This Week’s Prompt:127. Ancient and unknown ruins—strange and immortal bird who speaks in a language horrifying and revelatory to the explorers.
The Resulting Story:
Avian lore is not an unfamiliar branch of study for the Undead Author Society. Our most recent delve into the birds of feather can be found here—and in fact, given the emphasis on the voice of the bird here, much of it is still applicable. That said, there are still a number of strange and interesting birds to examine in the folklore and mythology of the world.
One of note is the Luan bird—a bird that in some ways resembles the phoenix or Feng Huang. This bird is a bright red bird, with a rainbow plumage, resembling a pheasant. One of it’s most notable characteristics is its song—a song that often is described as piercing the clouds or heavens. The bird is known for its vanity in folktales, as well for it’s singing with joy upon seeing another of its kind. Over time, it gained further associations with a longing for freedom in the sky, as opposed to captivity—and such associations tied it neatly to those Daoists who transcended all things, as well as the Queen Mother of the West. The bird’s association with gentlemanly behavior and proper action, as well as linguistic ties to the Emperor’s banner, are also worthy of note.
The luan in the article I read was glossed as “simurgh”—a bird that we have neglected somewhat so far. The Persian Simurgh is a great bird that lives in the forested third heaven, and raised the hero Zal. Zal took with him one of the feathers of the bird down with him, and its feathers healed all wounds when applied. It is also a creature that brings the rain with it’s wings, and scatters all the seeds of the world from its island roost. Next to it sits Carmosh, who catches seeds that fall from the roost and takes them all over the world. When enemies invade Iran, Carmosh eats the men as a bird eats corn—a horrifying and powerful bird indeed!
The other bird that comes to mind when examining ruins, to me, is the Roc or Rukh. This bird is perhaps the most famous massive bird these days, appearing in videogames and tabletop roleplaying games, but rooted ultimately in Arabic folklore and travel tales. There the Rukh has a few stock stories—the most common of which involves a group of sailors shipwrecked on an island. Here they find the great bird, who feeds upon elephants, whales, and great serpents. Sometimes the storm that caused their misery is from the Rukh itself, sometimes it is just a chance storm. In one variation, the Arabic sailors carefully leap from a tree to grip the feet of the flying rukh—and are transported to a mountain top. Upon finding a shepherd, they realize their in India—and gradually make their way home.
Another version has the men coming across a vast egg—and breaking it open, stripping the baby Rukh of its feathers, and cooking it with sticks they found in the tree. Either the flesh of the Rukh or the twigs—which are actually the tree of Youth—restore their age and beards. When the mother bird returns, however, they are scattered and have to flee the island or suffer the terrifying bird’s wrath. They do keep the feathers of the baby rukh, however
The article I read suggested a relation to another bird that was supposedly worshipped in Pre-Islamic times, called the Anqa . This bird lived 2000 years, and took a wife every 500 years. This bird features in a tale about King Solomon. King Solomon spoke often of the will of God and the destiny of birds, to the Anqa’s objection. The Anqa asked how Solomon could know the will of God—and Solomon prophesized that two lovers, one in Africa and one in China, despite being raised far apart, would come together as proof of god’s will. And so the Anqa and the owl set out to upset fate—the Anqa flying off and kidnapping said girl while she was but a babe.
Briefly, the Anqa’s description is a tad unusual—for it is as large as a camel, but with the face, fingers, hands, and breasts of a woman. This brings to mind a harpy, in a way, more than a Rukh. Regardless, the Anqa took the baby to a great mountain in the middle of the sea, atop a large tree. This tree provided all things the girl would need, connecting to the great tree of life the Rukh nested in.
Meanwhile, the boy grew up to be a great king and avid hunter—and having hunted everything on land, he moved to hunting on sea. And there, God sent a wind to his ship, sending it towards the island of the Anqa. Even from the sea, the tree of the Anqa was entrancing in its beauty. So they landed to investigate the wonder that towered from the high mountain. At this time, the girl who had never seen a man came down to see the ships—and the two fell in love. But they needed a scheme to be together—and the king proposed he would hide in the corpse of a horse, and be carried up by the Anqa to his beloved.
The plan worked, and the two made love that night. The Anqa, embarrassed and ashamed, fled to the west to never be seen again. The Owl, their conspirator, hides at night for this exact reason as well. Its name even hints at this fate, being the bird of the west.
On the more mundane, but still fantastic level is the Peacock. The peacock is an amazing animal, with a number of interesting folktales about it—and one of the most fascinating ones to me is about how the dissonance between its voice and appearance happened. There was a king who promised a fortune to whoever could teach his mute son to speak. A rogue wished for the riches, and learned from an old man that all he needed to do was find the most beautiful bird song and ask the prince to sing what the bird sang. And what bird was that? The peacock.
Alas, the peacock prince of the birds was tricked into this task—and was outraged when he traded voices with the mute prince. The king was pleased his son had such a voice, but did punish the rogue for his trick. While the rogue received food and riches, the room of wonderous clothes that he had been offered were given to the peacock instead. And thus the peacock got its wonderous coat.
This reminds me of a story of the crow, which I’ll link here, where the beautiful crow lost much of its brilliance to the sun as it flew.
The stories of these island birds are very similar—had I known about the prevalence of a large tree, I might have tied this into the last one! Still, I think three stories dealing with the same framing device would have been a bit …much. For this story, we do have an island, some ruins, and a strange speaking bird—strangely, none of these birds resemble the most famous speaking bird, the parrot. Hm. Regardless, we covered that sort of story here a few months ago.
Our current story would then have to do with either the discovery of an ancient talking bird that speaks in terrible revelations—or perhaps the aftermath of such an encounter. The symbolism of the bird is interesting in this respect, tied to life in many ways, freedom, and soaring into the heavens. One angle we could approach is that of an alien life form, mistaken for a bird—a reverse of the Flatwood monster, an owl mistaken for an alien. This might give it’s revelations a strange pertinence.
One issue as a writer is making these revelations truly horrific—Lovecraft often simply left them unsaid, and personally that always undercut the potential impact. Forbidden knowledge or knowledge that drives one mad is difficult to write. That I think is the challenge I’ll undertake this week—to give the voice of the bird a genuine horror to speak.
What stories of talking birds have you heard?
Al-Rawi, Ahmed. “A Linguistic and Literary Examination of the Rukh Bird in Arab Culture.” Al-‘Arabiyya, vol. 50, 2017, pp. 105–117. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26451398. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.
Goodell, Grace. “Bird Lore in Southwestern Iran.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 1979, pp. 131–153. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177687. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.
Nair, P. Thankappan. “The Peacock Cult in Asia.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 1974, pp. 93–170. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177550. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.
Suhr, Elmer G. “The Phoenix.” Folklore, vol. 87, no. 1, 1976, pp. 29–37. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1259496. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.