt doesn’t get to marry the princess – earlier in the story this is even winked at in the form of a rumor, one that Geralt dismisses and Foltest strongly denies. “I’m sure you don’t believe I would give my daughter’s hand to a stranger?” Foltest asks, openly mocking the fairytale story.

Like the novels and games that inspired it, The Witcher Netflix adaptation is not going to be particularly family-friendly.

It appears that it’s the darker side of this tale that has inspired the upcoming Netflix show, too. Speaking to SFX in a recent interview, the showrunner confirmed that this TV adaptation would lean more into the horror side of the novels than the fantasy.

In the world of the Witcher, things are more complicated than they are in the folk tales. The striga’s curse is not a punishment from God, but a dark revenge willed into being by another human. Strong faith and a good character are useless traits next to a witcher’s preparedness and skills. No one is truly good, even those that vanquish foul beasts, but no one is fully evil either. The only thing that’s certain in The Witcher is that this isn’t the end of Geralt’s troubles — this is just the life of a witcher.

Hayley Elise
As a cosplayer, writer and possible cryptid, Hayley lives more in the realm of fantasy than she does in reality. When she's not gaming or sleeping, you can catch her on Twitter, most likely talking about something related to gaming or sleeping.