Saturday 19 October 2013

Orcs Are Uz

Hwæt! let us celebrate Orctober with some musings on the origins of the 'orrible cratures.

 It is well known among the wise that Orc comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Orcneas from Beowulf, a single in the entire medieval corpus. which Tolkien took his inspiration from to create his malignant goblin-folk. White-power and folkish right-wing nationalists  like to claim that "orc" means foreigner in Anglo-saxon, to try to use the popularity of Tolkien to promote their racist ideology, and support the idea that Anglo-Saxons saw all outsiders as monstrous filthy scum, and that people are inevitably and historically racist. But they are wrong,  orc = foreigner has no basis in the historical record or scholarly theory. In fact the word for foreigner in Anglo-saxon is Waelisc - the origin of the word - 'welsh', and you can make of that what you will...

Orcneas is generally accepted by medievalists as being a compound word meaning Hell Corpse, which the recently departed Irish poet Seamus Heaney translated as 'phantoms' in his 2002 edition of Beowulf. I applaud Heaney for the atmosphere, the feel of the word, and the evoking of the un-dead, which Tolkien resolutely refuses to do with his abbreviated Orcs, with sound Catholic theological reasoning - there is only one person who returns from the grave, and through this miracle - the central miracle of the Christian faith - that we are all resurrected into eternal life.  In Tolkien we can see a parallel (although not an allegory) of the Harrowing of Hell - the Old English tale of Christ descending into Hell freeing the sinless pagan forefathers from Limbo is echoed in Aragons fulfilment of the duties of the Oathbreakers in the Paths of the Dead, and indeed the Halls of Mandos echoes Limbo where the pagan kings dwell. Neither Tolkiens Nazgûl nor Barrowraiths are risen from the dead, but are a denial of death, an overlong continuation of life beyind its natural bounds wrought by ring-magic, else bones animated by a remote and malignant shadow, its long hand outstretched to the tombs of ancient dead kings.

... to the tombs of kings
doom approaches. The Dead awaken;
for the hour is come for the oathbreakers;
at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
and hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them
from the prey twilight, the forgotten people?
The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:
he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.

-Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

To my ear, Heanys phantoms are a little too airy, too ephemeral, they carry something of mist shrouded isles and romantic 19thC celto-nationalism, of fake Druidic orders and spectral ladies in white and fireside ghost stories. It could be that I'm projecting a primitive, earthy, barbaric quality onto the supernatural beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons which is undeserved, but Hell-Corpse to me suggests something more akin to a George A. Romero Zombie than an incorporeal ghostly presence. Indeed Orc is generally agreed to stem from Orcus, a demon of the underworld who, like Hades or the norse Hel's name was also used for their domain. As well as ruling his was responsible for the punishment of oath-breakers. It is clear that Orcus was known to some OE scribes, who make apologies for the peculiar name of the Scandinavian thegn Orc of Abbotsbury for this very reason), and '-neas' literally corpse, the physical body of the deceased.

Aside from it's infernal greek connotations, the word orc itself also appears in Beowulf, and it simply means cup. If we take that more mundane meaning, and apply it to the '-neas' which we know means 'corpse', we may read Orcneas not as Hell-Corpse but as Cup-Corpse, which in the tradition of Anglosaxon kennings might indicate either someone very drunk - literally Dead-Drunk in modern parlance, or as a darkly humorous way of expressing drowned i.e. one who has died by drinking too much - perhaps even those lost at sea not given a proper burial, and so return who plague the living. 

Northlanders 23 / Massimo Carnevale
love that painting - these are my Orcneas.

This is entirely my own speculation. It has no basis in medieval scholarship, and while I think it reasonable, it is altogether unlikely, seeing the number of Oxfordian undergraduate students that have studied Beowulf, as far as I know none has seen fit to propose a similar formulation. Yet the satirist in me warms to the idea of conflating zombified water-filled bloated corpses and the hordes of dead-eyed pale-flesh-exposed binge-drinking youth that rise up to wreak wrack, ruin and violence to every English town and city for two out of every seven days, like Grendels illegitimate offspring wreaking revenge in Hrothgars mead-hall over and over again.

In Beowulf Elves, Giants and Orcneas are listed as 'Children of Cain' and it's hard to conceive of a walking corpse as having a particular genetic ancestry that defines its nature, although the concept of the Mark of Cain - the curse placed on Cain for killing his bother - marks him as one who cannot be killed, but nonetheless wanders the earth. Yet no, Tolkien removed the idea of Orcs being undead, so they (re)entered our popular culture in a new guise, irredeemably evil, ugly warriors.

Riders of the Boar

But no where in Beowulf, or Tolkien does an Orc ride a giant boar, sober, drunk, alive, dead or otherwise. Wolves, wargs, yes, Boars, no. The especial relationship between Orc and porcine mount cannot be found in the good professors work, and doesn't appear in the early canon of Dungeons & Dragons - certainly not OD&D or the 1e Monster Manual (although it does appears in the mid-80s Battlesystem). So where does it come from?

The answer, as it is for the origin of so many things that regularly appear in Warhammer, is Runequest...

Mongoose Runequest Tusker (2006)

While the image above is quite recent, it's specific object goes back 30 years, to the mythical dawn of time, to 1976 in fact.

THE TUSK RIDERS are the remnants of the first human civilization, who were corrupted by breeding with trolls and eventually destroyed by the Dragonewts. Some managed to escape into the mountains, where they lived among their troll friends, consorting in evil and corrupt practices. Their steeds were great battle-pigs. some as big as a buffalo. adapted to crossing forests and hills without trouble.
Greg Stafford - White Bear and Red Moon - 1976

White Bear Red Moon Tusker Counter | via

The actual origin. of the tusk riders ere unclear. That they have human ancestry is obvious, but the mark of the trolls upon them as well. Their Cult of the Bloody Tusk demands blood drinking and further abominations.

Gigantic boars, ridden by tusk riders only. These beasts are fierce and ill-tempered, but love their masters beyond all comprehension.

Steve Perrin - Runequest - 1978

Unfortunately early Runequest doesn't provide much visual reference for the Tusk Raiders or their tusk mounts.

In White Dwarf 12 (1979), the second ever advert for Citadel Miniatures lists Half Orc on Tusker. Runequest Tusk Riders being Half Trolls, riding beasts named Tuskers the title would be very familiar to say the least to followers of the Runequest game.

Half Orc / Red Orc on Giant Tusker (1979)

Remembering in those days, ordering miniatures without having seen photographs of them was normal. The miniature itself doesn't appear at all boar-like, more like a strange Dewback from Starwars, or a crossbreed of a Dark Crystal Mystic, a Zoat and Albrecht Durers Rhinocerous, but nontheless the name Tusker, and the half-breed monster who rides him would have been familiar concepts to Runequest fans. And  Then 4 months later (White Dwarf 14) the same miniature is listed as Red Orc on Tusker. This transformation or innovation of Red Orcs was to last into 1st Edition Warhammer but no further.

Gnolls are hyena headed beastmen in AD&Ds 1977 monster manual, but seem to have transformed into bulbous-headded goblin creatures by the Perry Bros. over at Citadel when the Fantasy Tribe Gnolls were first released in 1980. One is reminded of the early Ral Partha / Citadel Bugbears that resemble gangly, big-eared Gollum like creatures rather than the giant hairy goblin creatures of D&D. A strange trend of naming something the same as a creature in a game-system but making the model look nothing like its description.

Fantasy Tribes Gnoll on Giant Boar (1980)

Andrew May points to Don Greers 1981 magnum-opus Down in the Dungeon (via Monsterbrains), which contains this curious image.

These orcs seem influenced somewhat by the Hildebrandt Bros, although the addition of a presumably female orc in plate armour is an interesting addition. Nontheless, Down in the Dungeon seems to take most of its inspiration from D&D, so perhaps there is an earlier D&D reference to boar riding orcs being drawn from here.

Lisa Free, Runequest Borderlands (1982)

The drawing by Lisa Free in the Borderlands campaign pack published by Chaosium in April 1982. The image was also reprinted in Dicing With Dragons - Introduction to Roleplaying Games by Ian Livingstone  published in the UK 1982. 

In 1980 Games Workshop was granted the rights to publish a UK edition of Runequest II, and it wasn't before long that Citadel secured the license to produce official Runequest miniatures, and produced an actual, official Tusker in the Runequest Boxed Set 3:  Trolls, which appears listed in the Citadel 1982 yellow catalogue. The close proximity of dates between the publication of Borderlands. Dicing With Dragons and the Citadel Runequest Boxed Sets does make me wonder if the copies of Borderlands art had been shipped over to the UK prior to publication as concept art for Citadel to use, and wound up being selected by Ian, or some other order of events.

Preslotta Citadel Tusker by  Little Odo (1982)

And guess what? Games Workshop are still making Runequest Tuskers today, although slightly less naturalistically proportioned...

Orc Boyz or Green orcs on Tuskers or Tusk Riders

Although if you like to mix up your traditional Runequest imagery with your traditional AD&D stylings, there's always these porcine fellas from Otherworld, aka Bloodstone Pass vs. Dragon Pass.

Otherworld Orcs on Warboars

Finally a big shout-out, or should that be a massive Waaaaaaagh? to Erny for instigating this Orctober


  1. I love reading your extended posts such as this and am always genuinely pleased to see your blog bubble to the top of my reading list.

    The image of late night loutishness being a parallel or continuation of Grendel's despoiling behaviour is particularly striking and poetic... if horrifying!

  2. Hi Rab. nice to hear you're enjoying my musings and ruminations ~ Cheers!

  3. 1981

    1. Nice Find. Predates D&D, post-dates Runequest. Very peculiar, it's going in!

  4. Curious, I thought that association between Orcs and their porcine aspects is related to the fact that etymologists usually interpret the element "orc"as a pictish tribal name meaning "young pig".

    1. There is little to no supporting evidence evidence for Orknjar == Orcneas, and there are very few loan-words between Anglo Saxon and pictish, but it is possible. However, according to Gary Gygax, the pig-headed orcs in D&D was a simple mistake, he described them in an art-brief as being pig-headed meaning stubborn, not literally with the heads of pigs. It's possible that someone somewhere involved in the development of the post-tolkien Orc drew the connection between the Pictish, but nobody has come out and said it.

    2. It's also worth restating that even the porcine orcs (D&D) didn't actually ride Boars until after Gloranthas Half-Trolls, so even with a pictish etymology for Orc, there's still a leap from pig-people, to pig-riders.

    3. In Goidelic languages there´re some examples derivatives of the particle -orc; for example, speakers of Old Irish referred to the Orkney Islands, as Insi Orc ("island of the pigs"), but for that issue of pig-riders I have nothing to add to what you said about Glorantha.

    4. Yes, you're right, but Orc also meant 'seal' in Norse, so Orkneyjar is generally accepted to mean Island of the Seals (of which there are a lot more of there than pigs). For the porcine riddle, the first question is "is there a connection between Old Irish and Beowulf". The answer from scholarship is "no". However, I personally think it possible that the monk who wrote down the poem could have had influence from Irish monks, and could have picked up the Orcneas / Orkneyjar from there. It's as plausable as my cup-dead / drowned kenning, but lacks the support of Occams razor. Whether or not Old Irish had influence on Beowulf, the poem doesn't really define what the Orc is, so the second question is "did anyone involved in the development of the post-Tolkien 20th Century Orc make reference to Old Irish?" or even just "orc / pork" and as far as I know, the answer to that is "no". So we end up with the Old Irish just being a bit of an odd coincidence.

  5. Always interesting to read you thoughts Zhu, and thanks for the Runequest references. Some thoughts, one or two were originally in the DF discussion thread of this a while ago.
    There is no formal objection (linguistically speaking) to the first element of orcneas being orc 'cup', though as you say academics have generally not countenanced the possibility. It's worth pointing out that the Old English word orc 'cup' is also a borrowing from Latin (Latin orca 'barrel, tun, vessel'; interestingly for a gamer, the Latin word was also the one used to mean 'dice tower', such as the famous 'Pictos Victos' dice tower: I like the idea of orcneas as drunk-to-death corpses, though most academics brobably won't buy it...

    On the Irish side, I also think that's just a coincidence. Old Irish orc comes straight from Proto-Celtic *pork- (a feature of the Celtic languages is that they lost p- in this position), and there may have been a Pictish word of similar form (as we have very little written Pictish, that can only be supposition). The stem of the name Orkney is attested as far back as the third century BC so the name can have nothing to do with Old Norse orkn 'sea beast, seal' - it is more likely that the Old Norse speakers who settled in the islands adapted an existing name to a word they were familiar with. The complication is that ON orkn is hardly a common word and may itself be borrowed from the placename (it also occurs as örkn-selr 'orc-seal') or be from Latin orca 'whale'.).
    Inse Orc is still the name in Irish for the Orkneys, while in Scottish Gaelic it is Arcaibh ('at the Orcs', with a modification of the vowel).

    There is a mini-industry in scholarship looking for Celtic influences on medieval English literature. The notion of early Irish influence on Beowulf should not be dismissed out of hand; remember that the north of England was converted largely by Irish-speaking missionaries and the 'Irish' party was politically ascendant until the synod of Whitby. Problem is when one thinks Beowulf was written (theoretically anywhere between the seventh century and shortly after AD 1000 when the manuscript was written). The other is that there is no evidence for English knowledge of the Irish word 'orc'. So, as you say, economy demands we regard the idea as unlikely.
    As for modern writers of fantasy orcs being aware of Old Irish, I've never seen anything like that - the closest is the creator of the OD&D/AD&D bard, who took the names in of the bardic colleges in a mangled from some 19th/20th century book on early Irish/Gaelic poets.

  6. Well met Efnisien! Thanks, as ever, for the expansions and corrections.

    My own campaign Orcs are most definitely of pseudo-Irish decent, and speak with an Irish accent. One reason is that 'possibility' of Irish monastical influence on the Beowulf "Orcneas" - stragglers from "celtic-christianity" perhaps or local customs grown out of it. but also that being of a Lawful Evil alignment makes them useful (if heavy handed) Town Guards, or in fulfilling the role of the Police in enforcing Law and Order.

    Mine are traditional AD&D Pig Faced Orcs, and what with the police being nicknamed "the Pigs" in the 60s. The "father of modern Policing" being a famous pig breeder, ex-Irish MP, and two time Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. While he earned the police their early nicknames Bobbies and Peelers - it's purely conjecture that "the Pigs" and "the Filth" might stem from Peels farming activities - indeed the first use of "pig" for policeman apparently predates the formation of Peels Metropolitan police force. Like the Old Irish 'orc' it is something of a peculiar coincidence.

    I believe the Police in New York have strong Irish-American roots as well, so that oddly coincidental connection between Pig-Law-Irish-Orc (no offence meant to anyone!) seems quite natural place to locate the modern Orc.

  7. Just some more conjecture, based on lazy Wikipedia research. One possible location for the composition of the Beowulf text is Malmesbury Abbey, founded by Aldhelm, whose first teacher was the Irish monk Máeldub (Gaelic - Dark Disciple - how apt!) whose monastery gave name to the place.

  8. More wiki conjecture here:

  9. Those are some old school minis. Would have loved to paint them.