Aurochs, De-Extinction, and the Racism of Orcs in D&D

We have to talk about the aurochs. It’s maybe the biggest, hairiest cattle anyone has ever seen. In short, it’s a bunch of bull. Aurochs were the first beast added to Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition after the core rulebooks. As far as monsters go it seems pretty open and shut, I mean, D&D needs big, hairy animals for its big, hairy magical world. But it’s never that simple.

Aurochs are the extinct wild cattle of ancient Europe, a beast ingrained to the continent’s mythology and culture, and the Forgotten Realms setting has painted them as the sacred animal of Gruumsh, god of the orcs. So if we’re going to talk about the aurochs, I’m going to have to tell you one heck of a story. From the Ice Age to Nazi supercows to bioessentialism in TTRPGs, the aurochs is maybe the most challenging extinction story in Dungeons & Dragons.

I’m Lucas Zellers, and I’m resurrecting extinct animals for the world’s greatest roleplaying game. This is Making a Monster: Extinction.

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Going Deeper on this Topic

Boissoneault, Lorraine. “When the Nazis Tried to Bring Animals Back From Extinction.” Smithsonian Magazine, March 31, 2017.

Hubbell, Dianna. “The Once-Extinct Aurochs May Soon Roam Europe Again.” Atlas Obscura, January 26, 2022.

Masterson, Andrew. “Origin of drinking horns a hit and myth affair.” Cosmos, November 27, 2018.

The TaurOs Programme

The Orc-ticles, by James Mendez Hodes:

The “Tasha-pocalypse” D&D Errata updates

Lucas: Standing over 6 feet tall and weighing more than a ton, the aurochs was a keystone species for forests and grasslands across Eurasia, from, in modern-day terms, Portugal to Korea. With its wide horns and broad, striped back covered during the winter season in a thick mantle of hair, the aurochs was a striking animal that left a huge impression on the folklore of an entire continent. In the cave paintings at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, aurochs are depicted opposite saber-toothed tigers and [00:02:00] cave lions. At the city of Babylon, aurochs were depicted on the Ishtar Gate, the eighth gate to the inner city. In the Greek myth portrayed in The Rape of Europa, Zeus was able to kidnap Europa by transforming into an aurochs bull. Europa was so enamored of the new white bull in her father’s herds that she came near to stroke it and eventually climbed on its back, at which point Zeus did his Zeus thing and swam the Mediterranean to strand Europa on the island of Crete. By the 14th century, hunting the aurochs was a privilege of nobles, who would often drink from the slain aurochs’ horns. One such drinking horn was a prized possession of King Sigismund III of Poland was an ornate drinking horn, longer than a grown man’s arm and as thick as an elephant tusk.

Steve Sullivan: There are depictions of Romans throwing nets over these things. You can imagine what it would take to capture one of these and breed them.


Lucas: This is Steve Sullivan, Director of the Hefner Museum of Natural History at Miami University, and one of the first people I interviewed about the connection between extinct animals and D&D.

Steve Sullivan: One of the charismatic species that used to be there that is no longer is the aurochs. The aurochs is this amazing cattle species, probably six feet tall at the shoulder, massive horns, oftentimes this deep fawn, chestnut color with a dark stripe down the back.

Lucas: The aurochs was the progenitor of modern cattle, and for centuries they existed alongside their scions. By the 17th century, everything that kills species had conspired to kill the aurochs, including unrestricted hunting, loss of habitat due to farmland development, and diseases from domestic cattle. The last recorded aurochs, a female, died of natural causes in Jaktorów Forest, Poland, in 1627.

Steve Sullivan: Domestication is in many ways, the dumbing down, the increasing the childlike characteristics in a species. So all these cattle that we have, dairy cattle and beef cattle and whatever, they’re basically baby aurochs who are able to sexually [00:04:00] reproduce. And so that’s what we’ve done through domestication, whether it’s cows or sheep or dogs or whatever. So fundamentally the species aurochs still exists, but in this neotenic or “juvenilized” form.

In the case of the original domestication of the aurochs, we want a small cow that we can handle, that’s docile. With black Angus, for example, if you go to the grocery store and try to buy black Angus meat, whether it’s hotdogs or steaks, it used to be super expensive. It’s much less expensive now that’s because when we bred black Angus for its meat characteristics, we kinda narrowed its hips a little bit and we made its teeth real small.

We did that by accident. We were focused on the meat. And so frankly, a lot of the babies died and they didn’t thrive if they didn’t die. When they were birthed. Now we’ve bred them with bigger teats and bigger hips. Shazamm! We can have more black Angus!

So this then implies that the genes of aurochs are still floating out there. Maybe some are amplified in one place and others are amplified in other places. Similarly with the tarpan, the wild horse. So people have engaged in these processes to find the individual animal, cow or horse, that is most like its progenitor and then breed those back in until we recreate something that is six feet high at the shoulder, and has these massive horns from the outside many cases, they’ve done a good job.

There’s a breed called the Heck cattle. They look great. It’s a German breed. They look an awful lot like what we imagine aurochs must look like.

Heck Cattle

Lucas: And here is where the story gets complicated.

The Heck cattle was named for its creators the Heck brothers, Lutz and Heinz, who went into the family business running the Berlin Zoo in the early 1900s. Zoology in Europe at the time seemed eerily in line with 1896’s The Island of Dr. Moreau – debating the role of humans in preventing extinction and [00:06:00] even creating new species, blissfully unaware of the role of genetics in the process. Lutz

Steve Sullivan: Watson and Crick, that was what, 1952, when we discovered, what DNA looked like thanks to their, piracy, a little bit of Rosalind Franklin’s work, uh, but, uh, however that history happened, we finally understood really not just that as Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin showed that species can change, but we then also began to understand the genetic makeup of how things could change.

Lucas: Lutz Heck’s particular fascination was in resurrecting what he called “primeval German game” like the aurochs.

This was the 1930s. In Berlin. So you can guess who might have shared Lutz’s interest in a mythic German past free of racial impurities.

Lutz became a member of the Nazi party and a close friend to Hermann Göring, right-hand man to Adolf Hitler. Göring gathered political titles like Magic: The Gathering cards; he was simultaneously the prime minister of Prussia, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, and Reich Hunt Master and Forest Master. Göring even gave a title to his friend Lutz in 1938: Nature Protection Authority. In these roles, Göring seized land from Poland, especially from the Białowieża Forest, for nature preserves. He hoped Lutz would fill with this personal playground with mythic beasts resembling those in ancient epic poetry like Nibelungenlied, which Göring could then hunt with spears and in period dress.

Lutz’s breeding program selected for phenotype, or visual characteristics, from a huge cross-section of European breeds including Spanish fighting bulls. The result was not the aurochs, but a new breed called Heck cattle whose individuals vary widely in their physical characteristics and are often aggressive enough to attack without first giving a threat display. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are not the pleasantly sympatric herbivores hoped to rewild Europe alongside humans. Lutz’ stock of Heck cattle were exterminated after the war, [00:08:00] but today there are still about 2,000 Heck cattle in existence – all of which trace back to Heinz’ stock.

Tolkien’s orcs and scientific racism

Lucas: The ideas that drove Heck and Göring reverberated in European academia and left an echo in a perhaps surprising place: a British officer named J.R.R. Tolkien. And we can’t continue to understand the aurochs in D&D without understanding Tolkien’s orcs.

James Mendez Hodes: This is from letter number 210 by Tolkien when he was talking about a movie treatment of the Lord of the Rings that he didn’t like. So he was like, let me tell you what I think orcs looked like. And he said, and I quote, “the orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the quote human unquote form seen in elves and men. They are, or were, squat, broad, flat nosed, sallow skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes, in fact, degraded and repulsive versions of the, to Europeans, least lovely Mongol types.”

And I was like, damn, I’m squat, broad, flat nosed, sallow skinned, wide mouth a slant eye. Does that mean I’m degraded and repulsive?

Um, so yeah.

Lucas: James Mendez Hodes is an Ennie-award-winning writer game designer and cultural consultant. His design work includes Thousand Arrows and Scion; his consulting work, Magic: The Gathering and the Jackbox party packs; and he last appeared on this show for his work on the design team of Avatar: Legends, the tabletop RPG version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Mendez, welcome back to the show.

James Mendez Hodes: What’s good. It’s good to be here. Thank you for having me back.

Lucas: I asked Mendez on the show because he had already done some pretty heavy lifting to untangle how these ideas would have influenced Tolkien, and through him how they would have contributed to Dungeons & Dragons.

James Mendez Hodes: So reading that blew my mind because, growing up in America, I think the racial stereotypes and the most virulent kinds of racism that I grew up around I think were often directed [00:10:00] towards, black people and towards American Indians. In the particular context of my upbringing, that’s often what I saw the most.

And so, I was used to seeing a lot of that kind of racist language directed towards orcs as well. So my assumption was that once I started researching the racial underpinnings of orcs, that I would find things like I might’ve seen an American racism towards native people and towards anybody of African descent.

But then when I went and I looked at Tolkien’s original conception of orcs, I realized that, the way that he envisioned orcs was kind of as this Asian hoard with fangs and tusks. That was Tolkien’s version of, of orcs. Uh, so they started out as this purpose-built Asian stereotype.

I started looking at like, what kind of influences might have moved Tolkien to create a fantasy race that he described essentially as Asian people. And I realized that in British academia, he would have encountered these theories of scientific racism about like Caucasoid and Mongoloids and Negroids, all of these really uncomfortable terms that we have for the different subspecies of humanity, which of course modern science has thrown out the window and further. Tolkien certainly would have encountered those things during the course of his education.

Then Tolkien and joined the army and in the British army, there was a conception of Indian people called the administrative races and the martial races. So the British Raj and the British army classified all the different ethnicities in India into, “Okay. We think these guys over here, they live in cities and they’re good at math. And then these guys over, over there, they’re these big, tough, strong guys who are not very smart and they make excellent soldiers, but they’ll probably just run amok and do evil [00:12:00] stuff unless we put some white people in charge of them.”

So practically speaking, of course, the reason that different populations in different places, struck the British as being tough but obedient soldiers on one hand or, good at bureaucracy at the other, on the other hand, had a lot to do a lot more to do with how. Those with the way that the British related to those people than it did with any particular inherent quality, of them.

However, this idea of warrior races ended up spreading throughout the British consciousness and, this term, this idea of the martial race or the warrior race, ended up being applied to people in Scotland, east Africa, and Polynesia as well. Basically anytime anybody beat the British in a fight using technology that they thought wasn’t as good, the British would be like, “Oh, they beat us because they’re a martial race. They are somehow naturally inclined towards fighting.” So the intersection of these two ideas, scientific racism and the concept of the martial race, these were things that Tolkien could not possibly have avoided during the course of his life. And he happens to have created something in the orcs which lines up with pretty much all of both of those stereotypes.

Orcs in D&D

James Mendez Hodes: And I got a couple of articles which go into it in depth.

Lucas: Yeah, there were a great read. I highly recommend them.

James Mendez Hodes: Thank you. So, yeah, so then there’s a, the first article focuses on Tolkien and then the second focuses on orcs in the context of Dungeons and Dragons, and how in the historical context of the United States, the way that white people viewed Asian people and black people and native people was starting to change in certain ways.

So when orcs appeared in Dungeons and Dragons, which was created by conservative white men in the Midwest, the stereotypes that were applied to orcs and the way that orcs were described there started to shift and they started to [00:14:00] move away from American stereotypes of Asians, which were focused on a concept primarily called the model minority, which America had a purpose-built through immigration policies and in a complicated way, and started to shift more towards the way that white racists and racists of all, all ethnicities, really, viewed black and native people.

And then even in more positive portrayals of orcs, such as, those I grew up with in Warcraft, the orcs still adhere to sort of positive, but still harmful stereotypes like the concept of the noble savage, where there’s this primitive race, which is in some ways better at certain aspects of humanity or stronger, or closer to living in closer harmony with nature and their own spirits or something like that. You can read Jean-Jacques Rousseau to get a deep dive into that.

But even in the portrayals of orcs that I like there are still some of those positive stereotypes. There’s definitely portrayals of orcs out there, which have moved in different directions. I’m reading a great book right now called The Unspoken Name which has an orcish main character who’s great. My friend Carly wrote a piece called “The Thousand Cousins,” which is a version of orcs you can drop into many different games. I don’t know if these orcs are good necessarily, but I think the orcs in Warhammer 40,000, which are based on British football hooligans are a really interesting thing to study. I don’t know if it’s like a good version of orcs, but I think it’s fascinating to study.

Lucas: How many times do you think you’ve told this story?

James Mendez Hodes: The article that I first published, the first part of the article was in January 2019. For that year, I told the story, like, I’d say like once every couple of weeks then things slowed down a little bit through 2020 and 2021, I’d say, meh, once a month. But yeah, it, it, it comes up all the time.

The most important point that I could make about orcs [00:16:00] is that if we sit down to play a role playing game and the way that the game, or the other players or the DM, that someone involved portrays orcs reminds me a little bit too much of the way it feels when I and my friends experience racism in the real world, then I have a hard time enjoying the game.

Because honestly, even if Tolkien hadn’t done this on purpose – I do think he, he did it on purpose, or perhaps he did it based on like a great deal of unconscious bias – but even if he hadn’t, the thing that he made still causes problems for us in the present day when we try to have a fantasy game with these different species and we try to do that without bringing in too much real world racism. Even if this thing was created unintentionally, it still causes us problems. And I think it’s not nearly as cool as some of the orcs that we could have.

So it, you know, it comes up a lot. And even if this, even if you don’t buy that, this is actually racism, even if none of that moves you, then at the end of the day, okay. So this is a creative preference that I have. Like some people don’t like disco music, some people don’t like orcs the way that they’re originally portrayed in old editions of Dungeons & Dragons or the early part of fifth edition. I just don’t like it. In addition to thinking that it’s racist. So if your friend really doesn’t like something in a game, then you probably wouldn’t want to force them to play that game. Right. And if they wanted something different in the game, if they wanted the game to have different options, like you could have an orc who fits a bunch of racist stereotypes or you could have a different kind of orc, I’d want to be able at least to have the choice.

It’s not very important to me that you have the racist orcs in the game. It’s easy enough to just like [00:18:00] take the kind of orcs that I would like to see and make them fit all the racial stereotypes you want. But I like having the option not to do that.

Lucas: Do you ever get tired of telling this story?

James Mendez Hodes: Not really like, it’s my job. It’s my job. So I’m, I’m used to telling it, it feels like a, you know, a teacher telling kids to be quiet. You got to tell two kids to be quiet a few times a day. It just, it goes with the job. And for me talking about orcs just kind of goes with the job.

But, the other element of this is that I like talking about orcs cause I think they’re cool. Cause I had that first positive experience of, watching my friends make a bunch of cool orcs in, in Warcraft which ended up kind of setting the tone for me and if the first orcs I’d ever seen were in, in Dungeons and Dragons, I probably wouldn’t have felt that way.

Gruumsh made orcs this way

Lucas: To understand the aurochs’ place in this conversation, we have to talk about that early portrayal of orcs.

I think D and D has kind of covered its tracks with orcs by suggesting that, some of these objectionable stereotypes or these objectionable traits of the culture or the race as a whole belong to a deity of the orcs that they’ve given the name Gruumsh.

James Mendez Hodes: Yes.

Lucas: Let me give you a couple of examples. There was a Dragon Magazine number 62 from June, 1982. If listeners want to look that up, there was an article called, the gods of the orcs and it ran with a tagline, the word from above, make war not love. And then we had Deities and Demigods 20 years later in 2002. And I’ll quote from that directly just so it’s a part of the record: ” Gruumsh, deity of orcs, is chaotic evil. He appears as a hulking orc in black full plate armor. He has one unblinking central eye.” From his dogma, “Gruumsh demands that his followers be strong; that they cull the week from their numbers; that they take all the territory Gruumsh thinks is rightfully theirs, which is almost everything. He tolerates no sign [00:20:00] of friendliness from his people. Unceasing warfare is his creed. Though,” and this is interesting, “Gruumsh does not object to simple colonization, if that can be arranged.”

James Mendez Hodes: Yeah, so my academic background is in religion. And one of the things that I always complain about in fantasy religions is that people give religions a bunch of interesting qualities that they think are going to make for really good storytelling but very often not that much attention is paid to what makes a religion worth practicing?

What is the appeal of a religion? So for example, with a lot of fantasy versions of Christianity or Catholicism, um, there’s so obviously terrible that, uh, that it starts to be a little bit unbelievable. Why, uh, you know, say the majority, um, like, let’s say, let’s say that your hot take is Christianity is bad actually.

And so you make a fantasy version of Christianity. They’re the biggest fish in the real world. They can take a few knocks, right? It’s not like marginalizing the Jewish right? Christianity that they can take a few hits. I think they’ll be okay. So great. So you make your, you make your fantasy version of Christianity you pick all the worst Popes and all of the worst, prosperity gospel preachers on TV and you, you populate the religion entirely with them and they’re the bad guy religion, um, which, okay, sure. Why does anyone do this religion? Um, they would have to have so many evil inquisitors running around forcing people to do the religion at sword point, that just, it would just not be, not be a manageable task. Um, so anytime a religion, there’s like a fantasy version of a religion and it’s just like, all of the worst cult stuff without even any of the stuff that cults do to make people want to be in a cult, um, I find that creatively [00:22:00] unsatisfying, shall we say? And, uh, more importantly, if I’m trying to create stuff in the world, it makes storytelling difficult because, uh, you know, what am I going to be like? So everyone in this town practices this religion, um, and then all my players are going to be like, why?

And I’ll be like, ah, I don’t know. So, so this makes, this makes my job as the dungeon master or as the player difficult. So the first problem that I see with this Gruumsh guy, is that I’m like, how are you going to live a whole sentient, sapient life without friendship?

I believe that orcs, the, the stereotypical org travels in a hoard, is that correct? And you would think that, uh, you know, uh, your, your average orc might, I dunno, put some value on unit coherency, if he’s going to try to do a colonialism. Um, so this guy’s like no friendliness, no friendship. You can conquer people and show off your strength. This doesn’t really make sense to me.

It’s also like, having a race that’s completely evil, first of all, as I often say, if everybody in a certain race or a species rather, cause I hate saying race, if everyone in a certain species is born evil and they don’t have the choice about whether or not to do evil and there’s no chance that they can do good, well, that’s not really evil, that’s more like a, there’s a force of nature. They don’t really have a choice about it. That’s not evil as, as I understand it. That’s just like having a destructive nature that they don’t really have a choice about. So, okay. So if, if Gruumsh is chaotic evil, and he demands this from all the orcs, it does not sound like a religion that I would bother practicing, even if I did like violence and colonialism, it doesn’t sound like a good time.

When I bring [00:24:00] up the idea that it, it might be a little sketch that all orcs are evil. Very often the first response I get is, well, it makes sense that they’re that way in the setting.

And my response is like, really? Cause I think Gruumsh isn’t real. Someone made him up. So someone made up the reasons for them all to be evil in the setting. And even if they do have a reason to be evil in the setting, that still makes the process of interacting with them for me, kind of uncomfortable. Like my personal experience of orcs being uncomfortable is still going to be the same, whether or not there’s like a good reason for it.

Moreover, the idea of God making a certain subgroup of sentient beings a certain way in response to like their past crimes or something like that, that’s also a really common talking point in racist depictions of certain people. And, uh, again, when I bring up this point, a lot of the time people say to me, “Well, you’re making that connection. I would never have thought that before you made this connection between orcs and whoever it is.” To which my response is, “Yeah, I’m making that connection because racists said to, said it to me first. And unfortunately now I can’t forget that because racism still exists.” So having there be a God whose fault it is, doesn’t really make the situation worse. And when you characterize a whole people and their whole ass religion as built entirely on these harmful and hateful ideas, that’s how we do religious intolerance in the real world also. And I don’t enjoy that usually.

Racial ability scores and orcs in Volo’s Guide

Lucas: you mentioned at the top of the interview, that Volos is the worst. What is it about Volos guide that bugs you?

James Mendez Hodes: oh my God. Um,

Lucas: Is that too much of a question? [00:26:00]

James Mendez Hodes: um, so, so for comparison, let’s look at the orcs in Eberron. I don’t love a lot of things about their portrayal. This was before the Tasha apocalypse and the end of race-based ability scores.

Lucas: Yeah, that was going to be my next question.

James Mendez Hodes: yeah, so this is before that, right? So the orcs still a little, uh, so they get a plus two to strength and a plus one to constitution. So that means that all of the most optimal orcs are going to be fighters, clerics, paladins, barbarians. You’re not going to see a lot of orc monks, rogues, wizards or warlocks. The most optimally built orcs are all going to be in like certain martial categories.

Age orcs, reach adulthood at age 12 and live up to 50 years.

Alignments, the orcs have ever honor a passionate people given to powerful emotion and deep faith. They are generally chaotic, but can be any alignment. I like that they can be any alignment. I get that, but characterizing a whole species as whole culture as chaotic, that’s a little weird, right? Aren’t there different, different cultures of orcs? There’s different cultures of humans, probably different cultures of elves, dwarves, right? Why don’t we got different cultures of orcs? Um, maybe some can be chaotic and some can be ordered. Size they’re medium, speed, 30 feet, they have dark vision. Sure. Okay. “Aggressive: as a bonus action, you can move up to your speed towards an enemy of your choice you can see or hear, you must end this move closer to the enemy, then you started.” so if we’re going to give all orcs an aggression power, then I think it would be useful for there to be a reason why. Because otherwise we’re saying like all, every single orc is aggressive and that is also an uncomfortable thing that people say about certain groups in, in the real world.[00:28:00]

” Powerful build: you count as one size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push drag or lifts.” I don’t have like the biggest problem with that in the world. Cause like, I guess it’s reasonable to say, I don’t know people from Senegal or Scandinavia are often very tall, so they are, but that, like, we don’t even do that with humans. So saying like all of this, everybody here has a very powerful build. It’s just not that exciting a power, but I guess it could be worse.

” Primal Intuition,” this one’s weird. “You have proficiency in two of the following skills of your choice: animal handling insight, intimidation, medicine, nature, perception and survival.” So I think this goes back to those noble savage ideas that I mentioned, right? This is kind of the, this feels like the Warcraft version of embark.

So that’s an orc in, uh, in Eberron. I got some problems with it. There’s some things where I’m like, oh, I’m not sure I got to think about this one, but, uh, let’s look at Volos.

Lucas: No.

James Mendez Hodes: The version of orcs that we got in here, monstrous adventurers. All right. So ability score increase strength and constitution as the same strength and constitution that we just saw in the other book. And your intelligence score is reduced by two. So they’re all dumber. Great. So this is, this is exactly, this is a, a, an ability score-enforced martial race bonuses to strengthen constitution, but they have worse intelligence,

Alignment: orcs are vicious raiders who believe that the world should be theirs. They also represent, uh, respect, strength above all else and believe the strong must bully the weak to ensure that weakness does not spread like a disease. They’re usually chaotic evil.

” Size: orcs are usually over six feet tall and weigh between 230 and 280 pounds. Your size is medium.” Fine. Speed: 30 feet. Dark vision. They have dark vision. [00:30:00] Then aggressive is in here. Menacing, they’re trained in the intimidation skills, so they all run around scaring people.

Powerful Build, same as before. And that’s, that’s an orc mechanically. So they are one of the few species in this game that actually has a negative modifier to an ability score. So that to make sure that we all know, that orcs are dumb.

So, I hate it.

The Tasha-pocalypse

Lucas: Even at the time of this interview, the so-called “Tasha-pocalypse” had begun to address these issues by re-writing the source material in question. The November 2021 sourcebook Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything made ability score increases a matter of player choice rather than being determined by race, accompanied by a large number of mechanical changes to the game. A massive set of errata released that December removed racial ability score penalties as well as adjusting some of the lore in the Player’s Handbook regarding orcs and drow, another problematic racial symbol. The May 2022 release of Monsters of the Multiverse made previous printings of orcs and other creatures “legacy content” and replaced them with updated versions. For orcs, the “Aggressive” trait was replaced with a movement buff called “Adrenaline Rush” that doesn’t target enemies, and the “Menacing” trait was replaced with “Relentless Endurance” which allows the orc character to return to 1 hit point instead of falling unconscious.

Gruumsh still appears as an influential figure in orcish culture, though he is now cited as “an unstoppable warrior and powerful leader” known for his tougness and tenacity.

Despite a generally warm reception, these changes were not received without controversy. Nor can they erase the printed words in Volo’s Guide, Deities & Demigods, or Dragon Magazine. Mendez’s criticisms are no less relevant now than they were when we recorded them in January.

Gruumsh, the aurochs, and toxic masculinity

Lucas: I did want to bring it back around to Book of Extinction and the aurochs itself. Cause this is another one [00:32:00] of those things that just kind of snuck its way rather unremarkably into the back of Volos Guide. It’s another beast. It’s a very large cow, CR 2? But the section of lore that we got tied it to Gruumsh and his son Bahgtru. It cast it in the role of, of mount like a mount chosen of a deity, which happens a lot, in myth and culture over the course of history.

James Mendez Hodes: Before this interview, I read through the part about all the ORC deities and they’re all, they’re all, they’re all terrible. And then there’s one of them. And then he rides an aurochs around, and this is like the only good thing orcs ever do. They’re nice to cows.

This is, this is like the only positive things said about orcs. And like this whole chapter is that they’re nice to this one kind of cow. And then sometimes they’ve ride them into battle. And there’s a lot going on here. Why weren’t horses good enough? Why does it have to be a bull? Did they need something that was just bigger and hornier than like the human, the thing that humans were riding around? Um, what happened to riding on wolves? That’s also kind of weird, but I thought they used to, is that just for goblins now, but, okay. So now they have these sacred cows, um, which I don’t think has anything to do with like, like in, in real world, like yeah. there are, there are cows that are sacred in, in south Asia.

I don’t think that, oh, wait, martial races. Ah, they are connected aren’t they. Damn it. All right. All right. I hope that was an accident.

So I it’s awkward because it reminds you of Nazi stuff. Right? And I think a lot of, there are a lot of, fascist movements which have eco fascist tendencies where they have like a, a Vokish ideology or some similar thing like that, which is connected to a certain understanding of how,[00:34:00] people are connected to land.

Lucas: In the case of Heck and Göring, this idea was lebensraum, or living space, and a return to the heroic past.

James Mendez Hodes: Classical nationalism is built on a lot of different shared qualities, but language culture, history, usually religion and territory are often elements of classical nationalism as opposed to like the messed up versions of nationalism we have today, but we’re talking about like the stuff that led to the formation of early nation states.

So, a lot of the time that’s connected to certain qualities of nature or animals or plants. In this case, the Nazis were attempting to create a living animal symbol of their idea of the German relationship with the German country and the German climate and the German animals, I guess.

In addition to the, the racialized aspects of orcs, um, portrayals of orcs are also heavily gendered. The masculinity and the toxic masculinity of orcs is often heavily exaggerated.

So the, the bull here seems to be a symbol of masculinity. And then the aurochs, as an exaggerated, like, you know, super swole, uh, version of the bull seems to be connected to a kind of exaggerated masculinity. Um,

yeah, this is uncomfortable.

Luthic and the cave bear

Lucas: Forgotten Realms lore from earlier editions also showed this gendered portrayal in the form of Gruumsh’s wife, Luthic, another part of the orcish pantheon.

Jessica Marcrum: Luthic gets really poorly treated in a lot of the lore because she does all of this really cool stuff. She gives the orcs like visions of the blood moon, which incites them to battle [00:36:00] and makes them into warriors. She’s there when every orc is born, she’s there when every orc dies. And yet she’s really ignored by most orcs and just seen as like Gruumsh’s wife and kind of disregarded by the rest of the pantheon, most of which are her children.

Lucas: This is Jessica Marcrum, who created an adventure around Luthic for Uncaged: Goddesses, the DM’s Guild adventure anthology we covered at the top of the season.

Jessica Marcrum: So her husband and her children all treat her like trash and the orcs, except for like her clerics who are called the Orc Claws of Luthic, all also kind of are like, whatever about her, but it’s canon that she’s like the smartest person in the pantheon and the only one who’s good at battle strategy. She’s also the only one who knows how to heal apparently. So, you know, she, she does all this and doesn’t get any credit.

Lucas: Jessica’s criticisms hit very differently in light of the conversation around martial and administrative races. The gendered portrayal continues as Luthic is also associated with an Ice Age giant, the cave bear.

Jessica Marcrum: They’re one of her sacred animals and she is known to transform into cave bears.

Lucas: Cave bears we know are the fulcrum where archaeology turned from fable to fact, as they were so often conflated with dragons. It’s easy to hear the same echo of a mythic, dragon-slaying past written in Luthic that we hear in Gruumsh, uncomfortable associations and all.

Redeeming the Nazi supercow for D&D

James Mendez Hodes: So as far as like corrections, I would like to see made to orcs, uh, you know, D and D has already moved past a lot of the things in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. The connection to aurochs, uh, it’s not my biggest problem here. Like if you fix a lot of the other stuff, if their gods aren’t all just monsters, and if they themselves, aren’t just monsters than I think the fact that they have very large bulls is not, not [00:38:00] my biggest problem here. That that seems okay. It’s just weird, you know?

Lucas: Yeah, I do. It’s part of why I wanted to talk to you about it. This is a lot of information that I was genuinely unsure what to do with. But I can’t not talk about it. It would be the same as pretending it didn’t happen.

James Mendez Hodes: It’s a great story. Even if you’re going to, even if you’re going to leave the, the aurochs from Volos guys to monsters in there, like it’s, this is a fascinating story.

Lucas: Yeah, I will say that to kind of bring it back around and put a button on this. The aurochs has gotten what I consider to be a redemptive moment. Uh, it’s one of a handful of species that scientists are actively trying to bring back from extinction. We’re at a point technologically where we are able to talk about whether we can de extinct something.

Steve Sullivan: And now today, with, with CRISPR technology, we can kind of cut up genes and chuck new bits in there. And, in fact with the mammoth, that’s been in the news recently, we can take Asian elephants and we can take some of these, frozen mammoths that have been in the permafrost for so long, which thanks to climate change, the permafrost is thawing. So we’re able to find these, but so well-preserved, we can even eat the meat. We can find the genes within those organisms. We can splice them into Asian elephants, and it is entirely conceivable that we can make a mammoth.

Lucas: A more recent program to de extinct the aurochs, rather than being based on, uh, Göring’s idea of what an aurochs might have been, it’s based on a sequence of the aurochs genome using material from a bone discovered in Derbyshire England,

They also used genetic material from museum artifacts, including King Sigismund III’s drinking horn.

So this is like, this is straight out of a summer blockbuster [00:40:00] and it’s the Taurus program is doing it, a cooperation between European conservation groups. And they hope to create a modern version of the aurochs that more closely matches that genome and there they’re being very careful about it.

It matches the genome. It matches depictions we have of the aurochs from ancient history and it’s being re-introduced to areas like the Rhodope Mountains, the Southern Carpathians and the Oder Delta, and it hopes to create functional ecological landscapes sustained by natural processes like forest regeneration and free flowing rivers.

So we’ve, we’ve back-bred the aurochs, this time as a part of a really sophisticated land management strategy to address the problems of conservation and extinction.

James Mendez Hodes: Well, that’s great. That’s pretty cool. What if orcs did that?

Lucas: And I do have to say for accuracy’s sake that this story doesn’t end neatly in the way that most true stories don’t but Heinz Heck, it must be said, didn’t share his brother’s ideology. He was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp for his connections to the communist party and his brief marriage to a Jewish woman.

James Mendez Hodes: Wow. I just, I just opened up his Wikipedia page and it says, Heck also played an important part in saving the European bison from extinction. so this guy is, this guy is the hero of this whole episode, Heinz Heck. Yeah. This guy is, this guy is cool.

Lucas: He’s a pretty rad dude.

James Mendez Hodes: Yeah, let’s enjoy this five minutes before the internet milkshake ducks him. I’m sure if someone in the responses to this episode is going to be like, actually

Lucas: Oh, I’m, I’m fully prepared for people to point out the limits of my research and I, and I will, I, it is worth mentioning also, please do point out the limits of my research. I’m a journalist, not a historian, so if you’ve got information I don’t, I’d love to hear it. Let’s start a better conversation around this.

James Mendez Hodes: Yeah. I am just like, I feel like I’m just starting to scratch the surface of this topic myself.

The Aurochs in Book of Extinction

Lucas: The aurochs will appear in The Book of Extinction, a [00:42:00] bestiary of extinct animals for 5th edition coming to Kickstarter in November of 2022. My version takes after the Tauros Programme rather than the Nazi supercow. I’ve mythologized it as the briar bull, a creature of druidic power that brings new life to the forests where it walks.

You can find out more about the project, including the illustration of the aurochs on the cover, at scintilla dot studio slash extinction. You can download the first three monsters in the book, themselves stories of giants and primeval forests. Pay what you want for it, and every penny we earn will go to supporting the Center for Biological Diversity, a legal and media advocacy organization based in Portland working to protect endangered species and wild places in the United States and worldwide.

Thanks for listening to Making a Monster: Extinction. There is so much more to say about this immense topic on the back of the aurochs. In the show notes is a link to the most important resources you’ll need to navigate this topic, including a fantastic Smithsonian article on the Nazi supercow, Mendez’ excellent “orc-ticles” on the martial race myth, and more about the TaurOs Programme and Rewilding Europe.

My thanks to this episode’s guides,

Steve Sullivan, director of the Hefner Museum of Natural History at Miami University in Ohio;

Jessica Marcrum, Uncaged Author and producer of the Threeflings actual play podcast, online at jessicamarcrumwrites dot com;

and featuring James Mendez Hodes, game designer and orc historian.

James Mendez Hodes: You can find me on Twitter at Lula Vampiro. I just posted actually a, another video. It’s an interview with me talking about the magic, the gathering cyber future set, coming out on Neon Dynasty. And, uh, yeah. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Scintilla Studio