Strange Relations #1: Orcs and Lilith; Hapax Legomena in the Bible and Beowulf

I, i Wardrums and Chanting; Thunder and lightning, Enter the three WYRDES.

WYRD1: Twice Hapax Legomena hath shown in texts of old

WYRD2: Twice, one plus one, each a foundation stone.

WYRD0: Line of succession verily shown!

WYRD1: Round about fortune’s wheel go; obscuring history’s ebb and flow. The strands of fate run ever through; to knit and perl, follow and pull. Unravel to reweave again a mythos rich in clues.

ALL: Sowing, sowing, tapestry growing; Wyrdes turn, and Fate is flowing….

Exeunt, the WYRDES

WRITER: [Music. “March of the Gore-Stained Axe Tribe” by A Band of Orcs] This being the blessed month of oRctober as well as the Season of Halloween I had to break from the regularly programmed schedule to talk about a word dear to my heart.

READER: Which is?



WRITER: Yes. Orc is a very special word in the English language. It is a hapax legomenon in the epic Anglo-Saxon poem called Beowulf, which was required reading in English class when I went to High School.

READER: What the heck is a hapax legomenon?

WRITER: Hapax legomenon isn’t in my Websters. Nor is it in my Penguin Dictionary of Literature and Literary Terms, so here’s an exception to my general practice of using real books versus the internet. Alas, we turn to Google, and here is a Photoshopped screenshot of their answer.

READER: Hapax legomenon, “A thing said once.” Hey, I recognize that Greek word! The Greek word legein, ‘to say,’ from that post you made about Logos and leeches and stuff.

WRITER: (Meaning this one: Is the Logos a LEECH1? And “Is Logic Just a Synonym for this Savagery?” We also saw this form in this post: “Etymology, Not Entomology, Part 2.”)

Great, I’m glad you remembered that! So some grammarians in the 17th Century appear to have made up this word to describe a word that needs translating, but only appears once in a text or corpus, thus making the job of translation really tough. Keep that thought in mind for Strange Relations #2 while we move on to the next thing to note.

When they say “only one instance of use,” they mean within a given corpus. A linguistic corpus is an organizational umbrella for a specific language, text, or body of work. For example, if a literary critic of the future were examining the entire corpus of J.R.R Tolkien, that corpus would comprise everything he wrote including all the fiction he’s known for as well as his letters, essays, commentaries and scholarly works. A hapax legomenon would be a word that only appeared once in that entire body of work! Whereas, in this post we are talking about texts. The Bible on the one hand and the Anglo-Saxon text of the oldest poem in the English Language, Beowulf.

J.R.R. Tolkien gave us the popular image of the monster known as the orc through his epic fantasy trilogy of novels The Lord of the Rings.

The Monsters and the Critics contains some essays by Tolkien criticizing the critics for not giving The Beowulf enough credit as a well-wrought poem; and for not understanding the richness and importance of the monsters; i.e., Grendel, his mother, and the Dragon.

READER: Those ugly goblin things in the movie? You’ve brought him up before. You’re a Lord of the Rings fan, aren’t you!

WRITER: Yes, those ugly goblin things. And, yes, I am. The books primarily. The movies were good, but the books were a cornerstone in my own world view long before the movies came out. However, because of those movies most people have some notion of the popular conception of what an orc is. Tolkien is responsible for that popular image.

The author of the novel trilogy upon which the Lord of the Rings movies were based, J.R.R. Tolkien adapted the word orc from Beowulf. This epic poem is one of a handful of surviving texts written in the precursor language of English, Anglo-Saxon, which was spoken in England between 450 – 1066 CE. Beowulf comes from a Germanic pagan oral tradition which the already Christianized, invading and migrating Anglo-Saxons brought to the British Isles. The tale of Beowulf actually involves two Scandinavian tribes, the Scyldings and the Geats. This legend was finally written down by the “Beowulf Poet,” most likely a Christian monk, sometime between the 8th and early 11th Century. This is important to remember; these pagan tales come to us through the filter of a Christian worldview.

Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet and playwright, as well as a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, also created one of the more popular verse translations of Beowulf. Heaney translates orcneas as ‘evil phantom.’

Tolkien was a professor of the Anglo-Saxon language at Oxford University. It was through his familiarity with this and other European literature and mythologies that he conceived the world of Middle Earth and populated his fantasy realm with many peoples, creatures, and cultural aspects derived from this knowledge. This is, of course, a practice most fantasy fiction authors engage in, but it was Tolkien who set the standard in the realm of modern fantasy. 

Like the Icelandic Sagas, Prose Edda, and other tales of the Northern Germanic peoples, Beowulf is epic in its sweep, scope, and deeds of heroism. It’s no wonder this poem became fodder for the populating of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

The Professor taught a Beowulf class at Oxford. During the course of this work he happened upon the hapax legomenon Orcneas.” Here, we find it in line 112 with the appropriate diacritics.

Scholars have had a hard time translating orcneas, in some part due to its status as hapax legomenon, as there is no other context within the corpus to aide in understanding the intended meaning of the poet. I’ve seen orcneas rendered as ‘evil shadow,’ ‘demon,’ ‘monsters of the ocean,’ ‘evil phantom’ and ‘spirits from the underworld’, among other things. Whatever the correct translation ends up being, the essential idea is that an orc is some kind of monstrous creature. Drawing on various European folk traditions, Tolkien developed orcs into a degenerate servitor race that fought in the armies of the Dark Lord of Middle Earth, an entity known as Sauron. (Read the Wikipedia (orc) article if you want an in-depth historical overview of the development of the sci-fi/fantasy orc).

This hapax legomenon, the word orcneas, is found in the geneology that the Beowulf poet gives for the monster Grendel

Here is a Project Gutenberg translation of the above lines:

A text from my Medieval History class in college. This collection of Anglo-Saxon writings contains the Kevin Crossley-Holland translation of the Beowulf poem.

So, we learn here that orcs are the cursed descendants of the original Biblical murderer Cain. If you recall, Cain slew his brother Abel in a fit of jealous rage over the acceptance by God of his brother Abel’s offering over his own. Here orcneas is translated as ‘monsters of ocean,’ but in the Kevin Crossley-Holland translation (which I read as part of Medieval History class in college) it is rendered as ‘spiteful spirits of the dead’ (The Anglo-Saxon World, An Anthology, Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 76).’

READER: Dang. Murder most foul.

WRITER: Indeed. We’ll talk about the unclear etymology of the word orcneas and these two different translations, among others, in part 2 of this series. For now let’s keep it mythological. In case you’re not up on your Bible studies and/or Hebrew mythology, Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve, the Biblical first couple in human history. They lived miserably ever after getting kicked out of the Garden of Earthly Delights–whoops, I mean, Eden–according to the King James and many other translations of the Bible.

However, according to some versions of Hebrew mythology Adam had a wife before Eve. 

READER: He did?

WRITER: Yes, he did. According to some versions. That story apparently arises later in Jewish theology out of the need to reconcile two different versions of the creation story found in Genesis 1 and 2 respectively (see article: “Lilith,” by Janet Howe Gaines,

In the Babylonian Talmud, written between 500 and 600 CE, we learn of this first wife of Adam. Her name was Lilith, a word which ultimately derives from ancient Sumerian lilitu, a sort of storm or wind demon. Lilith is purported to have been created from the dust of the Earth just as Adam was. (Conversely, Eve was created from Adam’s rib, after Lilith’s departure from the garden).

READER: WTF?! Like Miss Wardwell on Sabrina?

Photo from this Bustle article.

WRITER: [Laughs out Loud.] Yes, that character is based on this mythology.

The story goes: Lilith being the uppity woman patriarchal societies frown upon refused to lay beneath Adam when they were going to get it on. You see, she saw herself as equal with Adam, having been created from the same dust as him and all.  Some domestic arguments ensued and Lilith bailed from, or got kicked out of, the Garden of Eden, pursued by some infanticidal angels that the Lord had sent after her. For verily I say unto you she was with child and these angels were tasked with destroying her offspring.  As a result of this punitive killing of her children by the Angels of the Lord (with whom she actually struck a deal involving some amulets), she in turn went crazy and became the Mother of Demons, becoming, herself, a vindictive child-stealing, blood-spilling infanticidal maniac, as you do when you’ve been horrifically violated by THE local authority.

READER: Dang, that’s pretty brutal. Wait, so what does Lilith have to do with orcs?

WRITER: Yeah, pretty gnarly stuff. As to what Lilith has to do with orcs, I’ll explain! Look, I’m not making some grand claim as to the meaning of this, I’m simply making a wyrd observation. It’s a passing strange relationship to me.

READER: Which is?

WRITER: Thinking strictly in chronological order within the tales, myths and legends, we see here that even before Cain became cursed by God, Lilith was similarly cursed by God to become the mother of demons. Her failure to return to the Garden garnered her the sentence of 100 of her demon children dying each day.

READER: Wow. That’s pretty harsh.

WRITER: So it seems. But what’s the Wyrd here? The strange relation we’ve alluded to?

READER: I don’t know. What?

WRITER: Lilith is a hapax legomenon in the Old Testament, where we find the word mentioned once in Isaiah 34:14, a text originally written in Hebrew. Controversy, once again, over how to interpret this word has ensued. You can Click here for a very brief introduction.

Isaiah 34:13-14, I honestly don’t remember which translation this is. But HERE’s a whole bunch of different translations if you want to see!

READER: Huh. Coincidence?

WRITER: Maybe. It does get even wyrder, though.

According to some legends of Hebrew mythology, Lilith in turn went on to wed Cain, or at least have sex with him.  Recall that Cain, according to the genealogy given in Beowulf, is the progenitor of the monster Grendel and the orc race (as well as giants and elves and ogres).  The word orcneas is hapax legomenon in Beowulf, the oldest surviving poem of the English language and literature. It is a literal foundation stone in the Study of English by virtue of it being the oldest poem. Lilith is hapax legomenon in the original Hebrew of the Bible, a foundation text of Western Civilization, if not THE foundation text of modern Western Civilization.


WRITER: Yes. Just to take the wryd speculation, this strange relation, one step further it is conceivable (ha!) that Lilith could also have been the mother as well as–what? Step-grandmother?– of the orcneas passing on both her cursed demonic qualities and her literary status of hapax legomenon to them, which is pretty damn wyrd if you ask me!

READER: Um. I don’t know what to say about that.

WRITER: Me neither. I only know that it’s a wyrd observation. That such famous hapax legomena would have such a strange relation to one another as a literal genealogical link?

READER: Hmmmm.

WRITER: Yeah, sometimes that’s all you can say. Let’s end it there. While you ponder the wyrdness of it all I’m going to get back to work on the posts that continue talking about “The Truth about Druids; the Wisdom of the Trees, Part 2” and part 1 of “There are More Things in Philosophy, dear READER, than are Dreamt of in Our Heaven and Earth.” There will also be a Strange Relations #2, where we will attempt to unpack the etymology of orc, among other things. Believe me, it gets even more wyrd!

[Wardrums fade. Thunder and rain as the Wyrdes enter.

WYRD1: Where shall Orcs have their repose?

WYRD2: With Lilith in her desert hole?

WYRD0: Beneath the bogs, and fens and peat?

WYRD1 Evil phantoms, monsters deep!

WYRD2: Where do these strange bedfellows lie?

WYRD0: Strange Relations #2 will ponder why….

WYRD1: If this project seems joyous to you, make sure you subscribe to social media, too. Below, you will find it, so don’t miss anything!

WYRD2: Please like, share, subscribe to a platform or two, so the Words are Wyrd blog’s known the whole world through!

ALL: We live to take flights of fancy with you and explore the idea that Words are Wryd too!

Exeunt, the WYRDES. Reader is left scratching chin…]