Mythic Air Creatures

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Mythical Air Creatures

Roc model: 11-foot-long roc with large, sharp talons swooped above the heads of visitors on a wingspan of nearly 20 feet in the exhibition.
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Have you ever wondered what it feels like to fly? The smallest bird has powers we will never share. But mythic creatures of the air have even greater powers. Imagine a bird so huge it blocks out the sky, or stirs up storms with its wings. In myths and stories, winged horses, dragons, and even people all have the power of flight. These stories help express the wonder and awe inspired by looking up at the sky.

Fun Facts

  • Seven hundred years ago, Arab traders told of a bird so huge it could lift an elephant into the sky. Sailors said it lived on an island off the southern coast of Africa. Coincidentally, a giant bird called the Aepyornis once lived on the island of Madagascar. Now extinct, the bird--which is the largest ever to live, at over ten feet tall--laid the largest eggs in the world, at over two gallons.
  • According to Hindu and Buddhist stories, the giant, birdlike Garuda fights its eternal enemy, the snakelike Naga. The Garuda is now the national symbol of Thailand and Indonesia.
  • When the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 464-425 B.C.E.) visited Egypt, he learned of the sacred benu bird of Egyptian myth. He called it the phoenix, and wrote that it came to the Egyptian Temple of the Sun once every 500 years. Later writers wrote that every five centuries the phoenix burned in a fire lit by the Sun and then rose to begin life again. Inspired by this tale, many poets and artists have adopted the phoenix as a symbol of renewal and rebirth.