So what I'm trying to understand is what exactly pre-Tolkien orcs were like in regards to folklore. I understand that Tolkien has had a massive influence on how we conceptualize many creatures from different myths such as dragons, wargs, and dwarves, but in all these cases they existed in a defined form before Tolkien used them in his stories. Orcs seem to be a bit different because I haven't found one or a few myths where they exist as their own thing.

Were orcs even a single creature pre-Tolkien or did he pull from multiple sources to create his own amalgamation? Are there any myths where I can find them?

  • I'm glad you want to participate, but this is about the inspirations for things in a purely literary work, and as such, it is probably a better fit for Literature SE (or, God help you, SF& F SE). At a minimum, you should explain why exesting resources like the Wikipedia article on Goblins do not satisfy you.
    – Spencer
    Commented Mar 10, 2018 at 13:51
  • @Gibet Orcus was the god of oaths, specifically a punisher of broken oaths. The god of death was Thanatos. Also, it is not demonic. It is chthonic. Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 13:46
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    @AndrewJohnson "Chthonic" becomes conflated with "demonic" in most instances as Christianity suppresses the previous pagan beliefs. Chthonic very specifically means "subterranean", under the surface, which is the where Hades/Hell are located. It's also worth mentioning that another name for Orcus is "Diis Pater" which makes him essentially the "Anti-Jupiter". PS- I wouldn't entirely trust Wikipedia on this subject--it's much more nuanced than it may appear. Wikipedia should only be used as a starting point for research!
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 21:54

1 Answer 1


Blake came before Tolkien, and Tolkien definitely knew the work of Blake.

In Blake's mythology, Orc is a fallen entity who embodies rebellion, and opposes the forces of order and tradition, represented by Urizen.
See: America, A Prophecy

I'm going to have to revisit Orcus from Roman Mythology, and will append this answer when I do, but I'd be surprised if there wasn't a connection--Tolkien was a very fine scholar and linguist, and almost certainly knew the classical material inside and out. Nothing in Tolkien seems to be random.

Transmogrifying these precedents into a race of chthonic nemeses to the Dwarves and Elves certainly seems to be an innovation of Tolkien's, and rings sufficiently true (poetic truth) to have influenced a major swathe of modern fantasy, where Tolkien's conception becomes formalized through Dungeons & Dragons and many subsequent fantasy writers.

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