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 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 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 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 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. Romeros Zombie than an incorporeal ghostly presence. Indeed Orc is generally agreed to stem from Orcus, a demon of the underworld (and it is clear that he was known to 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 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 perlance as a darkly humorous way of expressing drowned i.e. one who has died by drinking too much - perhaps 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, 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 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. 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 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)|
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|
TUSK RIDERS (HALF TROLLS)
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
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)|
Gnolls are hyena headed beastmen in D&D, but seem to have transormed into bulbous-headded goblin creatures by the Perry Bros. over at Citadel. 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 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. 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.
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 (around 1981/82), and produced an actual, official Tusker in the Runequest Boxed Set 3: Trolls, although it is more of a warthog with a clearly orcish type riding it.
|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 Orctober