The Roc

Enormous birds of prey large enough to carry off horses, cattle or even elephants, the Roc originates in the folklore and mythology of the Middle East. 

German-born British art historian Rudolf Wittkower traced the origins of the Roc of Arabic and Persian folklore back to the Garuda of Indian mythology. Titled the king of birds, the Garuda is portrayed either as a giant bird or as a man possessed of great wings. A divine being with links to the sun and acting as the flying mount of the god Vishnu, the Garuda’s immense size and common tale of it carrying off an elephant appear to have provided a clear inspiration for the Roc.

Benjamin of Tudela exploring the Sahara. Image: Tribune Juive

The first Western recording of a being matching the description of Rocs comes from Benjamin of Tudela, a traveler from what is now Spain who journeyed widely across Europe, Asia and Africa during the 12th Century. He detailed an account from shipwrecked sailors that escaped from the desert island they found themselves stranded on by wrapping themselves in ox-hide and allowing huge birds to carry them off. However, many later translations of the tale described the flying creatures as something more akin to a griffin than simply a giant bird.

In the 13th Century, Marco Polo described a creature that appeared ‘for all the world like an eagle’ but possessing an enormous size, with flight feathers that were twelve paces in length. Polo also detailed the bird’s preferred hunting method: snatching up elephants then dropping them from high up to smash them on the ground, before picking over the carcass. He stated that the great birds flew to the lands he traveled through from Madagascar to hunt, even claiming that the Khagan of the Mongol Empire possessed a feather brought back from the island by his emissaries.

An illustration from the 5th voyage of Sinbad, depicting merchants breaking open a Roc egg. Image: Gustave Dore

Rocs feature in the compilation of Middle Eastern folk tales known as One Thousand and One Nights, often anglicised as Arabian Nights. Primarily, they appeared during the voyages of Sinbad, both the second and fifth voyage (the latter of which a Roc destroyed a ship in revenge for the breaking of its egg). 

By the 17th Century, a more rational approach to myths such as the Roc was being adopted, seeking to provide explanations for the real phenomenon behind sailor’s stories. A common starting point is that the most frequently repeated claim, that Rocs carry off livestock or elephants, is simply an exaggeration of the well-documented phenomenon of eagles carrying away lambs, or even snatching at goats on cliff sides to cause them to fall.

‘Terror bird’ eggs, which may have been mistaken for Roc eggs. Image: Museum national d’Histoire naturelle

Fossil records of a large eagle in Madagascar, equivalent in size or a little larger than some of the largest eagles living today such as the Harpy Eagle and African Crowned Eagle, could explain their supposed origin on the island. Alongside this Malagsy Crowned Eagle, the ‘terror birds’ that once dwelled in Madagascar before being hunted to extinction in the 16th Century could have contributed to myths surrounding the Roc, particularly examples of their very large eggs brought back to Asia.

Another theory is that travelers, on encountering ostriches for the first time, mistook them as the juveniles of a larger species due to their bald head, neck and legs and flightlessness. Fronds of plants such as the raffia palm may also have been brought back by opportunistic travelers and merchants with the claim that they were roc feathers.

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