In both Roman and Etruscan mythology, Orcus was a deity of the underworld who punished people for breaking pledges.
The name of the deity, like Hades, was also applied to the underworld itself. He and Dis Pater were combined in subsequent traditions. Rome’s Palatine Hill may have formerly housed an Orcus temple. He was probably transliterated from the Greek demon Horkos, who represented vows and was a son of Eris. It’s possible that Etruscan religion is where Orcus got its start. The so-called “Tomb of Orcus,” an Etruscan site in Tarquinia, got its name from the fact that the Cyclops that it portrays was mistaken for Orcus by those who originally discovered it. Orcus was occasionally confused by the Romans with other underworld deities including Pluto, Hades, and Dis Pater. As the deity who punished evildoers in their afterlives, the name “Orcus” appears to have been assigned to the vengeful and punitive side of the king of the underworld. The word “Orcus,” like “Hades,” might be used to describe both the underworld and the god who rules it. According to the benevolent interpretation of such a location, it was thought to be a residence for the purifying of the deceased’s spirits.
Related article: Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome
Orcus had no formal cult in the city; instead, he was mostly venerated in rural regions. Because of his isolation, he was able to continue living in the wilderness long after worship of the more popular deities had ended. He continued to be revered as a folk character until the Middle Ages, and elements of his worship have been incorporated into modern-day wild man festivals conducted in rural areas of Europe. In fact, medieval texts provide for a large portion of our knowledge of the Orcus festivities.
Orcus’ relationship with death and the underworld led to the word being used for demons and other underworld creatures. This is especially true in Italian, where orco is used to describe a type of monster from folklore that eats human flesh. The Italian word orco and the French word ogre refer to the same kind of monsters. The French word ogre, which first appeared in Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, may have originated from this word’s variants, orgo or ogro.
Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516), a bestial, blind, tusk-faced creature inspired by the Cyclops of the Odyssey, has an early example of an orco. The orcs in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were partially inspired by the orco from Orlando and the Old English term orc (used to refer to an ogre, such as Grendel).
Featured image: Orcus Mouth, Gardens of Bomarzo
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