When telling my less than fantasy-savvy friend about a book I've been reading, she asked a question I could not answer: who came up first with these "orcs" I was talking about?

There are at least three dimensions to this question, and they may have different answers.

  1. The term orc itself.
  2. The concept of a generally despicable, probably inherently evil race of foot soldiers.

    I consider this mostly a narrative tool: give the heroes something to slay without any ethical or moral ramifications.

  3. A violence-loving, usually sub-intellectual race/society that is not evil per se.

In particular, there are instances of 1. and 3. that are not instances of 2. (e.g. Warcraft orcs). There are also orcs that are presented as "just another race" (e.g. Shadowrun or Nicholl's orcs, even though the latter partly fit 3.).

There are also examples for 2. and 3. where the term orc is not used (e.g. Jordan's Trollocs or Abercrombie's Shanka).

Clearly the three ideas are heavily used in "modern" fantasy (and sci-fi) literature. The earliest reference I know is Tolkien (for 1. and 2.), but he may not have invented either. I struggle to find examples in mythology, but I have only partial knowledge in that area.

So when and where did orcs (the term and the concept) originate?

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    Wikipedia is your friend. The word is found in Latin and old English (meaning demon/monster) and dates back to Beowulf; en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orc. In the modern sense (e g. As a race of monsters, we have Tolkien to thank for that) – Valorum Jun 28 '15 at 9:18
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    @Richard Uh, that's indeed quite comprehensive. Should have looked there, sorry. I guess it's up to the community to decide if they'd like to have a digest on the site here. – Raphael Jun 28 '15 at 9:28
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    Tolkien didn't invent many of the races and species in his work, he just reused and in some cases redefined them. "Orc" is a generic term for a demon, similar to the English "Goblin" – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Jun 28 '15 at 9:28
  • You can self-answer if you want. – Valorum Jun 28 '15 at 10:16
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    The question is not too broad. An answer is possible, as evidenced by the fact that great answers have already been given. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Jun 29 '15 at 2:39

Tolkien invented neither orcs, nor the term "orc". The word "orc", related to the term "orkney", is from Beowulf "Þanon untydras ealle onwocon,/eotenas ond ylfe, ond orcneas."

"The concept of a generally despicable, probably inherently evil race of foot soldiers,"1 probably extends back to antiquity. For example, the Rakshasa demons commanded by Lord Ravana in the Ramayana fit such a description.

Tolkien's conception of orcs/goblins was borrowed more or less directly from George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin. A point Tolkien is explicit about in Letter #144:

They are not based on direct experience of mine; but owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition ... especially as it appears in George MacDonald, except for the soft feet which I never believed in.

The concept of "A violence-loving, usually sub-intellectual race/society that is not evil per se," seems too broad a question to answer definitively as conceptions of "intellectual" and "evil" depend on cultural specifics, such as the societal prevalence of literacy, and conceptions of violence as pertaining to evil.

1 Monster Man, a podcast in which James Holloway critically appraises the history, mythology, etc. of 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons monsters frequently notes entries which fit the "generally despicable, probably inherently evil race of foot soldiers" bill: orcs, hobgoblins, bugbears, bullywugs, gnolls, kobolds, goblins, crab men, fire newts, lizard men, etc., etc. ad nauseum well demonstrates that the concept is widely prevalent via the historical and fictional origins of many of these monster entries.

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    Which came first, Beowulf or the islands north of Scotland being called the Orkneys? – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Jun 28 '15 at 22:27
  • @WadCheber Good question. I don't know if the boogey-man orkneys/orknies/etc. (see, for example, C. S. Lewis' The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe in the sacrifice of Aslan scene) are related to the Orkneys Islands. – Lexible Jun 29 '15 at 5:13
  • @Glorfindel Thank you for the good edits, especially on Rakshasa/si as proper noun. – Lexible Apr 5 '19 at 17:08
  • @Lexible you're welcome. I enjoy reading the content here about Tolkien, do not have the knowledge to write answers myself, so I'd thought to contribute in another way :) – Glorfindel Apr 5 '19 at 17:43
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    Honorable mention for the Morlocks. – Spencer Aug 21 '19 at 22:27

There's an excellent article here entitled "The Unnatural History of Tolkien's Orcs" which gives the answers to your questions 2. and 3. as clearly Tolkien. Quoting from it:

Tolkien, in the creation of orcs, was very literally making up his own monsters. Tolkien also used the concepts of elves, hobbits, dwarves, and medieval-type kingdoms in creating his Middle-Earth. However, all of those concepts, or their symbolic equivalents, were strongly established in European myth and fantasy writing before Tolkien began his own works. There was no exact equivalent to the orcs. European folklore has small creatures of evil - bogies, tommyknockers, goblins - and fearsome monsters, from Grendel as commemorated in Beowulf to the evil elementals of Celtic tradition. But there was no faerie or supernatural evil that was the parallel of human warriors, which faced them as equals and was sent out to mow them down.

Tolkien needed to create his particular monsters, and their newness had a purpose. Long-term Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has said of Tolkien's orcs, "There can be little doubt that orcs entered Middle-Earth originally just because the story needed a continual supply of enemies over whom one need feel no compunction." Hence, for the purposes of his own narratives, Tolkien combined items from then-obscure folklore with more modern concepts of violence and evil to concoct orcs. Heroes were more heroic with orcs to slay; with orcs at their bidding, higher-caste villains were more fearsome. For these purposes, orcs were a successful narrative device - and one not seen previously in fantasy writing.

Orcs were more than a good idea. There was authorial work required to set the stage for this new creation, especially to do so in a way that helped the reader support the concept. Tolkien did this so well that, in the process, he created a new archetype that became popular.

For the answer to question 1, as Richard said in a comment, the Wikipedia article is very helpful. In summary, the word goes back to Old English "orc" and Latin "Orcus", the latter being the Roman god of Death. It has also been used in many fairy tales throughout history - interestingly, not always to denote evil creatures. And the word even has a long history in foreign languages such as Italian.

On Tolkien's use of the word:

The modern use of the English term orc to denote a race of evil, humanoid creatures has its inception with J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien's earliest Elvish dictionaries include the entry Ork (orq-) 'monster', 'ogre', 'demon', together with orqindi 'ogresse'. Tolkien sometimes used the plural form orqui in his early texts.

Tolkien sometimes, particularly in The Hobbit, used the word goblin instead of orc to describe the creatures. He notes that 'orc' is 'usually translated' as 'goblin'. [...]

On the ultimate origin of the word:

The word ultimately comes from Latin Orcus, the demonic Roman god of death, who should not be confused with Pluto, the god of the underworld, and has transformed by several stages from the meanings 'underworld', 'hell', 'devil', 'evil creature' to 'ogre'. Tolkien and the lexicons he used attributed the origin of the doubtful Old English orc to 'Orcus' and in one of his invented languages, the word for orc also had the form orco.

The Latin: Orcus is glossed as "Old English: Orc, þyrs, oððe hel-deofol"[a] as given in the first Cleopatra Glossary (10th century), and on this entry Thomas Wright wrote, "Orcus was the name for Pluto, the god of the infernal regions, hence we can easily understand the explanation of hel-deofol. Orc, in Anglo-Saxon, like thyrs, means a spectre, or goblin."

(Yes, I know the article is contradicting itself on whether or not Orcus was the same as Pluto! That's Wikipedia for you.)

On the word "orc" in literature:

[In] Beowulf, orcneas [are] one of the tribes of creatures named alongside elves and ettins (giants) that have been condemned by God.

The Oxford English Dictionary refers to orke, used in 1656 in a way that is reminiscent of giants and ogres. It is presumed that 'orke'/'ogre' came into English via continental fairy-tales, especially from the 17th-century French writer Charles Perrault, who borrowed most of his stories and developed his 'ogre' from the 16th-century Italian writers [...] In at least a dozen or more tales, Basile used huorco, huerco or uerco, the Neapolitan form of orco [Italian] 'giant', 'monster', to describe a large, hairy, tusked, mannish beast who could speak, that lived away in a dark forest or garden and that might capture and eat humans, or be indifferent or even benevolent — all depending on the tale.

The first English use of 'orke', in 1656 (forty-one years before Perrault published his Mother Goose tales), comes from Don Zara, a fairy tale by Samuel Holland. [...] A monster called Orcus is mentioned in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (Book II, Canto XII, line xlvii).

Orc is also a proper name for one of the characters in the complex mythology of William Blake. Unlike the medieval sea beast, or Tolkien's humanoid monster, Blake's Orc is a positive figure, the embodiment of creative passion and energy, and stands opposed to Urizen, the embodiment of tradition. He is, however, publicly perceived to be demonic in nature.

On the word "orc" in languages other than English:

Words derived from or related to the Italian term orco exist in other countries: in addition to Italian dialectal uerco, huerco and huorco and the Spanish word güercu, there is also Tyrolean ork, 'a house gnome' or 'a mountain spirit' that acts as a protector of wildlife.

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    I learnt so much answering this question! This is what I like about SE :-D – Rand al'Thor Jun 28 '15 at 11:44
  • I have to disagree that Tolkien's Orcs are fundamentally drawn from any fantasy or folklore tradition. As quoted in that "Unnatural History" article, "Orcs - who are fundamentally a race of 'rational incarnate' creatures, though horribly corrupted, if no more so than many Men to be met with today." Take a line from your average urban street gang through the SS or ISIS, add a few genetic mods like fangs &claws, ramp up the aggression hormones, and there's your basic Orc. All too real, sadly enough. – jamesqf Jun 28 '15 at 21:13
  • @jamesqf Read Tolkien's own words on the subject, and then also read MacDonald. He lifted them pretty directly. Of course he added his own nuances. – Lexible Jun 28 '15 at 21:21
  • @Lexible: OTOH, consider the glimpses of the characters of the Orcs we see in The Hobbit and LOTR, particularly the conversation between Shagrat and Gorbag at Cirith Ungol. While I've not read any of MacDonald recently enough to recall details, I find it hard to believe those two aren't drawn pretty directly from the streets of British cities. A good manicure and some cosmetic dentistry, and they'd fit right in. – jamesqf Jun 29 '15 at 5:56
  • @Lexible Not my assertion; I'm only quoting! :-) Though I have read The Princess and the Goblin and it seems the goblins there bear much more similarity to the goblins of The Hobbit than the much more fearsome orcs of LotR... – Rand al'Thor Jun 29 '15 at 6:00

Just an additional bit of information. I have just encountered the word "orc" in a strange poem by Robert Browning (19th century), Caliban upon Setebos: "Why not make horny eyes no thorn could prick, Or plate my scalp with bone against the snow, Or overscale my flesh 'neath joint and joint Like an orc's armour?" So the orc creature was known already as a soldier before Tolkien.

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  • "Orc" in this context apparently refers to a sea monster, not to anything very similar to Tolkien's goblin-like race. – wyvern Dec 20 '18 at 10:56
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    A sea monster like, perhaps, Orcinus Orca, the killer whale. – M. A. Golding Jan 13 '19 at 22:39

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