Orcus

Summary

Orcus (Latin: Orcus) was a god of the underworld, punisher of broken oaths in Etruscan and Roman mythology. As with Hades, the name of the god was also used for the underworld itself. In the later tradition, he was conflated with Dis Pater.

Orcus
God of the underworld,
punisher of broken oaths
Member of the Di selecti
Bomarzo parco mostri orco.jpg
Orcus mouth modern era folly in the Gardens of Bomarzo.
Other namesDis Pater, Hades (Pluto)[a]
Gendermale
Greek equivalentHorkos
Etruscan equivalentOrcus

A temple to Orcus may once have existed on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It is likely that he was transliterated from the Greek daemon Horkos, the personification of oaths and a son of Eris.[citation needed]

Origins

 
Fresco of Odysseus (Etruscan: Uθuste) and the Cyclops (Etruscan: Cuclu) in the Tomb of Orcus, Tarquinia, Italy.

The origins of Orcus may have lain in Etruscan religion. The so-called “Tomb of Orcus”, an Etruscan site at Tarquinia, is a misnomer, resulting from its first discoverers mistaking a hairy, bearded giant for Orcus; it actually depicts a Cyclops.

The Romans sometimes conflated Orcus with other gods such as Pluto, Hades, and Dis Pater, all gods of the underworld. The name “Orcus” seems to have been given to the malicious and punishing side of the ruler of the underworld, as the god who tormented evildoers in their afterlife. Like the name Hades, “Orcus” could refer both to the underworld itself, as well as its ruling deity. In the charitable interpretation for such a place, it was believed to be an abode for purification of the souls of the deceased.[1]

Orcus was chiefly worshipped in rural areas; he had no official cult in the cities.[2] This remoteness allowed for him to survive in the countryside long after the more prevalent gods had ceased to be worshipped. He survived as a folk figure into the Middle Ages, and aspects of his worship were transmuted into the wild man festivals held in rural parts of Europe through modern times.[2] Indeed, much of what is known about the celebrations associated with Orcus come from medieval sources.[2]

Persistence and later re‑use

 
The Descent of Aeneas in the Underworld (c. 1530–1540), Walters Art Museum

From Orcus' association with death and the underworld, his name came to be used for demons and other underworld monsters, particularly in Italian where orco refers to a kind of monster found in fairy-tales that feeds on human flesh.

The French word ogre (appearing first in Charles Perrault's fairy-tales) may have come from variant forms of this word, orgo or ogro; in any case, the French ogre and the Italian orco are exactly the same sort of creature.

Ariosto

An early example of an orco appears in Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516), as a bestial, blind, tusk-faced monster inspired by the Cyclops of the Odyssey.[b]

Tolkien

The orco from Orlando, along with the Old English word orc (in the sense of an ogre, like Grendel), was part of the inspiration for Tolkien's orcs in his The Lord of the Rings[3] In other manuscripts Tolkien wrote a side-note on the word:

The word used in translation of Q[uenya] urko, S[indarin] 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 connexion between them. The English word is now generally supposed to be derived from Latin Orcus.[4][page needed]

Also, in an unpublished letter sent to Gene Wolfe, Tolkien also made this comment:

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.[5]

From this use, countless other fantasy games and works of fiction have borrowed the concept of the orc.

Other modern-era use

  • In the TV series Happy! (2017-2019), Orcus possesses members of the Scaramucci crime family.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ The conflation of Orcus with Dis Pater and Hades causes some consternation, since they are thought to originally have been separate. Pluto is especially bothersome, since he was originally a god of wealth, later merged with Hades, who in turn was confounded with Dis Pater and Orcus. Confusion with the similar-sounding Greek Horkos is yet another issue to trouble mythographic splitters.
  2. ^ The blind orco monster should not be confused with the other monster orca, a sea-monster which also appears in Ariosto and was later used as a genus-name for “killer whales” (orca).

References

  1. ^ Schuch, Christian Theophil (1842). Privatalterthümer, oder wissenschaftliches, religiöses und häuslisches Leben der Römer. Ein Lehr- und Handbuch für Studirende und Alterthumsfreunde [Private Antiquities: The scientific, religious, and domestic life of the Romans. A textbook and handbook for students and fans of antiquarian topics] (in German). Karlsruhe, DE. pp. 360–361.
  2. ^ a b c Bernheimer, Richard (1979) [1952]. Wild men in the Middle Ages (reprint ed.). New York, NY: Octagon Books. p. 43. ISBN 0-374-90616-5.
  3. ^ Tolkien, J.R.R. (1954–1955). The Lord of the Rings.
  4. ^ Tolkien, J.R.R. (1994). Tolkien, C. (ed.). The War of the Jewels.
  5. ^ Wolfe, Gene (December 2001). "The best introduction to the mountains". Interzone. Archived from the original on 2004-01-13. Retrieved 2014-02-18 – via Claranet Soho (clara.net).

Other sources not cited

  • Grimal, P. (1986). The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell. p. 328.
  • Richardson, L. (1992). A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore, MD / London, UK: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 278.

External links

  • "Tomb of the Orcus", Tarquinia