In its original usage the word wight described a living human being. More recently, the word has been used within the fantasy genre of literature to describe undead or wraith-like creatures: corpses with a part of their decayed soul still in residence, often draining life from their victims. Notable examples of this include the undead Barrow-wights from the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and the level-draining wights of Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game.
The English word is cognate with other Germanic words such as Dutch wicht, German Wicht, Old Norse vættr, Norwegian vette, Swedish vätte, Danish vætte. Modern High German Wicht means 'small person, dwarf,' and also 'unpleasant person,' while in Low German the word means 'girl.' The Wicht, Wichtel or Wichtelchen of Germanic folklore is most commonly translated into English as an imp, a small, shy character who often does helpful domestic chores when nobody is looking (as in the Tale of the Cobbler's Shoes). These terms are not related to the English word witch. In Scandinavian folklore, too, wights are elusive creatures not unlike elves, capable of mischief as well as of help. In German and Dutch language the word Bösewicht or Booswicht points out an evildoer, "Bösewichte haben keine Lieder" means they (do not make merry) are unpleasant folk.
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin, wights are a category of undead creatures, usually humans or animals who have been killed and turned by the White Walkers (aka the Others) or by other wights. They have pallid skin, black hands, and fierce ice-blue eyes, and are described as being virtually impervious to all forms of attack, even forcibly amputated limbs are described as having sentience. Their only weakness are immolation of fire.
In literature and culture
Examples of the word used in classic English literature and poetry:
"For [Aleyn] had swonken al the longe nyght, And seyde, 'Fare weel, Malyne, sweete wight!'"
- Geoffrey Chaucer (1368–1372), The Monk's Tale, line 380:
- "She kept her maidenhood from every wight
- To no man deigned she for to be bond."
- Geoffrey Chaucer (1368–1372), Prologue of The Knight, line 72-73:
- "In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
- He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght."
- Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1379-1380), The House of Fame, line 1830-1831:
- "We ben shrewes, every wight,
- And han delyt in wikkednes."
- Edmund Spenser (1590–1596), The Faerie Queene, I.i.6.8-9:
- "That every wight to shrowd it did constrain,
- And this fair couple eke to shroud themselues were fain."
- William Shakespeare (c. 1602), The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act I, Sc. III:
- "O base Hungarian wight! wilt thou the spigot wield?
- John Milton (1626), On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough, verse vi:
- "Oh say me true if thou wert mortal wight..."
- Washington Irving (1820) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
- "In this by-place of nature there abode, in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, who sojourned, or, as he expressed it, "tarried," in Sleepy Hollow, for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity."
- TSR (1974) Dungeons & Dragons "white box" set
- Ubisoft (2006) Heroes of Might and Magic 5
- In the game wights are the 6th tier creature to the Necropolis faction. They have high health and attack points and even have an ability called Harm Touch where they can attack and kill at least 1 enemy every time with no retaliation.
- George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire series, Book I A Game of Thrones (1996):
- "When he opened his mouth to scream, the wight jammed its black corpse fingers into Jon's mouth."
- George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire series, Book IV A Feast for Crows (2005):
- "Who has been beyond the wall of death to see? Only the wights, and we know what they are like. We know."
- Merriam-Webster, 1974.
- T. F. HOAD. "wight." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1996. Retrieved May 19, 2010 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O27-wight.html
- Wight, in the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 1974 edition.
- Gygax, Gary, and Dave Arneson. Dungeons & Dragons (3-Volume Set) (TSR, 1974)