To answer your first question, the roc is a giant legendary bird. To answer your second question, no, there isn’t a giant bird in Aladdin, even in the version I’m talking about. But there is a roc‘s egg, and as we’ll see, it can spell trouble even before hatching.
Most sources say the roc, or rukh, was an enormous bird of prey, sometimes with horns, sometimes with a lion’s head, but always worthy of a heavy metal album cover. How big, you may ask?
Enough to carry off an elephant. Or maybe one under each wing, while it also carries a rhino high enough to blind it in the sun. But that obviously wouldn’t work, because its massive, Everest-sized wings would have blotted it out anyway.
Fortunately for the people who told of such a bird, it always seemed to live “far far away”, and whether it was a sun-blotter or pachyderm-pincher, just one of its quills could hold several litres of water. While most storytellers agreed on this part, we’re not 100% sure where the stories came from.
A massive bird isn’t a massive stretch of the imagination, so several cultures have their own take. Although the roc is usually slung in the Persian folklore net, Ahmed al-Rawi claims it’s never even mentioned there.
There is a suspiciously similar bird called the simurgh though, and the Turkish anka could get away with using its I.D. as well. Persian scholar Abū al-Rīḥān Moḥammed al-Beirūnī also spoke of a bird called a khatū, which lived beyond China and Africa, dined on elephants, and would block out the sun until people worshipped it appropriately.
But for al-Rawi’s money, the roc likely came from the Chinese p’eng, which transforms from the fish Leviathan into an enormous, elephant-munching bird that darkens the sky.
Hey, when you share trading routes, you’ll probably share stories too. But which?
One of the most famous is linked to both a real traveller, Islamic explorer Ibn Baţūţah, and a fictional one from the One Thousand and One Nights, Abd Al-Rahman.
Regardless of the leading man (and who ripped off who), he and his crewmates notice a floating mountain in the middle of the ocean, and completely lose their minds when they realise it’s the type of rock without a “k”.
Fortunately they either manage to steer the ship away in time, or it never spots them.
The people in the next story probably thought they were wimps.
The 12th and 13th century Persian writers Abī ‘Umrān Mūsā al-Sīrāfī and al-Qazwīnī, and another character from the One Thousand and One Nights, Sin(d)bad the sailor, told a more up close and personal tale. Luckily the latter wasn’t real, because he had to live it.
In the Second Voyage of Sindbad the Sailor, our protagonist is marooned on an island with no hope of ever getting home. To complete the best day he’s ever had, he stumbles across a roc‘s nest, complete with fifty-pace-circumference egg. Sindbad waits until its gargantuan parent settles on top, MacGyvers his turban into a rope and then ties himself to its leg to steal a lift.
Said bird is either nonplussed or distracted, and Sindbad is able to slip off un-noticed when it lands. In al-Sīrāfī’s version it’s an entire crew who are stranded, and one at a time they tie themselves to the roc‘s leg with bark. al-Qazwīnī’s solo hero, however, just hangs on for grim death, and isn’t harmed in any way either.
So to be fair to the roc, it has more important things to do than terrorise puny men. It’s only if you mess with its nest that you’re in trouble. And unfortunately, some people found out the hard way. Namely, the sailors in the stories of Arab and Chinese voyagers Abdul Raḥīm al-Şīnnī and Chou Ch’ű-fei, and our One Thousand and One Nights friends Abd and Sindbad. Because what’s the worst that can happen when you annoy a bird big enough to blot out the sun?
Don’t roc the boat
This time, when a whole crew stumbles across a roc‘s nest, they decide the best thing to do is chuck stones at the egg before killing and eating the emerging chick.
Its meat works some anti-ageing magic and turns their white beards black again, but when momma and poppa bird see what’s up, they respond in kind by throwing rocks back at them. Mountain-sized rocks, that is. Somewhat annoyingly, except in the Fifth Voyage of Sindbad the Sailor, all of the upstart sailors survive.
Not only is the roc a devoted and vengeful parent, it’s loyal and noble.
After a young prince defends her chicks from snakes, Turkish version the anka rewards him with an adventure to a faraway land. The problem is it’s a long way, and the prince, out of gratitude, tries to feed her his own blood and flesh when they run out of food. She graciously rejects this unorthodox lunch, heals him, and (non-fatally) drops him off afterwards.
The aforementioned simurgh, or “dog-bird”, is also a symbol of nobility and justice in one of the world’s oldest religions. Practised in parts of modern-day Iran and India, Zoroastrianism holds that the simurgh was both incredibly wise, helped raise Persian hero Zal, and oversaw his son’s C-section delivery. Said son ended up the greatest hero in Persia, making the roc a kick-ass grandparent as well.
So why all the different identities?
It’s important to appeal to your audience, so if they know of a similar giant bird by another name, you’d better use that unless you want a sea of blank faces.
Which audience? The one reading stories like the One Thousand and One Nights, of course! Which brings me back to my original question: what killed the Aladdin-genie bromance?
In the original Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, an evil wizard tricks Aladdin into wishing for a roc’s egg to hang in his palace. Apparently a hanging roc’s egg is the ultimate bling, but for a genie, it’s the ultimate insult. Whether he’s Aladdin’s obedient servant or bestest friend ever, he quits on the spot and roars:
“Ungrateful human!” […] “Must you also command me to bring you our mistress and hang her up in the dome of the palace for your amusement? By Allah, you and your wife deserve to be burnt to ashes this very instant and scattered to the winds. But as you are both ignorant of this offence and have no knowledge of its consequences, I forgive you.”
He’s nice enough to reveal the evil wizard’s plan before vanishing forever, so there’s that.
Here’s something else that vanished forever: three birds that probably inspired the legend.
The Haast’s eagle of New Zealand (Aquila moorei) had a wingspan matching our current biggest raptor, the Andean condor (3 metres/10 feet), and some species of flightless moa (family name Dinornithidae) stood just as tall. But most stories were from Arab voyagers, who generally pointed to the coast of Africa as the home of the roc.
There you’ll find Madagascar, of course, and until 1300 years ago, it had its own flightless giant known as the “elephant bird” thanks to its apparent pachyderm penchant.
There were several different species, and they fell under the less catchy family name of “Aepyornithidae”. I’ll leave you to guess why they went extinct.
When famous explorer Marco Polo heard the tales from Madagascar, he thought the roc might be a griffin. His buddy, Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan, sent some messengers to investigate. They brought back one of the massive water-holding feathers I mentioned as proof of a giant bird, but it was probably just a Raphia palm frond.
Hopefully he didn’t find out, because Genghis Khan’s grandson is one of the last people you’d want to annoy in 13th century Asia.
A legendary giant bird isn’t much of a stretch. We’ve always been in awe of the grace and hunting prowess of an eagle, so a giant one would both look amazing and be kick-ass to ride. But it’s probably for the best that the enormous roc is a myth: snow is the only white thing that should ever fall from the sky without warning.
The roc is a giant, legendary bird of prey that’s probably an amalgamation of several Asian mythologies and/or inspired by extinct birds from Africa and Australasia. It’s also the mistress of the genie in the lamp (“mistress” as in ruler, not side-piece), and obliviously wishing for a roc’s egg is what lands Aladdin in hot water.
Featured image credit: “Roc” by grayREALM.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
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