Posted by: Sean | November 5, 2008

Theme Week Orcs: The Ethnic Origins of Orcs

OK, this one’s gonna get a little esoteric, I admit. But it’s a serious question: What are the real world origins of orcs? What cultures and peoples define them?

The orc begins with Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (The Hobbit gets goblins, but no orcs.) While it’s never been explicitly stated by Tolkien (as far as I can see) there is a strong line of criticism that the orc was based around African culture and identify. Dr Stephen Shapiro descibred the orcs in Lord of the Rings as “a black mass that doesn’t speak the languages and are desecrating the cathedrals.”

Is this true? It’s debatable. I’m not a huge fan of Lord of the Rings (I can see my fantasy street cred evaporating in front of me as we speak) but overall, I don’t see it. Framing the Fellowship in white and the orcs as dark has a good vs. evil logic that is not dependent on racism. (Unless you want to argue that Star Wars is racist too.) That said, the question is: Was this line of thought in Blizzard’s mind as they created the Warcraft orcs? Because unlike in Tolkien, here the African elements, and even the African-American elements are seriously in play.

Consider: The orcs are a disposed people coming out of a legacy of slavery. They live within a tribalistic society, and their iconography has a distinctly African influence. While I’m of two minds regarding Durotar, their starting zone (it reminds me as much of Utah as Africa), their second questing zone, The Barrens, is impossibly, undeniably African in quality. Their shamanistic religion is again designed to mirror the sense of an Afro-centric design. And, less seriously, the /dance animations for both the male and female orcs have African-American origins.

What’s striking about all of this is that from Warcraft III to World of Warcraft, the orcs are portrayed in an unflinchingly strong light. While Blizzard are certainly guilty of racial stereotyping for other races (the voodoo elements of the Trolls are clearly, and deliberately, drawn more from pulp stereotype than fact) the orcs are portrayed so positively that arguing racism seems faintly absurd. If Tolkien’s orcs were racist, then Warcraft’s are liberated from those racist elements. And even if Tolkien’s weren’t, you can make a very strong case for the orcs as a strong African image.

So what? What does this mean for me as a role-player? That if I choose an orc, I’m progressive or something? If nothing else, as Jess has pointed out to me, the orcs have as much Spartan in them as African. (Via way of Klingon, to my way of seeing it.)

Well, no. But what it does mean is that for your orcish concepts can draw heavily on African mythology and it shouldn’t feel out of place. Study up on Shango and weave the stories into why you wield lightning as an orcish shaman. Study up on African heroes of folklore and myth and search for concepts there. Don’t name specific creatures, heroes or gods. That would be bringing the real world into Warcraft. But study the structures, and find your inspiration there. There’s a wealth of material to be had for orcs in that mix.


  1. Great insight on the orc’s! It’s always easier to play a race, when you can pull from a real world counterpart.

    And Tolkien, Star Wars and Star Trek references all on a World of Warcraft blog entry. Nerddom to the 4th power haha, but hey that’s a good thing. 😀

  2. so what if orcs are african every race in the game is inspired by a real life stereotype. tauren native american, tuskar inuit, dwarf german brawler, gnome german tinkerer (hence gnomes and dwarfs live near each other), night elf celtic, troll haitian, human America and England, bloodelf spoiled abercrombie kids. undead stereotypical rebellious teen. Pandaren Chinese (even rhymes with mandarin) Draenei speak with an eastern european accent.

  3. Tolkien said in the Silmarillion that orcs are based off of Germans not Africans.

    The orcs represented the German war machine where mechanical monstrosities and the wheels of industry crush the old agrarian lifestyles similar to those found in The Shire. They were ‘dark’ because that is the imagery associated by the British with the Turks/Germans who called them ‘Huns’ in their war propaganda.

    Tolkien served as a British soldier in WWI and drew much of his analogies for orcs for the evil that man is capable of based off of his experiences in the war where mechanized modern warfare first evolved and then later watching the Third Reich gain power.

    Your African analogy is pretty far off base except for the shamanism which is practiced in many non African cultures as well.

  4. Hold on. First, even within that article I said that Even the page you’re linking there disagrees with what you’re saying. Quote-unquote: “They may have been inspired by images of the rampaging Turkish, Mongol, and Persian armies that assailed Europe during the Middle Ages.” None of those are exactly African either (Persia had some leanings into Africa) but arguing the orcs represented the German war machine is equally difficult, going off that source. (A quote from the Silmarillion would be a different matter.)

    That said, I more or less agree, as I noted in the article, I don’t really see much of a racism thing in LotR. I’m more concerned with WoW’s representation. And there, I do think it goes stronger than just the existence of shamanism. (Which is portrayed in Native American terms for the Tauren and… I have no clue for the Draenei.)

    But the iconography? The African-influenced horde banner? I’m not saying that orcs are pure Afro-centricism, they’re not. But it’s there.

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