And the loveliest of all was the Unicorn

September 7, 2016

 

Unicorns are one of the most powerful mythical symbols in Western Society.  Where most myths come from a mythological source, Unicorns were shaped and developed over two thousand years of time and across multiple cultures and through multiple sources. ( http://www.gods-and-monsters.com/unicorn-myths.html)

Perhaps their power over us is the result of this richness.  Unicorns have become so enmeshed in our beliefs about magic and the forces that cause the world to exist that they now have influence in almost every sphere of our spiritual lives.  

 

The first mention of Unicorns that scholars can find is from the sixth century.  A traveler named Ctesias reported hearing about a magical creature from people he met.  

 

"Ctesias, who in his book Indika ("On India") described them as wild asses, fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half (700 mm, 28 inches) in length, and colored white, red and black."(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicorn#cite_note-2)

 

"According to Time Magazine’s article “A Brief History of Unicorns,” it was likely Ctesias never saw this creature himself, but rather combined the portrayals told to him by his foreign friends." (http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/unicorns-ever-exist/)

 

The ancient world was suitably impressed by this report, and still more by the fact that similar reports came from other places.  In China, there was reputed to be an animal of similar appearance and furthermore, the appearance of this animal was a happening of extreme good fortune.  The Japanese also had a single horned beast that was said to punish the wicked.  Scholars are now pretty much agreed that all of these images were based on rhinoceros'.  As Marco Polo admitted after a trip to India, the so called unicorn was really pretty ugly and not as Western Mythology represented it.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicorn)

 

Although each cultural unicorn varied slightly in the magical powers it possessed, they  bore some resemblance to one another given their basis on the original animal.  At the beginning of the middle ages rhinos carried their original reputation for a magic horn into what for them was a very dark future.  This was probably due to the fact that the magical and beautiful unicorn that materialized in the West, never really took off in Asia, as their magic version changed some over time but  but continued to occupy the same place in their cultural mythology.  

 

In the West, however, the middle ages began, controlled and spurred on by the church.  Science was a threat to Christian theology and therefore ceased to exist in the minds of anyone with an aversion to standing in flames.  At this time, and partially because of this fear of the church, the most of the material that got published was on topics that were fully accepted by the church.  Where science or knowledge were lacking, fiction took up the load, applauded and abetted by church representatives.  

 

"During the Dark Ages when science famously took a back seat to illogical hunches, collections known as bestiaries listed the biological properties and medical uses of known animals, which at the time included unicorns.  It's in these collections that virgins were first described as having great power over the creatures." (http://mentalfloss.com/article/51424/10-magical-facts-about-unicorns)

 

One of the popular types of books published at this time were allegories, sort of a middle ages encyclopedia but of slightly narrower subject matter, and with heavy moral messages to the individual stories.  Such a document, prepared by an unknown Alexandrian writer, The Physiologus, contained stories all of the animals in the world.  Under the heading of Unicorn,the description included pure white hair, the tail of a lion, the hooves of a goat and the face of a horse, with a beautiful magical horn in the centre of its forehead.  The unicorn could only be trapped by a maiden (significantly shown by a picture of the Virgin Mary).  A man could not trap the unicorn or get close to it.  This allegory and others like it succeeded with the help of the Church to hi-jack now ancient mythology for the use of religion and the dogma of female chastity and passivity.  In the fashion of the time, these images made their way into art, and the myth progressed still more, until the unicorn, with it's phallic symbol on its head, lay its head in the Virgin's lap and went to sleep, allowing men to come near and kill it for its magical horn. The religious iconographic influence grew still more, until the the unicorn became associated with the passion of the Christ.  

 

By the thirteenth century, as the Church's hold over science and indeed most other forms of self expression was loosened, the image of the unicorn began to change again, this time starting in France.  The powerful symbolism of the maid and the unicorn and their chaste but overpowering attraction now is secularized and their love is portrayed as faithful marriage and chaste love.  Of course underlying much of this imagery is the implication of loss of virginity and the joining of two pure, perfect souls.  

 

To summarize then: the unicorn has come to represent pure love between the maid and her animal.  He is almost impossible to find, hiding in the darkest most secret places (of her heart?).  Only the maid can find him, in fact they are inextricably drawn to one another though forces seek to keep them apart.  Once they have met, she has surrendered her maidenhood and he becomes her truest most steadfast love.  And still the only thing that can hurt him is her betrayal, allowing men near him while he sleeps.  Throughout, he is powerful, beautiful,magical, and deeply entranced by her.  

 

 

Because of the huge value of the unicorn myth in our society, and regardless where it came from, its image is a huge draw.  Movies like Legend, The Last Unicorn, and a host of others have drawn viewers all over the world.  Toys for little girls in pink plastic with multicoloured manes and sparkly horns are a testament to it.  Unicorns are used in heraldry to represent freedom, truth, and the unwillingness to be captive (Scottish coat of arms).  

 

Much as we might scorn the popularity of a myth such as the unicorn, women in particular are drawn to the idea of pure love that the unicorn represents.  Every child is schooled with the idea that when they grow up there is a perfect love out there for them.  The unicorn, therefore is the living embodiment of that perfect love.  Is it surprising therefore that something stirs deep in us at the prospect of contact with such a powerful, magical creature?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Credit to Shel Slilverstein and the Irish Rovers for the song "The Unicorn" from which I have taken my title.

 

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