World Building 5 – Mythology and Culture

One of the goals for my new homebrew world that I’m most passionate about is to remove many of the old fantasy tropes that bring all their baggage with them to any new edition.  I’ve talked about these in my last two World Building columns on Race and Culture. Now, I’m going to turn away from my beloved Elves and toward a people for whom fantasy literature and games have not been kind: the Orcs. I’ve chosen them, because they are a classic “monster race” that comes with so much baggage ingrained in the etymology of their name as well as the tropes and trappings with which they are traditionally dressed. All of these trappings are woven into the fabric of mythology told about the Orcs. So let’s change things up by giving these strong, sturdy warriors a new mythology, a new history, and a new set of associations.

Orcs in Fantasy History: Let’s go back to Tolkien for our history lesson. We first see these Orcs as fearsome opponents to Bilbo and the Dwarves in The Hobbit, as they chase them through mountain passes while riding their massive wolves, the Wargs. Where did these fearsome creatures come from? Well, in the mythology of Middle Earth, Orcs were once Elves who were corrupted by the worship of Dark Gods (We’ll see this again later…). Linguistically, the word “Orc” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word orcneas, or “demons”, who are one of the four “kin of Cain” listed in Beowulf among whom are kin with Grendel.  “Warg” comes from an Anglo-Saxon coinage of the Old Norse Varg, which while it decoratively means “wolf” its connotations present something far worse than an “animal” – a human so monstrous that he (almost always a he) has been stripped of his humanity, declared both utlagi (one outside the protection of the law) and a varg i veum (a wolf in the sacred place), and exiled, becoming kill on sight by anyone for any reason at any time – with no legal recourse to compensation should he be killed. From their very beginning, Orcs are associated with those who violate the sacred, often unspoken (and sometimes spoken/legal) bonds of human social interaction.

They don’t fare better in modern fantasy, either. Consider Warcraft where the Orcas are a people corrupted by demonic magic who are savage and feral, always seen as opposed to the “civilized” humans. Orcs live in huts of wood, bone, and hide while humans build great cities of stone and wood. Human magic is learned through reading and study; Orcish magic comes from pacts with dark monsters and infusions of demonic blood. Humans (always depicted in promotional materials as light skinned) do bad white people dancing. Orcs, who are hulking and menacing, with large lips and tusks, do dances drawn from rap and hip hop. Yes, the Orcs are the “black people” of fantasy.

Now, let’s move on to Dungeons & Dragons. In Volo’s Guide we find the Orcas described as “the nightmare of every civilized place” who live in “savage and fearless tribes” (pg. 82). They have gods whom they do not worship so much as they fear, because these deities reward strength and punish the weak and infirm. Even though Volo’s Guide gives the Orcs a pantheon, the same tropes of fearless, monstrous savages who are set as the antithesis of that which is civilized and “good”. And, as an American, I must recognize that much of the depiction of the Orcs bears striking similarities to the “savage tribes” of First Nations people our government sought to exterminate for being “opposed to our civilized ways”.

I could continue for pages, but these examples show that the words chosen to describe and even name the Orcs carry the weight of moral judgment. Similar things happen to  those people in our world we seek to make monstrous – their gods are transformed into demons by the new faith, their culture deemed “savage” and “primitive” even though it meets the needs of its people in their environment and checks off all the an anthropologist seeks, and their appearance mocked and caricatured as “monstrous”.

Change the Mythology; Change the Perception: So, for my world of Ivirune, I want to change the perception of Orcs by changing their mythology and the stories behind them. While I won’t put forth a full mythology in a single blog post, I’m going to present an “Origin Myth” – a story that seeks to tell how a people became who they are – for the Orcs of Ivirune. Then we’ll discuss the changes I’m working toward implementing.

The Origin of the Orcs

Gather around small one, and let me tell you the story of how we Orcs came to be. Before the Gods split Ivirune into the lands as they are now, we were a human people, nomads traversing the Plains of Khafta-Djor, following the Paths of Mother Sun and Father Moon through the Wheel of Seasons. During this time, the Air Speaker from the Gray Night Clan, Gorun Ortuk heard the call of the elements. They told her that the time for her Great Walk, where she leaves the safety of the Circle of Clans and wanders the world, guided only by the voices of the Spirits of the Elements and of the Ancestors.

This was in the summer. She bid farewell to the Gray Nights and then to the Circle and headed north, her Speaker’s Staff in her hand. Through the forests she wandered, waking and sleeping as the Mother and Father dictated, eating only what the land gave to her without struggle. Such is the way of our people. Some days, a great abundance lay before her. Some days, she survived on little more than berries and water. The spirits of the land are life. They give and they deny as they see fit. We must live with honor to be worthy of their gifts and grow in wisdom that we may understand the lessons they teach.

The Spirits led her to the high mountains toward the land of Ka-Tet. They commanded her to cross, but they did not show her a pass. Instead, they guided her to a steep ravine where she had to cross slowly, moving one hand and one leg at a time, and where one mistake could send her to Garad, Land of the Dead. Her crossing was slow and arduous, but, she came upon a strangely placed cavern in the wall of the mountain as Father Moon began his journey across the sky.

“Oh, Father Moon, he who protects our sleep at night and escorts us to Garad, speak with the Mountain Spirits on my behalf, that I might know if I have permission to rest here for the night.” She asked humbly and waited as her arms and her legs burned and trembled from her travels.

A thin ray of moonlight shone upon a small circle of sticks and stones within the cave, and Gorun took this as Father Moon’s response. She entered the cave. As the cold of the night grew, she used two of the stones to spark a small fire within the circle. Resting her head upon her arm, she drifted to sleep.

Tremors and screams of rage from the mountains woke her. Her eyes opened to see a giant of a man formed of rock and moss standing before her. A green fire burned in its eyes as it said, “You have come here to die, little human. None enter my cave and leave again.”

Rising to her feet, she declared, “I am Gorun Ortuk, Air Speaker of the Gray Night Clan, and I now take my Great Walk. Father Moon directed me to your cave. I thank you for allowing me a rest here, but I did not come to die. Teach me your lesson, Spirit of the Mountain, that I might bring your wisdom to my people.”

“You are brave, little one, but the Mountains yield for no one. Our path is fixed. You have come here to die.”

With that, he charged Gorun. And they fought, their strength and speed as their only weapons. Three days they fought, and the Mountain Spirit controlled the span of the Sun. Three nights they fought, and Gorun returned his ferocity without food, water, or rest. As Mother Sun awoke on the fourth day, Gorun charged the Mountain Spirit, pushing him into the ravine. He grabbed her arms as he fell. Together they tumbled through the air toward the land beneath them.

They crashed into the jagged rocks at the ravine’s floor. Gorun stumbled but rose to her feet, wearied from the long fight. The Mountain Spirit remained motionless. She approached the Spirit and saw that it was greatly wounded. “You have won,” he said to her. “Kill me and finish this battle.”

“No,” Gorun replied. “I have defeated you, but there is no need to kill you. Please, teach me the lesson of the Mountain, o Spirit, that I might bring your wisdom to my people.

“Mercy from one who owes me nothing is a rare gift to receive. In return, I grant unto you and to your people the power and resolute endurance of the Earth and Rock, for you have proven worthy of such gifts. All will see. All will know. Few will understand. Now, hand me your Seeker Staff.”

She did. The Mountain Spirit broke the staff in half and bound the two halves together with vines. He then ripped his right shoulder from his body and bound it to the top of the broken staff. “This now is the sign of the Mountains’ Blessing. When you return to your people, they will know of your success here. Now, I must return to the Mountains that I might rest.” With that, they parted ways, and Gorun Ortuk continued her Great Walk.

The changes were quick, but she did not fear them. Her skin took on the greenish-gray of a moss-colored mountain, Tusks grew from her lower jaw. Her muscles firmed and grew in size. She found that she could run, swim, and climb for longer periods of time without need for rest. The night was no longer as dark as it once was.

Upon completing her Great Walk, she returned to the Circle of Clans and found that they too had been changed as she had. She told them of her encounter with the Mountain Spirit and showed them the gift he had given her as a sign. The Clans had been fearful of these changes, but now, they became a source of pride – they were blessings of the Earth itself. Her Seeker Staff, now a hammer that the Gray Night Clan renamed “Titan-Crusher” became a symbol of wisdom, given only to the Speaker of the Elements who sits both on and apart from the Circle of Elders.

In the centuries that followed, we became known first as The People of Ortuk, the Ortuks, and finally, the Orks, which many spell as Orc. That, small one, is how we became who we are.

Discussion: So, as you can see from this single story, I’m changing a lot of things. First, I’ve shifted the perspective of “How the Orcs came to be” from non-Orcish people to the Orcs themselves by use of the first person narrator. This is an elder Orc telling this story to a group of children, likely at a significant point in the Orcish calendar. The significance of this simple perspective shift is that it gives a voice to a people for whom we are usually told stories about. Here, they get the chance to tell their own story.

Yes, I kept the “People Transformed” motif  to fantasy lore on Orcs. Notice, however,  I replaced the traditional cause (corruption via demonic beings/dark gods) to the gift a Mountain Spirit, a Primordial Elemental, in response to an act of mercy. This transforms the “bloodthirsty savage who is the nightmare of civilized nations” into a sentient being in possession of strength, stamina, wisdom, and empathy. Thus, the physical appearance, the strength, and the stamina that have traditionally symbolized the “evil blood” of the Orcs now represents a divine blessing for a noble act. These Orcs are still fearsome warriors, but they are not monstrous savages. These Orcs are nomadic people who live in harmony with the world around them, instead of monstrous being who seek to conquer and destroy.

I also replaced the “tribal” nature of the Orcs with a clan-based culture. I’m eschewing tribe as a culture descriptor for two reasons: (1) the term carries connotations of colonialism and (2) the term’s vagueness makes it nearly useless. Instead, I have given the Orcs a clan-based social structure where each clan who claims membership in The Circle of Clans draws its lineage from one apical ancestor. While not specified, there are roles within the Circle of Clans and its leadership, the Circle of Elders. By naming the governing body a “circle”, a level of egalitarian governance – where each clan has equal voice in decisions made that impact the clans – is suggested. This moves the Orcs away from the “might makes right” and “strength above all else” ideology traditionally given them in fantasy fictions.

And, given that Orcs are traditionally painted as fierce patriarchal warriors, I’ve deliberately chosen the great ancestor to be a female to strip away the assumption of patriarchal governance. While patriarchal societies may be the most common form of society, it should not be the assumed default. I’m envisioning the Orcs to be a bilateral society, where naming and inheritance can be determined by either the mother’s or the father’s line and membership in the Circle of Elders falls to the oldest living member of a Clan, regardless of biological sex.

What’s Next: I have a lot more to do with the Orcs. I plan on replacing their Wargs with trained Owlbears, which they’ve also domesticated for farming purposes. I need to give them a bit more history and flesh out their social organization, perhaps naming all the Clans within the Circle. I also want to have a few exiled clans, some of whom will be evil by social organization. And before anyone asks, allow me to reiterate for clarity: a society/social organization can be evil but a “race” cannot. So while there will be “evil” Or societies, such will not be the default for the Orcs. What I’m doing should not be seen as erasing the tropes but turning them on their heads so that we no longer see them as default settings. I’m seeking to treat each culture in my world as in individual culture with its own history and with intercultural interactions modeled on how such interactions happen in our own world.

Thoughts? Critiques? Ideas?