Ogres: From Ancient Italian Myth to Fairy Tale Nightmares

In the vast tapestry of mythology, folklore, and fiction, few creatures strike fear into the hearts of both children and adults quite like the ogre. These legendary monsters, often portrayed as large, hideous, man-like beings, have captured our imaginations for centuries with their insatiable appetite for human flesh, especially that of infants and children. Join us on a journey through the realms of ogres as we explore their origins, their appearances in classic works of literature, and their timeless association with fairy tales.


Mythology paints ogres as inhumanly colossal creatures, towering over ordinary humans with their unnaturally large bodies and heads. Their abundant hair, peculiar skin tones, and voracious hunger set them apart from the realms of mortals. Ogres are intimately connected to giants and human cannibals in the realm of mythology, often sharing traits and characteristics. Giants, themselves larger-than-life figures, frequently bear ogrish qualities in stories like “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer,” “The Pilgrim’s Progress” with the menacing Giant Despair, and the formidable Jötunn of Norse mythology. Meanwhile, ogres inherit giant-like attributes, blurring the lines between these monstrous archetypes.

Folklore has woven tales of ogres into the fabric of our collective storytelling, bestowing upon them a prominent place in the world of fairy tales. Remember the ogre in “Puss in Boots” and the dreadful antagonist in “Hop-o’-My-Thumb”? These notorious characters have become synonymous with the essence of ogres, perpetuating their frightful reputation. But the ogre’s presence extends beyond these familiar tales. Consider Bluebeard, the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast,” Humbaba in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the man-eating giant encountered by Sinbad the Sailor. Even the oni of Japanese folklore and the ghouls of pre-Islamic Arabian religion can be likened to the ogre’s terrifying nature.

The very word “ogre” traces its roots back to French origins, drawing inspiration from the Etruscan god Orcus, who fed on human flesh. Its earliest known appearance can be found in Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th-century romance, “Perceval, li contes del graal.” The verses mention the land of Logres, which was once inhabited by ogres before their destruction. Italian author Giambattista Basile incorporated the Neapolitan word uerco, or in standard Italian, orco, into his tales, further cementing the ogre’s place in storytelling. Linguistic connections also link the word to the Latin orcus and the Old English orcnēas, the inspiration behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s Orc. These linguistic ties hint at a shared Indo-European mythological concept, evoking ancient, primal fears. Interestingly, the French word “ogre” might have derived from the term “Hongrois,” meaning Hungarian, as western cultures once regarded Hungarians as monstrous beings. Some even propose a connection to the biblical Og, the last of the giants, or the Greek river god Oiagros, father of Orpheus.

It was in the works of French authors Charles Perrault and Madame d’Aulnoy that the word “ogre” gained widespread usage. Perrault introduced the term in his “Histoires ou Contes du temps Passé” (1696), incorporating it into several of his fairy tales inspired by Neapolitan folklore. He even referred to a female ogre as an “ogresse” in his version of Sleeping Beauty. Madame d’Aulnoy, in her story “L’Orangier et l’Abeille” (1698), introduced “ogree” as a term for the creature’s offspring, further expanding the lore of these fearsome beings.

Ogres continue to captivate and terrify us to this day, their legacy embedded in our tales, literature, and popular culture. Their insatiable hunger for human flesh and their grotesque appearances have made them enduring figures in the realm of myths and legends. So the next time you encounter an ogre in a story or a nightmare, remember the ancient roots and the rich tapestry of folklore that brought these monstrous beings to life.

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