Gustave Moreau, “The Unicorns”
“He dwells in equivocal twilights; and he can stare the sun out of countenance…. Unicorn sings ravishing melodies for those who possess the inner ear of mystics and poets. When angered he echoes the Seven Thunders of the Apocalypse, and we hear of desperate rumours of fire, flood, and disaster. And he haunts those ivory gates of sleep whence come ineffable dreams to mortals…. We must believe in the reality of our Unicorn.”
James Huneker, “Unicorns”
The most magical, luminous and magnificent creature of all: the gentle white unicorn appears to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass:
“’This is a child!’ Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her, and spreading out both his hands towards her in an Anglo-Saxon attitude. ‘We only found it to-day. It’s as large as life, and twice as natural!’
‘I always thought they were fabulous monsters!’ said the Unicorn. ‘Is it alive?’
‘It can talk,’ said Haigha solemnly.
The Unicorn looked dreamily at Alice, and said ‘Talk, child.’
Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began: ‘Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too? I never saw one alive before!’
‘Well, now that we have seen each other,’ said the Unicorn, ‘if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?’
‘Yes, if you like,’ said Alice.”
I have been hunting for the elusive meaning of the unicorn for the last two weeks, and, as the legend wants it, the creature once again proved to be impossible to be captured or tamed. Having collected a delightful horn of plenty of all kinds of information on the elusive creature I can say that only one thing is certain: the unicorn continues to enchant me as the most sublime and the most resplendent miracle. Its origins are lost in the mists of the mythical Source: some legends suggest it came from Tibet, others speak of India, still others point to the Mountains of the Moon in Africa. New Age thinkers are convinced the unicorn originated in Atlantis. I shall return to this later.
Carl Jung traces the meaning of the unicorn in alchemy. In the 17th century alchemical Book of Lambspring (http://www.alchemywebsite.com/lambsprg.html), we read:
„In the Body [the forest] there is Soul [the deer] and Spirit [the unicorn]…He that knows how to tame and master them by art, and to couple them together, may justly be called a master, for we rightly judge that he has attained the golden flesh.“
Book of Lambspring, Deer and Unicorn
Another animal that the alchemists commonly paired the unicorn with was the lion. For Jung, both animals illustrate “the wild, rampant, masculine, penetrating force of the spiritus mercurialis” (the world-creating spirit) but the unicorn is more spiritual than the lion. Jung also notices that the horn is a dual symbol: “The horn as an emblem of vigour and strength has a masculine character, but at the same time it is a cup, which, as a receptacle, is feminine.” Odell Shepard delved deeper into the connection between the lion and the unicorn by associating the yellow lion with the sun and the luminously white unicorn with the moon:
“That there is some kind of connection between the moon and the unicorn is not a theory but a fact. … The unicorn is commonly, though not always, thought of as white in body; it is an emblem of chastity; it is very swift; according to the best authorities it cannot be taken alive. The animal is most readily associated with the new or crescent moon, which might indeed seem to dwellers by the sea to be leading the stars down to the water and to dip its own horn therein before they descend. The crescent moon has been used for ages to represent both celestial motherhood and virginity, whether of Ishtar, Isis, Artemis, or the Madonna. … The ki-lin, or unicorn of China, is commonly represented in bronze, bearing a crescent moon among clouds on his back.”
This agrees with the common belief held in medieval and Renaissance Europe that the unicorn’s horn (called the alicorn) had healing properties and could have been used to purify water.
Hieronymus Bosch, “Vanity in the Garden of Earthly Delights” (a unicorn purifying water – detail)
Now we must make a slight detour into the Christian imagery of unicorns, which, as it turns out, is not incongruent with the alchemical and pagan symbolism. It all started with the Old Testament, which contains quite a few mysterious references to the unicorn:
“God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.“ (Numbers 23:22)
„His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns“’ (Deuteronomy 33:17)
“Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Can’st thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow?“ (Job 39:9-12)
“Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.“ (Psalms 22:21)
Chris Lavers demystifies unicorn’s presence in the Bible in quite a cruel way, though I still secretly cherish the idea that the unicorn wanted to be in the Bible and made sure it got there. It turns out that the scholars of Alexandria who translated the Old Testament into Hebrew encountered a little lingusitic problem on the way: a horned animal called a reem. None of the translators knew what the reem was, so they translated it into Greek as “monoceros“ – one-horn. Years later, after the Mesopotamian cuneiform texts were deciphered, the mysterious reem that haunted the translators of the Bible reappeared as the rimu; when the Old Testament was being translated, the animal had long been extinct. The rimu was “a large and fearsome, though otherwise ordinary, ox,“ says Lavers but I do not think that the animal that may have measured even two metres at the top of the shoulder and may have been as high as 1.75 metres and which weighed a tonne, was ordinary. Do not forget that this animal was the ancestor of our domestic cattle. Now we fastforward to the Middle Ages, when the fathers of the church were busy proving that the Old Testament must have prophesized the coming of Christ. The eminent Bishop Ambrose of Milan was certain that the unicorn represented the son of God and did everything to prove his point. From then on Christ and Unicorn became one. Round about that time an extremely popular book was Physiologus, which was a Christian bestiary that said this about the Unicorn:
“UNICORNIS the unicorn, which is also called Rhinoceros by the Greeks, is of the following nature. He is a very small animal like a kid, excessively swift, with one horn in the middle of his forehead, and no hunter can catch him. But he can be trapped by the following stratagem. A virgin girl is led to where he lurks, and there she is sent off by herself into the wood. He soon leaps into her lap when he sees her, and embraces her, and hence gets caught. And the lesson: Our Lord Jesus Christ is also a unicorn spiritually, about whom it is said: “And he was beloved like the Son of the unicorns.“
This is how the most popular medieval depiction of the Unicorn was born: a tamed creature on a virgin’s lap sitting next to a tree. Now we can let Shepard continue his train of thought regarding the lunar-solar connection between the unicorn and the lion:
“If the unicorn is to represent the moon, then the lion, a common solar emblem, should of course represent the sun, and we have only the tree left to be explained. Trees are involved in several problems concerning the unicorn. Many descriptions of the virgin-capture specify that the maiden must be seated either in a wood or under a tree, and nearly all the mediaeval illuminations place her there.
Professor Otto Wiener has advanced an ingenious theory that in the original form of the story the animal was captured by the tree itself, and in the story now before us the tree does take the place of the virgin as the lion takes that of the huntsman and his dogs. Unicorned animals are often found on Assyrian cylinder-seals grouped with a single conventionalized tree in symbolical arrangement. This tree of the cylinder-seals is usually called the Tree of Fortune, but it seems to be ultimately indistinguishable from the Cosmogonic Tree, the Tree of the World, springing from the nether darkness and holding the earth and heavenly bodies in its branches, familiar in the myths of many peoples but best known to us by the Scandinavian name Yggdrasil. If the lion and unicorn are to represent sun and moon they will need no less a tree than this as the scene of their encounter.
We are now prepared for a bald statement of the solar-lunar theory concerning the lion-capture, and I make it in the words of that theory’s most enthusiastic exponent: “The Lion-sun flies from the rising Unicorn-moon and hides behind the Tree or Grove of the Underworld; the Moon pursues, and, sinking in her turn, is sun-slain.” In other words, just as the lion of our story slips behind the tree to avoid the unicorn’s onrush, so the sun goes behind the Tree of the World, or perhaps into that western grove called the Garden of the Hesperides; and as the unicorn is caught by the horn so the moon is held fast during the interlunar period–at which time, as many myths assert, the sun eats it up.”
Now, let us consider this theory for a moment. Think of the lunar crescent that has always been associated with the horn in symbolism, think of all the horned goddesses and also of the phases of Venus which give the planet a horned look.
Phases of Venus
The power of the horns seems to have captivated humans since times immemorial: one horn, a unique horn seems to be an extra powerful emblem of concentrated piercing power and strength. As it protrudes from the forehead, it also inevitably brings to mind the third eye symbolism.
According to the Talmud, the unicorn escaped the flood by being tied to the ark because its body was too large to fit into the vessel. This tale links the unicorn to the pimordial waters but at the same time it stays tied to the hard matter of the ark. It is a liminal creature that possesses transcendental abilities, just like the alchemical mercurius. Odell Shepard points out that in other tales, the unicorn was actually destroyed by the Flood:
“…one would like to toy with the notion that the original home of the unicorn was the Lost Atlantis. Let us consider what may be said for this. Here we have a very ancient and persistent legend concerning a beast that seems to have vanished from the earth. The belief is of long standing that this beast, although as actual as the mammoth or the sabre-tooth tiger, was destroyed by the flood. Now it is generally agreed among Atlanteans that the world-wide tradition of the Flood–which Hebraizers will persist in calling “Noah’s Flood”–is a racial memory of the submergence of the Atlantic Continent. Most significant are the few but startling evidences that the aborigines of the Western Hemisphere had their own legend of the unicorn, and that they actually used its supposed horn for magical ends. Legends so similar and so peculiar, found in both hemispheres, must have spread East and West from a common distributing centre, and that centre may well have been the vast region that has been covered for at least ten thousand years by the Atlantic waves.”
Even though the unicorn may have perished with the Atlantis, it seems to be enjoying an incredible comeback because its popularity is bigger than ever. It seems that no great fruits of human imagination can possibly ignore the beautiful creature. Its true meaning will always elude us: “Like every other thing or idea that we pursue to the limits of our powers and knowledge he goes forth into mystery,“ says Odell.
Arthur B. Davies, “Unicorns (Legend – Sea Calm)”
James Huneker, Unicorns
C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
Chris Lavers, The Natural History of Unicorns
Odell Shepard, The Lore of the Unicorn