Roc (mythology)

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Edward Julius Detmold49.jpg
Grouping Mythology
Similar creatures Simurgh, Garuda, Phoenix, Thunderbird
Mythology Middle Eastern
Other name(s) Rukh
Habitat Air

Roc, from the Spanish words rocho and ruc,[citation needed] from Arabic رخ (ruḵḵ), itself from Persian رخ (ruḵ),[1] is an enormous legendary bird of prey.


Etymology is partially uncertain and thus, debated. It seems that currently, at least following dictionaries and other referenced source materials, the English word roc is exclusively reserved to refer to the mythological bird. The English form "roc" originates directly from the Spanish words rocho and ruc,[citation needed] these from Arabic ruḵḵ and that from Persian ruḵ. In both languages, Arabic and Persian, the word is written in Arabic alphabet as رخ. Common romanizations are ruḵḵ for the Arabic form[1] and ruḵ,[1] rokh or rukh for the Persian form. The English word rook (the chess piece) seems to have been originated from the Old French rok, roc or rock, ultimately from the Arabic ruḵḵ, on its turn "of uncertain original meaning",[2] although supposedly both the Arabic (رخ, ruḵḵ) and Persian (رخ, ruḵ) words can be translated as castle, fortress or siege tower, but also chariot, as per in ancient times siege towers where often equipped with wheels. The chess piece term mainly stems from the Persian رخ rukh or Sanskrit रत rath, both meaning chariot (thus corresponding to the Asian chess variants).

Eastern origins[edit]

Illustration by René Bull

Rudolph Wittkower[edit]

The roc had its origins, according to Rudolph Wittkower, in the fight between the Indian solar bird Garuda[3] and the chthonic serpent Nāga. The mytheme of Garuda carrying off an elephant that was battling a crocodile appears in two Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata (I.1353) and the Ramayana (III.39).

Literary tradition[edit]


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 the air over the China Seas, which was the roc.[4]

One Thousand and One Nights[edit]

The merchants break the roc's egg, Le Magasin pitoresque, Paris, 1865

The One Thousand and One Nights tales of Abd al-Rahman and Sinbad the Sailor were widespread in the East.

Western expansion[edit]

1690 painting by Franz Rösel von Rosenhof showing two roc-like birds carrying a deer and an elephant

Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela reported a story reminiscent of the roc in which shipwrecked sailors escaped from a desert island by wrapping themselves in ox-hides and letting griffins carry them off as if they were cattle.[5] 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[6] the home grounds of the roc were the seas of China. Such descriptions captured the imaginations of later illustrators, such as Johannes Stradanus ca 1590[7] or Theodor de Bry in 1594 who showed an elephant being carried off in the roc's talons,[8] 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. Ulisse Aldrovandi's Ornithologia (1599) included a woodcut of a roc with a somewhat pig-like elephant in its talons,[9] but in the rational world of the 17th century, the roc was regarded more critically.

Rationalized accounts[edit]

The scientific culture of the 19th 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, the Malagasy crowned eagle, identified from Madagascar was actually implicated as a top bird predator of the island, whose megafauna once included giant lemurs and pygmy hippopotamuses.[10]

Another possible origin of the myth is accounts of eggs of another extinct Malagasy bird, the enormous Aepyornis elephant bird, hunted to extinction by the 16th century, that was three meters tall and flightless.[11] There were reported elephant bird sightings at least in folklore memory as Étienne de Flacourt wrote in 1658.[citation needed] 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".[citation needed]

Another 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. Ostriches, however, were already well known in Biblical times.[12][verification needed] But on the other hand, a medieval Northern European or Indian traveller, if confronted with tales about ostriches, might very well not have recognized them for what they were (compare History of elephants in Europe).[citation needed].

In addition to Marco Polo's account of the rukh in 1298, Chou Ch'ű-fei (周去非, Zhōu Qùfēi ) 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.[13][14]

Religious tradition[edit]

Michael Drayton[edit]

Through the 16th 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.


The rukh is also identified in the Ethiopian holy book Kebra Negast as the agent responsible for delivering the blessed piece of wood to King Solomon which enabled the great king to complete the Temple. This piece of wood also is said to have transformed the Queen of Sheba's foot from that of a goat to that of a human. The piece of wood that the rukh brought was therefore given an honored place in the Temple and decorated with silver rings. According to tradition, these silver rings were given to Judas Iscariot as payment for betraying Jesus; the piece of wood became Jesus's cross.

Comparable mythic birds[edit]

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 Ferdowsi's epic as the foster-mother of the hero Zal, father of Rustam.

Going further 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. 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 or Bar Juchne of Jewish tradition, the Fijian kanivatu, Finnish kokko, the Chinese peng and the Thunderbird of Native American tradition are also giant birds.

Some recent scholars have compared the legendary roc with the Haast's eagle, of New Zealand. 1.4 m (4 ft 7 in) long with a 3 m (9.8 ft) wingspan, it became extinct around the 15th century, but probably inspired the Māori legend of Te Hokioi or Te Hakawai.[15] This was said to be a colorful huge bird which (in some versions of the legend) in ancient times had occasionally descended to Earth to carry off humans to eat, but generally lived in the clouds unseen. Only its cry, after which it was named, could be heard. Indeed, the hokioi seems to be a composite mythical beast inspired by actual animals, just like the roc appears to have been. In the 1980s, it was found[16] that male Coenocorypha snipes, tiny nocturnal waders, produce an unexpectedly loud roaring sound with their tails during mating flights. The supposed coloration of the hokioi is not matched by any known bird, and generally would be extremely unusual for a bird of prey. Thus, as it seems the hokioi was the eerie "drumming" of the snipes, explained with the ancestor's tales about the giant eagles which they still knew from living memory.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c roc /[phonetic transcription]/ n. Also (earlier) ✝roche, ✝rock, ✝ruc(k), ✝rukh. L16 [Sp. rocho, ruc f. Arab. ruḵḵ, f. Pers. ruḵ.] A mythical bird of Eastern legend, imagined as being of enormous size and strength (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Clarendon Press, Oxford, Volume 2 N-Z, 1993 edition, page 2614)
  2. ^ rook /[phonetic transcription]/ n.² ME. [OFr. rok, roc, rock, ult. f. Arab. ruḵḵ of uncertain orig. meaning.] (extract from rook (second meaning), The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Clarendon Press, Oxford, Volume 2 N-Z, 1993 edition, page 2624)
  3. ^ Wittkower noted the identification of the roc and Garuda made in Kalipadra Mitra, "The bird and serpent myth", The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society (Bangalore) 16 1925-26:189.
  4. ^ Noted in Yule-Cordier, Cathay and the Way Thither IV (1916:146), noted by Wittkower 1938.
  5. ^ M. Komroff, Contemporaries of Marco Polo 1928:311f.
  6. ^ Or the Italian version in Ramusio's Delle navigationi et viaggi, mentioned in Rudolph Wittkower, "'Roc': An Eastern Prodigy in a Dutch Engraving" Journal of the Warburg Institute 1.3 (January 1938:255-257) p 255
  7. ^ An engraving after Stradanus is reproduced in Wittkower 1938:fig 33c.
  8. ^ De Bry's engraving is reproduced in Attenborough (1961: 35)
  9. ^ Illustrated in Wittkower 1938:33, fig. b.
  10. ^ Goodman, 1994
  11. ^ Tyson, Peter (2000). The Eighth Continent. New York. pp. 138–139. 
  12. ^ Job 39 verse 13:
  13. ^ Yule's Marco Polo, bk. iii. ch. 33, and Academy, 1884, No. 620.
  14. ^ Attenborough, D. (1961). Zoo Quest to Madagascar. Lutterworth Press, London. p.32-33.
  15. ^ "New Zealand Birds". Retrieved 2010-07-09. 
  16. ^ Miskelly (1987), Galbreath & Miskelly (1988)
  17. ^ Mount Qaf - Mythology Dictionary


For a collection of legends about the roc, see Edward Lane's Arabian Nights, chap; xx. notes 22, 62
  • Bochart, Samuel, Hierozoicon, vi.14
  • Damfri, I. 414, ii. 177 seq.
  • Flacourt, E. de (1658). Histoire de la grande île de Madagascar. Paris. New edition 2007, with Allibert C. notes and presentation, Paris, Karthala ed. 712 pages
  • 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.
  • Galbreath, Ross & Miskelly, Colin M. (1988): The Hakawai. Notornis 35(3): 215–216. PDF fulltext
  • Miskelly, Colin M. (1987): The identity of the hakawai. Notornis 34(2): 95-116. PDF fulltext
  • Hawkins, A.F.A. & Goodman, S.M. (2003) in Goodman, S.M. & Benstead, J.P. (eds.): The Natural History of Madagascar: 1019–1044. University of Chicago Press.
  • Ibn Batuta, iv. 305ff
  • Kazwini, i. ~I9 seq.
  • Pearson, Mike Parker & Godden, K. (2002). In search of the Red Slave: Shipwreck and Captivity in Madagascar. Sutton Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire.
  • Spiegel, Friedrich, Eranische Alterthumskunde, ii. 118.
  • Yule, Heny[verification needed], as above.
  • Allibert C., Le monde austronésien et la civilisation du bambou: une plume qui pèse lourd: l'oiseau Rokh des auteurs arabes, in Taloha 11, Antananarivo, Institut de Civilisations, Musée d'Art et d'Archéologie, 1992: 167-181

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