In this article:
- Nilfgaard has its roots in the culture of the Black Seidhe, an Elven community, which is why the Nilfgaardian Empire’s language is influenced by Elder Speech.
- Nilfgaard is the result of several human tribes and the Black Seidhe’s intermingling until they became one people.
- Its aggressively expansionist foreign policy includes forcing conquered nations to assimilate.
- Its history mirrors the Roman civilization’s transformation from a republic to an empire.
- Ironically, Nilfgaardian rule is the best scenario for most peasants in The Witcher universe.
The world of The Witcher is incredibly brutal. While the story has a lot of high fantasy elements, these rare feats of magic and wonder happen against a backdrop of war and people being shitty to each other in general.
Geralt, the protagonist and titular Witcher, is just some guy caught up in all the political intrigue unfolding throughout the Continent. His (often) unwilling involvement in geopolitics has made him the enemy of kings.
But his greatest enemy is Nilfgaard. The powerful and wealthy Nilfgaardian Empire threatens to swallow its neighboring nations which is why it’s shown as the big bad in The Witcher related media.
That said, Nilfgaard isn’t as evil as it seems on the surface and Emhyr var Emreis’ attack on Cintra is the best scenario for your average The Witcher peasant.
A Brief History of Nilfgaard
The Nilfgaardians take pride in their culture which they can trace back to the Black Seidhe, a group of elves that separated from the Aen Seidhe which are the elves we see in the present-day The Witcher.
Unlike their Aen Seidhe cousins, the Black Seidhe were more welcoming towards humans and didn’t share their racist beliefs. Because of this, they eventually started to interbreed with humans living around the Alba river. Together, they developed the conquer and assimilate policy that Nilfgaard is known for today.
Much like the Roman empire on which it was based, the Nilfgaardian empire started out as a republic ruled by a monarch who had to answer to a council of advisors. The council was known as the Senate and functioned as the legislative body of Nilfgaard.
As the Nilfgaardian republic grew, so did its army, which led to the title of Imperator being used to refer to the top-ranking military officer.
Torres var Emreis, Emhyr’s grandfather, eventually overthrew the Senate and proclaimed himself emperor. He also made the Nilfgaard we know today by strengthening the Nilfgaardian army and installing an Elven sun cult called Ard Feainn, meaning “Great Sun,” as the state religion. That’s why Nilfgaardian armor is always depicted with a stylized sun logo, even if it’s the wrinkly Netflix version.
He was succeeded by his son, Fergus var Emreis, who wasn’t the most capable ruler considering he was overthrown by the Usurper who assassinated him and took his throne. The Usurper ordered Braathens, a mage, to curse Emhyr var Emreis and turn him into a hedgehog-looking monster that we later learn is Duny.
After getting un-cursed thanks to the power of Pavetta’s love, Emhyr returns to Nilfgaard with his supporters and retakes the throne.
Obviously, Emhyr won. He then ordered his soldiers to dig up the corpses of his dead enemies so he could use their gravestones to pave his ballroom. Talk about metal. This led to Emhyr gaining the title “Deithwen Addan yn Carn aep Morvudd” or “The White Flame Dancing on the Barrows of his Enemies.”
Since his return to power, Emhyr var Emreis has been working double-time to bring the Northern Realms under his influence. This leads us to the question that The Witcher show-only fans are dying to know the answer to: “Why did Nilfgaard attack Cintra?”
Why Did Nilfgaard Attack Cintra?
Nilfgaard and the Northern Realms have been at war for pretty much the entirety of Emhyr var Emreis’ rule. In fact, it’s been dragging on for so long that there are three different Northern Wars.
In The Witcher games, we never get to play in Cintra because, by the time the game starts, the First Northern War was already coming to an end. However, The Witcher games and Gwent: The Witcher Card Game both contain heavy references to the Nilfgaardian invasion of Cintra.
The Battle of Cintra, which the Nordlings call the Slaughter of Cintra, marked the end of the First Northern War. After defeating Queen Calanthe, who we see in the show as Pavetaa’s mother, Emhyr’s army forces her to retreat back to the capital where they could hide behind the city’s fortified walls.
However, Emhyr had already anticipated this and sent Cahir, a knight in his secret service, to swoop in and capture Ciri for him. In the show, we see the Cintrian nobles committing suicide within the palace walls to avoid being captured by Nilfgaardian forces.
As far as we know, Ciri is the only survivor of the siege on Cintra and she’s the reason why Nilfgaard attacked the city.
Verily I say unto you, the era of the sword and axe is nigh, the era of the wolf’s blizzard. The Time of the White Chill and the White Light is nigh, the Time of Madness and the Time of Contempt: Tedd Deireádh, the Time of End. The world will die amidst frost and be reborn with the new sun. It will be reborn of Elder Blood, of Hen Ichaer, of the seed that has been sown. A seed which will not sprout but burst into flame. Ess’tuath esse! Thus it shall be! Watch for the signs! What signs these shall be, I say unto you: first the earth will flow with the blood of Aen Seidhe, the Blood of Elves…Aen Ithlinnespeath, Ithlinne Aegli aep Aevenien’s prophecy.
Whether you’ve learned about The Witcher through the books, show, or games, you’re already familiar with the first line of Ithlinne’s prophecy which foretells the end of the world. At the same time, though, the prophecy tells us that the Elder Blood is the secret to surviving the coming cataclysm.
So who is the Elder Blood? None other than Ciri herself.
Ciri, the Hen Ichaer Genetic Engineering Program, and Two Star Crossed Lovers Are the Root Cause of Everything in the Witcher
The Elder Blood and Hen Ichaer is a genetic mutation carried by the descendants of Lara Dorren, the daughter of the legendary king of the Aen Elle, Auberon Muircetach. Lara Dorren was the result of an intensive breeding program designed by Elven sages to produce the fabled Hen Ichaer that Ithlinne foretold could save them all from the end of the world.
Netflix’s Lara Dorren is said to be warrior who was trained to destroy the human race. What’s true of all the Witcher media, though, is that she fell in love with Cregennan of Lod, a human sorcerer, and had a daughter named Riannon who was adopted by Cero, queen of Redania. This resulted in Lara Dorren’s genes spreading throughout the ranks of nobility in The Witcher and many rulers can trace their lineage to her or a descendant of hers.
Eventually, the Elder Blood ended up in Pavetta who married Emhyr with whom she had Ciri. Emhyr var Emreis later learns about Ithlinne’s prophecy and how it relates to Ciri and the Elder Blood which brings us to the disgusting reason he wanted Ciri and attacked Cintra to get her back.
This is not a custody battle. Emhyr wants his daughter back from Queen Calanthe because he wants to impregnate her. The prophecy around Ciri and her role in the upcoming doomsday says that Ciri will bear the Child of the Elder Blood.
But wait, isn’t Ciri herself the Kwisatz Haderach, er, the Child of the Elder Blood? Well, there are several versions of Ithlinne’s prophecy because it’s so old. Everybody in The Witcher is practically fighting because of a millennia-long game of telephone.
Emhyr’s version of the memo says that Ciri is the mom of the Child of the Elder Blood, not the Elder Blood itself. To secure his rule and his empire, Emhyr’s bright idea is to utilize the prophecy and the innate power of the Hen Ichaer through siring a child by his own daughter.
TLDR: Nilfgaard attacked Cintra because Cintra had Ciri.
Ciri has the Elder Blood which is prophecied to be the key to saving the world. Emhyr wants to save the world and be the guy who has a literal superweapon at the same time. It has the added bonus of stabilizing his power over Cintra because it would result in him marrying a member of the Cintrian royal bloodline.
As icky as that sounds, Emhyr coming out on top is the best outcome for your average peasant and most minority groups in The Witcher.
Allow me to explain.
Life in the Continent Would Be Better Under Nilfgaard
The Witcher universe sucks for most people and even if you’re at the top, it just sucks a little less because you still have to live with medieval tech. For perspective, most medieval Europeans didn’t have proper bathrooms, beds, or a decently sized wardrobe. This is what life is like for people in The Witcher.
As if that wasn’t awful enough, you would have to deal with constant civil war if you were a Nordling or a stagnating economy if you were from Skellige. Nilfgaardians? They have a stable government with a robust, industrialized economy.
If you’re a mage, you’d love the idea of joining Nilfgaard even more because it’s one of the only states that don’t persecute actively persecute mages. Compared to Radovid V of Redania‘s relentless campaign to exterminate all mages and non-humans, a life of service to the Nilfgaardian empire is much more preferable.
The Northern Realms are teeming with witch hunters who will stop at nothing until everyone who isn’t human and has magical powers is dead, even witchers.
In the games, it’s heavily implied that the paranoia and racism targeted towards mages and non-humans will eventually turn towards witchers who are already seen as subhuman abominations by the common folk.
These beliefs will only grow stronger in the world of The Witcher as The Church of the Eternal Fire gains more followers. The church’s advocacy of cleansing the impure with holy fire is why we ended up helping Triss Merigold escape from Novigrad with other non-human refugees in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
As horrible as Nilfgaard can be, Emhyr stays true to his promise to Francesca Findabair, leader of the elves and an ally of his in the Second Northern War. He let Francesca establish a new Elven kingdom in Dol Blathanna which is currently the only place in the entire Continent where non-humans aren’t systematically discriminated against.
Having said that, Nilfgaard is admittedly not perfect. It’s an authoritarian government with extremely strict laws that regulate daily life more than any other state in The Witcher does. Not to mention, the assimilation policy that Nilfgaard practices is effectively cultural genocide.
But if you’re just a regular person who wants to live a relatively peaceful and stable life free from the constant threat of starvation and civil war, Nilfgaard is your best option.
So the next time you sit down to enjoy The Witcher-related media, know this: All roads lead to Nilfgaard.
Gloir aen Ker’zaer!