The original use of Phylactery is from

Ancient Greek φυλακτήριον phylacterion, form of phylássein, φυλάσσειν meaning “to guard, protect”

and was originally meant to refer to ‘Tefillin’, boxes that contain script from the Torah.

The first time I heard of it, though, it was as the ‘soul jar’ of a Lich in D&D. I can’t find a reference for this being the first time it was used to mean ‘Soul Jar’. None of the examples of Liches on Wikipedia reference a phylactery at all.

Box of Scripture to Soul Jar seems like a bit of a leap, though not an unimaginable one.

Were there any intervening steps? If not, can it be pinned down to a design choice of a D&D rules writer?

What is its first use in fiction?

  • 1
    Do you want the origin of the idea, or of the application of the term "phylactery" to the idea?
    – wyvern
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 23:21
  • 1
    @sumelic the latter
    – AncientSwordRage
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 7:16

4 Answers 4


This is an old question, but it's gotten bumped, so I am sharing some old research that I was a part of about twenty-five years ago. There are not (to my knowledge) any archives of the bulletin board where this was discussed, but I remember the rough conclusions that we came to. We were coming to the question from the point of view of Dungeons & Dragons players, and we came to a D&D-related conclusion; however, we were not looking for evidence that had to come specifically from the game.

The word phylactery was based on a previous Greek word meaning, roughly, amulet, indicating a magical protective charm of a size to be carried on one's person. Phylactery was used both in this generalized meaning and in the specific meaning of tefillah, for essentially the entire history of the word. However, there were probably no instances of the soul jar meaning until 1979.

In the AD&D Monster Manual (1977), the lich was described as needing phylactery to maintain its state as a free-willed, thinking undead monster. At that point, the mention of the phylactery was just a bit flavor text, like that found in many of the Monster Manual entries. It is not clear which meaning of phylactery E. Gary Gygax had in mind, although he was extremely erudite and referenced all sorts of miscellaneous trivia in the AD&D game rules, so I suspect that he probably knew of the Jewish meaning. The accompanying artwork by David A. Trampier showed the monster wearing a crown, with a protruding block on the front that could be either a jewel or a tefillah.

*Monster Manual* Lich

While Gygax and Trampier may have known the religious meaning of phylactery, it appears that Len Lakofka may not have. In his article "Blueprint for Lich" (Dragon Magazine #26, page 36; later reprinted in one of the Best of Dragon anthologies), the process he describes (via which a wizard may become a lich) focuses on a soul object that the mage's life energy must be stored in as part of the process. Lakofka never used the word "phylactery" in the article, but it certainly appears that the Monster Manual phylactery and Lakofka's soul jar are meant to be one and the same. The connection was made explicit in the ENDLESS QUEST (like Choose Your Own Adventure) book Lair of the Lich in 1985.

*Lair of the Lich*; a friend and I had an argument about whether the lich in Jeff Easley's cover art had too much flesh and hair remaining on his corpse; we also noted that the cover says that it is a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, but it actually invokes the AD&D rules.

  • 2
    To be clear, the 1e Monster Manual says of the lich, "it retains this [non-living] status by certain conjurations, enchantments, and a phylactery". It does not state that the phylactery acts as a soul jar, nor does it mention the other common trope, the lich reforming after death. The 1e DMG also presents three other phylacteries as magical items, which are definitely meant to be tefillah (see the glossary) but are not associated with liches (aside from one slowing aging) or soul jars.
    – GDorn
    Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 3:31

I suppose it was based on the legend of Koschei the deathless. He kept his soul inside an egg and he couldn't be killed while his soul was kept safe, pretty much as a lich (except for the different recipient). Another possibility was the jars where the ancient Egyptians used to kept the organs of the dead as part of the mummification process.

  • First, it's kAschei. Second, soul jar concept predates ancient Slavs by millena or so, even assuming that Kaschei was not a more modern invention (the Wiki page is woefully thin on folcloric research as far as timelines when the character first appeared). Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 19:44
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    I think the question is asking about the history of the word "phylactery" as it relates to soul jars, not about the history of soul jars themselves.
    – jwodder
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 21:11
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    @jwodder I don't think so. The question is "What is the origin of a phylactery as a soul jar?", not "What is the origin of the word phylactery as a soul jar?". But I may be wrong, of course. Commented Oct 25, 2012 at 10:24
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    @DVK-in-exile its Коще́й, Костій, Kościej, Kostěj in Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and Czech. I'd personally stick to "o". Wiki says that both versions are correct.
    – Yasskier
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 4:25
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    @Yasskier - now i'm starting to wonder if there's some regional dialect thing going on here (there ae O-ing and A-ing dialects in Russia)... almost tempted to ask on Russian.SE Commented May 18, 2016 at 14:46

It probably wasn't the earliest, but Lloyd Alexander had a bad guy put his soul in his finger which was cut off and hidden inside the trunk of a tree. That book series was written in the 1960s.

  • 1
    Welcome to the site! Unfortunately, the above reference does predate this by about 40 years, but that is a great find!
    – JohnP
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 17:59

It most likely comes from the use of the word to refer to an amulet or charm. The word comes from Ancient Greek: Wiktionary Link

From the original Greek, you can see that the word carries a connotation of "protection", which fits with the version we see in fantasy, where a lich's phylactery (or Kaschei's egg) protects the soul held within. Literally a protective amulet or charm.

  • 1
    This shows the origin of the word, but I don't think it directly addresses the question of when phylactery was used specifically to house a soul.
    – JohnP
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 19:09

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