The Witcher’s Nilfgaard is an unusual empire. It starts out as the laughingstock of the Continent and rises to become the most powerful regime in the world in a short period of time.
What is Nilfgaard exactly? What role does it play in the Witcher series? Who is Emhyr var Emreis and what are his goals?
We’ve combed through the Witcher books, games, and Netflix series to answer these and other questions.
In this third installment of our Witcher Lore series, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the Nilfgaardian Empire and its ambitious emperor.
Warning: spoilers ahead! Proceed with caution if you haven’t finished reading the books or playing the games.
Table of Contents
What is The Nilfgaardian Empire?
The Nilfgaardian Empire is an imperialist regime located in the south of the Continent: the landmass where most of the Witcher series takes place.
Throughout most of the books and games, Nilfgaard is the most powerful empire in the world, invading and conquering lands with relative ease.
However, throughout its centuries-long history, Nilfgaard wasn’t always an empire, or even an especially powerful kingdom. It started as the city of Nilfgaard located at the mouth of the Alba River in the far south of the Continent.
The Nilfgaard flag and coat of arms feature the Nilfgaardian sun, which may symbolize the tropical climate of the lands surrounding the Alba.
At the time of the books and game series, Nilfgaard is located immediately to the south of the Northern kingdoms, with the Amell Pass separating the two.
Nilfgaard’s location is closest to the Northern kingdoms of Cintra and Sodden, although its borders change depending on the time period.
The North’s View of Nilfgaard
The people of the North despise Nilfgaard, calling them “the Black Ones”. But as many fans have commented, everyday life is no better or worse for the Nordlings under Nilfgaardian rule.
However, it’s easy to see why the people of the North want to protect their lands from Nilfgaardian’s ruthless imperialist tactics.
Besides, Emperor Emhyr var Emreis himself admits in the fourth Witcher book The Tower of the Swallow that the Nilfgaardian secret service “devours three times as much of the state budget as education, culture and arts taken together.”
This shows where the empire’s loyalties truly lie — not with its people, but with its military prowess.
Brief History of Nilfgaard
Nilfgaard began as a mixed settlement of humans and Black Seidhe elves in the second century.
The population, largely influenced by elven culture and language, began to incorporate other settlements around the River Alba, found in the south of the Continent. Eventually, this cluster evolved into the kingdom of Nilfgaard.
It began as a republic, in which the kings were advised by a senate. Over the next thousand years, Nilfgaard continued to absorb surrounding settlements into the kingdom, somewhat akin to the Roman Republic.
In the 12th century, the senate was abolished and Imperator Torres var Emreis, grandfather of the current emperor Emhyr var Emreis, assumed absolute control. It was then that Nilfgaard evolved from monarchy to empire.
After Torres’ death, Fergus var Emreis took the throne. Seen as a weak ruler, Fergus was overthrown by a usurper in 1233. We’ll cover Emhyr’s reclamation of his rightful throne in more detail later in this article. For now, let’s look at Nilfgaard’s wars with the North.
The Northern Wars
The Northern Wars were a series of three wars between the Nilfgaardian Empire and the Northern kingdoms. Only the first two wars are canon. The third war is exclusive to the Witcher 3 game.
Nilfgaard’s capture of the kingdom of Cintra in 1263 started the First Northern War. The first season of the Netflix series covers the events of this war, including Nilfgaard’s pursuit of Ciri.
The famous Battle of Sodden Hill, which resulted in the death of 14 mages, ended the war and delayed Emhyr’s conquest of the North.
The Second Northern War began in 1267 with Emhyr’s plan to dismantle the Brotherhood of Sorcerers responsible for his defeat.
It was during this war that the so-called false Ciri assumed the throne, officially incorporating Cintra as a Nilfgaardian province (we’ll cover this in more detail later on).
The Third Northern War (which is only covered in the Witcher 3 game) began with Nilfgaard’s rapid conquest of the Northern kingdoms of Aedirn, Rivia, Lyria, and Temeria in 1271.
However, Nilfgaard met stiff opposition from the kingdom of Redania, which recently conquered the neighboring kingdom of Kaedwen, assuming control over its armies. The two sides are at a stalemate in Witcher 3.
The Story of Emhyr Var Emreis
Nilfgaard’s current emperor Emhyr var Emreis goes by many names. In the Nilfgaardian tongue, he’s called Deithwen Addan yn Carn aep Morvudd, which translates to “The White Flame Dancing on the Graves of his Enemies”.
The rightful heir to the Nilfgaardian throne, Emhyr’s ascension to power should’ve been simple. But when Emhyr was 13, a usurper overthrew his father, Fergus var Emreis. Fergus refused to cooperate with the usurper despite torture and imprisonment.
To get through to Fergus, the usurper employed a mage to transform his son Emhyr into a monster. The curse caused Emhyr to take on the appearance of a half-hedgehog, half-man during the day.
After murdering Fergus, the usurper cast Emhyr out into the forests of Erlenwald, south of the Northern kingdom of Cintra. Hence his cruel nickname, “Urcheon of Erlenwald.”
During his exile, Emhyr discovered Roegner, the King of Cintra, wounded in the forest. The king got lost while hunting in Erlenwald. He’d sprained both legs when he fell off his horse into a ravine.
Emhyr saved the king and invoked the infamous Law of Surprise — a custom where a man saved by another is expected to give him in return something unknown to both parties. This usually takes the form of a child conceived without the father’s knowledge.
The king returned home to discover Queen Calanthe pregnant with a girl: Pavetta.
Duny, Pavetta, and the Law of Surprise
Years later, Pavetta — Princess of Cintra and carrier of the Elder Blood — encountered Emhyr in his cursed form one day while outside reading. Emhyr, who’d assumed the alias Duny, wooed her by reciting poetry.
After several secret meetings, Duny insisted that Pavetta meet him after midnight so she could see his true form. After bribing her servants and sneaking out of the castle, Pavetta was astonished to discover that Duny transformed back into a man after midnight.
It didn’t take long for Calanthe to discover what the two young lovers were up to.
With Pavetta’s 15th birthday celebration coming up, she knew she had to eliminate Duny to prevent him from invoking the Law of Surprise to marry Pavetta (for saving the life of Pavetta’s father, king Roegner). So, Calanthe hired Geralt to kill him.
When Duny showed up at the feast to claim Pavetta, Geralt defied Calanthe and refused to kill him. Even after Pavetta agreed to leave with him, Calanthe still ordered her men to kill him.
Pavetta began to scream, inadvertently unleashing the powerful magic given to her by the Elder Blood. Geralt and Mousesack, the court mage, calmed Pavetta and prevented her from killing everyone in the room.
Afterward, Duny lied to Pavetta, Calanthe, and Geralt, claiming that he was cursed since birth and didn’t know the reason why or who was responsible.
Geralt also gifted Duny’s curse. Duny said that he was indebted to him and asked his price. Geralt invoked the Law of Surprise and vowed to return in six years. Pavetta then revealed she was pregnant with Ciri.
Reclaiming the Nilfgaardian Throne
Shortly after Ciri was born, Emhyr decided to reclaim the Nilfgaardian throne after a secret meeting with the mage Vilgefortz.
Vilgefortz assured Emhyr that the Nilfgaardians were loyal to him and conspiring to overthrow the usurper. Yet, Emhyr was skeptical. When asked, the mage admitted that the “favors, privileges, and power” given to him by the Nilfgaardian emperor motivated his plans.
He then told Emhyr of Ithlinne’s Prophecy, one of the central elements of the Witcher story, setting in motion a long chain of events.
Emhyr decided he had to return home to Nilfgaard to reclaim what was rightfully his. He had to take Ciri with him while hiding the fact that she was his daughter. Calanthe, who Emhyr suspected knew about his plans, watched him like a hawk.
So Vilgefortz and Emhyr decided to fake the deaths of Duny, Pavetta, and Ciri in a shipwreck.
The mage planned to open a magical whirlpool after Pavetta, Duny, and Ciri were safe on a magically secured lifeboat. But Pavetta, who’d seen through Emhyr, thwarted his plans and arranged for Ciri not to board the ship.
When Duny discovered Ciri wasn’t on board, the couple fought. Emhyr, while telling Geralt the story in the fifth Witcher book The Lady of the Lake, claims she fell overboard.
Geralt replied, “I wonder how a man feels after murdering his wife,” implying that Duny killed Pavetta.
The Slaughter of Cintra
In the years after the death of her daughter Pavetta, Cintra’s Queen Calanthe closely guards her granddaughter Ciri while Duny assumes his true name Emhyr and retakes the Nilfgaardian throne.
Coincidentally, the Nilfgaardian people want to conquer Cintra, one of the most powerful Northern kingdoms at the time:
“My military men and aristocracy were urging me hard towards war, towards an attack on Cintra. They vouched that the people were demanding it, that the people wanted living space, that listening to the vox populi would be a kind of imperial test. I decided to kill two birds with one stone. By capturing both Ciri and Cintra in one go.” — Emhyr var Emreis, The Lady of the Lake
So, Emhyr’s forces attack and defeat Cintra. After the fall of Cintra, Queen Calanthe dies by suicide rather than allowing herself to be taken as a Nilfgaardian prisoner. Meanwhile, Ciri escapes from Cahir, the Nilfgaardian hired to ensure her capture.
Why Does Nilfgaard’s Emperor Want Ciri?
In the books, Emhyr wants Ciri for several reasons.
One of the most important ties back to Ithlinne’s Prophecy, which states that Ciri’s child will save the world from the White Frost and effectively rule the world. Emhyr wants to marry Ciri and father that child to secure his power and legacy.
There’s just one problem: Emhyr is Ciri’s biological father. However, only a few people, including Geralt, know this. Most people believe both of Ciri’s parents died in a shipwreck. Geralt recognizes him during their encounter in The Lady of the Lake.
During this meeting, Emhyr reveals to Geralt his plans to marry Ciri. He defends himself by asserting that the marriage is “an end to justify the means”, claiming:
“She will become empress at a suitable moment. In precisely the same way that dozens of girls have become and do become queens. Meaning almost not knowing their spouses. […] Cirilla will never find out who I am. The secret will die. Along with those who know it.”
Incest isn’t uncommon among royal families in the Witcher series. Especially Ciri’s family — elves and mages conspired to preserve the power of the Elder Blood through incestuous relationships. Still, Emhyr’s plans enrage Geralt, who replies:
“Now you have her, you have Ciri, your own daughter, whom you once basely deprived of parents, and with whom you mean to vilely beget incestuous children. Without demanding love. Rightly, as a matter of fact. You do not deserve her love. Just between us, Duny, I don’t know how you will manage to look her in the eyes.”
Emhyr’s motive involves more than magic and prophecies. The marriage would also ensure legal control over Cintra.
Nilfgaard had unofficially conquered Cintra beyond the shadow of a doubt in the First Northern War. But according to Cintran customs, only the man who married the queen became the rightful King of Cintra, which happens to the Ciri.
This is why Emhyr publicly announces plans to marry “false” Ciri.
This abducted girl of nobility, who resembled Ciri and was similar in age, was presented to Emhyr as the Lion Cub of Cintra. He immediately recognized her as an imposter. But he played along to avoid suspicion while he continued to search for the real Ciri.
His subjects have no reason to believe she isn’t the true Ciri. So by all appearances, their marriage officially establishes Cintra as a Nilfgaardian province.
Nilfgaard in The Witcher Show
Nilfgaard’s (and Duny’s) portrayal in the first season of the Netflix series is mostly faithful to the Witcher books.
Having said that, many fans expressed their dislike of the show’s take on Nilfgaardian armor, which is getting a makeover in season 2.
Some fans were also confused about why the show painted Nilfgaard as a laughingstock, particularly in season 1 episode 4, at Pavetta’s birthday feast.
About mid-way through the episode, a Nilfgaardian suitor, Lord Peregrine, approaches the court. As he opens his mouth to speak, Skelligan skald Draig Bon-Dhu plays the bagpipes, causing the partygoers to erupt with laughter.
To Lord Peregrine’s speech, Queen Calanthe replies,
“Cintra is indeed the jewel of the north. Yet Nilfgaard remains the shit rag of the south, and that’s saying something! Tell me, is it true you drink piss water and feast on your own young? Nilfgaardian kings don’t remain kings for long. Who will take the usurper’s crown? You? How long will you last? A year, a month, a day?”
While some fans were confused by Calanthe’s jeering, it doesn’t stray too far from the canon book lore.
Although the empire had been gaining power for two generations, Nilfgaardian emperor Fergus var Emreis was considered a weak ruler. Hence why a usurper took the throne.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why the queen of Cintra, the most powerful Northern kingdom, might look down on Nilfgaard.
However, in the books, Nilfgaard didn’t send a suitor to Pavetta’s birthday feast.
Read more: Netflix’s Witcher vs The Witcher 3 Game
Is Nilfgaard Evil in the Show?
Some fans commented that the show presents Nilfgaard as wholly evil rather than complex.
In season 1 episode 7, Yennefer travels to Nazair, a Nilfgaardian province, to visit Istredd. She watches as peasants work an archeological site. One of the leaders tells the workers they won’t get any water until they’re finished.
Istredd tells her the locals discovered a “mangalith” but couldn’t uncover it without the mage’s help.
Yennefer teases that he was only able to discover it after Nilfgaard tore through all the lands. Istredd says the Nilfgaardians allow his research, and that’s all he cares about.
Istredd defends his choice: “These people were starving before Nilfgaard. See, most kings only care about their cocks and their coffers. They look out for their people. Everybody gets something.”
Yennefer replies, “The same thing, which tastes as if someone pissed in my cup.”
Is Nilfgaard evil in the show? That depends on your perspective. One on hand, perhaps Istredd is right that the peasants were starving before Nilfgaard conquered Nazair.
But Yennefer isn’t entirely wrong when she points out that what the peasants do get is poor quality.
A Note on Religion
Some fans didn’t understand Nilfgaard’s religious zeal in the show. Throughout the first season, Fringilla Vigo and Nilfgaardian soldiers frequently pledge allegiance to “The White Flame”.
They do so with a tone of spiritual reverence. Newcomers to the series might have assumed the White Flame is a god or religious icon.
Viewers later find out the White Flame refers to Emperor Emhyr. This suggests that the show will treat Emhyr as some sort of god.
Additionally, in the books, Emhyr says only he is fully aware of the “exact contents” of Ithlinne’s Prophecy. But in the show, dying Nilfgaardian soldiers quote the prophecy.
How much of the prophecy do common Nilfgaardians know? How will Emhyr be depicted in the Netflix series? Only time will tell.
Why Did Nilfgaard Attack Cintra in the Show?
In this respect, the show remains faithful to the canon lore. In the show and the books, Nilfgaard attacks Cintra to capture not just Ciri, but also Cintra, the most powerful Northern kingdom in the Continent at the time.
Anyone who’s read the source material will already know this. But the first season only hints at the prophecy. Only time will tell how the show portrays and introduces newcomers to the lore.
Those who are unfamiliar with the books might relate to Ciri in the pilot episode:
“Why? Why is Nilfgaard here? Why does the world depend on it?”
Nilfgaard in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
In the Witcher games, Nilfgaard is more ambiguous. The disdain for the Black Ones is still rampant among Northerners.
But, depending on your perspective, even Emhyr isn’t as cruel as Radovid, who ruthlessly persecutes mages and non-humans.
For many players, a Nilfgaardian victory in the Third Northern War would be the better choice.
After all, Geralt might be considered a non-human by Radovid’s witch hunters. He also counts mages and non-humans among his closest friends.
Therefore, a Nilfgaardian defeat might end with Geralt, Triss, Yennefer, and many other main characters being burned at Radovid’s stakes.
Emhyr var Emreis In Witcher 3
Emhyr’s portrayal in Witcher 3 is fairly close to the books, with one major exception: There is no word of his plans to marry Ciri or have a child with her.
Instead, he wants to have Ciri found to put her on the Nilfgaardian throne.
One reason is to take the pressure off himself because he’s grown unpopular with the Nilfgaardian nobility following his failures in the Northern Wars.
Another simpler reason is to have a successor to the throne, especially one as powerful (thanks to her Elder Blood) as Ciri.
Nilfgaard Endings in Witcher 3
Depending on your choices in Witcher 3, Nilfgaard (and its emperor) can end up in very different places at the end of the game. Here are the four possible endings for the Nilfgaardian Empire in Witcher 3.
There are two endings in which Nilfgaard wins the war with the North. In the first ending, Ciri becomes a witcher instead of the Empress of Nilfgaard.
In this “good” ending, Radovid is assassinated. Redania’s cruel conquest of mages and non-humans ends. Temeria is granted some form of sovereignty as a Nilfgaardian vassal state. That means the Temerian guerrillas can lay down their arms and live in peace.
Meanwhile, Emhyr cruelly punishes all who conspired against him.
When Geralt visits the Royal Palace of Vizima after the Battle of the White Frost, he lies to Emhyr and tells him that Ciri died. Emhyr asks Geralt if Ciri had wished to convey anything before she died.
The player can choose whichever dialogue option they like. Then, after asking about Geralt and Yennefer’s plans, Emhyr tells Geralt he never wishes to see him again.
Skellige’s position depends on who becomes king or queen. If Cerys is queen, the Isles remain neutral. If Hjalmar is king, Skellige opposes Nilfgaard.
Ciri Becomes Nilfgaardian Empress
In the second “Nilfgaard wins” scenario, if Geralt decides to take Ciri to the Royal Palace of Vizima during the quest “Blood on the Battlefield”, she will become Empress of Nilfgaard.
Instead of marrying her, the emperor abdicates the throne and crowns Ciri his successor, removing some of the unsavory elements of the Witcher books.
Before Ciri parts ways with Geralt and leaves for the palace, she says:
“I realized I had to stop fleeing. Realized that if I wished to change anything, I cannot do so hunting monsters round forgotten villages. I must do so from there. From Nilfgaard.”
If Nilfgaard loses the war, there are two endings with two possible rulers: Dijkstra or King Radovid.
If Redania wins under King Radovid, he is praised as a “tactical genius” for outmaneuvering the Nilfgaardian forces that far outnumbered Redania’s. He persecutes not just mages and non-humans, but also herbalists and pellars throughout the Continent.
If Redania wins under Dijkstra’s rule, the ex-spy leaves non-humans alone. However, he’s not exactly a benevolent ruler. He aims to unite the Northern Kingdoms against Nilfgaard, ironically using Nilfgaardian’s ruthless imperialist tactics to do so.
Meanwhile, Emhyr is assassinated by his opposition.
Nilfgaard: The Witcher World’s Roman Empire?
Interestingly enough, the Witcher book series’ author Andrezj Sapkowski has noted he based Nilfgaard on the Roman Empire (and the Northern Kingdoms on the Gauls and Britons that resisted them).
It’s not hard to see the similarities.
Like Nilfgaard, the ancient Romans set out to conquer vast swathes of foreign lands. And just like Nilfgaard, Rome began as a republic before becoming an empire.
Another thing that the Nilfgaardians have in common with the Romans is their tolerance of other people and religions.
Racism isn’t as rampant in Nilfgaard as it is in the Northern kingdoms. Elves, mages, and non-humans aren’t persecuted.
Nillfaardians certainly aren’t saints; for example, they have enslaved conquered people and used them as soldiers and workers.
With all being said, what do you think of the Nilfgaardian Empire? Are they evil, good, or somewhere in the middle?
Interested in more lore? Check out our first lore article on Gaunter O’dimm, the mysterious villain of the Hearts of Stone Witcher 3 expansion, and our second piece on Avallac’h, the elven mage who plays an important role in both the books and Witcher 3 game.