Building on my reflections on the archaeology of The Witcher series 1 on Netflix, I now turn to the key themes I picked up whilst watching series 2 of the show, first aired in 2021. Set in a fantasy Continent – a world with elves, monsters and other fantastical beings – we follow the witcher (monster hunter) Geralt of Rivia and his ward (‘child of surprise’) Cirilla in a rambling adventure involving political intrigue and divided loyalties. In this series, the enemy isn’t simply the religious zealotry of the military expansionist and chaos magic-wielding Nilfgaardian Empire, but an ancient demon once trapped by the witchers: the Deathless Mother.
The Garden of the House of Nivellen
Geralt and Cirilla head towards the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen through Redania. Suspicious of a silent and seemingly deserted settlement, they instead seek refuge at the house of an old friend of Geralt. The cursed house of Nivellen in Redania has a striking mortuary dimension, namely the garden is the burial ground of Nivellen’s servants. It’s not made explicit, but we might assume that each statue commemorates a person.
Nivellen was cursed by the priestess of the Temple of the Lionheaded Spider after he had ransacked the temple whilst high on godflesh mushrooms. We later learn the truth that he was cursed not because of the damage to the temple, but because he raped the priestess. For this Nivellen was transformed into a monster.
Nivellen reflects on his sins and how he is deserving of his fate. He says to Ciri: ‘you’ve seen my statue garden: all my servants are buried there. I killed them the day I turned, not knowing what I was, not knowing my own strength. I deserve my destiny’. This implies that he retains the garden to remember his own evil deeds and to punish himself with their memory, just as the curse punishes him. He later says: ‘sometimes I think I’m still a man, but mostly I know what I really am’.
The serene snow-covered aristocratic garden thus conceals a dark secret: deaths caused by a curse! Nivellen’s curse is lifted but not because he finds true love, but because he loses it. When Geralt slays the bruxa whom he had befriended, he reverts to human form. However, rather than liberated, he is inflicted by a still-enduring curse: that of his own conscience. He is left by Ciri and Geralt, the priestess’s magical curse lifted but in agony at his crimes. Whilst damaged, Nivellen’s garden and the statues remain as testament to his ill deeds.
Aretuza and the Elven Temple to the Deathless Mother
I didn’t address it explicitly in my series 1 review, but it is not only the ‘crypt’ in which Istredd studies and the bones (including skulls) of elves which furnish it which holds the legacy of the establishment’s antiquity and the violent slaughter of the elves. Indeed, the entire architecture of Aretuza is a legacy of ancient elven times before the Conjunction and it is therefore a landscape of genocide and appropriation.
Akin to a headland medieval monastic site, the television show does not clearly distinguish between the magic academy, the palace and its attendant reception complex. Presumably the academy is the only element on Thanedd Island here, joined by a narrow rope bridge to the headland palatial complex, with its tower Tor Lara.
The importance of reviewing this architecture, with its long vertical bastions and distinctive tower, is that in series 2 we encounter another example of the same antiquity – a temple of the elves.
Yennefer is captured by Fringilla and her Nilgaardian troops but they themselves are both taken prisoner by the elves who take them to a ruined temple where they have been attempting to seek a hidden chamber.
Yennefer observes how it looks like Aretuza and that Istredd mentioned them: they were built by elves to ‘honour the prophets’. In this instance, we learn the elves destroyed them themselves to avoid the same fate as Aretuza: ‘better lost to history than humans’ an elf retorts. The elves led by Francesca Findabair are camped nearby in the woods. Notably, the temple complex has not only towers but a clifftop location like Aretuza.
They have been digging for the entrance to the temple and then find it. The walls are covered with paintings that recall the Conjunction of the Spheres.
There is a central altar with mummies bodies both around and standing upon the altar. These evoke Peruvian seated and bound mummies of ancient Peru or the posed mummies Capuchin catacombs of Palermo, but we are left wondering whether they were posed in these positions in eternal honour of the Deathless Mother, or were killed by her as sacrifices.
Either way, we learn that the temple is indeed dedicated to the Deathless Mother according to the inscriptions. The elves, Yennefer and Fringilla speculate that maybe the Deathless Mother is one of the old gods. The fact that the mummies appear frozen in eternal devotion should be warning that the denizen of this temple is not benign. Still, the altar rolls back revealing stairs that they descend into the chamber below which morphs into a wood with standing stones in which they encounter the Deathless Mother’s hut with no doors.
In short, this combination of ancient elven ruins and mummified elven devotees is a strikingly archaeological dimension to the Continent. I confess I don’t fully understand the relationship between the mummies and the Deathless Mother, but I wonder if the idea is to show that the elves are themselves as clueless about their own history as the humans, and in that space of ignorance, the Deathless Mother is able to re-enter the lives of current events and exploit them to gain freedom?
The hidden fortress of the witchers is a ruined relic of former times, with broken battlements and dilapidated towers resulting from an attack upon them in retaliation for their interference in the courts and kingdoms around them. It remains the winter base of the depleted order to which they return having spent the summer out hunting monsters for coin.
The first archaeological dimension is the treasury containing weapons and armour of past witchers of old. More than simply a weapon and armour store, it is a museum too. Suspended and installed on display are ancient witcher heirlooms. One striking example is a horned helmet and armour of Klef, which Vesemir explains to Ciri was worn by one of the first witchers who imprisoned a demon in the forest (i.e. the Deathless Mother). Note; it is a leather horned helmet disturbingly similar to that appearing in Vikings season 5! – in fact I suspect it is by the same costume designer.
Opposite Klef’s helmet and armour is the dagger that does indeed look like an Early Bronze Age British artefact like the Bush Barrow dagger from near Stonehenge. This ancient artefact is hallowed but kept separate from the witcher arms and armour because Vesemir explains that it was the artefact used by the demon to kill Klef. In this regard, it is a relic and trophy to a defeated but not slain opponent.
Vesemir then shows her the armour of another witcher, Deglan, who was killed by men at Kaer Morhen itself, thus presenting the moral story of the dangers faced by the diminished and dying witcher order.
The second dimension is the tree in the hall of Kaer Morhen from which are suspended the silver pendants of dead witchers. As a focus of the communal feasting area, it is a cumulative memorial. Once slain by Vesemir and Geralt, Eskil’s pendant is added to the tree. It also serves as an alarm system, shaking visibly at the approach of monsters twiceover, and being split by the intervention of Ciri whilst possessed by the Deathless Mother.
Third, we also learn of the funerary practices of witchers. As discussed above, the witcher Eskel turns into a leshy and is fought and killed by Geralt and Vesemir. These two alone, his killers, not the entire witcher band, seem to be obligated to honour his passing. They carry his body to a cave behind a lake and lay him on a flat stone. Here, he is overly excarnated: exposed for consumption by beasts and birds. More specifically, it is clear that the intention is for him to be devoured by wolves without further ceremony than Vesemir saying ‘now you can rest’. The witcher association with wolves isn’t explored in the television show, but their pendants all bear the wolf sigil, rendering them akin to shape-changing werewolves of northern European mythology – for they hunt, albeit alone, yet from a pack of warrior brothers akin to the ulfhednar of Norse tradition. In death, therefore, their consumption by wolves closes the connection.
An informal and isolated visit by Vesemir, who was Eskil’s adopted ‘father’ as his creator, serves as a subsequent act of remembrance. Vesemir encounters the corpse – the skull and torso being the principal surviving elements along with the wooden leshy limbs. The natural architecture of the cave thus provides a mortuary arena of disposal and revisitation to honour the passing of witchers, no matter the circumstances of their demise.
A Memorial to the Dead
Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden provide the picturesque setting for the memorial raised near Aretuza to the 13 mages who died at the Battle of Sodden Hill. At a fire-lit nighttime ceremony, the kings of the North are invited to Aretuza to attend and the dedication of the memorial culminates in the sacrifice of Cahir. However, at the last moment, Yennefer frees him and they flee together.
An insight into memorial practice is revealed because Tissaia has already written Yennefer’s name on the list to be carved upon the memorial but had delayed a month and she turns up alive.
Of the the memorial itself – a finely carved light-stone obelisk – is interesting in two regards. Firstly it is a crafted version of the overtly crude and rough ancient obelisks which punctuate the Continent’s landscape. Second, it utilises a common neo-Egyptian form of many 20th-century war memorials and thus speaks across time and worlds as a memorial suitable to honour the war dead.
The Brotherhood interview Istredd about his time in Nilfgaard and Nazair and whether he gained insight into and forewarning of the possibility that Nilfgaard might attack. He responses in the negative, explaining that the only thing he picked up was dirt from his archaeological dig. He explains: ‘I wasn’t there to study Nilfgaard, I was there to study monoliths. They hold the history of this Continent. And I think they hold our future too’.
Stone circle in the woods near Kaer Morhen
Geralt and Cirilla go there as she feels drawn to a location. They encounter the leshy. We gain no explanation regarding the stone circle.
Stellacite from the monster slain by Geralt trying to attack/capture Ciri. This suggests it derives from a monolith. The lechy proves to have the same material, suggesting both were new monsters brought following Ciri’s toppling of the monolith outside of Cintra. Ciri’s magic is somehow key to the conjunction between worlds.
Geralt teleports to Istredd the ‘monolith expert’ who concedes he knows the monolith outside Cintra and considers it ‘one of the oldest in existence’ (although we never learn how relative age is being evaluated). Istredd considers the monolithis ‘indestructible’ and therefore cannot understand the force exerted to break one.
On explaining the monolith, Istredd espouses the theory that the obelisks are scars from the Conjunction – left over points of impact. He speculates as to whether monoliths were the conduits of the Conjunction, not the creation of them.
The final representation of obelisks takes us back to Cintra/Xin’trea. Once again, Studley Royal Water Gardens are the filming location for Cintra/Xin’trea’s palace and gardens, and the obelisk looms over the city.
Elven aqueducts in Oxenfurt
On the run in Redania – Yennefer and Cahir encounter two dwaves in the sewers of Oxenfurt, one of whom explains that the city is built (like Cintra over Xin’-‘trea) over far older ruins: ‘Old elven aqueducts, humans built their world on top of our ruins’. This serves to illustrate the succession of pre-Conjunction and post-Conjunction habitations on the Continent and parallels real-world situations where Mediterranean and European cites are built over medieval and ancient predecessors.
The four-episode prequel The Witcher: Blood Origins takes us back to the events in which the first witcher was born and the Conjunction of the Spheres occurs. Here we find an already ancient world and one in which there are further archaeological themes at play. Notably, we encounter the obelisks in use to travel between worlds and other representations of mortuary practices of note, the latter addressed in an earlier post.
Without knowledge of the wider universe of The Witcher from the books and video games, I feel reluctant to make a full evaluation. I reserve a final review also because I know a third series is forthcoming. Still, I hope this review serves to illustrate how archaeology and archaeologists feature in The Witcher to date as key themes in the story.