The Unicorn Series
Part One - The Unicorn's Appearance in Literature
...'there are in India...certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on their forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust fild from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs. The base of this horn, fo some two-hands'-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black.
...Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject they say to convulsions or to the holy disease (epilepsy). Indeed, they are immune even to poions if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water or anything else from these beakers.
Other asses, both the tame and the wild, and in fact all animals with solid hoofs, are without the ankle-bone and have no gall in the liver, but these have both the ankle-bone and the gall. This ankle-bone, the most beautiful I have ever seen, is like that of an ox in general appearance and in size, but it is as heavy as lead and its colour is that of cinnabar through and through. The animal is exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it.'
Ctesias, 4th century BC.
The above account is the first generally accepted account of the existence of unicorns. It is thought to represent (if dissatisfactorily) the Indian rhinocerous. Yet Ctesias' use of the word 'wild ass' leads us to believe otherwise - as after all - Ctesias was familiar with asses and would not have confused them with a rhinocerous.
At the time of this account, reports of a Tibetan 'unicorn' were becoming widespread. Documents from the time of Genghis Khan contained reports of a mythological creature which describe it as a 'long and fleet creature' like a gazelle, with a perfectly straight horn, the colour of deer.
There are two other significant unicorn references within ancient literature. Poet Oppian mentions Boeotian oxen has being single horned. The other reference comes from Julius Caesar himself who said that in the Hercynian Forest, a stag shaped beast with one horn there lived.
Aristotle was one of the many who believed in the existence of the unicorn, as were many other philosophers. Aelian was one of these, who between him and Ctesias, mustered up seven different 'unicorns.' One of these was the distinct Cartazon. An animal 'as large as a full-grown horse, it has a mane, tawny hair, feet like those of the elephant, and the tail of a goat. It is exceedingly swift of foot. Between its brows there stands a single black horn, not smooth but with certain natural rings, and tapering to a very sharp point. Of all animals, this one has the most dissonant voice.'
The Cartazon was considered exceptionally gentle towards other species, but would fight its own kind. They were thought to have lived in mountains in India inaccessible to man. No mature Cartazon had ever been captured. Cartazon comes from the Sanskrit - Kartajan, which means 'lord of the desert.'
Pliny mentions the unicorn in several passages (Monocerologia, 1676). 'The Orsaean Indians hunt an exceedingly wild beast called the monoceros, which has a stag's head, elephant's feet, and a boar's tail, the rest of its body being like that of a horse. It makes a deep lowing noise, and one black horn two cubits long projects from the middle of its forehead. This animal cannot be taken alive.'
The unicorn, for a long time, did not enjoy a positive reputation. It was announced by the philosopher Solinus to be 'the most cruellest of creatures, a monster with a terrible bellow. His horn, of four feet, so sharp to pierce the toughest of flesh.'
The unicorn appeared only to live in literature, including the Bible (as seen in the next part). Many did not believe in its existence. It was - most of the time - an unromanticised monster, brutal and violent, terrible and beautiful.
The Unicorn Series
Part Two - The Unicorn in Biblical Context
...'God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of the unicorn. Numbers xxiii. 22.
His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people to the ends of the earth. Deuteronomy xxxiii. 17.
Save me from the lion's mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns. Psalm xxii. 21
He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn Psalm xxix. 6.
But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be annointed with fresh oil Psalm xcii. 10.
And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness Isaiah xxxiv. 7.
Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide in thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? Or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him because his strength is great? Or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?
Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?' Job xxxix. 9-12
The fact that no one in Europe had seen a unicorn was of very little importance. No one in Europe had really seen an elephant, a tiger, a jaguar...but they believed in them with no question also.
The unicorn is often linked with tangible creatures; the bull, the calf, the deer. It is also linked with a sense of awe and of power. It is thought that this Biblical unicorn was the Re'em, the indomitable one-horned Hebrew creature. Re'em could have possibly descended from the Arabian word rim, which literally meant Aurochs; the fierce, extinct, large bullocks of time past.
It is in Alexandria that the unicorn really started to develop into a known creature, not just a literary wonder for the well-read. In the physiologus (the collection of old wives' tales which included the one about the ant-lion actually being fathered by an ant and a lion), we hear:
'[the unicorn] is a small animal, like a kid, but surprisingly fierce for his size, with one very sharp horn on his head, and no hunter is able to catch him by force. Yet there is a trick by which he is taken. Men lead a virgin to the place where he most resorts and leave her there alone. As soon as he sees this virgin he runs and lays his head on her lap. She fondles him and he falls asleep. The hunters approach and capture him and lead him to the king.'
Which led to questions such as: 'why is this animal worth such a ruse?' and 'what is the relationship between the unicorn and the virgin?' which wasn't, at that time, anything to do with purity.
The unicorn, from the Physiologus, came to represent Christianity through the following symbolism:
Horn as representing unity of father and Christ. Fiercesome nature and strength as representing that the powers of the Principalities, Thrones etc. could not come against the Messiah's will. The small stature represented Christ's humility. The virgin now comes to represent the Virgin Mary. The hunter represents the Holy Spirit, or angel Gabriel. The capture of the unicorn is the Incarnation of Christ. Leading the unicorn to the King, is the Christ-form once again finding his way back to the Holy Spirit.
There were a few other interpretations of the Physiologus, none however contributed as much to the popular view of the unicorn held today as the description above. However the unicorn was interpreted as the Devil, and the maiden as proof that virtue overcomes evil. Except in this interpretation, the Devil begins to make love to the virgin, so the maiden grasps his horn (phallic symbol anyone?) rendering the unicorn/Devil helpless, so that he can be captured by the hunter.
The virgin-capture story became popularised and sexualised over time in literature. Eventually authors wrote that the unicorn could discern virgins by sight, and should any maiden lie about her virtue, or attempt to deceive a unicorn, she would be instantly slain. Eventually it was best if the virgin was naked if the unicorn was to come (surprise surprise), and that the human virgin woman represented the 'opposite' of the unicorn, the exact polar opposite so that the unicorn was irreversibly attracted to her.
Yet the unicorn was not necessarily 'special', many people accepted that 'opposites attracted' and so came to think that the unicorn was attracted to virgins because it was only his nature. He was not special and symbolised nothing. Though important, he did not have the magical splendour of the griffin or the salamander.
As for the use of virgins, it was common to use lions and elephants and other beasts to test their 'virtue.' If they were trampled / eaten, then they weren't virgins. Later tales of the virgin and the unicorn concerned themselves with the idea of an odour of chastity which could be bought and if one annointed themselves with it, the unicorn would be deceived. This eliminated the need for the virgin, as hunters themselves could smell of sweet innocence and chastity and so deceive the unicorn.
However, if you were a 'traditionalist' and wanted to a use a virgin, no 'ordinary' virgin would do. It had to a well-bred young maiden, not too poor, nor too arrogant and rich. She had to like feminine pursuits such as picking flowers and well... I guess perhaps embroidery. They had to be beautiful, gentle and kind, which detracts from the fact that these maidens were employed for the sole purpose of deceiving the creature and the truth of its murder. The maidens were not, in essence, gentle and kind.
Sadly, the unicorn enjoyed more nobility before the virgin-capture story. The unicorn as a creature became merely a worthy prey for centuries, only to be caught by the worst of 'sportsmanship.'
Far on the edge of the world and beyond the banks of the Ganges,
Savage and lone, is a place in the realm of the King of the Hindus...
Where there is born a beast as large as a stag in stature,
Dark on the back, solid-hoofed, very fierce, and shaped like a bullock.
Mighty and black is the horn that springs from the animals' forehead,
Terrible unto his foe, a defence and a weapon of onslaught.
Often the poisoners steal to the banks of that swift-flowing river,
Fouling the waves with disease by their secret insidious poisons;
After them comes this beast and dips his horn into the water,
Cleansing the poison away and leaving the stream to flow purely
So that the forest-dwellers may drink once more by the margin.
Also men say that the beast delights in the embrace of a virgin,
Falling asleep in her arms and taking sweet rest on her bosom.
Ah! But, awakening, he finds he is bound by ropes and by shackles.
Strange is the tale, indeed, yet so, they say, he is taken,
Whether it be that the seeds of love have been sown by great Nature
Deep in his blood or for some more mysterious reason.'
The Unicorn Series
Part Three - The Unicorn and Fantasy
Discrepancy and fantasy. Did the unicorn have a divided hoof like the goat? Or a solid hoof like the bull? A goat's body with a horses head? Or a horse body with a goat's head? The goat's beard? Was that there too? Striated horns or not?
Welcome the Renaissance artists, who romanticised the unicorn and depicted it as a cloven-hoofed, goat-bearded, striated-horned, pure-white animal. It was shown solitary, without a mate, usually observed by humans or prostrating itself to the virgin maiden.
And then, the unicorn became a symbol upon heralds. It represented magic of all kinds. It represented chastity, purity and ferocity. It represented the tribes that could not be captured, those that would fight until the end.
Eventually the unicorn developed further. It developed a precious gemstone, a ruby or carbuncle at the base of its horn. This ruby, and the unicorn's red heart, were thought to cure almost any ill. The horn became known as the alicorn. It varied in colour, shape, pattern, size, striation etc. It even varied in stiffness.
The unicorn horn, according the Northern Europeans, was limp like a 'cock's comb' that could be stiffened (phallic anyone?) during combat.
The inside of the unicorn horn, when split, was thought to contain pictures of a man, fish and peacock against a black background. Al Damiri in the Book of Holy Things takes it further to say that not only were these found, but also pictures of trees, goats, birds etc.
Most unicorn horns were made of ivory and had a higher value than gold. The horn itself - good at detecting all poisons - enjoyed a better reputation than the stone ruby, also thought to be an anti-poisoning agent.
In one story the unicorn offspring are described as little fawns, but the mother is described as a monster, with fourteen heavy udders, and a horn sharper than any razor in the world.
The unicorn was thought to live in regions of the Upper Nile, in Abyssinia and Ethiopia. Indeed they were thought to reside in the same mountain range where the Queen of Sheba hid her treasure; in the Mountains of the Moon. The unicorn was also thought to reside in Tibet, where Genghis Khan was met on Mount Djadanaring by a beast which knelt three times to show his respect.
The unicorn was placed in South Africa, Mecca, the Court of Peju, Persia, India, Tartary, Scandinavia, Florida, China and the Canadian Border.
Whilst the Europeans were romanticising their unicorn, the Chinese concurrently had their ki'lin; the 'unicorn' that intermittently came from the heavens to present a fantastic omen, such as the birth of a new emperor. The ki'lin was commonly regarded as kingly as (but perhaps not important as) the dragon, and was often considered the King of Beasts. In Feng Shui, it replaced the tiger. It ate no living thing, not animal or vegetable, and would not tread upon a blade of grass or insect. It possessed a horn of twelve feet that was fleshy at the tip, a stag's body, a horse's head, and the tail of an ox. The ki'lin was not white, but pente-coloured. Its call sounded like chimes or a monastery bell.
The Chinese unicorn represented the element of earth, and was thought to spring from the very centre of the earth when needed. The ki'lin was gentle, harmless and did not kill with its horn. He was dignified, solitary, and would not tread on soil tainted with the human foot unless a mission dictates. He would not interact with his own kind. He was never hunted, and would voluntarily visit Kings should omens dictate. He was the King's equal and superior - a deity - rather than a beast to be tamed by deceitful hunters and virgins. The ki'lin has never had commercial value, as the ki'lin does not exist for medication or the edification of mankind.
In the East, the ki'lin in legend would one day appear in the form of a human, as a Messiah, to perform a mission on their benefit. Then he will walk the roads tainted by man, and it is thought that then he would save mankind.
Even in Western legend has the ki'lin thought to be a Messianic figure.
Anyway, the ki'lin was one of six other unicorns, who all derived from an original source. The other five are: King, Kioh Twan, Poh, Hiai Chai and the Too Jon Sheu.
In 1539 the unicorn was already being placed in America and Canada, as a creature with black eyes, and horn pieces were supposedly found around the necklaces of the natives of Florida. The American unicorn went by the name Souanamma.
The Unicorn Series
Part Four - Contemporary Unicorns
The legend of the unicorn really began to develop when the scholars began to play with the 'lore' that had been carefully collected and transcribed. Between 1550 and 1700 approximately 25 extended 'discussions' were published focussing exclusively on its origins, history and evolution. These discussions were long articles, and heavily referenced and foot-noted books. They were in a sense a nightmare to read.
Conrad Gesner in 1551, in his book Zoology suggested that the unicorn had been wiped out during Noah's flood. For seventy years this book wasn't doubted. It described several different species of unicorn including a new one from the Carpathians, and even today is drawn upon in contemporary texts to further imply that the unicorn was a real species mostly wiped out by some earthly disaster.
Thomas Boreman in 1730 wrote his: A Description of Three Hundred Animals, viz. Beasts, Birds, Fishes, Serpents & Insects, With a Particular Account of the Whale-Fishery (remind anyone of Fiona Apple's last album anyone?). The unicorn here is described as having one iron-hard horn on a hart's head, elephant's feet, a boar's tail and a horse's body. His voice was an ox-low. The unicorn was entirely black, except for the tip of the rough edged horn, which is thought to be red. It is described here as a solitary herbivore, fierce to its own kind, and to men who would seek to catch it.
Almost all the scholars were Protestants, bent on maintaining the Bible storyline, so the virgin-capture lived on, as did the religious implications of purity if one drank from a unicorn horn, or if one ground it into his or her drink.
There were some evolutionary traits ascribed to the unicorn which are no longer written about in the mainstream today. The first is that if pursued, a unicorn will quite happily throw himself off a precipice, fall headfirst and let his horn slice the ground and take all the impact - where upon it uses its great strength to rip its horn out of the ground and keep running. Lore explained that any water that sprung from horn holes was sacred, and lent any drinker or bather power.
Another evolutionary trait passed by the wayside was that the unicorn would bow three times on one knee to any that it perceived was a true ruler (such as it did to Genghis Khan). Indeed Ssanang Ssetsen says quite lyrically of this, 'what may it mean that this speechless wild animal bows before me like a man? Is it that the spirit of my father would send me a warning out of heaven?' Genghis Khan did not invade India after seeing this creature, thus India was saved.
Another was that the single horn twisted from the base until about ten centimetres at the top where it split and unwound into two points that were exceedingly sharp. Some soldiers reported seeing rotting flesh hanging on these points, badges of men past slain for daring to capture the fierce brown creature.
As time went by, the sea unicorn emerged, that which had the single horn on the equine head, a mane and a solid strong swimming body. Here was the first clear parallel drawn with the narwhal, a single 'horned' whale whose horn is actually an extended tooth in males for purposes of territorial and breeding dispute.
Today the unicorn is; according to Michael Page and Robert Ingpen from The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were:
'A particularly beautiful creature once widespread throughout the northern hemisphere. Known under different names in different countries, but now popularly known by its Latin appellation deriving from unus = one, cornus = horn.' Generally the unicorn was a solitary creature. Unlike other hooved animals it did not pasture in herds but walked alone, and after the male and female unicorn had come together for mating the male would resume its solitary habit. A unicorn colt, which was born without a horn, stayed with its mother until the horn had grown to full length and then went off on its own.
The horn of the unicorn was a fearsome weapon, especially since the unicorn was a very fierce and aggressive animal which could run faster than any other creature of the plains and forests. Adult unicorns protected their territory with single-minded fury. Even an elephant would steer clear of a unicorn. Lions, being carnivorous, often lived amicably in unicorn territory since the two animals did not threaten each other's food supplies, and a lion never attacked a unicorn for fear of its great horn.
The unicorn in mainstream culture is white, with a stag or equine body, stag or equine face, and single or cloven-hoofed often given a lion or goat's tail, and forelock and fetlocks. The horn is also portrayed as white. They are considered emulations of purity and of protection, though their history is somewhat one stained with the blood trade of trading false alicorns (often inciting the mass slaughter of narwhals and antelopes to do so), and betrayal.
The unicorn has been popularised in contemporary culture through anime, My Little Ponies, the artwork of Sue Dawe and through the animation The Last Unicorn based on a same-titled book by Peter S. Beagle. This is currently being re-written in the hopes of being re-made once more. The unicorn today still hasn't lost much of its splendour and grace, beauty or ferocity, and remains a favourite mythological subject of artists, poets and musicians worldwide.