Defining the ‘Orphan’ and Mythological Orphan Tales

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Where can we hide in fair weather, we orphans of the storm?’”

Julia in BRIDESHEAD REVISITED by Evelyn Waugh


The Orphan and the Lost Child

The phrase ‘orphan in the storm’ is often used metaphorically as colloquial short hand for someone caught in the maelstrom of larger forces beyond their control , yet there are stories where it has a literal meaning. Those tales where children, usually orphans, are lost or abandoned to a tempestuous sea, but are later washed up on a foreign shore where they are found, often by people of high birth. In other plots, children are lost in forests or jungles and are then brought up by animals or rescued by childless couples who take them for their own. Orphans in these types of stories are brought up with no known history. They are, to use John Locke’s philosophical concept, tabula rasa or ‘blank slates’. In other words, they have the freedom to become author of their own soul.

Strictly speaking, many of the children in these tales are not without birth mothers or fathers who are still alive, yet their abandonment means that in story terms they have effectively become orphans. A secret family history of a foundling may later be revealed, as in the Sophocles’ play OEDIPUS REX or Henry Fielding’s comic novel TOM JONES. War evacuees (GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM, CARRIE’S WAR, BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS) and runaway children (THE RUNAWAYS, OLIVER TWIST, THE WIZARD OF OZ) again may not always be actual orphans, but they certainly function as such within the story. The same could be said for characters with absent fathers or mothers (THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, THE RAILWAY CHILDREN) as well as foster children who estranged for whatever reason from their parents. Even illegitimate children whose parents are both alive might also be included if there’s little contact with the birth mother or father, What matters is the situation children find themselves in rather than simply their legal status or strict definitions.

In fact, there’s an issue with the actual term ‘orphan’. Nowadays it is taken to mean a child whose mother and father are dead, but historically, particularly in the Victorian Age, the word orphan could be used where only one parent was deceased. It’s important then not to be too pedantic about keeping to a strict definition of what ‘orphan’ means because what is of interest here is the character and nature of lost or abandoned children and the story patterns built around them.

An obvious point to make straight away is that children without parents are different from the norm. They are set apart. They are Other. But exactly how they are perceived as ‘Other’ differs with each story. In certain tales, the lost child may be seen as a miraculous gift to be cherished but in others as a social outcast to be mocked and cruelly treated. And how the lost child deals with the psychological results of believing they were unwanted can vary too. Sometimes such children grow up to be single minded, self-determining high achievers who strive to overcome their disadvantages and so eventually triumph over an unjust world, but equally there are tales of orphans who are rascals, anti-heroes and even those who become murderous villains.

Orphans may symbolise fear of abandonment, loneliness and isolation, but the absence of parental or social strictures can also offer the lost child a unique sense of freedom and individuality. They may, as it were, see their lack of history as a way of creating themselves, as it were, in their own image. Alternatively, they may decide to seek out their real parents and discover their true identity, as Annie does in the musical ANNIE. But before going into the character and nature of the lost child too closely, let’s first explore some of the story traditions and patterns in the orphan tale.

“But when the people who gave you life have departed this earth, you enter a strange new corridor of detachment. You are untethered, disconnected from the two story lines that gave birth to your one.”

Cicely Tyson

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“Long, long ago; her thought was of that child
By him begot, the son by whom the sire
Was murdered and the mother left to breed
With her own seed, a monstrous progeny.
Then she bewailed the marriage bed whereon
Poor wretch, she had conceived a double brood,
Husband by husband, children by her child.”

Sophocles, OEDIPUS REX


Two Greek Myths

When looking at story forms and themes, it’s always worth going back to the mythical stories and fables of antiquity because it’s from these that so many authors and writers have drawn their ideas and plots. There are, of course, numerous Greek myths which feature lost or abandoned children. Perhaps the best known are those explored in the dramas of Euripides and Sophocles.

In Euripides’ ION, Hermes begins the play with a long expositional speech explaining how Creusa, daughter of King Erechtheus, was raped by his brother Apollo in a cave. Creusa later secretly gave birth to a child, whom she left in a cave in a basket, expecting that he would die. However, Hermes tells his audience that his brother Apollo then sent him to bring the boy, Ion, to Delphi where he grew up to become an attendant at his temple. The drama itself then begins and its action is, as often in Greek plays, an unravelling of Ion’s complex history and in a long deus ex machina speech from a chariot at the end of the drama, the goddess Athena tells Creusa to make Ion ruler of her city Athens.

Sophocles’ OEDIPUS REX has a far less upbeat ending. In many ways it’s a mirror image of the Ion myth, but this time with truly tragic consequences. In the back story to OEDIPUS REX there is a curse on the House of Thebes as a result of Laius’ violation of the laws of hospitality. When Laius’ son is born, he consults an oracle which tells Laius that he, the father and King of Thebes, is doomed to perish by the hand of his own boy. Laius binds the infant’s feet together with a pin and orders his mother Jocasta to kill him. Jocasta, however, cannot face murdering her own son, so she orders a servant to slay the infant instead. The servant exposes the infant on a mountaintop, where he is found and rescued by a shepherd, who names the boy Oedipus, or ‘swollen foot’. The shepherd then takes the boy to Corinth where the childless king Polybus and his queen Periboea raise Oedipus as their own. Not knowing his history, Oedipus marries his mother, Jocasta, and, as prophesised, kills Laius, his father, the King of Thebes, believing him to be a stranger. What we have then in the tales of Ion and Oedipus are two very contrasting explorations of the orphan myth.

A quick word here about the word ‘myth’. Myth comes from the Greek word mythos meaning ‘story’ and although today ‘myth’ usually suggests something that is not factual or accurate but that is not the context in which it is used in this article. Myth is simply a narrative that tells its truth through its story. And that story is often  old but can also be sometimes new.

“A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence.”

Rollo May

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“The Romans did not see [the tale of Romulus, Remus and the she-wolf] as a charming story; they meant to show that they had imbibed wolfish appetites and ferocity with their mother’s milk.”

Terry Jones


Abandoned Children – Roman, Sumerian and Biblical

Tales of abandoned children or infants who are castaway for their own protection can also be found in Roman folklore, Sumerican clay tablets and in The Book of Exodus. The twin brothers Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were discarded as babes, cast down the river Tiber from their hometown of Alba Longa. Their uncle, Amulius, who had usurped the throne from their father, had ordered their execution but loyal servants saved them. Tiberinus, Father of the River, took them into his care at the site that would eventually become Rome. A famous part of their history concerns how the twin brothers were suckled by a she-wolf in a cave known as Lupercal. In a complex story the twins learn of the true identity and eventually kill Amulius. Returning to the seven hills, the brothers disagree on where to build and Remus is killed and Romulus goes on to found the city of Rome.

Sargon I (also known as Sargon the Great), who is said to have been left in a caulked basket in the Euphrates, became one of the world’s earliest empire builders. Between approximately 2334 – 2279 BC he ruled over a civilization called the Akkadian Empire, consisting largely of ancient Mesopotamis, after conquering all of Sumer as well as areas of Syria, Anatolia (Turkey), and Elam (western Iran). Sargon’s mother, possibly a priestess or a prostitute in a scared order, was unable to keep her son and so gave the boy to the river. The story is that the baby was discovered by a gardener who served Ur-Zababa, the king of Kish, an island near the coast of Iran. Sargon grew up to become Ur-Zababa’s cup-bearer and confidant. However, after a double-cross where the king tried to have Sargon killed, Sargon joins forces with Lugal-zage-si, the king of Sumeria and take over Kish. Sargon and with Lugal-zage-si later fall out (there were rumours of an affair with Lugal-zage-si’s wife) and Lugal-zage-si is  deposed. Sargon is then free to go on and build one the world’s first major empires.

moses river painting

The tale of Moses found in the Book of Exodus is not that dissimilar to Sargon the Great. The pharaoh of Egypt (thought to be Ramses II) made a decree that all Hebrew boy babies were to be drowned at birth. But when Yocheved, the mother of Moses, gives birth she decides to hide her son. The young Moses soon grows too big to be hidden, so she places him in a caulked wicker basket in the reeds that grow along the sides of the Nile River (often referred to as bulrushes) with the hope that he will be found and adopted. Which, fortuitously, he is. And into an important and leading family.

“My mother was a changeling, my father I knew not… My mother conceived me in secret, she gave birth to me in concealment. She set me in a basket of rushes, She sealed the lid with tar. She cast me into the river… The water carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. He lifted me out as he dipped his jar into the river, He took me as his son, he raised me, He made me his gardener.”

The Legend of Sargon, written on Sumerian clay tablets

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“‘Blossom, speed thee well.
There lie, and there thy character; there these,
He lays down the baby, a bundle, and a box.
Which may, if fortune please, both breed thee, pretty,
And still rest thine. Thunder. The storm begins.
Poor wretch,
That for thy mother’s fault art thus exposed
To loss and what may follow. Weep I cannot,
But my heart bleeds, and most accurst am I
To be by oath enjoined to this. Farewell.
The day frowns more and more. Thou ’rt like to have
A lullaby too rough. I never saw
The heavens so dim by day.
Thunder, and sounds of hunting.
A savage clamor!
Well may I get aboard! This is the chase.
I am gone forever! ‘”

(Exit, pursued by a bear.)
Antigonus in THE WINTER’S TALE


The Child Left in the Hands of Fate

An obvious story pattern that keeps repeating itself in orphan tales is the role of the servant who is instructed to kill the child, but whatever reason, chooses not to, or is prevented from doing so, or simply leaves the child in the hand of fate. A second repeating feature is that the abandoned child is then found and becomes part of a high status family. And these story tropes of course can be found in the plays of one William Shakespeare, particularly the late Romances. You’ll find many loyal servants, castaways, secret histories, storms, shipwrecks and rescues in THE WINTER’S TALE, PERICLES, CYMBELINE, TWELFTH NIGHT and THE TEMPEST. And usually they are reunited with their true parents, as Belarious, a once banished Lord, says when he addresses King Cymbeline in the final scene of the play:

These two young gentlemen that call me father

And think they are my sons, are none of mine;

They are the issue of your loins, my liege,

And blood of your begetting.


But tales leaving babes in the hands of fate are not just found in the ancients or in Shakespeare, because you’ll find echoes and variations of such story patterns in the mythos of Harry Potter, A Game of Thrones and Star Wars. However, with the growth of the popular novel from the eighteenth century onwards, another important influence came into play. Namely, folklore. For novelist in particular began to borrow more and more, and often self-consciously, from folklore and the folktale tradition.

“Dumbledore stepped over the low garden wall and walked to the front door. He laid Harry gently on the doorstep, took a letter out of his cloak, tucked it inside Harry’s blanket and then came back to the other two. For a full minute the three of them stood and looked at the little bundle; Hagrid’s shoulder shook, Professor McGonagall blinked furiously and the twinkling light that usually shone from Dumbledore’s eyes seemed to have gone out.”


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granny and william

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