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Elements of Fantasy: Ogres and Ogresses

What was your worst nightmare? Did he have an enormous head and wiry hair? Well that, my friend, was an ogre trying to consume you.

2012 FEB Ogres - ScottPurdyAn ogre is a grotesque creature with animalistic strength that eats human flesh. The Latin term, orcus, referred to the god of the underworld. They were the brainless wits who clobbered people for no apparent reason and hoarded their victims’ valuables. Oftentimes, their posture was horrendous and they had stiff movements.

Where did they come from? What was their origin? Perhaps it was the description of mentally handicapped individuals with severe behavior issues. Aggression was common among those with moderate to severe mental retardation. Without medication and proper care, such individuals would likely have been purged from their community and left to fend for themselves outside the city walls.

Or could ogres have personified offensive behavior capable by every man? Antisocial conduct stemming from deep within man’s psyche surfaced in man’s first records. Similar terms to ogre and ogress were in Biblical references of civilizations that will form near the end of the world, Gog and Magog. After joining other armies, Gog and Magog will attack Israel and God. The evil Gog and Magog will lose and Israel will be redeemed in preparation for the last judgment day.

Folklore claimed ogres were derived from Hongrios, the humanoid creatures who originated in Hungary. They were believed to have migrated northeast long before civilizations existed. Neanderthal in nature, hideously ugly ogres inhabited Great Britain prior to human settlement.

2012 FEB Ogres - Giovanni LanfrancoThe Greeks told some great fantasies, one of which was about Oeagrus, the river god of Thrace. Thrace was located in southeastern Europe where Bulgaria later developed, on the opposite side of the Aegean Sea from Greece. Oeagrus was rumored to been a powerful ruler over the regions of Edonian, Mygdonia, Pieria, and Hebrus River. He was the father of Orpheus and son of Atlas.

Oftentimes, fantasies called for a barbaric evil-doer who lacked enough intelligence to question his master. Various forms of giant slaves kidnapped vixens and enslaved heroes. These generic monsters called ogres originated in French folklore as far back as the 1200s.

A Japanese legend told of a teen boy who decided to journey to Ogre Island to destroy the many ogres who kidnapped and stole from the townspeople. He also planned to claim their treasure. With the help of a monkey, a pheasant, and a dog, three animals that normally didn’t get along, the boy succeeded in making his family rich.

Bern, Switzerland erected an Ogre Fountain in 1544. The centerpiece was a tall figure dressed in a carnival costume who is eating live babies. The statue originally represented a religious sect believed to have murdered babies during ceremonies.

In 1697, Puss in Boots by Charles Perrault was published in France. One character in the story was an ogre portrayed as a wealthy landowner living in a castle. When Puss approached the ogre with the intention of stealing all his property, the ogre transformed into a lion. Clever puss tricked the hapless ogre into changing into a mouse and devoured him.

While ogres were the male figures, the female version, ogress, evolved from the fairytale, Sleeping Beauty. Charles Perrault wrote a version where the handsome prince’s step-mother was an ogress. She intended to kill the sleeping beauty along with the prince, but the cook switched the poison with lamb. When the ogress discovered the substitute, she threatened to cut the cook’s throat and throw her into a pit of vipers. Thankfully, the ogress threw herself into the pit and everyone lived happily ever after.

Ogres represented man’s need to defeat his inner demons in order to find his riches or true soul. In the 1818, classic, Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, despite the ogre type character’s clumsy movements and limited reasoning, his violent behavior was redeemed when he received love from a child. The portrayal of ogres in fantasies exposed man’s evil nature while teaching him to tame his dark side according to civilized behavior.

2012 FEB Ogres - ShrekShrek movies glorified gluttony and redefined ogres as being introverted, down to earth, strong giants. All ogres wanted was peace and quiet. When a princess chose seclusion over beauty and riches, the ogre and ogress lived happily ever after. The offspring of an ogre and an ogress was referred to as an ogree, which was what filled their home in the following movies.

Ogres played a critical psychological role within society. The giant cannibals stalked their victims and attack sleeping children. They consumed human beings without guilt. They were the first sociopaths. Throughout literature, ogres served two roles by sometimes being a metaphor of man’s enemies and other times revealing weaknesses in the good guy. Any object or person someone avoids having contact with was considered to be ogreish.

Political oppression during the twentieth century placed ogres in satires where they morphed into bullying governments. Caricatures of thick-headed ogres dominating children and vulnerable people flooded wartime reports. Images of Goliath-type figures with animalistic impulses to kill humans represented the evil elements of humanoids that overpowered the innocent due to their being brainless and emotionless. Basically, when man felt vulnerable and unable to control his enemies, ogres materialized.

Ogres took on any form of existence that exploits and abuses defenseless humans. They showed man the frailties and foolishness within the human nature. Dreaming about ogres meant you were searching for discipline and felt you needed to improve yourself. Take note of where ogres surfaced within literature and the media, for without realizing it, the author revealed his greatest fears.

Title image by sandara.

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12 Comments

  1. A great encapsulation of the ogre through history. Did you find any other strange or quirky examples not shared here? I know there are many ogre styles and types, they can easily blend in with “hill giants” and other myths and legends from around the globe. Especially the demonic quality of ogres in some societies.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, glad you did.

    • Janie Bill says:

      Thanks for commenting, Leif:

      I found references to ogres blending with trolls but wanted to keep them separate because the recent editorials of a sociopathic murderer have focused on ogres. It seems ogres are referenced when pointing out horrific behavior by certain cultures. I didn’t name the cultures because I didn’t want to offend anyone, and as soon as one group is portrayed as acting with ogre impulses, such as being portrayed as eating live children, a few decades later, that cultures enemy was portrayed as acting like ogres by mindlessly killing children.

      Ogres were considered outcasts, and living outside the city. That is where it makes sense they were originally disfigured people with mental handicaps. Violence and lack of guilt are definite qualities. They haven’t always been portrayed with hunched backs and large foreheads but it is the standard for today’s time.

  2. AE Marling says:

    Thank you for the article. At last, I feel I understand my seventh-grade gym teacher.

    • Janie Bill says:

      Ha, ha, AE:

      I had a few visuals of people who fit the ogre profile, as well. Could be the result of several generations of incestuous births. They’ve studied areas such as the Ozarks (which are mountains, by the way) where the lifestyle includes incestuous marriages and have found a larger number of ogre characteristics than to the less inbred offsprings.

  3. xiagan says:

    Oh wow, so much I didn’t know. Great article, thanks!

  4. Bill Wolfe says:

    Great article. I’ve been wanting to incorporate Ogres into my worldbuilding mythos – this was a great jump off point. Thank you. 🙂

    • Janie Bill says:

      Good luck, Bill:

      It would be interesting to see the vulnerable side of being an ogre, such as with Frankenstein when the reader felt bad for his poor confused state of mind.

  5. TJ Huguenin says:

    Very interesting article. I think often in folk tales and mythology terms like Ogre, Troll, Giant etc, even orc, goblin, gremlin, gnome and dwarf get used interchangably depending on the area. I think Shrek is a great example of how Ogres can be used in fantasy (albiet a very PG13 example). Ogres are the misunderstood outcasts driven to violence and often used as a scapegoat for societal problems. They are however also people capable of good or evil depending on the circumstance. In my writing I include an entire Ogre society, very separate from the rest of civilisation, but they could be introduced in many different ways. I think they key is to approach them like any other fantasy race or society, not as mindless monsters.

    • Janie Bill says:

      Hi TJ:

      I agree with you. We all want to survive and feel safe. Even the less intelligent beings who respond with violence more readily than others. Technically, if we all were cavemen at some point, our subconscious should relate to animalistic responses to danger.

  6. […] “TOTW: Ogres and Trolls” by Kate Coombs; “Ogres” by OrcMagazine.com; “ELEMENTS OF FANTASY: OGRES AND OGRESSES” by Janie […]

  7. Cowfy Kaufman says:

    very informative.have you investigated ‘goblin’? i’m glad(sic) you touched on the cannibalism inherrent in many tales of euro folk culture as example of that hansel and gretel among many others.is this perverted cannibal a leftover of child sacrifice from pre historic religious rites or a actual members of cults still operating in rennasounce europe? is it the ogre ,the goblin ,or whatever?

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