Human history is littered with stories that confuse and boggle the mind. Those who live life with their feet firmly planted in science have a difficult time wrapping their head around the mythological stories of mankind, but others are easily swept up in the fantastic tales of fire breathing dragons, enormous man-like apes (known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch in North America or Yeti through Asia), and huge birds of prey capable of impossible feats of strength.
The island nation of Seychelles is no stranger to tall tales, rare animals, and even legends of mythological creatures. One of the most interesting tales to come out of the Seychelles is that of the mythical giant bird of prey, the Roc. Mythology is often considered little more than fantastic tales from a time in human society when science wasn’t widely accepted and word of mouth was the most reliable form of communication.
While word of mouth can easily turn the common eagle killing a mouse into a mammoth bird carrying off huge mammals, the story of the roc is intriguing because of its occurrence in the mythology of numerous cultures. The roc is said to be a massive bird of prey with a wingspan of 16 yards, feathers up to eight yards long, and huge talons capable of capturing elephants and flying off with them.
The roc appears in both Eastern and Western cultural stories, but one common thread runs through tales of the roc. It is rumored that this mythical creature called the Seychelles home. For every great tale there are supporters and detractors, and somewhere in between there may be a truth that is acceptable to all.
Although the roc first appeared in the writings and stories of Eastern civilizations, it was Italian explorer Marco Polo who is credited with spreading the myth of the roc. In describing his travels to China in the 13th century, Marco Polo eluded to a bird of impossible size that attacked animals few humans could imagine a bird targeting.
In his own words, Marco Polo described the roc in the following terms:
“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.”
Although Marco Polo is credited with the Western expansion of the roc’s legend, the creature was known to Arab and Persian historians prior to Polo’s travels to Asia and China. The origin of the roc’s lore can be traced as far back as 39 AD when references to a giant bird carrying off elephants are made in Indian Sanskrit epics.
Aside from Marco Polo’s tales of a bird so large it could carry off an elephant, the roc appeared in other famous stories from early human history. In the Fifth Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, Sinbad and his crew destroy a roc egg and consume the chick as a meal. The vengeful roc parents catch up with Sinbad and his men at sea, destroying their vessel with giant boulders dropped from their talons. The roc is also referred to in 1001 Nights.
The original Indian tale speaks of a battle between the solar bird Garuda and serpent Naga. In two different Sanskrit epics, a story is told of the giant bird Garuda carrying off an elephant that was battling a crocodile. Throughout Arab and Persian history, the tale of a massive bird capable of carrying off an elephant was told and retold.
It was believed by Arab historians that the bird, pronounced rukh in Arab and Persian languages, never came to the ground and lived atop the mythical mountain of Qaf. Other tales suggest the roc lived on a secluded island in the Indian Ocean. Many of the tales spoke of a massive island in the Indian Ocean off of Africa’s western coast, leading many to believe Madagascar was the home of the roc.
Unraveling the Legend
The true existence of the roc cannot be proven beyond the fantastic tales of Marco Polo and other Arab and Persian storytellers. Although the roc is referenced in various cultures throughout several hundred years of human history, scientists in the 19th century began to offer rationalizations to explain the legend of the roc.
Among the more popular explanations was that the roc was simply an eagle or hawk exaggerated in tales over time. There is evidence and stories of eagles large enough and powerful enough to carry off newborn lambs; a tale which could easily give rise through storytelling to a massive bird capable of carrying off elephants.
To many travelers from Europe and the Indian subcontinent, the ostrich was even used as an explanation. While those living on the African continent are familiar with the large, flightless bird, European and Indian travelers were not. The ostrich was thought by some to be a young chick belonging to a much larger species of bird, rather than being its own flightless species of bird.
Another common explanation is a combination of the two listed above. The now extinct elephant bird of Madagascar was an extremely large, flightless bird similar to today’s ostrich that could have been misinterpreted by travelers as the mythical roc. Marco Polo almost certainly would have encountered this creature during his travels as the elephant bird was not extinct until the 16th century.
Bringing the Seychelles into the Legend
Although a singular home of the roc is listed in many stories, the tales of the roc and its homeland seem to point toward the Seychelles as being home to the mythical creature. Arab and Persian historians allude to the creature living on the mountain of Qaf at the center of the world, located at sea in the Indian Ocean.
Many tales however point to the roc living on a chain of islands off the coast of Africa. While some assumed Madagascar to be this location, the nation of Madagascar is just one large island and not a chain. Seychelles has more commonly come to be known as the home of the mythical creature as its chain of 115 islands located 932 miles east of Africa, and just north of Madagascar, fits the description of the roc’s homeland in many stories.
Like any good mythological creature, the truth behind the roc is in the mind of the readers. Ancient storytellers often told tall tales for the entertainment of others, and while some stories were based in truth, passing stories from generation to generation by word of mouth left room for interpretation and exaggeration.
Whatever the truth is behind the roc, the nation of Seychelles has warmly embraced the concept of being the homeland of the mythical creature and proudly lists it alongside other facts and figures that help lure tourists to its beautiful shores each and every year.