Rukh, Bennu and Phoenix

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The wicked witch in the film, The Wizard of Oz, had flying monkeys as her minions.  Traditionally, however, sorcerers and evil-doers have allies in the form of birds who can go far, fast, and high enough to spy on anyone anywhere even in the dark of night.  In the Tibetan epic, Gesar of Ling, when living beings do not cooperate with the evil hermit, Ratna, the wizard has to construct "robots" out of metal. 

The Sinister Metal Birds

From the Tibetan folktale, Gesar of Ling:

"Gongmo watched her son as he sat putting the finishing touches to the bow, his usually mobile face set in concentration. She had to admit that Gesar was not a very handsome child, certainly he did not have the sort of face one would associate with a child of the gods. In fact his broad, frank smile, laughing eyes, and snub nose made it far more believable that he was the child of nomadic bandits. But when he talked with Gongmo about his mission, he became serious, his whole personality seemed to change and he showed a compelling and definite charisma. 

Terrible screeching filled the air. Gongmo ran to the window, "Gesar, what is it?" She looked up and saw three enormous birds circling over the house, like vultures over carrion. "What are they, Gesar? Never have I seen such birds!" As Gongmo went outside for a better view, Gesar held his mother's arm. 

"No, Ama-la. Do not go outside." 
"Why? Tell me! What is going to happen? What are these birds, Gesar?" 

The screeching was directly overhead. Gongmo slammed the window shutters and bolted them.  Gesar did not reply. The little boy, no more than eighteen inches high, with bare buttocks beneath his tiny sheepskin chuba, was concentrating totally on putting the final touches to his bow. His nimble fingers worked on silently, as though racing against time. 

"Holy gods, they're going to attack us!" The cry of the birds had an urgent, threatening quality. "What shall we do?" Gongmo backed away from the windows and grabbed Gesar as the room darkened and the shutters shook violently, wings beating against them. Gongmo instinctively held the child close, both to protect him and to seek reassurance. She looked down at Gesar, her "magic" child, small round face, dark, wise eyes; but still he was a child. 

Suddenly he slipped from her hold and stood alone in the middle of the room as the shutters of one windows splintered, and, for a few seconds, framed in the window, Gongmo saw an enormous bird filling the room with an eerie metallic rattle from its shimmering black feathers, its metal beak flashing with reflected light, the edge as sharp as a well-honed blade. As the bird launched itself at Gesar, the child, who already had an arrow on the bow, loosed it, a fragile wand only a few inches long.  It pierced the bird's feathers. The creature screamed with pain, arched its body, then fell so close to Gesar that the point of its beak touched Gesar and drew blood. 

Gongmo was terrified at the viciousness of the creature and ran to the window. Already the other two birds were preparing to swoop through the window. 

"No, Gesar!" Gongmo ran over to him as he struggled to lift the bar from the door. He looked up at his mother.  "Do not fear, Ama-la. Let me go to meet them. It is better." 

Gongmo hesitated, then reluctantly unbarred the door for her son. Swiftly the birds came out of the sky, close together. As they dived toward Gesar, Gongmo saw townspeople crouching on roofs and in doorways, terrified by the malevolent looking creatures. Quicker than the eye could follow, Gesar fired two arrows.  Each found its mark and the two birds fell from the sky.  

. . .  .

Tondon was furious when he heard the news. His rage alternated with desperation at what seemed the inevitable outcome of his struggle with the boy. He was even more out of humor when he had climbed again to Ratna's hermitage. The hermit was sitting outside the cave and clearly expecting Tondon. The steward thrust a scarf [as a gesture of respectful greeting] at the hermit, who was slightly disconcerted with his client's changed attitude.

"Well? Your news?" 
"You do not know," Tondon sounded faintly sarcastic, "that your metal birds have been destroyed by this devil child?" 
Hermit Ratna was shaken.  

Tondon continued. "I am lost. There is no one else who can do anything. You were my last chance." 
The hermit irritably spun a prayer wheel on the table to relieve his feelings. "Do not be troubled." he said, trying to sound persuasively confident. "It was a trial. I do not expect you to understand the subtitles of my actions," he said airily.  

Tondon knew enough about the hermit and his ways to see that he was trying to cover his error.  Tondon wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve and said "Rinpoche, remember this. If this devil child becomes king, you, all of us, will be in danger." 

Wrathful Kyung

Gigantic Birds

Folklorists such as the Grimms referred to the motif of the mysterious gigantic bird as the wundervogel -- vogel is German for bird.)  The wondrous man-bird, Garuda, is certainly in this category and so it is related to the roc or rukh of Arabian and Persian mythology that snatches Sinbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights ("The Arabian Nights.")  He escapes its nest by riding on the back of mother bird.  His " Fifth Voyage" begins with the discovery of a rukh's egg on the beach.  When, against orders his men break it, the parent birds bombard the ship with boulders, and only Sindbad survives.

Sir Richard F. Burton, renowned 19th century adventurer and linguist said that rukh is a Persian word with many different meanings:  cheek (Lalla Rookh  or "tulip cheek," title of Moore's poem,) hero as the rook chess piece and also, it is a term for rhinoceros, a similarly mysterious beast.  Burton compared it to the eorosh in the Zoroastrian scripture, Zend Avesta.     

He also recognized the rukh's relation to other mythological birds such as the ancient Egyptian bennu bird or ti-bennu, and says that some give the pronunciation of the glyph of a large bird with one claw raised as rekhit and that it denotes pure, wise spirits.  

In the Persian epic, The Shanamah, we encounter the SÍn-Murv (or, simurgh.)  The poet, 'Aufi ( 13thC.),  described it as inheriting "energy from the falcon, power of flight from the Huma, a long neck from the ostrich, a feathery collar from the ring dove, and strength from the karkadann."  In the epic, it saves Zal by feeding him her own chick when his father abandoned him.  Later, she returned him to Sam, but gave him a feather that, if set a-light, would instantly call her should he ever again need help.


The ancient Egyptian bird with a human head is the Ba, symbolic of one of the  aspects of an individual that continues after death.  The Bennu was called "ba of Re" and also, "that which emerged from the heart of Osiris."  Usually rendered into English as "phoenix," a bennu is sometimes depicted with two primary feathers on its crest, or crowned with the Atef symbolic of Osiris (a white headdress with an ostrich plume on either side) or with the solar disc symbolic of Re (Ra, Aten.) Bennu derives from weben, which seems to have the meaning of "begin to shine." 

At Koptos, there is an image of Bennu with two human arms stretched up and out towards the morning star.  Long thin arms are used in hieroglyhs to stand for light, and life-giving energy.

The Bennu was the symbol of Heliopolis (the name given by the Greeks to the spot where the sun seems to appear, as a tribute to Helios, the sun god)  since it rises "at dawn from the waters of the Nile." As a symbol of rebirth, it is related to Khepera, the scarab deity that rolls the sun in the manner of a dung-beetle, from its setting in the west around to its point of rising in the east.  

The shape of the Bennu evolved into that of a heron, the most apparent of the birds to perch on islands of high ground as the Nile floods subside.  As such, it was associated with primordial Horus who formed earth from water.  In that connection,  it is shown perched on its nest in the sacred willow at the top of the first mound. This mound was called the ben-ben a term also used for a most sacred artefact. 

The Bennu combines the two main types of wundervogel.  One is an embodiment of Spirit, like the Feng, the Chinese bird symbolic of female energy (another case in which 'phoenix'  is the usual English translation) and also an embodiment of wisdom similar to Kirni, the "wise and ancient bird" that in Norse mythology perches upon the World Ash-tree, Yggdrasil.  

The name, Kirni reminds us of Kinara (see part one of Garuda,) but its role as a prophetic bird or store of knowledge evokes Gamayun, the bird that recounts the ancestral Russian myths of the gods and their descendants.

The Phoenix, Roc & Simurgh

The phoenix is a symbol of transformation and a Christian symbol of death and resurrection, for the Phoenix' eggs require fire to hatch.  It is rumoured to live a 1 000 years and then it dies in flames.  In the European alchemical tradition, she is a symbol of transmutation, but in fact it is not she who is directly changed, since it is her children who are born from the fire.  Nevertheless, fire is required for their birth just as some of our finer qualities require dire experience to emerge.

An other kind of wondrous bird has superior or unique physical qualities of  size and strength.   Marco Polo's Journal says that the "Ruch" had wing-feathers twelve paces long.  The name of the Persian Simurgh means 'like thirty fowl', the Hebrew Gemara mentions a bird so large its feet are in the ocean and its head in the sky.  The Arabs have Anka or 'longneck.' Buddhaghosha (early 5th century CE) mentions in the Parables, the hatti.linga bird with the strength of five elephants.  The Turks refer to the Kerkes; the Greeks gave us the griffon from gryps, and the Russians have a 'norka.'  

Burton was convinced that references to gigantic birds were founded in fact, citing the remains discovered in Madagascar of an enormous ostrich ( Aepyornus) whose egg could hold 2.35 gallons.


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