This story is paired with “Sinbad’s Voyage” from 1001 Arabian Nights. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
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 several species were too long to name.
—Michael Drayton (1563-1631), the Roc
For as long as sailors have plied the oceans, they’ve returned bearing tales of mythical beasts and monsters. To those listening to mariners’ fanciful, incredible descriptions, they must have seemed the product of dreams, visions, or hallucinations induced by long hours spent pitching and rolling while staring into the quicksilver glare of the sea. As fantastic as many of the stories were, the audience had to take a raconteur at his word. Early East Indian and Arabian explorers, upon returning from journeys along the coast of Africa, told tales of gigantic birds many times the size of a man. For non-believers, they produced proof: huge eggs, more than a foot long and up to three feet in circumference.
The voyages of Sinbad the Sailor are chronicled in 1001 Arabian Nights. During his fifth voyage, he encountered the roc, an enormous bird with a 16-meter wingspan. At first believing the giant bird to be a cloud that eclipsed the sun, Sinbad wrote, “I had heard aforetime of pilgrims and travellers, how in a certain island dwelleth a huge bird, called the ‘roc,’ which feedeth its young on elephants… A bird of enormous size, bulky body and wide wings, flying in the air; and it was this that concealed the body of the sun and veiled it from the sun.”
The roc unknowingly rescued Sinbad after a shipwreck, transporting him to its mountaintop nest. Sinbad, upon seeing the bird’s egg, mistook it for a large domed building. He made his escape using his turban to lash himself to the roc’s leg. The stowaway escaped the roc’s notice; it flew so high into the sky that Sinbad lost sight of Earth. Eventually, he was able to escape when the roc flew near another island. In another tale involving Sinbad, rocs destroyed ships by dropping boulders on them, in retaliation for the killing of their chick. There are two other stories about the roc in Arabian Nights that involve Abd al-Rahman rather than Sinbad.
In 1298, while imprisoned in Genoa, Marco Polo wrote his Book of Travels: memoirs that covered 26 years of travel. In chapter 33, “Concerning the Island of Madagascar,” he wrote that the Great Khan had sent him to investigate curious reports of giant birds. Polo claimed that the roc (ruhk) lived in Madagascar and was so strong that it could “seize an elephant with its talons and lift it into the air.” As further evidence of this mighty beast, Polo recounted how envoys from Madagascar presented the great Khan of Cathay with a roc feather.
A bird strong enough to lift an elephant? And capable of laying an egg a foot in diameter? Surely these exaggerated claims had no basis in fact. Or did they?
The island of Madagascar, off Africa’s east coast, was the home of the gigantic elephant bird Aepyornis maximus. While huge like the roc—scientists believe it weighed up to 900 pounds—the bird was unable to fly. (By comparison, an ostrich weighs 300 pounds.)
Madagascar was settled around 2000 years ago by people from Africa and Indonesia. Legends of the roc in Arab folklore were likely based on the elephant bird. During the 9th century, Indian traders visited Madagascar and other parts of the African coast and encountered these birds. Polo later bestowed the nickname of “elephant bird” to the species.
When he was young, Fra Mauro traveled extensively as a merchant and a soldier. He entered monastic life at an advanced age, maintaining a cartography workshop at the Monastery of St. Michael in the Republic of Venice. In 1456, he produced a map of the world: a circular planisphere drawn on parchment and set in a wooden frame, about two meters in diameter. The map’s large size accommodated inclusion of detailed footnotes about the customs, landforms, and legends of some exotic ports of call. In 1420, sailors were shown eggs now believed to be those of the elephant bird during their voyage to Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and the island of Madagascar.
On the map Fra Mauro produced, near the southern tip of Africa, appears the following caption:
About the year of Our Lord 1420 a ship, what is called an Indian junk [Zoncho de India], on a crossing of the Sea of India towards the Isle of Men and Women, was driven by a storm beyond the Cape of Diab, through the Green Isles, out into the Sea of Darkness on their way west and southwest, in the direction of Algarve. Nothing but air and water was seen for forty days and by their reckoning they ran 2,000 miles and fortune deserted them. When the stress of the weather had subsided they made the return to the said Cavo de Diab in seventy days and drawing near to the shore to supply their wants the sailors saw the egg of a bird called roc, the egg being as big as a seven gallon cask, and the size of the bird is such that from the point of one wing to another was sixty paces and it can quite easily lift an elephant or any other large animal. It does great damage to the inhabitants and is very fast in its flight.
Although many geographical facts in Fra Mauro’s map lack sources, he was more specific regarding the information he received about the voyage that encountered “roc eggs.” He claimed that he obtained the information from a trustworthy source that many historians believe to be Venetian explorer Niccolò da Conti, who had traveled with an expedition to what is now known as the Cape of Good Hope.
Five hundred years before Fra Mauro’s time an Arab chronicler writing about the African mainland due west of Madagascar recounted a similar story of a storm-lashed vessel and encounter with a roc. Mauro appeared to have also drawn upon Arabic sources, which cast some doubt on the true date of encounter with roc eggs being 1420.
In the 16th century, Dutch, Portuguese and French sailors returned from voyages to Madagascar, bearing massive eggs belonging to the elephant bird. In 1642, the French established a settlement on the island. The first French Governor of Madagascar, Étienne de Flacourt, wrote, in 1658, “Vouropatra—a large bird which haunts the Ampatres [southern region of the island] and lays eggs like the ostriches; so that the people of these places may not take it, it seeks the most lonely places.” By 1640, the species had become very rare; the last elephant bird is believed to have died between 1649 and 1700.
An inhabitant of woodland and forest in southwest Madagascar for more than 60 million years, the elephant bird was the largest bird ever to have lived. Standing 10 feet tall, the species resembled a powerfully built ostrich with a long, thick neck; bristling, hair-like feathers; massive legs; and taloned feet. Despite its fearsome appearance, the elephant bird was an herbivore.
The size of the elephant bird’s eggs served as compelling evidence for the roc’s existence. Thirteen inches long, with a volume of 2.4 gallons—the equivalent of 200 chicken eggs—the elephant bird’s eggs are three times the size of the largest known dinosaur eggs.
Unlike the mythical roc, Aepyornis was incapable of flight and elephants have never inhabited Madagascar. Research by Professor David Bivar of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies suggests that the extraordinary tales recounted about rocs are, in fact, exaggerated reports that meld the life histories of three species of birds: the elephant bird, African eagles, and possibly the now-extinct New Zealand Haast’s eagle.
Bivar believes it was reports from early seafarers about giant bird eggs that contributed to the development of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean myths, including that of the Griffin, a half lion/half bird creature that passed from ancient Asian to Greek to Roman and ultimately to medieval European mythology.
The Fra Mauro map resides in the Museo Correr in St. Mark’s Square, Venice. The map’s orientation has south at the top, the usual convention of Muslim maps. Roberto Almagià (1884-1962)—an Italian geographer, cartographer, historian, and naturalist— considered the Fra Mauro map to be “the greatest memorial of medieval cartography.” In many ways, Mauro’s map was more accurate than the printed versions of Ptolemy’s that succeeded it two decades later. The accuracy of its depiction of southern Africa and Madagascar is striking, especially considering the era in which it was produced.
My wife and I visited Madagascar in 2008. While planning a trip to South Africa, Sue pointed out that Madagascar, was, relatively speaking, a stone’s throw off the African coast. So we decided to add on a visit to the world’s fourth-largest island. Biologists sometimes refer to Madagascar as the Eighth Continent: a museum housing living fossils — dead ends down the evolutionary pathway. The island has long held travelers in her spell, as evidenced by the words of French naturalist Philibert Commerson in 1771:
May I announce to you that Madagascar is the naturalists’ promised land? Nature seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where she could work on different models from any she has used elsewhere. There, you meet bizarre and marvelous forms at every step.
Terms like “living fossils” and “different forms” are apt, as almost all the mammals on the island today closely resemble groups that, while once prominent elsewhere, have been replaced by more-advanced species. For instance, on Africa, lemurs reigned until about 35 million years ago, when monkeys took center stage. Underscoring the uniqueness of Madagascar’s 184 species of mammals, at least 103 are found nowhere else on earth.
Prior to leaving for the island, I bought Mammals of Madagascar by Nick Garbutt. Page after page of color plates were filled with strange, near-mythic creatures. For many of the island’s mammals, evolution’s “finished product” seemed haphazard, some kind of inside joke. I’ll take the ears of a hare and put them on a rat…. or cross a raccoon with a house cat or fox. My study of the color plates reminded me of the Seneca Indian fable that holds that the Creator made the American woodcock from leftover parts of every other bird.
Fra Mauro’s map—with the Cape of Good Hope and Madagascar at the top—is a fitting analog to the topsy-turvy wildlife found in Madagascar. Although echoes of the footsteps of the elephant bird ceased around 300 years ago, evidence of the beast can be found to this day: its massive eggs occasionally are unearthed along streams following heavy rainfall. On our way to the hamlet of Ifaty on the island’s southwest coast, we passed through forest and woodland once inhabited by the elephant bird. Just inland from Ifaty, we visited an arid region known as the spiny desert. The bizarre vegetation there—baobab trees with enlarged, succulent trunks and spiny-stemmed ocotillo—was other-worldly. Should I have witnessed a one-ton, ground-dwelling bird that first occupied this landscape more than 300 million years ago, I would not have considered it out of place.
During our time in Madagascar, we encountered animals and reptiles that included tenrec, chameleon, gecko, and civet cat. Plus the largest lemur, the indri, on down to the hold-in-your-hand mouse lemur, a sprite that tips the scales at less than four ounces. These creatures and the strange and wondrous animals that eluded us—aye-aye, fossa, hairy-eared dwarf lemur, giant jumping rat—are sufficiently bizarre as to blur the line between fact and fiction. To illustrate: even a casual glance at a photograph of the rarely seen aye-aye makes clear that it likely served as the model for George Lucas’s Yoda in Star Wars. For any sailors fortunate enough to glimpse some of Madagascar’s unique wildlife, the encounter would likely confer a legitimacy to the idea of the roc’s existence.
Fables of mythic beasts are universal; the stories in Arabian Nights are an amalgam of Arab, Indian, and Persian folklore with elements from Homer’s Odyssey. The reasons for our creation of imaginary beasts and monsters are many and varied. One intriguing theory holds that primitive man invented the formidable roc—so powerful that it could drop giant boulders onto ships—as an explanation for meteorite showers. Imagine having a limited understanding of the solar system and trying to wrap one’s mind around the concept of rocks falling from space.
Despite being an herbivore, the elephant bird’s gargantuan size instilled in those who encountered it a sense of humility—a caution—that our intellectual prowess comes with no guarantee of dominion over beasts and monsters. Perhaps to underscore our own sense of mortality, the 10-foot wingspan of the Haast’s eagle appears to have morphed—through decades of “fish stories”—into one sixty paces long, according to Fra Mauro.
The world is full of bona fide beasts and monsters such as lion, tiger, crocodile, piranha, electric eel, python, great white shark, and polar and grizzly bears. Even in places where these animals and their kin can be found, our imagination seems intent on inventing creatures whose horrific nature eclipses the world’s actual dangers.
It seems that the human mind requires monsters, for we see evidence of them in every culture and epoch. From ancient Egypt with its sphinx and griffin—an eagle-lion concoction—to modern Hollywood zombies and space aliens, we are at once fascinated and terrified by these monsters that haunt our dreams and waking hours.
Monsters and beasts play an integral role the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey. Like Gilgamesh, the Greek hero Odysseus, fresh from a war triumph, is eager to return home to his family. The similarity between the two stories has suggested to some scholars that Homer’s epic Greek poem may have been patterned after the Epic of Gilgamesh.
This archetypal theme of a hero trying to return home is repeated in the voyages of the less-noble, roguish sailor Sinbad. In his third voyage, he and his crew encountered a giant that kills and roasts some of his men. Sinbad’s successful plan to blind the giant with red-hot cooking spits bears a distinct resemblance to Odysseus’s cyclops nemesis, Polyphemus.
Then, during Sinbad’s fifth voyage, his crew came upon a desert island where they spotted a gigantic egg that Sinbad recognized as belonging to a roc. The crew broke the egg and devoured the chick. Recognizing the folly of their behavior, Sinbad commanded that they hastily leave the island. However, the chick’s angry parents caught up with the vessel and destroyed it by dropping giant boulders they’d carried in their talons.
The monstrously large, fierce creatures that combine the traits of several animals into one that inhabit the archetypal stories of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, Arabian Nights—indeed, all monsters—serve several purposes. First, confronting these seemingly insurmountable foes is integral to proving the traveler’s courage and integrity. Encountering them produces terror: genetic memory of our vulnerability when our ancestors emerged from an African savanna filled with creatures with a taste for Homo sapiens.
Second, as Sinbad’s crew’s experience with adult rocs illustrates, there are limits to our ability to confront monsters and beasts. We are no match for ferocious birds capable of dropping huge boulders onto ships. We readily grasp that brain over brawn—cunning and ability to reason—is the lone successful strategy available to us. Prudence and good judgment are called for, as the story of devouring a roc nestling—a precursor to the “Let sleeping dogs lie” maxim—attests.
Today, solo efforts to sail or row the oceans continue the tradition of sea as a venue for displays of courage. Other pursuits that include extreme snow sports, first-ascent mountaineering, or first-descent river expeditions continue to challenge the human spirit. Our explorations of the globe and even space have resulted in shrinking areas still classified as terra incognita.
However, along stream channels following heavy rains, fossilized elephant bird eggs can still be found on Madagascar. And tales of monsters persist: from the Louisiana bayou, to the Pacific Northwest, to Scotland’s Loch Ness, to the Himalayas, such legends will continue to play a crucial role in what it means to be human. As will the difficulty these beasts pose—literally and metaphorically—to our efforts to return home.
Tom Leskiw and his wife Sue live in Eureka, California. More than three dozen of his essays and book reviews have appeared in a variety of literary journals. He’s an avid birder and writes frequently about the natural world.