An orc (pronounced /ˈɔrk/) is one of a race of mythical human-like creatures, generally described as fierce and combative, with grotesque features and often black, grey or greenish skin. This mythology has its origins in the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien.

These creatures have since become popular figures in other fantasy and science fiction literature as well as many types of fantasy games. While some writers portray orcs as large, misshapen humanoids who are brutal and warmongering, others works, such as those in the Warcraft universe, describe them as a proud warrior race with a strong sense of honor. They are variously portrayed as physically stronger or weaker than humans, but always high in numbers. They often ride boars, wolves and wargs. In many role-playing and computer games, orcs have green or greenish skin (earning the name 'Greenskins' in such games as Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000). Usually, and in contrast with other fantasy races such as Elves, orcs use shamanistic magic, or no magic at all. Their fighting skill is honed to maximum power and efficiency.



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.[1]

Tolkien sometimes, particularly in The Hobbit, used the word goblin instead of orc to describe the same type of creature, with the smaller cave-dwelling variety that lived in the Misty Mountains being referred to as goblins and the larger ones elsewhere referred to as orcs.[2] Later in his life, he expressed an intention to change the spelling to ork,[3] but the only place where that spelling occurred in his lifetime was in the published version of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, in the poem Bombadil Goes Boating: "I'll call the orks on you: that'll send you running!". In The Silmarillion, published posthumously, 'orcs' was retained.

The influence of Old English

Tolkien referred to the Old English origins of the word 'orc', observing that "the word is, as far as I am concerned, actually derived from Old English orc 'demon', but only because of its phonetic suitability"[4] and "I originally took the word from Old English orc (Beowulf 112 orc-neas and the gloss orc = þyrs ('ogre'), heldeofol ('hell-devil')). This is supposed not to be connected with modern English orc, ork, a name applied to various sea-beasts of the dolphin order".[5] Tolkien also observed a connection with the Latin word orcus, noting that "the word used in translation of Q urko, S orch is Orc. But that is because of the similarity of the ancient English word orc, 'evil spirit or bogey', to the Elvish words. There is possibly no connection between them. The English word is now generally supposed to be derived from Latin orcus ".[6] He also stated that, "Orc I derived from Anglo-Saxon, a word meaning demon, usually supposed to be derived from the Latin Orcus – hell. But I doubt this, though the matter is too involved to set out here".[7]

The word orcné, attested in the plural word orcnéas, is a hapax legomenon in the poem Beowulf. It is generally supposed to contain an element -né, cognate to Gothic naus and Old Norse nár, both meaning 'corpse'.[8] The usual Old English word for corpse is líc, but -né appears in nebbed 'corpse bed',[9] and in dryhtné 'dead body of a warrior', where dryht is the name of a military unit that can be vaguely translated as 'band' or 'host'. In, If *orcné is to be glossed as orcus 'corpse', the meaning may be "corpse from Orcus (i.e. the underworld)", or "devil-corpse", understood as some sort of walking dead creature. This etymology is plausible, but it remains conjectural. Orc appears in two other locations in the poem Beowulf, but refers to cups of precious metal found in a treasure-hoard.

The Old English word þyrs, given as a gloss for Latin orcus, is cognate to Old Norse þurs 'giant', 'ogre', both originating from the unattested Common Germanic term thurisaz, which in Norse mythology refers to one of the monstrous descendants of the giant Ymir. But it is to be noted in connection with Tolkien's reference to a gloss orc=þyrs, that while there is an entry in an 11th century English glossary which implies such an equivalence, [Latin] orcus [Old English] orc þyrs oððe heldeofol, this is in fact a conflation of two glosses in an earlier glossary of the 7th century, found in two different places: [Latin] orcus [Old English] orc and [Latin] orcus [Old English] þyrs oððe heldiubol". The first of these two glosses is in a section devoted to household implements and 'orcus' is, in that place, a corruption of Latin urceus 'jug', 'pitcher', or of orca 'pot', 'jar'. The word 'orc' in the first gloss has the meaning 'cup': it is descended from an early Germanic borrowing from urceus, related to Gothic aurkeis 'cup', both related to Modern English ark 'vessel', 'container'. In the second gloss, the Latin orcus is equated to Old English 'giant', 'hell-devil', but not to any already-existing Old English word 'orc', as Tolkien mistakenly thought.

Tolkien's error in assuming that orc and þyrs were co-existent Old English words that had a shared meaning was shared for several decades by other scholars, as it entered into commonly-used dictionaries of Old English such as Bosworth and Toller's An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1898), which was corrected in later editions.

Tolkien, being a linguist and historian, probably knew of Orkney. The old Gaelic name for Orkney that was used by Irish historians was Insi Orc 'Island of the Orcs (wild boars)'. This has led to the theory that at one time a predominant tribe in the islands - possibly Pictish - had the boar as some form of tribal totem. It is interesting to note that the early Norwegian settlers in Orkney referred to the chambered cairn Maeshowe as Orkahaugr, which could mean 'the howe (or mound) of the Orcs. However, it could also derive from Orkis' Howe, where Orkis was the name of a person.[10]

Early modern usage

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 Giambattista Basile, Giovanni Francesco Straparola (who has been credited with introducing the literary form of the fairy tale) and Basile, who wrote in the Naples dialect (though Naples was, at that time, controlled by Spain) and claimed simply to be passing on oral folktales from his region that he had collected. 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.[11]

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. It is a pastiche and a parody of fantastical Spanish romances such as Don Quixote and presumably is populated by beasts and monsters in common to them.[12]

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.

The word ultimately comes from Latin Orcus, the demonic Roman god of death, who should not to 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.

Words derived from or related to the Italian term orco are exist in other Mediterranean 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.[13]

Tolkien explicitly denied any intended connection between his orcs and the killer whale Orcinus orca and other cetaceans, that are also referred to as orcs. This is a borrowing from Latin orca, as used by Pliny the Elder, that refers to some kind of whale, quite likely Orcinus orca and which also appears in John Milton's poem Paradise Lost during a description of the Great Flood.

Similar words of distinct origin

The orc in any of its monstrous senses should not be confused with other words, including Gaelic orc, a Goidelic form of the unattested Proto-Indo-European *porkos 'young pig' and the Old Norse word ørkn 'seal'.[10]


The humanoid, non-maritime race of orcs that exists in Middle-earth is the invention of J. R. R. Tolkien, albeit one which he stated in a letter was influenced by George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin. The word is usually capitalised in Tolkien's writing, but not necessarily in other works.

Within Tolkien's invented languages, the Elvish words for orc are derived from a root ruk referring to fear and horror, from which is derived an expanded form of the root uruk. A noun *uruku is produced from the extended root. This eventually turns into[why?] Quenya urco, plural urqui. A related word *urkō produces Sindarin orch, plural yrch. The Quenya words are said to be less specific in meaning than the Sindarin, meaning 'bogey'. For the specific creatures called yrch by the Sindar, the Quenya word orco, with plurals orcor and orqui, was created.

These orcs had similar names in the other languages of Middle-earth: in Orkish uruk (restricted to the larger soldier-orcs); in the language of the Drúedain gorgûn; in Khuzdul rukhs, plural rakhâs; and in the language of Rohan and in the Common Speech, orc.


In Tolkien's writings, Orcs are of human shape, of varying size but always smaller than Men. They are depicted as ugly and filthy, with a taste for human flesh. They are fanged, bow-legged and long-armed and some have dark skin as if burned. In a private letter, Tolkien describes them as "squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes... ...degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types".[14] They are portrayed as miserable, crafty and vicious beings.

They fight ferociously as long as a guiding 'will' (such as Morgoth or Sauron) compels or directs them. Tolkien sometimes describes Orcs as mainly being battle fodder.[15] Orcs are used as soldiers by both the greater and lesser villains of The Lord of the Rings, such as Sauron and Saruman.

Orcs eat all manner of flesh, including the flesh of Men. In Chapter II of The Two Towers, Grishnákh, an Orc from Mordor, claims that the Isengard Orcs eat Orc-flesh, but whether that is true, or a statement spoken in malice, is uncertain. What does seem certain is that the Orcs resented that description. From descriptions and events relating to the Orcs, it seems likely that they indulge in cannibalism. In The Two Towers, Merry and Pippin are presented with meat by an Orc after a fight occurred in which the Uruk-hai killed several Orcs; the narration is vague as to what species the flesh belongs to.


Orc origins are first described in The Tale of Tinúviel as "foul broodlings of Melko[16] who fared abroad doing his evil work". In The Fall of Gondolin Tolkien wrote that "all that race were bred by Melko[16] of the subterranean heats and slime. Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal, and to nothing were they more fain than to aid in the basest of the purposes of Melko."[16]

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien conceived the Orcs to be Elves who had been enslaved and tortured by Morgoth and broken and twisted into his evil soldiers. In other versions of their origin, including those from Tolkien's notes, the Orcs are depicted as the parodies or false-creations of Morgoth, animated solely by his evil will or perhaps, by his own diffused essence, and made intentionally to mock or spite Eru Ilúvatar's creations — the Eldar and Edain.

See - The origin of Orcs for a full list of possible Orc origins proposed by Tolkien.

Other fantasy works

Since the publication of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, orcs have become a fixture of fantasy fiction and role-playing games, where the orcs and goblins are usually considered to be distinct races of goblinoids. They were once often depicted with pig-like faces, although they were never described as such by Tolkien. In the 1980s, another orc archetype was introduced by the table-top miniature war games Warhammer Fantasy Battle, a heavily-muscled, green-skinned barbarian with exaggerated tusks, brow, and lower jaw, whose personality is not so much evil as crudely thuggish, often to a comical degree. This style of orc has since become popular in a vast number of fantasy settings and games, including a signature of the Warcraft series of computer games and spin-offs.

Dungeons & Dragons


Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 games feature Orcs ('Orks' in Warhammer 40,000). The latter setting is unique for featuring Orks in a science fiction environment that are capable of building crude, but functional vehicles, firearms and even spaceships. Anatomically, Warhammer Orcs are no taller than humans, unless when they are standing upright instead of slouching, but are substantially broader, with ape-like short legs and long arms. They have massive heads that come directly forward on their necks, giving them a stooping appearance. They have tough thick green skin that is highly resistant to pain. Warhammer Orcs lack intelligence, but can be cunning at times. They are warlike and their society is geared towards constant warfare. Their constant need to fight is an expression of Orc culture: Orcs do not form alliances except for temporary alliances with each other. In combat they can transform even the most common object into a lethal killing instrument. Orcs tend to ally with Goblins, who are called Gretchin in Warhammer 40,000, and Snotlings, but when allied, the Orcs act as bullies towards their smaller Goblinoid (Orkoid in Warhammer 40,000) cousins, using them as servants, Human (Goblin) shields, or an emergency food source. They worship a pair of gods known as Gork and Mork (other gods were included in earlier editions of the game, but are no longer included), one of which is described as brutally cunning and the other as cunningly brutal, though the orcs themselves do not seem to know which is which. In Warhammer 40,000, orcs develop from a fungus-like beginning. They are spread by spores which are emitted constantly during an orc's lifetime and are all expelled when it dies.


In the Warcraft computer game series, Orcs are depicted as ethically and socially complex. The great Orcish race is a savage but noble society made of shamanistic, fierce warriors. Their race came from the world of Draenor and was corrupted by a demonic force known as the Burning Legion, which realised that they could be made into a powerful army. Under the Legion's influence, the Orcish Horde slaughtered many of the Draenei, who consequently fled from Draenor to escape the Legion and then were led to the world of Azeroth. After two devastating wars, the Orcs were finally defeated on Azeroth by the Human Alliance and rounded up into internment camps. They remained there until a young Orc named Thrall, who had been raised by humans, rallied them together, freed the Horde from their demonic taint and helped to return them to their shamanistic roots.

Warcraft Orcs are humanoid, but prodigiously muscled, with broad noses and distinctive tusked mouths. There are many tribes of orc, leading to varying skin colors amongst them. The orcs of the Horde are predominantly green, but other possible skin colors include a dark brown, or red. Male orcs are significantly larger than humans, around 6.5 feet (2.0 m) tall when standing straight. Females, which first appeared as playable characters in World of Warcraft, are slightly larger than a human female and while much more slender than their male counterparts, are nonetheless well-muscled. The tusks of female orcs are very small, and are arguably more exaggerated canines than tusks. Orc warriors wear little armor but have horned helmets and carry wielding axes. Warcraft is one of the few settings in which Orcs are not inherently evil and, after significant plot developments in the latest Warcraft games, can even be heroic. One could consider the orcs to be unfairly treated by humans and not only misunderstood, but vilified. The humans' enmity and prejudice towards the Orcs can be traced back to the first and second invasions and could be partially justified, as it was orcs under the control of the Burning Legion that invaded. Despite the best efforts of reformist orcs (such as Thrall) to usher in an era of peace between humans and orcs, humankind's suspicions towards the orcs are further exacerbated by the bellicose and expansionist attitudes of parts of orc society, such as the Warsong Outriders, who encroach upon the ancestral territories of the Night Elves, the allies of the humans. Thrall's orcs have occasionally formed successful alliances with humans.

Their political standpoint in the Warcraft universe is set as being the leading race of the Horde, an association of races created to promote mutual survival. The Trolls, a similar species in the game, live in the same area as the Orcs.

Earthdawn and Shadowrun

In the fantasy role-playing games Earthdawn and Shadowrun, orks are neither good nor evil. In Earthdawn they have their own place among the other name-giving races: humans, dwarfs, elves, obsidimen, T'skrang, trolls and windlings.

In Shadowrun, the orks are one subspecies of Homo sapiens among others living on post-2011 Earth. They emerged during the Unexplained Genetic Expression in 2021, as either young humans transformed into orks, or babies that were born as orks from human parents. They are categorized as Homo sapiens robustus and are considered to be metahumans, like trolls, elves, and dwarfs. They are able to interbreed with humans and other fellow metahumans. Despite this, their offspring (like the offspring of all inter-racial metahuman matings in Shadowrun) is of the race of only one of their parents. Being an ork is due to the expression of a gene, and thus half-breeds do not exist. They grow much faster than humans, reach maturity at 12, and give birth to a litter of about four children, though six to eight are not uncommon. Their average life-expectancy is about 35 to 40 years. They are physically larger and stronger than humans and their mental capacities are considered slightly inferior, though they are still not as dull as the average troll.

Magic: The Gathering

In the collectible card game Magic:The Gathering, Orcs are portrayed as cowardly warriors who rely on the smaller, less intelligent Goblins when waging warfare. Very few creatures of the Orc type were printed: most of them appeared in the Fallen Empires and Ice Age expansion sets. While Orcs were reprinted in more recent core sets, they never appeared in any subsequent expansion sets until Coldsnap, which introduced more Orc cards, along with a legendary Orc Shaman: Sek'kuar, Deathkeeper.

Might and Magic

Within the universe of the Might and Magic franchise, orcs are portrayed as orange, green, or brown. In Heroes of Might and Magic, they are associated with the Barbarian faction.

In Ashan, the orcs are orange, extremely muscular humanoids, that were created by wizards (by fusing demon blood with human flesh) to be used as shock troops against a demon invasion. In Dark Messiah, a player spends a significant amount of time facing members of the Redskull Clan, a group of orcs living on an island that is important to the plot. They are led by a shaman (which is implied by a conversation between two orcs to be a popularly-elected position) and make references to worshiping an unnamed fire goddess. In Tribes of the East, the mainland orcs are modelled after the Mongols, are led by a khan and worship a personified Father Sky.


In Hasbro's Heroscape line of game products, Orcs come from the pre-historic planet Grut and are thus known as Grut Orcs.[17] They are blue-skinned, with prominent tusks or horns protruding from their chins or cheeks. They are slightly smaller than humans, except for the elite heavy gruts, which are the size of a normal human.[18] Several Orc champions ride prehistoric animals (including a Tyrannosaurus Rex,[19] a Velociraptor [20] and sabre-tooth tigers, known as Swogs,[21] indicating that the Orcs are accomplished animal tamers.

Elder Scrolls

In Tamriel, orcs are civilized humanoids and are noted for their unshakable courage in battle. They have large under-teeth that protrude from the bottom jaw out from their mouths. One of the taller races of the Elder Scrolls series, they are, contrary to other renditions, not muscle-bound and war-like, but are still significantly bulkier than most other races. They are distinguishable by their green skin. The orcs, or Orsimer (meaning 'the Pariah Folk' in the elven tongue), are a strain of descendants of the original elven race. The Orsimeri were followers of the god Trinimac, but transformed from gold-skinned elves to green-skinned orcs when Trinimac was transformed into Malacath by Boethia, the Daedric Prince. Another unique quality about the Orcs in the Elder Scrolls are that they are talented smiths and excellent rank-and-file soldiers, traits that are generally given to dwarves.


In the land of Nodothril, the orcs are a strong race of savage goblinoid creatures that live in the Venodril Mines. They have adapted specifically to life in the dark caverns and their eyes are highly sensitive to light. They have a high rate of attack and low intelligence: their weapon capabilities include hammers, clubs, axes, bows, knifes and short swords.


In Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Orcs are a race that is close to extinction. They were originally bred (or made) from men and not goblins, as was commonly believed, in order to be used as weapons in a great war.

To date only one living Orc, called Nutt, has been shown as a character, although it has been indicated that there are others that exist in the wilds of far Uberwald. Because of the brutal reputation and legends of Orcs, which reflect the traditional fantasy concept of soulless killers, Nutt was originally kept ignorant of his species. He is depicted as being not necessarily a bad creature, and by extension members of his species are portrayed as the victims of victors' propaganda.

Given opportunity and guidance, Orcs can easily educate themselves and they display a great sense of honesty and morality. As they were originally created as warrior slaves and know only how to be cruel and violent, they have a fearsome reputation.


In the Fate video game, Orcs are portrayed as tall, clothed creatures of might, similar in concept to Yetis and Ogres, except that they are usually armed. They are gray-skinned, robust and have horns protruding from their head, which look vaguely like that of a rhinoceros.

See also


  1. ^ Parmavilatkayat" volume XII: "Qenya Lexicon Qenya Dictionary"*'Ork' ('orq-') monster, ogre, demon. 'orqindi' ogresse. [The original reading of the second entry was >'orqinan' ogresse.< Perhaps the intended meaning of the earlier form was 'region of ogres'; cf. 'kalimban', 'Hisinan'. "The Poetic and Mythologic Words of Eldarissa" gives 'ork' 'ogre, giant' and 'orqin' 'ogress', which may be a feminine form. ...]"
  2. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1937), Douglas A. Anderson, ed., The Annotated Hobbit, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002, foreword, ISBN 0-618-13470-0 
  3. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993), Christopher Tolkien, ed., Morgoth's Ring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 414, 422, ISBN 0-395-68092-1 
  4. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #144, ISBN 0-395-31555-7 
  5. ^ Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings.
  6. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The War of the Jewels, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 391, ISBN 0-395-71041-3 
  7. ^ http://home.clara.net/andywrobertson/wolfemountains.html Unpublished letter to Gene Wolfe
  8. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien, scholar and storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, Mary Salu, Robert T. Farrell (eds.), Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 291.
  9. ^ Patricia Kathleen Brehaut, Moot passages in Beowulf, Dept. of English, 1961, p. 8.
  10. ^ a b http://www.orkneyjar.com/placenames/orkney.htm
  11. ^ See especially Basile's tales Peruonto and Lo Cuento dell'Uerco.
  12. ^ Straparola was translated into Spanish in 1583. Independent of this, there is in Spain to this day the folktale of the ‘huerco’ or ‘güercu’, which is a harbinger of impending death; a shade in the form of the person about to die.
  13. ^ http://www.sphinx-suche.de/lexmonst/ork.htm (Google translation)
  14. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 274, ISBN 0-395-31555-7 
  15. ^ See "The Battles of the Fords of Isen".
  16. ^ a b c In Tolkien's mythology, the name of the Vala of evil was originally Melko; it was later altered to Melkor, a form that did not appear until the late 1930s.
  17. ^ http://www.hasbro.com/games/kid-games/heroscape/default.cfm?page=Inside/CharacterDetail&char_id=2&set_id=3&set_type=2
  18. ^ http://www.hasbro.com/games/kid-games/heroscape/default.cfm?page=Inside/CharacterDetail&char_id=103&set_id=8&set_type=2
  19. ^ http://www.hasbro.com/games/kid-games/heroscape/default.cfm?page=Inside/CharacterDetail&char_id=42&set_id=1&set_type=1
  20. ^ http://www.hasbro.com/games/kid-games/heroscape/default.cfm?page=Inside/CharacterDetail&char_id=39&set_id=3&set_type=2
  21. ^ http://www.hasbro.com/games/kid-games/heroscape/default.cfm?page=Inside/CharacterDetail&char_id=33&set_id=4&set_type=2

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