Strange Relations#2: Germanic Folk Monsters and Whales?


WYRD0: Reader!

READER: Here, Wyrd0. What’s up?

WYRD1: Goats, hear of th’ whale-beasts; listen closely, or we lose our past again. Harken, harken!

READER: Huh? my word! Tell me, tell me, my Wyrds! Speak, speak! Tell me the story! Tend to the WRITER’s whistle! Blow, till he bursts the wind, if true enough!

WYRD2: Good writer, have care. Where’s the story? Tell the tale.


READER: Germanic Folk Monsters and Whales?

WRITER: Yes. We looked at the word orcneas in Strange Relations #1. I suspect that the Anglo-Saxon word, from which J.R.R. Tolkien created the monster known as the orc, does in fact derive etymologically from the same Indo-European root that the Latin word for ‘killer whale’ does. Though he did use it in a sense different from that. Tolkien has said this regarding his borrowing:

I originally took the word from Old English orc [Beowulf 112 orc-nass and the gloss orc = pyrs (‘ogre’), heldeofol (‘hell-devil’)]. This is supposed not to be connected with modern English orc, ork, a name applied to various sea-beasts of the dolphin order.

Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings, PDF, by JRR Tolkien
I don’t actually own this version of Beowulf, though I’d like to. However, I’ve read reviews that it’s actually a terrible translation because it was cribbed from Tolkien’s lecture notes on the subject. He never intended to produce a translation of Beowulf for publication. Cool cover, though.

READER: Huh. “…Supposed not to be connected…” It sounds like Tolkien may have taken issue with that.

WRITER: Agreed. Tolkien was following the scholarship of his day, but that quote does certainly sound like he had his doubts. The word orc was glossed as ‘ogre’ by some unnamed and forgotten Christian monk of the dark ages, most likely. Personally, I think that orcneas and orca and orc derive from the same Indo-European source, even the Latin versions that give us the demon lord of the underworld, Orcus. I’m not sure I can prove it definitively, but I can lay out some of the strange connections that give me that nagging suspicion.

Here’s the entry for the word that denotes the sea mammal known as a killer whale, orca or orc.

orc n. [Fr. orque < L. orca, a kind of whale, altered (after orca, a large tub), < Gr. oruga, acc. of oryx, a large fish] a grampus, killer whale, or other cetacean identified by early writers as a “sea monster”

–Websters New World Dictionary of the American Language, (c) 1980

In plain English: orc is a noun that was borrowed into English from the French orque, which in turn came from Latin orca, a kind of whale. In Latin it was a descriptive word altered from a word that meant ‘a large tub’. The Latin word was borrowed from the Greek, oruga, the accusative form of oryx, which meant ‘a large fish.’ 

READER: Excuse me, “Accusative form”? Just what are they being “accused” of?

WRITER: [Laughs out loud.] Right. Okay, a brief grammar lesson here because what I’ve just stated sounds like so much gibberish to most people who never studied or don’t remember studying grammar in grade school.

READER: Which is most people.

WRITER: Agreed. So, I don’t feel so badly about doing this. Here goes: in both modern linguistics and traditional grammar verbs are classified according to a property known as transitivity. They are divided into two classes: transitive and intransitive. A transitive verb is one that “transfers” the action of the verb onto something else. In the following example:

The orc kicked the elf

Part of the gatefold album cover for A Band of Orc’s “Adding Heads to the Pile”

The orc is the “doer” of the action of kicking. The “receiver” of the action is the elf. In a sense the orc “transferred” the action of the verb to the elf. Or did the action to the elf. Grammatically, and syntactically, the orc is the subject of the sentence and the elf is the direct object. The accusative case is a fancy grammar term for ‘direct object’ in case-marking languages. And that is fancy linguistics speak for languages that add a suffix or some other affix to indicate whether it is a subject or object, etc. What this entry is telling us is that the basic (nominative) noun form of orc in Greek was oryx and that the form of the verb used to derive the word in Greek was altered by the morphological rules of Greek into oruga. Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows about the intimidating task of learning how to conjugate verbs. For example in Spanish, the infinitive form, estar, ‘to be,’ gets conjugated into estoy (‘I am’), estas (‘you [sg.] are’), esta (‘he/she/it is’), estamos (‘they are’), estais (‘you [pl.] are’), etc.

The equivalent of verb conjugation when applied to nouns is known as declension. In grammar speak we would say that oruga is the accusative case of oryx in ancient Greek.

SUB/NOM[The oryx] bit OBJ/ACC[the oruga] on the tail fin.

This is a chart of modern Greek declensions for the word ORYX. Ancient Greek would have been slightly different, and thus the discrepancy between the Webster’s ORUGA and ORYGEM/ORYGES. Source: wiktionary

I know, I know. This is a bit of an arcane and obscure digression. But I believe that when you start to understand grammar, then you start to understand some things about the rules and structure of complex systems in general, so it’s worth the diversion.

READER: Wait a minute here.  IF the Latin was altered from a word that meant ‘a large tub,’ then why did it already mean ‘a large fish’ in Greek?  Something doesn’t add up.

WRITER: [Smiling.] As it turns out, that’s not the only thing it meant in ancient Greek. Perhaps that’s a mystery whose answer we will arrive at forthwith. Or, perhaps, not. When doing historical linguistics, sometimes you just have to get comfortable with and accept the Mystery. But that is the right kind of question to ask! Kudos to you.

READER: Thank you!

WRITER: Getting back to the derivation, according to a different source, my Etymology Dictionary of Modern Enlgish Vol. II, we have the following commentary on the word orc.

orc, ork. F. orque, L. orca, cetacean. Vaguely used by association with L. Orcus, hell, of myth. monsters in gen.

The barque of Charon, in Hades, the Underworld, from Gustave Doré”s edition of Dante’s Inferno.
Public Domain

Okay, so what the shorthand of this particular book is saying in plain English is: orc and the alternative spelling, ork, derives from French orque which in turn comes from the Latin word orca. And is vaguely associated with L. Orcus, the word for Hell or the Underworld. There is also a demon called Orcus, or a dark god if you prefer, in Latin mythology and consequently in the universe of fantasy role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. This god is also known as Dis or Hades. But the word is also used to refer to mythological monsters in general.  No reference here to the Greek root.

READER: And no reference to ‘a large tub’ either.

WRITER: No, but incidentally, the word ‘orc’ does show up in the Beowulf poem, where it appears to have that meaning of a container of some sort. It’s glossed as ‘a crock, vessel, can’ (Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Poem, and The Fight at Finnsburh: a Fragment, edited by James A. Harrison and Robert Sharp, p. 291) And, alas, we do see how Tolkien took the word that refers to mythological monsters in general and created a specific race of monsters for his mytho-poetic adventures in Middle Earth.

So, to recap: orc is a mythological monster in general. But, again, Tolkien derived his version of it from the Beowulf poem that was written in Anglo-Saxon and is classified as a Germanic language (See part 1 of this series if you need a refresher.) The form of the word upon which he based his monster is a hapax legomenon (appears only once in the text), orcneas. It is glossed (translated) most frequently as something like ‘evil corpse, spirit,’ or some such.

So let me ask the question posed in the title of this post once more: What’s up with Germanic Folk Monsters and Whales?

READER: What do you mean? I’m afraid I’m not following. So far it’s just orcs and orcas and that still seems like it could be sheer coincidence. Nothing to get excited about.

WRITER: I agree. I have a general rubric in life to which I adhere before I really start paying attention. When it comes to the observation of events or behaviors I assume once is an accident; twice is a coincidence; and thrice is a pattern.

READER: “Once is an accident; twice is a coincidence; and thrice is a pattern.” I like that.

WRITER: When you’re a synchronicity hunter like I am, the rubric comes in handy. I’m jumping the gun here according to my own rubric, but I’m growing suspicious that something seriously wyrd might be going on here.

READER: So what’s the second monster then?

WRITER: The thing that really got me wondering is this: there’s also the case of the Austrian demon-creature of Christmas, called Krampus. In linguistics speak a krampus is only one distinctive feature away phonetically/phonologically from a grampus. [k] is a voiceless velar stop, while [g] is a voiced velar stop.

READER: Whoa, whoa, whoa! Now, I’m completely lost.

WRITER: I know. I’m going to explain. The ability to recognize what would be a viable historical sound change is crucial to understanding most of the things I write about on this blog. When it comes to classifying consonants linguists describe them using three categories: place of articulation (what configuration the mouth goes into to make a sound); manner of articulation (whether air flow is completely obstructed, or partially obstructed, etc.); and voicing (whether the vocal cords vibrate or not). These are the distinctive features of consonants; vowels have different features we don’t need to go into right now. Using this criteria a [k] is described as a voiceless velar stop (or plosive). And a [g] differs by exactly one distinctive feature, it’s voicing. So we describe it as a voiced velar stop.

And since we’re dealing with Germanic folk or faerie lore it seems appropriate to cite what is known as Grimm’s Law (yes, that Grimm, Jacob to be precise) to support my case.

Image from:

READER: [Reads Wikipedia entry on Grimm’s Law] Uh, okay. I think I understand. So, you think that the grampus, which means ‘killer whale’ was borrowed into German and turned into Krampus.

WRITER: Something like that, yes. Or maybe Grampus/Krampus have parallel (cognate) developments from an even earlier common source into German and Latin. I wanted to show you that scholarship exists that could be marshalled in support of a sound change happening between the word that originated in Greek and passed into Latin, grampus, ‘killer whale,’ (or as it appeared in Latin: crassus piscis) then passed into, probably, Austrian German and turned into krampus, a demonic, goat-like evil Santa Claus monster. As a rule of linguistic sound change, or what we’d call a phonological change, we’d write the rule as follows.

[g] > [k] word initially in Austrian German.


WRITER: Now, don’t quote me on that being how Austrian German works. I’d have to take a way deeper look, but it is certainly within the realm of possibility. Linguists like to argue and quibble about such things, but we won’t do that here. Instead, we’ll draw on some seemingly unrelated cultural evidence. That’s what I do here. Words are Wyrd. I find the strange relations and speculate on what it all could mean.

READER: You certainly do that.

WRITER: Now, getting back to my Wyrd Conjecture: We saw in the etymology and definition of orc in the Webster’s that a grampus is a whale and specifically a toothed whale related to a dolphin. So we have the following dichotomies between Germanic folk monsters on the one hand and words that mean ‘whale’ in some Indo-European languages on the other; namely Latin and Greek.



Krampus mit Kind (“Krampus with a child”) postcard from around 1911 .
Can you believe this was a postcard from 1911? Source: Wikipedia

Neither of my reference books gives a very convincing etymology for Krampus; the hellish, child-stealing folk monster of Christmas drear. Wikipedia doesn’t even attempt an etymology, though wiktionary (a dubious source) claims that the word may come from the word for “axe, claw, or pickaxe.” It is presumably related to the piece of gear used in mountain climbing known as a crampon. (On a side note: goats are known to be great mountain climbers). Maybe, Krampus does come from that word, but I find it very interesting that Krampus is a Christmas monster, and that Christmas falls under the zodiacal sign of Capricorn in the Tropical system of astrology, being December 22 – January 19. The word Capricorn, by the way, means ‘horned like a goat.’ But do you know what the mythological beast associated with that constellation is?

READER: I’m guessing a goat, since you’re going on and on about them.

WRITER: Right, but not merely a goat. It’s a goat-fish…thingy. 

READER: A goat-fish-thingy?

WRITER: Yes, observe the illustration.

Early 19th century engravings of the constellation Capricornus from Urania’s Mirror by Sidney Hall.  Image Source: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.


WRITER: Could the ghost of Krampus past be a large goat-fish thingy? Perhaps, a gnarwhal? Or something else altogether?

Add to this seasonal/astrological association the fact that folk tales of the Krampus are also related to something known as the Yule goat.


WRITER: Yule, of course, was the Scandinavian pagan festival beginning on the Winter Solstice, being celebrated from Dec. 22 – Jan. 2. And furthermore, some of you are aware that my father recently passed. One of the personal affects I synchronistically (as I had begun this article before his passing) inherited from him is a dog tag that says United States Navy and depicts a Goat mascot.

READER: A goat? Haha, more like a Goat tag! What the heck does a goat have to do with the Navy?

WRITER: My question exactly. As it turns out, here are some articles that purport to explain this curious fact.

Thanks, dad, for the clue!

The Bizarre History of the Naval Academy’s Mascot, ‘Bill the Goat’

Goats and the U.S. Navy

A Brief Illustrated History of the Navy Goat

Goats on boats: A U.S. Navy tradition

READER: [Laughs out loud.] “Goats on Boats…”

WRITER: I know. That’s my favorite title too. So, those are the Navy and Navy enthusiasts’ explanation of what goats have to do with the USN, but one thing I’m beginning to discern is that the names of things often have more esoteric origins and meanings than their exoteric explanations let on…

Going back to this Yule goat/Krampus and Capricorn thing, have you ever heard the theory of how whales evolved from land mammals?


WRITER: Well, this theory of how whales evolved from land mammals is interesting. You should read it.

READER: [Clicks link and reads.] WTF?

WRITER: Yeah. Based on this, allow me to speculate that maybe orcs and Krampi were the inbetween stages of land mammals and sea mammals?  Some kind of amphibious mammal?

Compared to other early whales, like Indohyus and PakicetusAmbulocetus looks like it lived a more aquatic lifestyle. Its legs are shorter, and its hands and feet are enlarged like paddles. Its tail is longer and more muscular, too. The hypothesis that Ambulocetus lived an aquatic life is also supported by evidence from stratigraphy — Ambulocetus‘s fossils were recovered from sediments that probably comprised an ancient estuary — and from the isotopes of oxygen in its bones. Animals are what they eat and drink, and saltwater and freshwater have different ratios of oxygen isotopes. This means that we can learn about what sort of water an animal drank by studying the isotopes that were incorporated into its bones and teeth as it grew. The isotopes show that Ambulocetus likely drank both saltwater and freshwater, which fits perfectly with the idea that these animals lived in estuaries or bays between freshwater and the open ocean.

This sounds like it could be a description of Grendel and his mother’s subterranean, watery lair to me.

Also, I have a sneaking suspicion based partially on an assertion by Laird Scranton in his book The Mystery of Skara Brae: Neolithic Scotland and Origins of Ancient Egypt that orcneas, the hapax legomenon mentioned in Beowulf, is a place name and not necessarily a species name or the name of some mythological monster.

In ancient times, Orkney Island was known in Scandinavia by the name Orkneyar or Orknejar.

(p. 10)

READER: Okay, I mean, how much stranger can it get?

WRITER: [Smiles.] More strange, hence the title of the article.

If you have any friends named Sidney, Rodney, or Courtney – those names mean ‘born in, of’ these places respectively. Also, the word née means ‘born as;’ for example in Marie Logan née Martinez, meaning her Maiden name is Martinez.

So the name Orcneas could mean ‘born in a vessel,’ ‘born as a big fish,’ ‘born in a big fish,’ ‘born as a vessel,’ or maybe even ‘born of a big fish’.

Although, according to the website

Away from the classical scribes, the old Gaelic name for Orkney, used by Irish historians, was “Insi Orc” and simply meant “Island of the Orcs”. Here, the “orc” element, means “young pig”, and is thought to refer to the wild boar. So, we have the “Islands of the Wild Boar”.

Later, the author goes on to say:

When the Norsemen settled in Orkney, they interpreted the ancient “orc” element as “orkn”, their word for seal. The added the suffix “-eyjar” meaning islands and the islands became known as “Orkneyjar” – the Seal Islands.

So the Norse had a native word for seal, orkn, that is a sea mammal, a seal. Could not the Latin and Greek words orca, oryx, and the Old Norse orcn come from a common Indo-European root?

By the time Beowulf was written (between 975 and 1025 A.D.) the British Isles and the Anglo-Saxon Christian Monks had already begun to be attacked and sacked by the Vikings (Lindisifarne was raided in 793 A.D.), so it is understandable that the Beowulf poet might include the inhabitants of an Island settled by the Norsemen in a list of hell-born and cursed creatures, the wretched offspring of Cain (I discuss this in part 1. of this series).

READER: I can see it.

WRITER: At any rate, the Orkney Islands do happen to have a very vibrant whale life in them thar waters.  See here.

So that rubric I adhere to: once is an accident; twice is a coincidence; and thrice is a pattern–as I’ve said, I’m jumping the gun here. That’s only two examples of Germanic folk monsters that can be, at least, phonologically correlated with Indo-European (in this case, Latin and Greek) words for whales. Taken with the folkloric evidence, it seems to indicate that our ancestors had knowledge of the inbetween stages of whale evolution. Which, according to most accepted evolutionary timelines, is impossible since humans and these amphibious mammals did not exist at the same time.

READER: Go figure.

WRITER: To put the icing on the cake, while looking for that chart of Greek declensions of the word oryx, which recall from our Webster’s dictionary entry was the base form from which the word orc, denoting a ‘whale,’ is derived; I ran across this Wiktionary page. This particular source gives the etymology of oryx as:

From Latin, from Ancient Greekὄρυξ (órux, “a pickax; an oryx (the antelope)”


Now isn’t that interesting. Remember, wiktionary also says that the word Krampus is

Possibly related to Krampen (“axe, pickaxe”)

Now, this could all be just coincidence; but I gotta wonder, what are the odds that both oryx and krampon come from words that have such a dichotomy of meanings? On the one hand, horned land mammals; and on the other, large ocean creatures, specifically an aquatic mammal, known to be toothy and dangerous. Actually, technically there’s a trichotomy here. There’s also contained within the etymology of both words a reference to the meaning ‘pickaxe’ or ‘claw.’

READER: Huh. Okay, I can see that there is actually a mystery here.

Beowulf dives down to go fight Grendel’s mother, from Seamus Heaney’s translation.

WRITER: [Smiling.] Let me say this: it’s understandable that the scholarship of Tolkien’s day was dismissive of any association of the word orcneas with whales. But they were in some sense ignoring the evidence available in the text of the Beowulf poem itself. During an argument with Unferth, Beowulf makes a great big deal of his ability to swim, and the great battles he had in the water against the creatures of the sea. The scene itself is infamous in scholarly circles, being called Beowulf’s “Swimming Contest with Breca.” And when Beowulf went to battle Grendel and his Mother, the scene of the fight is beneath the surface of a mere, or lake. The environment was subterrenean and watery, so….

Beowulf corrects the record with Unferth and tells of his swimming exploits, From Seamus Heaney’s translation.

READER: Right. So, you think the Beowulf poem may have been describing these amphibious mammalian ancestors of modern whales.

WRITER: Yes, I suspect it. But I do also understand that claim doesn’t square with accepted evolutionary timelines. So, if our ancestors had this belief, or knowledge, then the question becomes: How did they know? Of course, it’s possible all these correspondences are mere coincidence, but that’s an awful lot of wyrd coincidences. Something strange is afoot.

If anyone out there knows of a third instance of Germanic folk monsters with names eerily akin to whales or other “big” or “fat” fish in an Indo-European language, please send me a carrier pigeon! I’ll continue to develop this idea in part 3. of this series. For now, I’ve reached my self-imposed deadline of getting this out on Friday the 13th, so for now I bid you adieu!


WYRD1: Now that you know what etymology is, Click this Line If you want to give some thought on how an entry to read!

WYRD2: And If this project seems joyous to you, make sure you subscribe on social media too. Below, you will find links, so don’t miss anything!

WYRD0: 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!