R Is For Roc

This post is not about Dwayne Johnson, as the roc that I am discussing today is a gigantic flying bird found in legends from Arabia.  They are also known in legends from parts of Europe, Africa and Asia.  They usually look at least something like eagles or vultures, and they are nearly identical to the thunderbirds of North America, or the Buddhist’s Garuda.  Thunderbirds inhabit the folklore of many regions, but are more closely associated with certain locales such as Pennsylvania, the Mississippi River valley, and The Enchanted Valley in Olympic National Park, located in the Pacific Northwest.  They are capable of creating storms and thunder when they fly.  A Garuda is a bird creature of Buddhist mythology that combines the features of Gods and Animals.  Its exact size is uncertain, its wingspan is said to be many miles long.  When a garuda flaps its wings it creates hurricane like winds that make the sky dark and blow houses down.

The gigantic legendary roc bird is said to have huge talons which allow them to carry off elephants and other large beasts for food.  It would pick up an elephant, fly high into the air, and drop it in order to kill it.  Its wingspan is nearly 50 feet and its feathers are 24 feet long.  It is mentioned in the famous collection of Arabic tales, The Thousand and One Nights, and by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who referred to it in describing Madagascar and other islands off the coast of eastern Africa.  Though Marco Polo did not claim to see the Roc himself, he eluded to a bird of impossible size that attacked animals what Arab navigators described as appearing near the island of Madagascar.  Historians write about an old Arab chart describing a group of islands in the Indian Ocean known as the “Islands of the Rukh”.  The famous Arab traveler, Ibn Batuta, who crossed the Indian Ocean in the 14th century, visiting the Maldives, could have sailed very near Seychelles and stated that he had seen the roc!  According to Marco Polo, Kublai Khan inquired in those parts about the roc and was brought what was claimed to be a roc’s feather, which may really have been a Raphia palm frond, leaf or leaf-like part of a palm.

The roc was supposed to be so colossal that its wings could eclipse the sun, and so large that drinking cups could be made of its nails.  In The Arabian Nights the roc appears on a tropical island during Sinbad’s second voyage and it carries Sinbad off to a mountain while he is clinging on to its foot.  Sinbad saw a roc’s egg that was half buried in the sands of Serindib, like a dome fifty feet in diameter.  Although this fabulous creature was described as eagle-like, the actual bird on which it was probably based was the flightless ostrich-like giant Elephant Bird Aepyornis maximus, which is believed to have inhabited Madagascar until about 1700.  Like the Roc, whose egg Sinbad mistook for the cupola of a great building, the giant elephant bird laid enormous eggs (with an internal volume of over two gallons).  Aepyornis is a genus of aepyornithid, one of three genera of ratite birds endemic to Madagascar until their extinction about 1000 A.D.  The species A. maximus weighed up to 540 kilograms (1,200 lb), and until recently was regarded as the largest known bird of all time.  Many semi fossilized specimens have been discovered.

Sinbad was a merchant’s son who travelled to many distant lands buying and selling goods.  On one of the many voyages, the merchant ship stopped at a beautiful, tree-covered island where Sinbad decided to take a nap.  When he awoke, he discovered that the ship had set sail without him!  Looking for a way to get off the island he saw a large white dome.  Just then a huge shadow fell over him.  Looking up Sinbad saw a huge bird, called a Roc, and he realized that the white dome was actually the bird’s egg.  A brilliant idea came to him. “Let me tie myself to this bird’s legs!” he thought.  “Then, I can leave this island.”

On Sinbad’s fifth voyage his vessel stopped at another desert island, and the unruly sailors broke up a roc’s egg with their hatchets and roasted and ate a young roc that was just going to break out of its shell.  The parent rocs returned and took vengeance on the murderers by dropping a huge fragments of stone from the air on the ship, thus sending all of the crew to the bottom of the sea; that is, all but Sinbad, who comes to the surface, grasps a piece of the wreck and swims ashore.  In the 1958 movie The 7th Voyage of Sinbad he hopes to obtain the egg of a two headed Roc, which will help him to restore Princess Parisa to normal size after she had been reduced to the size of a man’s thumb by the evil magician, Kokurah.

In the story of Aladdin, it is hinted that a roc is the genie’s true master.  The princess tells Aladdin that she wants a roc’s egg to hang from the dome of the palace.  Aladdin takes out the lamp and tells the genie to bring him a roc egg.  The genie gives a loud shriek that shakes the hall.  He says they deserve to have their palace burn to ashes for wanting him to bring his master to them for mere decoration.

The original Indian tale speaks of a battle between the solar bird Garuda and serpent Naga.  In two different Sanskrit epics, a story is told of the giant bird Garuda carrying off an elephant that was battling a crocodile.  Throughout Arab and Persian history, the tale of a massive bird capable of carrying off an elephant was told and retold.  It was believed by Arab historians that the bird never came to the ground and lived atop the mythical mountain of Qaf at the center of the world, located on a secluded island in the Indian Ocean.  Other stories say that the island nation of Seychelles is the home of the mythical giant bird of prey.

Iranian mythology has the mysterious mythical bird Simurgh, that is associated with the practice of healing.  The Simurgh was described as a peacock with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion.  She was a creature big enough to comfortably carry an elephant or a whale.  The Simurgh was said to be so old that she had seen the destruction of the world three times over.  This afforded her so much wisdom and learning that she possessed the knowledge of all the ages.  In one legend, the Simurgh was said to have lived for 1,700 years before plunging herself into flames, much like the Phoenix.  The figure of the Simurgh can be found in all periods of Iranian art and literature, as well other regions that were within the realm of Persian cultural influence.  The Simurgh represented the union and served as a mediator and messenger between the Earth and the Sky.  She lived in the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ and, when she took flight, her powerful ascent shook the tree’s branches so violently that the seeds from every plant that had ever existed, were scattered throughout the world, bringing a wealth of valuable plants to mankind.  The fantastic creature known as the Simurgh, was imagined to be a huge bird of prey, and it is a symbol of goodness and is equivalent to the idea of the good spirit in the pre-Islamic Turkish faith.  It was believed that those who obtained the feather of this bird could reach the greatest secret of the universe and immortality.

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