The people of the island [of Madagascar] report that at a certain season of the year, an extraordinary kind of bird which they call a Rukh, makes its appearance from the southern region. In form it is said to resemble the eagle but it is incomparably greater in size; being so large and strong as to seize an elephant with its talons, and to lift it into the air, from whence it lets it fall to the ground, in order that when dead it may prey upon the carcass. Persons who have seen this bird assert that when the wings are spread they measure sixteen paces in extent, from point to point; and that the feathers are eight paces in length, and thick in proportion. —Marco Polo, Travels (III, 36)
Roc carrying off elephants
The sky darkens suddenly, the shadow of huge wings sweeping the ground. A crack of thunder as the Roc dives, then it is gone again, an elephant clutched in massive claws. Giant birds have held sway over our imaginations since perhaps as long as humanity has existed—perhaps longer. In his book, An Instinct for Dragons, author David Jones proposes that Dragons are an amalgamation of the three great predators of our earliest ancestors: the big cats, the serpents, and the raptors—the birds of prey. He suggests that our earliest primate ancestors were hunted by these predators and, through what Jung might call the “world mind,” we have retained these memories even until today.1 If this be true, such memories might account for many of our mythic creatures, be they Dragon, Gryphon, or giant birds. Even so, the Roc and the Thunderbird are awe-inspiring figures, symbolically representing storms, wind, thunder, and lightning.
Watch out for falling Rocs
The Roc (Persian, Rukh or Rucke) is a bird of immense size found in Persian and Indian myth. It lived on the island of Madagascar, and was said to be large enough to carry off elephants to feed its gigantic chicks. In the “Voyages of Sinbad,” found within the famous Arabian Thousand Nights and a Night, or Arabian Nights (compiled ca. 800–900 ce), a Roc attacks Sinbad and destroys some of his ships in retaliation for the destruction of one of its eggs. In another story out of the same book, Rocs drop boulders upon the ships of Abd al-Rahman in retaliation for his sailors killing a Roc chick.
Fig. 1. Roc attacking Sinbad’s ship
Stories of the Roc can be traced back to the Greek Historian Herodotus (484–424 bce), who was told by Egyptian priests of birds so huge they could carry off a person. The story recounted in the Arabian Nights first appeared in the Jatakas of India, a great compendium of folktales dating from at least the 4th century bce. However, the great bird is not named as a Roc. Crusaders brought the story back to Europe in the Middle Ages, and in the 13th century, Marco Polo described the Roc in some detail.2
Fig. 2. Two-headed Roc from 7th Voyage of Sinbad movie, 1958
Early accounts do not specify if the Roc is actually a raptor or not, but today it is universally regarded as such. Some myths say that the Roc never lands on Earth but only on the mountain known as Qaf, in the center of the world. The Roc was said to have a wingspan of some 48 feet and its feathers alone could measure up to 24 feet long. In the mid-1200s, gigantic feathers said to be from the Roc were presented to Kublai Khan, grandson of Emperor Genghis Khan. These, however, were actually dried fronds of the Raffia Palm (Raphia), the longest leaves in the plant kingdom, reaching an impressive length of eighty feet.
Fig. 3. The gigantic egg of the Roc
The origin of the legend of the Roc may be found in Madagascar’s enormous, flightless Elephant Bird or Vouron Patra (Aepyornis maximus), which reached eleven feet in height and weighed 1,100 pounds. Its three-foot-circumference eggs had a liquid capacity of 2.35 gallons. Bigger than any dinosaur eggs, these were the largest single cells to have ever existed on Earth. This awesome avian was exterminated by humans in the 16th century.
Fig. 4. Elephant Bird or Vouron Patra
Because Vourons had insignificant wings, and black, down-like pilli rather than true feathers, they were thought to be only the chicks of truly colossal flying adults. Consider that two of the four Arabian Nights tales involving the Roc focus on sailors destroying its enormous eggs and chicks. Sinbad found a Roc’s egg to be as large as 148 hen’s eggs; the egg of Aepyornis maximus actually had a volume about 160 times greater than that of a chicken.3 Even today, preserved or fossilized specimens of these immense eggs occasionally turn up in the marketplaces of Madagascar, where they fetch high prices.
Fig. 5. Elephant Bird egg for sale in Madagascar marketplace
Malcolm South has suggested that tales of the Roc may have been created to explain meteorites, as several of the stories have the giant birds dropping huge stones, particularly on ships. This would also seem to be a possible origin for the tale of the Ababil. According to the Quran, these were huge birds that saved the city of Mecca in the year of Mohammed’s birth (571ce) by dropping bricks on an attacking army of elephants. Ababil is now a local name for the common Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica).4
And Peter Costello suggests that the huge Wandering Albatross (Diomeda exultans) could have also contributed to the legend of the Roc. It holds the record as having the largest wingspan of any living bird—some reported as large as 17.5 feet across.
Fig. 6. Wandering albatross
The Native American equivalent of the Roc, the Thunderbird is said to carry off bison or even whales. Its feathers are as long as canoe paddles, and when it flaps its wings, thunder sounds, the wind roars, and lightning flashes from its eyes. The Thunderbird is often described as a giant, condor-like creature, though sometimes it resembles a more hawk-like raptor. They were said to have been sent from the gods to protect humanity from evil. In other cases, they are regarded as shapeshifters, and are believed to take a human form at times and even intermarry with people.
Fig. 7. Thunderbird by OZ
In some Native American myths, the Thunderbird is the enemy of the killer whale. In others, it is the enemy of giant, horned Water-Dragons, the Unktehi (see the New Page book Dragonlore, by Ash DeKirk, for a recounting of this tale, called “The Tlanuhwa and the Uktena”). The Tlanuhwa resembles a Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) of gigantic proportions, and is believed to have been the progenitor of this magnificent predator. There are caves along the Tennessee River where the Tlanuhwa were said to have once dwelt.
Thunderbirds are known by various local names among different tribes. In Iroquois tradition, the chief of the Thunderbirds is Keneun, the guardian of the sacred fire. To the Kwakiutl it is Jojo, its Nootka name is Kw-Uhnx-Wa, and the Ojibwa word for it is Animikii. Its Alaskan Inuit name is Tinmiukpuk, an immense eagle that carries off caribou and lone humans in its mighty talons and takes them back to its mountain nest to be devoured.
Fig. 8. Thunderbird (Joho) – Kwakiutl
Wuchowsen is a colossal bird in the folklore of the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy of New England. It sits still on its rock at the northernmost point of the world, and the slightest rustling of its feathers sends winds across the entire Earth. The same bird is called Bmola in the mythology of the Western Abanaki. It is also known as the Wind Bird, as it is associated with the frigid winds that sweep down from the frozen North in winter.
Kaneakeluh is a great cosmic bird in the mythology of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia, Canada; it brought fire to humanity.
The Lakota call the Thunderbirds Wakinyan or Waukkeon, and identify four types that can be distinguished in part by the brilliant colors of their feathers: blue Wakinyan have no eyes or ears, black ones have huge beaks, and yellow ones have no beak at all. Red Wakinyan are like great, scarlet eagles.
Fig. 9. Wakinyan shield (Lakota)
Oshädagea (“dew eagle” or “big eagle of the dew”) is a rather unusual Thunderbird in the mythology of the northeastern Woodlands Iroquois. He dwells in the western sky and carries a lake of dew in a hollow on his back, which he sprinkles over the land each morning to keep it fertile. When there is a forest fire caused by evil demons, he scoops water from the sea to douse the flames and routs the demons.
Nihniknoovi is a monstrous predatory bird in the folklore of the Kawaiisu Tubatulabal of the Southwest. It hunts humans, carrying his victims in its great talons to a waterhole where it drains their blood before eating the corpses.
Fig. 10. Nihniknoovi from Final Fantasy
Thunderbirds have been sighted throughout the United States, but mostly in the West and Midwest. One of the most famous encounters was reported in 1890 in Arizona. Two cowboys supposedly shot and killed an enormous, birdlike creature with a whopping 160-foot-wide wingspan, far outstripping the wingspans of more recent Thunderbird sightings and vastly outreaching the wingspans of any known bird species.
Although that report is generally considered a hoax, a more modest, but still quite large, specimen of a condor-like bird with a 20- to 30-foot-wide wingspan was said to have been killed sometime in the late 1800s. Although a photo of the bird “strung up with outstretched wings against a barn, with six men with outstretched arms fingertip to fingertip, to show its size”5 was said to have been published in the Tombstone Epitaph, all trace of it has disappeared, though it has been redrawn from memory (see below). In all likelihood, this was a California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), though this bird generally attains a wingspan no wider than nine feet.
Fig. 11. Thunderbird shot in late 1800s
Thunderbirds are commonly identified with the California Condor or even the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus), which is known to attain a wingspan of more than fifteen feet. Some cryptozoologists have proposed that the original Thunderbird may have been the giant Pleistocene raptor Aiolornis incredibilis, which had a wingspan of seventeen feet. This huge bird of prey has also been called a giant condor, though it is not related to modern condors. Even the smaller Ice-Age Teratornis merriami of California, with its twelve-foot wingspan, may have contributed to the legends. And recently, fossils have been found of an Argentine teratorn which stood five feet tall and had an astonishing wingspan of 24 feet!
Fig. 12. Teratornis and Smilodon, by Charles Knight (Field Museum of Natural History)
Though Thunderbirds are usually likened to condors or other raptor birds, there is some speculation that they may represent relic specimens of pterosaurs—a theory based either on fossils or on continuing reports of live sightings. As Thunderbirds are often portrayed with long crests at the backs of their heads, they have often been equated with the great crested Pteranodon, which attained a wingspan of 27 feet. The largest of the known flying reptiles, however, was Quetzalcoatlus northropi, which boasted a wingspan of some 40-50 feet.
Though it is now believed that many dinosaurs actually had feathers, pterosaurs were not dinosaurs, and were hairy, like bats. The 1890 Arizona specimen was said to be featherless, with skin wing flaps instead, and an elongated head and beak some eight feet in length. Was it a relic pterosaur or not? We may never know. (See my “Creature of the Month” article on “Living Pterosaurs.”)
Fig. 13. Cowboys and Pteranodon from movie, Valley of the Gwangi (1958)
There is also the possibility that the Thunderbird myth originated with North America’s only (thus far) recorded phorusrhacid, or “terror bird:” Diatryma or Titanis walleri. Some sources say that Titanis died out at least 1.8 million years ago, but others believe it may have survived until as recently as 15,000 years ago. Fossil remains have been found in Texas and Florida, indicating the wide range of these awesome birds, and they would certainly have impressed any Indians who came upon them. All terror birds are giant, flightless, predatory birds with heavy, hooked beaks the size of a horse’s head. Most species have been discovered in South America and Mesoamerica. Titanis stood up to ten feet tall and may, like the elephant bird, have been regarded as the chick of a much larger raptor.
Fig. 14. Titanis wallleri and other giant birds compared.
In 1838, a 5-year-old girl named Marie Delex was playing with a friend on a mountainside in the Valais, Switzerland. Suddenly a gigantic eagle swooped out of the sky and carried her off, despite the screams of her companion. Searchers found only one of her shoes on the edge of a precipice. The great bird’s nest was located, and inside it were two eaglets surrounded by heaps of goat and sheep remains; of little Marie there was no sign. Two months later a shepherd discovered her mutilated corpse laying on a rock a mile and a half from where she had been seized.6
Fig. 15. Marie Delex carried off by a Lammergeier in the Swiss Alps, 1838
The only known bird this could have been is the Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus). Also called lion eagle or bearded vulture, it is one of the bases of the legend of the Gryphon. The world’s mightiest raptor, its German name means “lamb stealer,” which is what it is known for. Evidently it is also capable of carrying off prey as large as a child.
Fig. 16. Lammergeier
In 1868, an 8-year-old boy named Jemmie Kenney was snatched from a schoolyard in Tippah County, Missouri, by an enormous eagle, which bore him aloft. In response to shouts, the monstrous bird dropped the boy, but he died from the cruel talons and the fall.
In July of 1977, a Thunderbird was sighted in Lawndale, Illinois. Around 9:00 PM on the 25th, three young boys were playing in their yard when they were attacked by a giant bird. One of the boys suffered scratches on his shoulder when the bird grabbed him and carried him for a distance of roughly two feet before dropping him. The boys said the bird was black with a white ruff, which fits the description of a condor.7
Many more avian abduction reports are compiled on http://biofort.blogspot.com/2007/11/avian-abductions-lawndale-was-last.html
Fig. 17. Child carried aloft by eagle.
As recently as June and July of 2001, Thunderbird sightings were reported from Pennsylvania. Witnesses say the bird had a wingspan of about fifteen feet and a head roughly three feet in length. It was described as being grayish-black in color with a long, thin beak. More sightings occurred in late September of the same year. One of the most recent sightings occurred in 2002 off the coast of Alaska, but it is believed that this may have been a wayward Stellar’s Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus). At 26 pounds, and with a wingspan up to eight feet, this is the largest eagle in North America.
Other Giant Birds of Note
Ai Tojon—A great, two-headed eagle of Siberian myth, the Ai Tojon lives at the very top of the World Tree, from which he shines forth light over all the world.
Fig. 18. Ai Tojon
Angka—An enormous Arabian bird large enough to carry off an elephant. Much like the Phoenix, it lives 1,700 years, at the end of which time it burns itself to ashes and rises again. Because of its great size, it has also been associated with the Roc. The Arabs believed that they were originally created as perfect birds, but that, over time, they eventually devoured all the animals on Earth and started carrying off children. The people appealed to God, who prevented the Anka from multiplying; thus it eventually became extinct.8
Fig. 19. Angka
Anzu (or Zû)—A gigantic storm-bird in ancient Mesopotamian mythology. Like a Gryphon, it has a lion’s body and the head of an eagle with a saw-like beak, though it was sometimes said to have the body of an eagle and the head and torso of a bearded man. It is the attendant of Tiamet, the great, primordial serpent-Dragon.
Fig. 20. Anzu
Bar Juchne (or Bar Yacre)—In Talmudic Jewish legend, this is an enormous bird, similar to the Roc, whose wingspan can eclipse even the sun. It preys on cattle and even humans. It was said that, once upon a time, an egg fell from a Bar Juchne nest, shattering 300 trees and flooding 60 villages.
Fig. 21. Bar Juchne
Crocho—An immense bird said to dwell on Cape Daib (Cape Corrientes) at the tip of Africa. It was said to be 60 paces from wing tip to wing tip, and able to carry off elephants. According to Fra Mauro (1459), in 1420, an Indian junk putting in at the coast discovered an egg of this bird that was “as big as a butt” (a butt is a large cask holding a volume of 126 gallons).
Garuda (or Taraswin, “swift one”)—A gigantic, manlike bird of Hindu mythology who is the celestial mount of the god Vishnu. He has the body, wings, talons, and head of an eagle-vulture (lammergeier), but with a human face and limbs. His colors are gold, scarlet, and green. He is the sworn enemy of the snakelike Nagas. Emblemizing royalty throughout Southeast Asia, he is also the symbol of the Indonesian Garuda Airlines. In Thailand he is called Galon or Khrut.9
Fig. 22. Garuda
Hraesvelg (“corpse-eater”; or Windmaker)—A vast, eagle-like bird of Norse mythology that nests upon the icy peaks of the frozen North. Her eaglets are the frigid winds blasted forth by the flapping of her mighty wings.
Fig. 23. Hraesvelg
Kreutzet—A vast eagle of the folklore of northwestern Russia.
Kusa Kap—A gigantic hornbill bird inhabiting one of the many tiny islands in the Torres Strait, which separates New Guinea from the northern tip of Queensland, Australia. With a 22-foot wingspan, this avian prodigy is said to carry dugongs aloft in its mighty claws, much as the fabled Roc is said to carry off elephants. The sound of its wings in flight is said to resemble the roar of a steam engine—a characteristic feature of the Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros), which attains a length of four feet and a wingspan of five feet.10
Fig. 24. Great Hornbill (Kusa Kap)
Naui—A giant bird of Russian folklore resembling a Dragon, with the head and talons of an eagle.
Ngani-vatu (or Ngutu-lei)—A gigantic predatory bird in the folklore of the island of Fiji. Its vast body eclipses the sun, and the flapping of its mighty wings causes great storms. It preys upon the animals and people of the Pacific Islands until it is destroyed by the hero Okova and his brother-in-law, Kokoua.
The Ngoima—An enormous eagle said by local natives to be dwelling in the forests of the African Congo. With a wingspan of 9–13 feet, it preys upon monkeys and goats. Its plumage is dark brown above and paler beneath. Its legs and talons are as large as a man’s forearms and hands. This is certainly an exaggerated description of the rarely seen Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus), the most powerful eagle in Africa, whose diet consists of monkeys and even small antelopes. There have even been reports of the remains of a human child having been found in the nest of a crowned eagle, though the eagle may have found the child as carrion rather than actually having killed it. The Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus), Africa’s largest eagle species, is also known to attack impala and duikers.
Fig. 25. African Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus)
Not all that long ago, subfossils were found of the Crowned Hawk-Eagle (Stephanoaetus mahery), the largest and strongest bird of prey of prehistoric Madagascar, which only became extinct after people settled on the island. It was a giant variant within the Stephanoaetus raptor family, which also includes the crowned eagle.
P’êng (or Pyong)—A vast bird of Chinese legend that is the metamorphosed form of the huge fish called Kw’ên. Its outspread wings cover the sky from horizon to horizon. It lives in the north, but each year it rises thousands of feet into the air and flies toward the south, bringing the typhoon season.11
Pheng—A bird from Japanese legend that is so gigantic it eclipses the sun and can carry off and eat a camel, much like the Roc of Arabian myth.
Fig. 26. Pheng
Pouakai (or Pouki)—A monstrous predatory bird of Maori legend. It hunted livestock and people until the last one was trapped in a great net and stabbed to death by the hero Hau-o-Tawera. This was a real creature, the giant Haast’s or Harpagornis Eagle (Harpagornis moorei), that once lived on the South Island of New Zealand. Exterminated only 600 years ago, it was the largest eagle to have ever lived. A female weighed up to thirty pounds and stood four feet tall, with a wingspan of 8-10 feet. 12
Fig. 27. Pouakai
Raichō (“thunder bird”)—A fabulous giant rook or crow-like bird in Japanese folklore. He lives in a tall pine tree, and his raucous calls summon the storms. This is also the name of a real bird, Lagopus mutus, a kind of ptarmigan or grouse.
Sampati—A giant human-headed bird in Hindu mythology that was the offspring of the great Garuda. In the Rāmāyana, Hanuman, the monkey-god, asks Sampati to help find the goddess Sita, who has been abducted to Ravana by the demon king who killed Sampati’s brother, Jataya. Sampati flies to Sri Lanka and locates Sita, returning to inform Hanuman and his army how to destroy Ravana and effect Sita’s rescue. And thus Sampati avenges his brother’s death.13
Fig. 28. Sampati
Simurgh (or Sīna-Mrū, Simarghu, Simurg, Sumargh: “30 birds”)—The magnificent king of the birds in Arabian legend, representing divine unity. Its beautiful feathers are prized for their healing properties. Similar to the Roc, it is so huge that it can carry off an elephant or a camel, but it is also known to take human children into its nest to foster them. Derived from the Senmurv, it dwells in the mountains of Alberz in northern Persia. As the Phoenix does, this wise and peaceful bird lives for either 1,700 or 2,000 years. Some accounts claim it is immortal, nesting in the Tree of Knowledge. It is said to be so old that it has seen the destruction of the world three times over. A bird of the same name attended the queen of Sheba. It had brass feathers, a silver head, a human face, four wings, a vulture’s talons, and a peacock’s tail.14
Fig. 29. Simurgh
Vuokho—A monstrous, malevolent bird in the legends of the Lapps of Finland and Scandinavia. The beat of its vast wings creates thunder, and it inflicts misery upon humanity. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the Vuokho in his poem, “The Destiny of Nations.”
Xexeu—Gigantic birds in the mythology of the Cashmawa Indians of South America. Similar to the North American Thunderbirds, they are responsible for bringing the clouds together to create huge storms. Most likely these creatures derive from the magnificent Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus), with its 10-foot-wide wingspan.
Fig. 30. Xexeu
Yata Garasu—A three-legged crow of immense proportions. In Japanese mythology, the Yata Garasu serves as a divine messenger. It makes a more modern appearance in the popular card game Yu-Gi-Oh!
Zägh—A gigantic bird of Islamic legend, it has a human head and the ability to understand and speak all human languages.
Fig. 31. Zägh
Ziz (also Renanim, “celestial singer”; Sekwi, “the seer”; “Son of the Nest”)—An enormous bird of Hebrew legend, much like the Roc. It is so huge that when it stands in the middle of the ocean, the water comes only to its knees. It can block out the sun with its vast wings and has incredible strength. Once upon a time an addled egg broke, washing away 300 cedar trees and drowning sixty villages. Equated with the Persian Chamrosh, the Ziz was said to have been created to protect all the small birds, which would have otherwise died out long ago. According to rabbinical tradition, the meat of this bird will be served, along with that of the Behemoth and the Leviathan, at a great victory feast at the end of the world. Corresponding to the giant archetypal creatures of Persian mythology, the trio of the Behemoth, Leviathan, and Ziz was traditionally a favorite decorative motif for rabbis living in Germany.15
Fig. 32. Ziz (in sky), Behemoth (on earth), and Leviathan (under sea)
Monster Movies: giant birds
The Giant Claw a.k.a. Mark of the Claw (1957)—Giant Buzzard
Fig. 33. Giant Claw movie poster
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)—Roc
Fig. 34. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad movie poster
Mysterious Island (1961)—Phorusrhacos
Fig. 35. Mysterious Island movie poster
Food of the Gods (1976)—Giant Chicken
Fig. 36. Food of the Gods movie poster
The Hobbit (animated, 1977) —Giant Eagles
The Rescuers Down Under (animated, 1990)—Thunderbird
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)—Giant Eagle
Fig. 37. Gandalf rescued from Orthanc by the King of the Eagles
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)—Giant Eagles
10,000 BC (2008) —Phorusrhacos
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) —more Giant Eagles
1. Jones, David, An Instinct for Dragons, Routledge, 2002
2. South, Malcolm (Ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Beasts: A Source Book and Research Guide, Greenwood Press; New York, 1987
3. “Thunderbirds,” Wikipedia
4. South, Op cit.
5. Bord, Janet & Colin, Alien Animals, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA, 1981
8. Rose, Carol, Giants, Monsters, and Dragons, W.W. Norton & Company; New York, 2000
15. “Avian Anomalies,” American Monsters
16. Hall, Mark A., Thunderbirds! America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds, Paraview Press, 2004
17. Mitchell, John & Rickard, Robert J.M., Living Wonders: Mysteries & Curiosities of the Animal World, Thames & Hudson, 1982
18. Nigg, A Guide to the Imaginary Birds of the World, Apple-Wood Books, 1984