History Of Unicorns
Unicorns Of The Middle Ages
In the West, Christianity helped by adopting the creature as an icon, and heraldry can fairly claim much of the rest or the credit.
Sadly there is no great treatise by anyone claiming firsthand and intimate knowledge of Unicorns. There are many claimed encounters with them, some even believable, but none that do more than whet our curiosity. What we do know is
owed largely to scholars occasionally gathering together all the second and third hand information they could find. The unicorn is at the height of its popularity. This was a time when people were extremely curious about the world around them. Traveler's tales were much sought after and could be embroidered at will to satisfy the eager audience, since the listeners were hardly likely to set foot outside their own village, let alone cross the boundary of their native country. In conditions such as these the unicorn flourished, together with countless other marvelous beasts such as griffins, manticores and hippogriffs. The gullibility of the general public was never so well illustrated as in the case of Sir John Mandeville, whose
totally invented "Traveler's Tales" were taken as gospel truth for many years. In these Mandeville recounted having seen with his own eyes not merely fantastic animals, but also numerous travesties of the human species: men without heads but with eyes and mouths in their shoulders, others whose ears hung down to their
totally invented "Traveler's Tales" were taken as gospel truth for many years. In these Mandeville recounted having seen with his own eyes not merely fantastic animals, but also numerous travesties of the human species: men without heads but with eyes and mouths in their shoulders, others whose ears hung down to their knees or who ran on hooves as swiftly as horses. For the people who listened open - mouthed to such stories the unicorn was simply one more marvel. Authentic stories of real animals seen such as the giraffe, the camel and the the elephant were actually more difficult for the people of the middle ages to believe. These animals were never seen in any form, while unicorns were seen in paintings, tapestries and decorating common everyday items.
Early works on "physiology" had wide audiences and from these writings developed bestiaries, books which described the peculiarities of animals both real and imaginary, using them as religious and moral symbols. Here is an example from "Le Bestiare Divine" by Guillaume: "The unicorn represents Jesus Christ, who took on him our nature in the virgin's womb, was betrayed to the Jews, and delivered into the hands of Pontious Pilate. Its one horn signifies the Gospel truth, that Christ is one with the Father.. " Allegorical texts such as
these were painstakingly illustrated in the rich, glowing style of the monasteries, for the Middle Ages was above all a time of visual imagery. From its cathedrals and monuments peer down at us fantastic creatures whose hooves, tails and horns speak louder than words to the imagination of the passerby. In the stained glass windows,
the tapestries, the carved seats and doorways, stand in a world where miracles and monsters were as credible as plagues and flood. Looking at the unicorn in these representations we are once again aware of contradictory images. From earliest days it had been connected with the idea of strength, virility and even a certain arrogance. At the same time, however, it had often embodied gentleness and a desire for solitude. Now, as the unicorn becomes gradually woven into the fabric of Christian allegory, we find it most frequently associated with virtue. Secular legends had suggested for some time that it could be captured by a virgin. Though pursued by hunters it would stop at the sight of a maiden and lay its head in her lap. It was natural, therefore, that with the cult of the Virgin Mary in the twelfth century the unicorn should be found with its head in HER lap, and equally natural that it should come in time to serve as a symbol for Christ himself. Indeed its very presence in a scene is now symbolic, as if people looking, for instance, at a tapestry would say to themselves: 'Ah yes, the unicorn is there', and feel reassured.
At the same time, however, as the unicorn became firmly established in the realm of allegory, "real" unicorns were in great demand.
The horn had always had a reputation for possessing healing properties and for being able to detect poison. An illustration of this can be seen in the tapestry housed in The Cloisters, a part of the New York Metropolitan Museum. Here we see a group of animals standing round while the unicorn dips its horn into a stream to purify it in order for them to drink. By the late sixteenth century unicorn horn was being greatly commercialized: fragments fetched high
prices which only the rich could pay, and apothecaries ground it up to mix in potions as a cure for innumerable maladies ranging from scurvy and dropsy to fainting fits and melancholy. Some practitioners even invited prospective customers to view the horn itself, lest the authenticity of the medicine be in any doubt. Unicorn were constantly being sought for their horn, and since they were suppose to love virgins, young girls, and young men dressed as girls were used to
try and trick the unicorn. Obviously these horns came from other animals: the single horned Asian rhinoceros; the narwhal or "sea unicorn" from the coastal waters of Greenland; even oxen and cows, pieces of whose horn were deceptively dyed. What is striking, though, is that for hundreds of years people believed so firmly in the existence of the unicorn and in the efficacy of its horn that such falsifications could be sold, not merely to the man in the street (who could barely afford them anyway), but to learned doctors and physicians, to kings and princes.
Not surprisingly, the infallibility of a unicorn as a virgin detector made the technique useful not only for catching unicorns but also for unmasking non virgins. A unicorn, seeing such a woman, was likely to impale her on his horn,
thus settling the matter permanently. As the role of the Virgin Mary increased under the spreading influence of the Catholic Church, the attributes of virginity in general became more and more highly valued, and the virgin in unicorn stories assumed the allegorical identity of the Virgin Mary. The next step was the allegorical identification of Christ with the unicorn, leading ultimately to the conversion of the unicorn's horn into a symbol of Christ's special attributes. Often, the horn was said to
represent the unity of Christ and the Father, and implicit were its capabilities for destroying evil and redemption of all kinds of sin.
Collectively, the capture and killing of the unicorn became a kind of Holy Hunt that recounted the suffering and the sacrificial death of Christ. Some people believed that the first animal Adam named after he had been created was the
unicorn. From that time forward, the unicorn was to be distinguished from all
other beasts, and Adam and Eve would often ride on its back as they wandered through Eden. Later, when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, the unicorn was forced to choose whether it would remain inside the paradise or would follow Adam and Eve into the real world, where pain existed. Male unicorns with the longest horns were probably better able to dominate other males and thus to acquire mates more rapidly and with less fighting. Obviously, this trait was a highly desirable one, and soon an evolutionary trend favoring extreme length developed. Interestingly, a small Arctic whale called the narwhal, which has evolved a single
spiraled tusk that very closely resembles the horn of a unicorn, probably has a similar evolutionary history. However, the narwhal's hollow tusk is merely a specialized tooth and can be easily distinguished from a unicorn's horn.
Unicorns were seen in the United States, beginning with the Spanish conquistadors, from whose journals we learn of one Friar Marcus of Nizza who set out from Mexico in 1539 to find the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. On arrival he was shown, among other wonders: - hide half as big again as that of an ox and told it was the skin of a beast which had but one horn upon its forehead, bending towards its breast, and that out of the same goeth a point forward with which he breaks any thing that he runs against.'
In the journal of his voyage of 1564, Sir John Hawkins writes of Florida: The Floridians have pieces of Unicorns' horns, which they call Souanamma, which they wear about their necks, whereof the Frenchmen obtained many pieces. Of those Unicorns they have many; for they affirm a beast with one horn which, coming to the river to drink, puts the same in the water before he drinks. Of this Unicorn's horn there are some of our company that, having got them of the Frenchmen, brought them home to show.'
The most famous early account though is that of Dr. Olfert Dapper in Die Unbekante Neue Welt, published in Amsterdam in 1673, who writes: On the Canadian border there are sometimes seen animals resembling horses but with cloven hooves, rough manes, a long straight horn upon the forehead, a curled tail like that of the wild boar, black eyes and a neck like that of the stag. They live in the loneliest wildernesses and are so shy that the males do not even pasture with the females except in the season of rut, when they are not so wild.'