OGRES, PART I: THE ROMANS ARE THIEVING BASTARDS

Ogre, Le Petit Poucet (Gustave Doré)

Let’s face it, the fantasy genre is often pretty stale, and the common ogre is a perfect example. How many times have you seen nigh-identical versions in different books/movies/games/what-have-yous? The same hulking brutes that show up to serve as a big, tough foe for our heroes, to be dispensed with before bigger threats come into the picture. In most modern fantasy ogres are pretty boring creatures, really.

But why shouldn’t they be? They’re very simple monsters, when you get down to it. Almost every culture has them: deformed human shapes, bigger than a man, smaller than a proper giant. They’re often stupid, gluttonous and cannibalistic, with a fondness for the flesh of children. Yet there is no reason they must remain so. There are a lot of traditions to draw upon when it comes to ogres; pick a culture and you’ll probably find a new one. But since ogres in most fantasy are derived from the European tradition, we’ll go with that, because there is great potential for variety even in this one, seemingly simplistic manifestation.

Now, ogres are generally not creatures people believed in at one point. You don’t see them in most true mythologies, where their role is reserved for giants. Rather, they are beings of folk and fairy tale. They are nursery bogies used to frighten children into good behavior, or comical and metaphorical figures in rustic stories meant to be told to adults. In Europe, this belies their earlier origins.

There are two schools of thought on the origin of the word “ogre.” One is that it was formerly an ethnic slur for Hungarians cooked up by the French, based on the prejudice that Hungarians were child eating monsters. I’ve seen little solid evidence for this one, but it’s worth noting, because it reflects how people view ogres as exaggerated human evil. The more generally accepted version is that the word was created by one of two 17th century French authors, Charles Perrault or the Countess of d’Aulnoy, both of whom were instrumental in the formation of the modern concept of fairy tales. Indeed, the countess even coined the term “fairy tale.” They use “ogre” in their stories, but they also use it in rewrites of the stories by another writer, an Italian named Giambattista Basile (a filthy, filthy old man, the edits of his stories mainly involved cutting out the sex, though the violence tended to stay in; Humanity is an odd duck). He told stories about a sort of creature called an “uerco” or “orco.” Orchi were large, man shaped monsters that ate children and were covered in shaggy black hair; a more monstrous Italian Sasquatch, more beast than man.

The term “orco,” in turn, is traced back to the word “Orcus,” the name of an underworld figure in Etruscan/Roman mythology, who is a somewhat mysterious figure. We don’t know a ton about him, but he was sometimes equated with the Roman Pluto and the Greek Hades, and at other times seemed to be a minor god or demon in his own right. Ultimately he seems to belong to the ancient Etruscan religion, but very little information about it has survived, something you can thank the Romans for. Mind you, we can also thank them for keeping the word around at all, what with their proud custom of stealing everybody else’s gods.

Now that we have established some common language and an understanding of the European ogre tradition and where it came from, it’s time to get dirty. What can we actually make out of this material? Well, over the next three weeks I’m going to explore three different takes on ogres you could spin out of these origins, each one a bit familiar yet also perhaps a bit alien. Stay tuned.

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