In an early quest offering one of The Witcher 3’s characteristic statements on human vice and venality, Geralt is hired by a priest of the Eternal Fire, the state religion of Novigrad, to burn corpses on the battlefields of Velen to rid the land of necrophages whose existence is offensive to “the Eternal Fire and all that”. Things go unaccording to plan when Geralt discovers one of the “corpses” is still alive and learns that the priest is using him to burn the remains of murdered competitors in the fisstech trade. For those unfamiliar, “fisstech” is Witcherverse’s cocaine equivalent. The quest ends in one of two ways. Geralt can either take the priest’s hush money or refuse bribery, in which case he will have to kill the priest and his goons (whose bodies are conveniently lootable for the money anyway). The whole quest is of a piece with The Witcher’s mostly contemptuous attitude towards religion, and good for a dry laugh. However, things quickly grow darker. When Geralt arrives in Novigrad to seek out Triss, the city is in the midst of a full-blown mania of religious persecution, with the Church weaponizing faith as a pretext to exterminate mages and steal their property. If Triss is aided in smuggling the survivors out of Novigrad, the church authorities turn their ire against nonhumans in a racial pogrom.
From this it should be gathered that religion in The Witcher 3 is a malevolent force: craven, murderous, pathetic, and absurd. There are few exceptions to this rule in the game, and almost no instances where faith is treated with genuine respect. Mostly it exists in a state of villainy or as a superstition to be scorned out of hand, as in the frequency with which Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri seem to casually insult most of the Skelligers’ religious customs in the main quest. As an atheist, I have no qualm with this, but it’s interesting to note that the Witcher novels don’t entirely agree with this attitude. As in other respects, adaptations, no matter how good, tend to sand off the nuances of written source material, and what’s notable about the novels in regards to faith is that the games only render a partially accurate representation of its role in them. To be clear, the books are highly critical of religion, both in moralizing and satirical terms. The misogynistic rant of the village priest outside Abigail’s Cave in The Witcher 1 is a verbatim quote from a similar scene in Sapkowski’s Baptism of Fire1Baptism Of Fire 160. Oh, and of course there was that time Ciri was sexually assaulted by a priest2Time Of Contempt 71-72. Religion in Sapkowski’s prose is generally as contemptible and absurd as in the games…
….when it is organized by men.
When women are involved, things get interesting. I am thinking of the cases of the Temples of Melitele in Ellander and Frejya Modron in Skellige in the books, both administered by female priestesses on behalf of goddesses. These two institutions are the only prominent arenas of uncorrupted piety in the books, and from them it is possible to get a sense of what the novels have to say about the positive potential of faith. The answer: a lot actually. One could also argue, as I have in the past, that Destiny itself is a religious entity, a shadowy ground between choice and determinism, faith and reason, freedom and necessity that holds all these forces together in a complimentary and unresolved tension. But, as I have considered Destiny elsewhere, that is not the gist of this article. My major concern is with the Witcher novels’ understated defense of religion, and the role women seem to play in redeeming religion in them.
Faith And Order
The most articulate expression of this defense occurs in “The Voice of Reason II” in The Last Wish, which I have discussed already at some length here. The action is pretty straightforward. Geralt, wounded in battle against the Strzyga, has sought medical attention at the Temple of Melitele in Ellander, ruled over by his friend the priestess Nenneke. For some time she has been encouraging him to enter into a prophetic trance with the help of the medium Iola in order to divine what ails him psychologically and spiritually. Geralt dismisses these suggestions out of hand, to which Nenneke replies:
“As I said, your view on religion is known to me, it’s never particularly bothered me and, no doubt, it won’t bother me in the future. I’m not a fanatic. You’ve a right to believe that we’re governed by Nature and the Force hidden within her. You can think that the gods, including my Melitele, are merely a personification of this power invented for simpletons so they can understand it better, [and] accept its existence. According to you, that power is blind. But for me, Geralt, faith allows you to expect what my goddess personifies from nature: order, law, goodness. And hope.”3The Last Wish 43
There is nothing especially novel in this defense of religion, but it is worth noting not only that Sapkowski offers it from the mouth of a sympathetic character, but that this precise formulation of faith and what it entails is echoed later by both Borch Three Jackdaws4Sword Of Destiny 8 and Geralt himself just before the Rivian Pogrom5The Lady Of The Lake 505-506. To be clear, that does not mean that Geralt has become a believer by the end of the story, but the fact that he summarizes his life’s work in the final novel on Nenneke’s terms is telling. In doing so, Geralt implicitly acknowledges the parity of belief and non-belief in existential terms as equally valid relationships to the problem of evil in the world. Yet his orientation towards this evil in a psychological sense is fundamentally different by that point, a fact his disingenuous statements about “retiring” from Witcherhood (immediately contradicted by his actions in the pogrom) do not change. In “The Voice Of Reason IV”, Geralt admits, “But my faithlessness can do nothing. It’s powerless.”6The Last Wish 130 By the Rivian Pogrom, Geralt remains godless, but he is far from faithless. Having regained the moral purpose he lost in his first battle (as recounted in “The Voice Of Reason IV”)7 The Last Wish 132-133, he faces the mob undeterred. In that sense, the casting of Geralt’s final sacrifice in subtly religious terms (easily missed by the inattentive reader) resolves the conflict between religious belief and atheism in favor of a more generic sense of faith in moral objectives and personal agency, extending to religious faith a respect which organized religion is denied in The Witcher.
God Is Female
A key component of the derision organized religion receives is its association with male intolerance and rapacity. In keeping with Sapkowski’s expressed statements on gender8Andrzej Sapkowski – Wikipedia and their feminist-adjacent influence on the novels, matriarchal religious cults are given a respect that patriarchal religious cults (such as the Eternal Fire) are denied. A key plotline in the latter half of the franchise concerns Yennefer’s pursuit of Vilgefortz, who she mistakenly believes has captured Ciri. This mistake sets in motion a series of events that reunites the protagonist triad and sets up the bloody climax of the saga, the assault on Stygga Castle. Before Yennefer can find Vilgefortz, however, she seeks out a sacred jewel of the Skelliger goddess Freyja Modron to use for her megascope.9The Tower Of The Swallow 315 When the priestesses of Freyja refuse her, Yennefer waits in the Temple and remarks to herself how the faith of the priestesses allows them to wield the Power, the natural force of magic in Witcherverse, through trances. Concluding that “Faith gives them strength”10The Tower Of The Swallow 316, she induces a trance herself and receives an equivocal divine intervention when the jewel falls from its idol to her as a “gift” from the goddess.11The Tower Of The Swallow 316-322
It is left to interpretation whether or not this is an actual deus ex machina or whether Yennefer freed the gem through the power of her own psyche. Common to this scene and those at the Temple of Ellander however is the fact that when godhead or religion are portrayed positively in The Witcher, they are always done so in the context of female cultists offering faith to female deities. Referring to my footnote above, the quote from Sapkowski reads, “I believe that the feminine element dominates in nature. Women are generally stronger than men. All power of this world should be in the hands of women. Life, the world are too serious to leave it in our hands”. In the same interview Sapkowski denies being a feminist in a philosophical sense12Witcher author Sapkowski: ‘If the TV series is like the trailer, it will be a masterpiece’ – Redanian Intelligence [Redanian Intelligence]. This quote, I think, is key.
The gendered divide between “good female religion” and “bad male religion” is not arbitrary if one enters into the mindset embodied in this quote, because if The Witcher in the ethical and political realms is about the gap between who or what ought to rule society and who or what does rule society, gender serves as a shorthand for these purposes. If society should be ruled justly (and therefore by women), it follows in this gendered conception of power that the church and God herself must be female, and that if these three entities are male, the world goes to shit. I do not want to take his quote over-literally, nor run the opposite risk of trivializing it. If the central concern of The Witcher, as I’ve argued multiple times in the past, is the tragic struggle to find power and purpose in the service of things higher than wretched reasons of state, it stands to reason that this moral struggle should extend to the church and God as well, specifically the Catholic Church so central to Polish life, which has never been without its internal critics. Ultimately then, it’s debatable whether The Witcher saga is avowedly atheist at all, something I would never have considered writing prior to this article. The religious elements, however secularized and vague, are central to the novels in the final analysis, and whether the notions of faith and Destiny are secular concessions to religious belief or surreptitious endorsements of it is a dialectical maze that probably no one can unravel.