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Roc (mythology)

A roc or rukh (from Persian رخ rokh, asserted by Louis Charles Casartelli to be an abbreviated form of Persian simurgh) is an enormous legendary bird of prey, often white, reputed to have been able to carry off and eat elephants.

Eastern origins

The roc had its origins, according to Rudolph Wittkower, in the fight between the Indian solar bird Garuda and the chthonic serpent Nāga, a word that A. de Gubernatis asserted signified 'elephant' as well as 'snake'. The mytheme of Garuda carrying off an elephant that was battling a tortoise appears in two Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata (I.1353) and the Ramayana (III.39). The roc appears in Arabic geographies and natural history, popularized in Arabian fairy tales and sailors' folklore. Ibn Battuta (iv. 305ff) tells of a mountain hovering in air over the China Seas, which was the roc.

Western expansion

Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela reported a story reminiscent of the roc in which shipwrecked sailors had themselves carried off desert islands by wrapping ox-hides round them and letting griffins carry them off as if they were cattle. In the 13th century, Marco Polo (as quoted in Attenborough (1961: 32) stated "It was for all the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous size; so big in fact that its quills were twelve paces long and thick in proportion. And it is so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces; having so killed him, the bird swoops down on him and eats him at leisure". Marco Polo explicitly distinguishes the bird from a griffin. Doubtless it was Marco Polo's description that inspired Antonio Pigafetta, one of Magellan's companions, who wrote or had ghost-written an embroidered account of the circumglobal voyage; in Pigafetta's account the home grounds of the roc were the China Seas. Such descriptions doubtless captured the imaginations of later illustrators, such as Johannes Stradanus ca 1590 or Theodor de Bry in 1594 who showed an elephant being carried off in the roc's talons, or showed the roc destroying entire ships in revenge for destruction of its giant egg, as recounted in the fifth voyage of Sinbad the Sailor. Tomasso Aldrovandini's Ornithologia (1599) included a woodcut of a roc with a somewhat pig-like elephant in its talons, but in the rational world of the seventeenth century, the roc was more critically looked upon.

Rationalized accounts

The scientific culture of the nineteenth century introduced some 'scientific' rationalizations for the myth's origins, by suggesting that the origin of the myth of the roc may lie in embellishments of the often-witnessed power of the eagle that could carry away a newborn lamb. In 1863, Bianconi suggested the roc was a raptor (Hawkins and Goodman, 2003: 1031). Recently a giant subfossil eagle in the genus Stephanoaetus identified from Madagascar was actually implicated as a top bird predator of the island, whose megafauna once included giant lemurs and pigmy hippopotami (Goodman, 1994).

One such rationalizing theory is that the existence of rocs was postulated from the sight of the African ostrich, which, because of its flightlessness and unusual appearance, was mistaken for the chick of a presumably much larger species. It is, however, possible that the myth originated from accounts of eggs of another Malagasy subfossil, the enormous Aepyornis elephant bird, an extinct three-meter tall flightless bird whose name may also have been inspired by Marco Polo's legend. There are reported sightings of the Aepyornis at least in folklore memory as Étienne de Flacourt wrote in 1658. Its egg, live or subfossilised, was known as early as 1420, when sailors to the Cape of Good Hope found eggs of the roc, according to a caption in the 1456 Fra Mauro map of the world, which says that the roc "carries away an elephant or any other great animal". In addition to Marco Polo's account of the rukh in 1298, Chou Ch'ű-fei (Zhōu Qùfēi 周去飞) in 1178 told of a large island off Africa with birds large enough to use their quills as water reservoirs (Pearson and Godden 2002: 121). Fronds of the raffia palm may have been brought to Kublai Khan under the guise of roc's feathers ; a stump of a roc's quill was said to have been brought to Spain by a merchant from the China seas (Abu Hamid of Spain, in Damiri, see below).

Roc in literary tradition

The legend of the roc, popularized in the West in the travels of Marco Polo and later in the 1001 Nights' tales, of Abd al-Rahman and Sinbad the Sailor, was widespread in the East. Through the sixteenth century the existence of the roc was accepted by Europeans. In 1604 Michael Drayton envisaged the rocs being taken aboard the Ark:

All feathered things yet ever knowne to men,
From the huge Rucke, unto the little Wren;
From Forrest, Fields, from Rivers and from Pons,
All that have webs, or cloven-footed ones;
To the Grand Arke, together friendly came,
Whose severall species were too long to name.

Comparable mythic birds

The roc is hardly different from the Middle-Eastern `anqa "عنقاء" (see phoenix); it is also identified with the Persian simurgh, the bird which figures in Firdausi's epic as the foster-father of the hero Zal, father of Rustam.

Going farther back into Persian antiquity, there is an immortal bird, amrzs, or (in the Minoi-khiradh) slnamurv, which shakes the ripe fruit from the mythical tree that bears the seed of all useful things. Sinmartt and simurgh seem to be the same word. In Indian legend the garuda on which Vishnu rides is the king of birds (Benfey, Panchatantra, 98). In the Pahlavi translation of the Indian story as represented by the Syrian Kalilag and Damnag (ed. Gustav Bickell, 1876), the simurgh takes the place of the garuda, while Ibn al-Molaffa (Calila et Dimna, ed. De Sacy, p. 126) speaks instead of the `anl~a. The later Syriac, curiously enough, has behemoth—apparently the behemoth of Job—transformed into a bird. The Hungarian Turul, the Ziz of Jewish tradition, the Fijian kanivatu, the Chinese peng and the Thunderbird of Native American tradition are also giant birds.

Notes and references

  • For a collection of legends about the roc, see Edward Lane's Arabian Nights, chap; xx. notes 22, 62
  • Heny Yule, as above.
  • Samuel Bochart, Hierozoicon, vi.14
  • Damfri, I. 414, ii. 177 seq.
  • Kazwini, i. ~I9 seq.
  • Ibn Batuta, iv. 305ff
  • Friedrich Spiegel, Eranische Alterthumskunde, ii. 118.
  • Goodman, Steven M. (1994). "Description of a new species of subfossil eagle from Madagascar: Stephanoaetus (Aves: Falconiformes) from the deposits of Amphasambazimba," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 107: 421-428.
  • Flacourt E. de. (1658). Histoire de la grande île de Madagascar. Paris.
  • Hawkins, A.F.A. and Goodman, S. M. (2003), in Goodman, S.M. and Benstead, J.P. (eds). The Natural History of Madagascar. (University of Chicago Press), pp. 1019-1044.
  • Pearson, Mike Parker and Godden, K. (2002). In search of the Red Slave: Shipwreck and Captivity in Madagascar (Sutton Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire).
  • Author Terry Brooks in the fictional Shanara series writes of Elves who train and ride Rocs

See also

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