Were I to say to you “tell me what a unicorn is”, you would start with the horn. It would likely be a pristine white color, and generally horse-like, but just a little bigger, just a little better. There might be sparkles, and somewhere in the background, there’s probably a virgin. If I asked you to tell me what unicorns did, you might say that they were the protectors of their forests, noble beasts, repositories of the remaining magic on this earth, or possibly chilling somewhere in Vegas with Bigfoot, Elvis, and the Loch Ness monster.
But why do legendary creatures set our imaginations on fire? While it is very unlikely that most of these beings currently exist, they are still part of our collective consciousness. They set us afire with longing; mysteries come to life. As we tell stories about the unknowable, we begin to glimpse behind the curtain of everyday life and perhaps gain an understanding of something larger. In speaking of myth, we bring it into the realm of understanding and create a connection with the unknowable. Mythological creatures serve as a tangible connection with the divine – whether good or evil. In this role, unicorns serve as a link to facilitating greater understanding of human existence and the ways in which connection to the concept of a higher power may influence that experience.
Origins of the Unicorn Myth
Where did the unicorn come from anyways? While it’s possible that some enterprising trickster thought of plonking a horn on a horse in ancient times and parading it around for all and sundry to see, it is unlikely the answer is that simple. Our current understanding of the unicorn as a one-horned horse is very different from historical accounts of the creature. Indeed, the idea of the unicorn has only remained universal in the loosest of senses; while it has always had a horn, four feet and a tail – and was otherwise generally mammalian – its size has ranged from that of a goat to rhinoceros. Sometimes its hooves are cloven, and at others solid. The horn may be smooth, or ridged, or spiraled, and may range from black to pearlescent white in color, and between eight and thirty-six inches in length (Lavers). Its color ranges, too, but has most commonly been white, red or black, and may have a goat-like beard. Or not.
In character, the unicorn has most often been portrayed as fierce, fast and solitary. But how did these diverse physical characteristics coalesce into our modern understanding of the flawless unicorn? Current research suggests that the myth first originated somewhere in the Tibetan plateaus. In The Natural History of Unicorns, Chris Lavers notes that the first account of a unicorn-like creature was recorded by Ctesias of Cnidus in 398 BCE:
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 the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The base of this horn, for some two hand’s-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.
Here, then, we see the seeds of the unicorn myth. While there exist earlier oral accounts of the unicorn myth, Ctesias’ account is to date the earliest known written account. The distinctive horn and coloration is introduced. These characteristics are similar to other animals which inhabit the Tibetan Plateau, as we shall see below.
Ctesias goes on to speak of the efficacious properties of the horn, noting that “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 poisons, if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers” (1-2). Magic and medicine were much the same to Ctesias and his contemporaries. As a learned man and doctor of no small repute himself, Ctesias understood the complex connection between an individual’s physical health, their mental emotional state, and the unknowable – that reached by faith, most often understood as god/s. Healing, while a science, was also a mystery, and cures were as often seen as signs of the god’s favor as the outcome of a doctor’s skill. It was not, therefore, unreasonable to assign magical properties to the unicorn’s horn and consider it to be as factually true as those of us living in the twenty-first century consider the Law of Gravity. Magic was not ridiculous or whimsy; it was a filter for explaining the seemingly unexplainable, in the same way Western society uses science today. Ctesias goes on to speak of the nature of the unicorn, its solitary ways, its fierce demeanor in protection of its young, and the fact that it can only be killed at great risk, but never taken alive.
In the Caucasus Mountains there exist stories and songs which have been preserved largely intact from generation to generation through a strong community understanding of ritual. In “The Association of the Lady and the Unicorn, and the Hunting Mythology of the Caucasus,” author David Hunt notes that in classical descriptions of the unicorn “nearly all refer to hunting and often to mountains. In high mountainous areas of Europe and the near East, the most important prey animal for hunters is typically a goat, ibex or chamois” (75). The animal thus described, then, is of the same general conformation as the unicorn: fast, agile, horned and solitary. If seen in profile, as in the case of the Ibex above, it is understandable that such a creature could be taken as having one horn from a distance.
Of Virility and Virgins
As belief in the unicorn spread, its qualities – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – continued to grow and change. Like a game of telephone where people whisper messages in an ongoing chain from one ear to another, understanding of the unicorn morphed from its origins. The further removed it became from its original source, the greater the mystery, the deeper the symbology. While the original beast may have been a wild ass or a goat or even a rhinoceros, our current understanding of the unicorn is so far from its earthly origins as to make such considerations largely irrelevant. The unicorn of myth has transcended its physical state and become something greater.
This practice is not uncommon; eschewing the fleshy form for a higher state. Buddha, Jesus, Hercules and any number of heroes, spiritual warriors, and visionaries exist as conceptual transcendental symbols. But these are human links to the divine; they reveal what is possible for us. Mythological creatures are a connection between the natural world and the divine, helping us realize the web of interdependence and the ways in which everyone and everything is connected.
That sense of connection between humans and the natural world is particularly relevant when considering the unicorn myth. From the inception of its tale, the unicorn has almost always been paired with a woman. Hunt notes this, saying “The lady mounted on the two-headed deer, depicted on the bronze buckle [Figure 2] from the Old Hellenic period, shows that the association of a lady with a hunting-prey animal is very ancient in the Caucasus, going back to well before the Christian era” (82). One might wonder why a woman would be paired with a beast of prey when hunting-based cultures typically divided duties along the lines of patriarchal gender roles where home was the demesne of the woman and those external duties (hunting, gaining livelihood for the household) were the bailiwick of men.
Further examination, however, clarifies the issue. Although hunting is traditionally the purview of the man, domestic duties, including that of herding tamed beasts, would often fall to the woman. Hunt comments on this: “In all hunting cultures there is an owner; sometimes a master, but more often a mistress of the beasts” (75). Logically, then, a woman is paired with the unicorn myth. And as the unicorn myth develops, it attracts meanings like iron fillings to a magnet, often centered around the dualities represented in the female human/male beast pairing: feminine and masculine; chastity and virility; control and passion; sinner and saint.
And lest we become too focused on the otherworldly qualities of the transcendental unicorn, we are reminded of his ardor through his horn. While he is as often as not visually portrayed without the necessary equipment for successful copulation (as we might understand it – although who really knows how unicorns procreate?), the rampant horn asserts his ever-ready nature. Jeffery Cohen pithily notes: “The beautiful unicorn cannot be captured by hunters, but if a chaste maiden offers her lap, he is happy to lay his head there; lest the image become suggestive, the reader is told immediately that the unicorn is Christ, the virgin is Mary, and there is (by implication) nothing sexual about this strange equine’s ardor for placing his long horn in maidenly laps” (71).
Attachment of the unicorn to the Roman Catholic Church and Jesus and Mary in particular likely grew out of the Church’s practice of co-opting existing beliefs to further spread its influence. One of the Church’s most effective tactics, which resulted in its nearly viral spread across the majority of Europe and into the near East, was that of adapting its theology and celebrations to pre-existing pagan practices. While this practice was by no means universal, as the Church was just as likely to covert the “godless heathens” by means of brutal force, this practice – utilizing the carrot instead of the stick, as it were – generally met with greater long-term success.
By placing a Catholic patina over the already existing framework, the Church could utilize existing structures and easily convert cultural groups to their teachings through persuasion rather than coercion. People were still allowed – and, in most cases, encouraged – to engage in seasonal celebrations, although generally without such outright attention to fecundity as may have previously been present. Demigods were sainted, and old holy sites re-sanctified under one God with a capital g. Within a few generations, communities which were previously pagan had become effectively Roman Catholic, often with very little understanding that things had once been different.
Through this mechanism, then, the unicorn mythos was most likely adapted to a Christian framework. And it dovetailed nicely; the dualities represented, the semi-deification of the apocryphal woman and the virile beast allowed for a neat symbolic transposition to Mary and Jesus. In the following passage from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Brother William and his young apprentice, Adso, discuss the probability of the existence of the Unicorn, and the significance of its symbolism.
“But is the unicorn a falsehood? It’s the sweetest of animals and a noble symbol. It stands for Christ, and for chastity; it can be captured only by setting a virgin in the forest so that the animal, catching her most chaste odor, will go and lay its head in her lap, offering itself as prey to the hunters’ snares.”
“So it is said, Adso. But many tend to believe that it’s a fable, an invention of the pagans….”
“The unicorn, as these books speak of him, embodies a moral truth, or allegorical, or analogical, but one that remains true, as the idea that chastity is a noble virtue remains true. But as for the literal truth that sustains the other three truths, we have yet to see what original experience gave birth to the letter. The literal object must be discussed, even if its higher meaning remains good (379-381).”
What is important, then, when considering the unicorn, becomes not so much its existence in a form we would recognize as unequivocally “unicorny” but what the creature signifies. In associating it with the Jesus/Mary mythos, the Church transformed the unicorn into a symbol of virtues, far removed from its physical origins. Focus was placed not on the flesh but upon what lays beyond, upon a person’s character, the development of virtues, and an individual’s enduring soul as defined by the Church.
Through their dual associations with virility and faith, unicorns became a popular symbol for coats of arms during the middle ages and throughout the renaissance. These mythical beasts can be seen representing noble houses across country lines; from England to Eastern European countries and beyond. Wherever the Catholic Church made its presence known one is likely to see the unicorn.
The coat of arms seen here is from seventeenth-century Germany. The unicorn is represented rampant both times; hooves up, as if ready to take on any foes and defend his country, courageous and true (Wade, 85). The red of the unicorn reinforces this attitude; red is the color of military prowess, and also known as “the martyr’s color” (Wade, 36). The gold of the hooves balances this fervor; or, as it is called when referring to heraldry is indicative of generosity, and the spirit of a true knight. This is further reinforced by the or sheaves of grain on azure (blue) which rise from the vert (green) earth. It is likely that the person who chose this coat of arms wished to be seen as someone with deep ties to country, faith and duty. The unicorn here is a righteous protector, never acting in anger, gentle to those beneath him, respectful to his peers and those above, and fearless in battle.
We can then see it is in this time period that our understanding of the unicorn as we conceive of it today becomes clear. He has been purified, sanctified, and glorified. The symbolic stunt-double of Christ, the unicorn is now holy (Gotfredsen, 75). With the passage of years, the understanding of unicorn-as-Jesus weakens (Gotfredsen, 130), but he still remains a symbol of virtue, an untouchable and unknowable entity.
Everybody Poops, Even Unicorns: Unicorns in Popular Culture
When we look contemporary popular culture, however, the unicorn has undergone an interesting metamorphosis. Instead of focusing on those things which make the mythic creature divine, attention is now given to its corporeal form. With the unicorn, we ask the questions that we would never consider applying to Jesus or Buddha: do unicorns poop, and if so, is that where rainbows come from? What happens when they get sick?
In the spirit of satire (and, no doubt, to make a decent profit), ThinkGeek.com has even gone so far as to offer a product called Canned Unicorn Meat. This non-edible novelty resembles a can of SPAM, and is advertised as an excellent source of sparkles. Such products are not unusual, either; recipes exist for unicorn poop cookies, and a search on Google will net a number of creative and unconventional products, ranging from tee shirts to individually crafted works of art.
Perhaps this focus on the bodily functions of the mythical beast is a new way of creating connection with the divine. As fleshy creatures, we are bound to certain physical necessities, whether for good or ill. Our human body, and the passions and desires and needs which it produces, inform our experience in this life. While we are gifted with the ability to look beyond the curtain of this physical existence as beings who can reason, feel, and dream, we cannot step beyond without leaving our bodies behind. We are fettered – and freed – by experiencing this life as corporeal creatures. By breaking down the barriers of mystery through focusing on relatable aspects, we gain an opportunity to realize the ways in which we are all interconnected. At the end of the day, everybody poops, even unicorns.
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This paper was written for Academic Research and Writing, offered at Marylhurst University, Winter 2012.