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The rukh (or roc) is a giant bird of prey. It looks like an eagle. That’s pretty common knowledge, right?

The Background

Rukhs appear in 1001 Arabian Nights (which may date as early as the 8th century) in the stories of Sindbad the Sailor, specifically his second and fifth voyages. While the picture above is very evocative of the size of the rukh – specifically, of one of its eggs – it is inadequate to the task. When Sindbad discovers an egg initially, all he sees is a white dome in the sand. He paces around it to determine its circumference and determines fifty paces. Shortly thereafter a cloud seems to pass over the sun, but instead it is the bird landing to keep watch over its egg. As large as the rukh is, however, the egg is disproportionate and the bird can only cover it with one wing.

Traditional lore about the rukh says that it is so big that it hunts by picking up an elephant and dropping it to the ground, at which point it feasts on the remains. The narrative of Sindbad’s second voyage (a story within a story, as it is told by Shahrazd to the ruler Shahryar to keep him from killing her at dawn – thus she tells tales for the obligatory 1,001 nights) goes on to have the bird hunt giant serpents and not elephants at all. Furthermore, in Sindbad’s fifth voyage when the merchants break open the rukh egg and feast on the chick, the two parents pursue the ships in which they came, hover above it, and drop boulders upon the ships, killing all but Sindbad himself.

The traveler Marco Polo dictated his travel stories while in a Venetian jail at the end of the thirteenth century, and in his discussion of the island of Madagascar he brought up rukhs, which (in that day and age) flew in from the south during certain seasons. Its wings when spread measured sixteen paces apiece and the quill portion took two of a man’s palms to grasp.

Relations to Other Birds, Legendary or Otherwise

The story of the rukh carrying off an elephant is not unique to rukh itself. The same is told about the anqa, the phoenix, the simurgh, and the Indian figure Garuda. Given that Sindbad (himself a narrative representation of the good Shahrazd) sees with his own eyes the rukh take away a giant snake as its prey, perhaps we can conclude that the elephant story is merely there to suggest how big this bird truly is. Alternately, elephants may be the preferred dish of all such giants, but that seems less likely.

Let’s stick with what our eyewitness accounts state instead of relying on the hyperbole of elephants.

It bears a great resemblance to an eagle and is white in color. It nests in the relative vicinity of salt water. It hovers (over ships). It uses tools (drops stones on top of said ships). It holds a grudge (when its children are eaten and destroys the ships of the perpetrators). It eats snakes. (For what it’s worth, it does not seem to be typical raptor behavior to fly its prey into the air and then drop it to its death. Not that a rukh is in any way a typical raptor). Its eggs are huge.

The first part, coloration, suggests something closer to a gull or a tern, which would also fit with the salt water. The hovering is unique to a hummingbird, and given the amount of force that that bird’s wings generate, it seems likely that a creature the size of a rukh wouldn’t need a boulder to devastate a ship if it could move its wings that fast. Furthermore, the wing profile of a hummingbird to an eagle (or even a tern) is completely distinct, so let’s disregard this particular tale as a flight of panicked fancy (or maybe just good storytelling). The tool use and grudge-holding speaks more to a member of the corvid family. Most unique, its eggs would seem to grow upon leaving the hen’s body. Bird eggs don’t do this – but snake eggs do! Although, snake eggs are also soft and not hard, and Sindbad reports upon the rigidity of the shell. Unless it hardens under the sun, this would also seem to be a fanciful angle. On the other hand, unlike hovering, this piece may be based in some greater truth, for example the eggs of the elephant bird, a now-extinct (c. 16th century) nearly 10 foot tall ostrich-like bird. Not only were its eggs quite big (though proportionate to a 10 foot tall bird, and not to a rukh), the full-grown creature may have been taken as the young chick of a bird as big as a rukh. Honestly, at this point it’s all conjecture.

Let’s distill.

RURO Photography on Flickr

RURO Photography on Flickr

This bird (a Madagascar fish eagle) except all white that is behaviorally like a crow or a raven and really, really big. Hey, even if the elephant-carrying thing is hyperbole, it’s still going to be a mighty big bird (incidentally, in my research on megafauna for this, the only oversized birds I came across were flightless ones).

Essentially what we’re dealing with in the case of the rukh is a composite creature. Unlike a more typical example, however, rukhs are behaviorally composite. Visually and physically, they are all bird.

Cultural Context

Limiting my evaluation of eagles’ symbolic meaning to the Ancient Near East (see also the entry on composite creatures, above), according to what I’ve been able to find out about Persian beliefs the birds were considered both a connection to the divine (by means of their connection to the sky) as well as being of militant and victorious nature in their war with and triumph over snakes (15 second video here).

Achaemenes, the (perhaps legendary) founder of the dynasty from which Cyrus the Great sprang (roughly 500 BCE), was said to have been raised by an eagle. It was apparently used as an emblem (sigil, heraldry, what-have-you) by ancient empires in this part of the world.

Eagles ruled the sky the way lions ruled their plains. They had a similar sense of nobility and majesty. Nevertheless, while we can isolate folkloric and symbolic meaning about the eagle, we cannot do anything similar about the rukh. It seems likely to me that, for example, the rukh is gifted with corvid-like behavior, what the storyteller is doing is not so much drawing attention to other birds as she is emphasizing positive (and dangerous) characteristics. The rukh isn’t a giant-sized eagle that acts like a crow. It is a giant-sized eagle-like bird that thinks like a person.

Which raises a separate question, that of the position of humans within the natural sphere. Personally, I’m inclined to believe that industrialization and modernization have helped foment ideologies that place human beings on a pedestal above animals. It makes me wonder if older civilizations saw themselves as more integrated into the animal kingdom, subject to similar pressures – even if that meant raising animals to human’s status instead of “lowering” humans to theirs.

An Ending without Conclusions

Unlike eagles, which, while rare are common enough to have symbols associated with them, rukhs are rare enough that they have accrued no such value. All they have are their stories, and even those are far apart and few between. Like other birds such as the phoenix or the simurgh, the rukh is a near-to-unique creature. At the same time, there is at least one mated pair and at least one egg. Does that mean there are more? Do rukhs live as long as they are large? Do they have lice or mites of similar scale that live among their feathers?

As with a great number of legendary and mythological creatures, there is slightly more to the rukh’s description and abilities than there is to its nuances and details, though in this case there it not even that much to the first case. Symbolic values (as with the peacock, for example) open up new levels and parameters of meaning that are flexible in ways that facts resist.

What it comes down to is more or less where it all began. The rukh is a big bird. Big enough to carry off an elephant.

Some of the Useful Links

The Second Voyage of Sinbad
The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad
The Travels of Marco Polo (Chapter XXXIII on Madagascar in particular); alternate here
Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore (Ingersoll 1923; e-text, excellent resource)

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