THE ROC, THE SIMORGH, THE PHOENIX AND THE GRIFFIN: WONDER AND THE MIGRATION OF SYMBOLS FROM THE ARABIAN NIGHTS TO MARCO POLO’S IL MILIONE
Marco Polo emphasizes wonder in his collaboration with writer Rustichello of Pisa in part because they presumably want to sell his story and it needs to be attractive to its audience. His reader – or audience, who may equally have had the book read to them – lived in a world where wonder was all the rage. We should not forget that Polo was a merchant and Rustichello of Pisa was a writer of romances. Together this timely combination – an expert blending of supply and demand – produced the work we know today as Polo’s book, a half-true, half-fiction work of travel literature. But the veracity of the work is not discussed here; rather, the emphasis on wonder – Polo’s wonder, when he encounters wonderful things, objects, places, peoples, and even other people’s stories – during his celebrated travels. A boy, travelling to the East, wide-eyed with wonder at the things he sees and the things he hears; a man, recounting his experiences during a jail stint to a marvel-starved and novelty-hungry writer, only too keen to listen and consume Polo’s tales with joy, one glittering eye fixed on the camel trains in the desert and the other on his pocket. How can they make their audience gasp? By feeding them with wonder. Indeed, Polo’s wonder book sparked a trend: ‘... it was only after Rustichello’s collaboration with Polo that the romantic rhetoric of wonder became an established feature of contemporary exotic travel narratives.’ Why does Polo present wonder as a key element in his book? As education – one of the main aims of travel writing – but also as a source of pleasure and delight: ‘... late-thirteenth-century authors portrayed difference – in its manifold sense of diversity, novelty, unfamiliarity, and unlikeness – as a highly positive quality: the source of pleasure and delight.’ For Polo, wonder is a commodity, something pleasurable to be sold and consumed. He uses powerful symbols – such as the Roc - that affect the subconscious of his audience in order to make this wonder accessible to his audience. This is an old marketing trick: advertisers play on the fears and desires of their target market, using what they already know and making it more awe-inspiring in order to captivate and manipulate their audience.
‘Hearsay’: hear, and say: we discuss Polo’s second-hand account of a second-hand account – he hears accounts of the marvellous Rukh, then passes on some of his wonder to Rustichello. The Rukh itself takes flight and travels on its own, from the Simorgh of Persian legend to the Griffins and Phoenixes of Europe, from Sindbad’s accounts in the Arabian Nights to the sailors who reported them to Polo, who reported it to Rustichello, who wrote it down in a book – these are the travels of symbols.
Polo describes his rukh:
‘[These islands] are inhabited by gryphon birds, which make their appearance here at certain seasons of the year. But you must know that they are by no means such as men in our country suppose, or as we portray them – half bird and half lion. According to the report of those who have seen them, it is not true that they are a blend of bird and lion; but I assure you that these men, the actual eye-witnesses, report that in build they are just like eagles but of the most colossal size. Let me tell you first what these eye-witnesses report and then what I have seen myself. They report that they are so huge and bulky that one of them can pounce on an elephant and carry it up to a great height in the air. Then it lets go, so that the elephant drops to earth and is smashed to pulp, whereupon the gryphon bird perches on the carcase and feeds at its ease. They add that they have a wing-span of thirty paces and their wing-feathers are twelve paces long and of a thickness proportionate to their length [other MSS give the wing-span as sixteen paces and the feathers eight]. What I have seen myself I will tell you elsewhere, since that fits in better with the plan of the book.’ – this promise is not fulfilled.
Polo admits his account is second-hand, but is careful to give his own further ‘proof’ of the existence of these birds, by relating them back to the familiar European griffins, and also by personally measuring one of its feathers:
‘To return for a moment to the gryphon birds, I should explain that the islanders call them rukhs and know them by no other name and have no idea what a gryphon is. But I feel sure from the monstrous size they attribute to the birds that they cannot be anything but gryphons.’
‘VB (followed by R) [other MSS] adds that the envoys also brought back a gryphon feather, which Marco himself measured and found to be eighty of his spans in length, while the girth of the quill was two of his palms. This passage is of doubtful authority; but something like it is perhaps implied by Marco’s promise (not otherwise fulfilled) to tell what he had seen himself.’
This passage reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels, where Lemuel brings back a tiny sheep from Lilliput, proving that his tales were true. Mandeville also contains a gryphon/griffin (Bacharia, after the Caspian Sea, Chapter XXIX), which correspond to the ‘normal’ shape of a griffin, half lion and half eagle, immensely strong; men make cups of their horns and bows from their wings. There is a long tradition of decorative tableware and other household objects being made of fantastic animal parts, giving further proof of their existence. Wonder as a commodity is solidified and preserved in these objects that abounded:
‘... griffin eggs were a staple of collections of this sort, together with various magical Eastern stones. For example, the eleventh-century monastery of Limburg, attached to the Salian dynasty, owned two nautilus shells set in gold and silver and six ivory hunting horns, while a 1383 inventory of the shrine of Saint Cuthbert at Durham listed, in addition to hundreds of relics: two griffin claws (one currently in the collection of the British Museum); an “eagle stone” (a kind of African geode described by Pliny); a “beryl, white and hollow, of wonderful structure”; and no less than eleven “griffin eggs,” including one “ornamented and cut in two.” Griffin eggs (or ostrich eggs) were a perennial favourite in medieval collections – they seem to have been one of the more easily available and less expensive mirabilia – and this last item was doubtless one of the many ostrich-egg reliquaries that appeared in increasing numbers from the ninth century on.’
In this sense, wonder is also a symbol of power – the royalty and aristocratic houses that consumed these wondrous objects were able to show that they had the means to commission them, thereby increasing their power and status. They were, in effect, status symbols. These people were Polo’s audience, and lavish illustrated manuscript editions were commissioned for them. Polo the merchant ‘understood the way in which highly localized conditions of supply and demand created value, just as they created wonder; pepper and indigo, exotic and expensive commodities in Europe, were common in Quilon.’ He also understood that ‘the value of such mirabilia sprang in part from their scarcity in the European market. As a result, wonders were also commodities: to be bartered, bought, sold, collected, and sometimes literally consumed.’ Marco Polo was a shrewd businessman – and an avid consumer of wonders himself.
But Polo was not the first to disseminate the legend of the roc, which had already existed for centuries: ‘To the Arabs the “Rokh” or “Ankaa” is a legendary huge and powerful bird similar to the “Phoenix” in ancient Egypt, Babylon or Greece. It reminds of the “gryphon” in Brendan’s legend. This last monster is probably the “Zorapha” in the Wonders of India. Al-Qazwini adds in his mirabilia written in the 13th century, that this bird could live up to 700 years and “could lift up an elephant with the same ease that a kite can lift a rat!”’ The huge bird has an equally huge provenance spanning large tracts of time and continental distance. Giant birds and eagles were ancient Eurasian and Aryan symbols, which had their origins in the Indian solar bird Garuda, ‘a very old oriental conception, the cosmological origin of which we know. It is the fight between the Indian solar bird Garuda and the chtonic snake Naga.’ The Garuda appears in the Sanskrit epics the Mahabharata (I, 1353) and the Ramayana (III, 39).
Even the word carries within itself clues to its ancient origins: ‘It has been suggested that the Perso-Arab word rukh (roc) was formed from the latter part of the name of the miraculous Persian bird ‘simurgh’ (r-gh). In Europe, the legend continued; Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela told a similar tale, thereby introducing the legend into Germany: ‘his version appears in the epic of Duke Ernest of Bavaria... Friar Jordanus, who travelled after 1320, tells about it, as well as Sir John Mandeville, and a hundred years later Nicolò Conti (1420-44); the Venetian Fra Mauro, in the inscription on his map of the world of 1459, narrates that in 1420 sailors found near the Cape of Good Hope eggs of the roc “which they say carries away an elephant or any other great animal.”’
The Roc even made its way into scientific literature and while Ibn Battuta (and Sindbad) claims to have seen the Roc in the China Seas, Polo’s Roc, which he likens to griffins, perhaps recalling the numerous griffins in medieval and Byzantine culture, is in Madagascar.
A Burgundian manuscript of the Livre des Merveilles, 15th century, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 2810, f. 88): ‘The Island of Madagascar’ shows a griffin, roc, and elephants. A Dutch engraving by Johannes Stradanus, Magellan’s Discovery of the Straits, 16th century, shows the roc is in a prime position in the top left corner carrying an elephant in its claws, with many onlookers pointing at it. It forms the focus of the painting; Wittkower describes this as the ‘most fantastic part of the engraving.’
The Roc is famously described in the Arabian Nights, the 1,001 nights, where ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi finds it: ‘A story is told that there was a man from the Maghrib who had travelled widely, crossing deserts and seas. Fate led him to an island where he stayed for a long time, and when he went back home, he took with him the quill of a wing-feather of a young rukh which could hold the contents of a water skin. It is said that the wing of a young rukh, when it hatches, is a thousand fathoms long, and the sight of that quill used to fill people with amazement.’ Before encountering the Roc he sees its egg: ‘a huge gleaming white dome, a hundred cubits in length.’ The sailors hack at it, remove feathers from the baby rukh, take some of its flesh and sail away, but the mother bird, aghast at their actions, suddenly appears: ‘like a great cloud, carrying in its talons an enormous rock, larger than the ship itself.’ The sailors are spared disaster as they sail away fast enough in time for the rock to fall harmlessly into the sea, avoiding them. Another wonder associated with the rukh is its ability of rejuvenation, recalling the Phoenix; the sailors find themselves appearing youthful again:
‘They cooked and ate the baby rukh’s flesh. Among them were some white-bearded old men and the next morning they found that their beards were black, nor did anyone who had eaten that flesh ever turn grey. Some said that the reason for the recovery of their youth and for the fact that their hair never changed colour was that they had used a spoon made of arrow wood to stir the cooking pot, while others said that it was the flesh itself. This is one of the greatest wonders.’ The Roc appears again in Sindbad’s Second Voyage, where he also sees at first a great white dome, ‘which came to fifty full paces,’ ‘and then I started to think of some way to get inside it.’ The fact that all the sailors’ acquisitive streaks were aroused upon seeing the Roc’s egg reminds us of Polo’s mercantile impulses – these are wonders too great to be hidden; they must be measured, imported, advertized, sold. Sindbad describes the sky growing dark, as he ‘remembered an old travellers’ tale’ about the Roc – revealing that it was already the stuff of legend.
The wily Sindbad finds a way to get off the island by being air-lifted courtesy of the Roc: ‘I got up and undid my turban, which I folded and twisted until it was like a rope. I tied this tightly round my waist and attached myself as firmly as I could to the bird’s legs in the hope that it might take me to a civilized region, which would be better for me than staying on the island.’
Ferdowsi, author of the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, tells the ‘astonishing tale’ of childless Sam, who, instead of being grateful for finally being granted a child by God, is embarrassed, because his child’s hair is completely white, like an old man. So in his consternation, Sam leaves the child on the Simorgh’s mountain, letting fate decide the rest. Luckily, the Simorgh takes pity on the baby and rears it as its own child (the personal pronoun is ambiguous in Persian, so the Simorgh is alternately given masculine and feminine genders – highlighting its otherness, its wondrousness). Ferdowsi describes how Sam marvels at ‘the granite slopes, at the terrifying Simorgh, and at is fearsome nest, which was like a palace towering in the clouds, but one not built by men’s hands or from clay and water.’ The Simorgh vows to protect Zal and offers him feathers so he can call upon it in an emergency, which he does later on in the epic at another significant moment, when his son Rostam is born. Rostam is the epic’s most major hero. The Simorgh informs Zal that it will come to him ‘“in the guise of a black cloud,”’ a familiar feature in the rukh myth, being so large that the sky darkens whenever it approaches: ‘suddenly the air turned much darker’ ; ‘the air turned dark from the Simorgh’s shadow as it descended’. The way to call the Simorgh is to burn a little of its feather in a fire – recalling how the Phoenix regenerates itself through fire. The Simorgh gives Zal advice on the birth of his child by Caesarean section. ‘This was a wonder, and the world watched...’ The last summoning of the Simorgh happens on another major event, the eve of Rostam’s death, when he is gravely ill and the Simorgh heals him. The Simorgh features in ancient Persian legend and also in Attar’s 12th century Conference of the Birds, where thirty birds set out on a spiritual quest through many trials and tribulations to seek their master the Simorgh, only to realize that they themselves make up the Simorgh (‘si-morgh’ = ‘thirty-birds’).
The Phoenix, somewhat miraculously magnified in size, was compared to and sometimes merged with the Roc in ancient legend. Mandeville has his phoenix in Heliopolis, the city of the Sun, in Egypt (Chapter VII). He compares it to the peacock, oriel and eagle. Of course, he likens the phoenix to the resurrection of Christ. The Phoenix, in an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name, is also an allegory of the resurrection of Christ. This is due to its main distinguishing feature, its trademark regenerative ability - the ability to resurrect itself – something it has in common with the Simorgh, which is also invariably known as the Phoenix. We can deduce that although the birds differ wildly in size – the Roc being always enormous, the Phoenix being the smallest and the Simorgh and Griffin anywhere in between – somehow, in the minds of travellers and storytellers, at times they co-exist separately and sometimes they are one and the same creature, their distinguishing features being borrowed or adapted depending on what is needed for the story to be told.
The similarity and connections between the Roc and the Griffin are well-documented. The Romance of Alexander (originally Greek) has griffins powering the flying machine Alexander uses to fly – he tempts them with meat attached to a pole and they continue to fly upwards towards it, carrying Alexander with them. There is also an exact parallel in the Shahnameh tales where Kay Kavus attempts to fly to the heavens in the same way. In fact, the fabulous stories about the East ‘were often disseminated in western Europe by means of stories about Alexander the Great.’
Another example of the Griffin/Rukh can be found in the tale of The Liver Sea and the Magnetic Mountain, in the German tale of Herzog Ernst, itself inspired by tales from the east. Strijbosch contends that the tale of Herzog Ernst, a German poem relating the exile and Eastern adventures of the Bavarian duke Ernst, is a possible twelfth-century source for the Brendan stories.
After several adventures, they ‘find themselves in the Liver Sea, where nothing can stop the ship from being pulled towards the Magnetic Mountain and being wrecked. When practically all the mariners have died of starvation, Ernst, Wetzel and four survivors manage to escape by a ruse.’ This ruse, as is by now familiar, is the sailors’ ingenious idea of hiding themselves in animal skins and being air-lifted away by griffins. Interestingly this has another very ancient parallel in Western tradition, in Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus’ men hide themselves inside animal skins as a means of escape. Bird rescue as a common theme ‘appears to be a motif found in stories set in the East, which crops up again in Western Europe in the twelfth century after a period of relative obscurity.’ Benjamin of Tudela (1173) also mentions a bird rescue in the sea of Nikpha in the Far East: the marooned sailors sew themselves into ox hides and are carried off by giant birds. Yet another parallel is the story of the Magic Mountain itself – ‘a rock with a fatal attraction’ , which causes all the metal in a ship to cling to it, thereby destroying the ship; it also features in the Arabian Nights, in the sixth voyage of Sindbad, where he triumphs over the mountain against all odds by floating away on a raft. The Magic Mountain is again mentioned in the Arabian Nights when Prince ’Ajeeb’s ship is blown off-course, attracted to the Magic Mountain, but is then saved by the use of magic. The Magic Mountain itself abounded in stories all over the world and ‘probably originated in China, where it became wide-spread. In Western Europe the Magnetic Mountain story seems to have fallen into oblivion after the classical period, until it reappears in the twelfth century. Then it is found initially in literary narratives, rather than scientific texts.’
The migration of the Roc myth demonstrates the trajectory of wonder spreading across Europe from various Eastern legends via Polo’s book. Wonder has a long history in Europe, beginning with the ancients and continuing into medieval and Renaissance times. Starting with the classic wonders of Greek and Roman paradoxography, the European understanding of wonder can be traced in the evolution of the word itself. Daston and Park describe how the Latin admiratio was used to describe the emotion of wonder, and a distinction was already made between the response felt and the objects that triggered it. The objects were known as mirabilia, miracula, or occasionally ammiranda. This gave rise to the verb miror and the adjective mirus. The terms may originate in an Indo-European word for “smile”. Greek, on the other hand, has thauma, stemming from the verb meaning ‘to see’ – therein preserving the importance of actually seeing the wondrous object. The link between wonder and pleasure and delight is further preserved in the words of other European languages: ‘wonder and smiling persisted in the romance languages (merveille in French, meraviglia in Italian, marvel in English from c. 1300), though not in the German Wunder – a word of mysterious origin that may have to do with intricacy or complexity – or the English wonder.’
They go on to explain that during the course of its history, wonder had many emotions – and therefore uses – attached to it:
‘Finally, from at least the twelfth century the vernacular terms for wonder, like the Latin, admitted a spectrum of emotional tones or valences, including fear, reverence, pleasure, approbation, and bewilderment. Beginning in the late fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, these different flavours of wonder acquired different names: admiration and astonishment in English, for example, Bewunderung and Staunen in German, and étonnement and admiration in French. This multiplication and refinement of vocabulary signals the prominence of the passion and its nuances in the early modern period. Thus wonder was from at least the High Middle Ages a well-defined but also an extraordinarily rich and complex emotion, with associations that crystallized into separate terms over the course of time.’
All these emotions linked with wonder could be harnessed separately and exploited for religious or didactic purposes, to gain power and status, for wealth and profit, or to sell stories and books. The rarity of wonder, also, could be taken advantage of. Gervase traced the emotion of wonder in the high Middle Ages to either the experience of the novel, unfamiliar and unexpected, and/or the ignorance of its origin and cause. For him, marvels ‘were either rare phenomena, astounding by their unfamiliarity (for example, the phoenix of the Atlas Mountains, which immolated itself periodically only to rise again), or more common but puzzling, counterintuitive, or unexplained phenomena.’ Importantly, the wonders were geographical, already linking them to faraway places – wonders were already projected in exotic locations, and, when travellers set out for the East, expected. Gervase’s wonders ‘were overwhelmingly topographical in nature; that is to say, they were linked to particular places (the “provinces” of Gervase’s subtitle) and often to particular topographical features, such as caves and springs, rocks and lakes. The magnet was indigeneous to India, for example, and the phoenix to the Atlas Mountains, while there were mountains in Wales so wet that the land moved under traveller’s feet. Such wonders were, in other words, particular, localized, and concrete.’ We know that many of his wonders came from personal experience, which highlights the importance of ‘verification through personal experience and oral report’ in high medieval tradition, hence Polo’s insistence about his personal eyewitness accounts. As a sign of the times, and of people’s ‘growing appetite for wonder,’ wonder books were being translated from Latin into the vernacular, or from the vernacular into Latin, thus ensuring wider dissemination and a broader market. Polo’s book, indeed, was ‘re-marketed’ to make it more irresistible: from his ‘originally rather prosaically titled Devisament dou Monde (Description of the World),’ it was ‘repackaged in Latin as Liber Milionis de magnis mirabilibus mundi (“Millions’s” Book of the Great Wonders of the World).’ Here wonder is included – proclaimed - in the title.
Wonder as a source of pleasure and delight, wonder as a commodity on which a profit can be made, and wonder as a source of power and status: these are all the uses of wonder that Marco Polo employs in his book. We can trace this wonder in the migration of the myths spiralling between continents, exchanged between sailors at ports, debated over tea in marketplaces, whispered at caravanserais during desert nights, and coalescing and settling down in the books of merchants back from their travels to faraway lands, ready to inspire a new generation of eager listeners. Wonder is part of the underlying fabric of the book; without it, it is only a merchant’s dry checklist of places visited; a dreary historical bookkeeper’s account of prices and goods available in every city. Polo’s catalogue has its itinerary pierced by flashes of awe. Second- and third-hand accounts, genuine eyewitness experience, reflective musings where strained memory merges with slippery fantasy, perhaps even the fevered imaginings of two bored individuals locked up in prison, Polo’s tales of wonder allowed armchair travellers to dream, roused knights to their arms, gave kings authority, influenced cartographers and inspired explorers to discover new continents. Never out of print over 700 years, wonder is what has ensured Polo’s Il Milione lasting fame.
The Arabian Nights: tales of 1,001 Nights, trans. Lyons, Malcolm C., vol. 2., Nights 295-719. UK: Penguin, 2010.
Adler, Marcus Nathan, ed., The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. London: 1907, reprinted 1985, p. 66
Aleem, Anwar Abdel, ‘Wonders of the Sea of India, An Arabian Book of Sea Tales from the Xth Century and the Saint Brendan Legend’ in de Courcy Ireland, John, and Sheehy, David C., Atlantic Visions. Ireland: Boole Press, 1989
Daston, Lorraine, and Park, Katherine, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.
Ferdowsi, Abolqasem, trans. Davis, Dick, Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. USA: Penguin, 2006
Polo, Marco, The Travels of Marco Polo, translated and with an introduction by Latham, Ronald. UK: Penguin, 1958
Strijbosch, Clara, The Seafaring Saint: Sources and Analogues of the Twelfth-century Voyage of Saint Brendan, trans. Summerfield, Thea. Portland: Four Courts Press, 2000
Wittkower, Rudolf, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987