Homage to the Unicorn


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.“


Unicorn Tapestries

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

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)”

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James Huneker, Unicorns

C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy

Chris Lavers, The Natural History of Unicorns

Odell Shepard, The Lore of the Unicorn

This entry was posted in The Unicorn and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Homage to the Unicorn

  1. Gneiss Moon says:

    Lovely visual of Yggdrasil holding the worlds between lion sunrise & unicorn sunset. I totally forgot unicorns were in the Bible. Fascinating.
    Interesting that Unicorn is associated with the rhino. While doing a reading with Tarot of the Origins many moons ago, rhino came up and I immediately ‘got’ 3rd eye horn, also apt with unicorn – perhaps more so, having only one horn. Just now I thought one horn is ‘charge’ energy and I looked it up – Neptune rules Pineal gland. Neptune in Aries especially rules and affects this gland.
    Makes me thing of Wood Elves or Jedi energy, strong spiritual protection. Thank you for another fabulous post !
    Wonderful thoughts to ponder…


  2. ptero9 says:

    Who knew? So many similar legends from different cultures.

    I must share this with my niece who has always adored unicorns.

    Lovely piece Monika.


    • Girls adore them, don’t they? I am one of them, I have to say. For the lack of time, I have not included a lot of legends that I read about. An especially beautiful one is part of the Mahabharata – maybe some other time.
      Thank you, Debra.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Such beautiful and enchanting writing befitting a creature that has always captured my imagination like you. I often see things through astrology and I am marveling at how you managed to capture the essence of this moment’s Virgo-Pisces full moon in your writing here, in addition to penetrating the mystery of the unicorn. with gratitude, Gray


    • Hi Gray, I did not sleep in order to finish it before the Full Moon climax. I thought how wonderful all the planets aligned, including Venus in Virgo, which can be associated with the unicorn of course. I have always been fascinated by white animals, always startled by their angelic presence.


  4. Marie Taylor says:

    very interesting. well done!


  5. litebeing says:

    Just some word-play: unicorn unique- horn~ unique Just playin’ around 🙂 Love the art, especially the Moreau. Wonderful research and care, Monika or Moon moniker 🙂

    Linda of the linden tree


    • I often include Moreau because I love his art – it is so sumptuous. Unique and unicorn do go together definitely, perhaps even ‘Monika’ does too via the Latin ‘monos’- one, and the unicorn, after all, was called a monoceros by some. Do not get a Gemini started on etymology, Linda 🙂 Thank you for your comment and warm words.


  6. Fascinating subject — you gathered a lot of source material for this and it shows. 🙂


  7. That Moreau painting is just beyond! I have never been particularly drawn to unicorns, but I love when you conclude that the unicorn refused any efforts to be “captured or tamed,” reminds me of the mystical Wildness of Woman… Your writing really shines in this piece, by the way!
    Much Love,


    • Thank you, Amanda. It is always wonderful to hear such positive feedback, all the more since the unicorn is not your beloved creature. I appreciate your reading on despite this.
      With gratitude


  8. Great post Monika, and certainly a lot to digest. At first I was sold on the alchemical interpretation, until I got to your astute connection with the third eye. I can see the unicorn as the symbol for using the third eye to penetrate the mystery of the Veil. Thanks for taking the time to compose such a complex and inspiring post. Cheers!


  9. lampmagician says:

    Reblogged this on lampmagician and commented:
    Fascinating illustrated description, as always.


  10. Pingback: Homage to the Unicorn | lampmagician

  11. herongrace says:

    A wonderful article and beautiful art work, thank-you. I admit too that I was never particularly bothered about unicorns and dragons, but since reading Michael Roads, “Through the Eyes of Love: Journeying with Pan”, where a chapter is written about Pan taking him on a journey where he saw and communicated with both unicorns and dragons, who stated they once lived on Earth, I will never feel the same way about them again.


  12. shreejacob says:

    Wonderful post as usual Monika! Unicorns are definitely magical and I really like the idea of the Deer being the soul and the Unicorn the Spirit, and of course about the Lion being more “grounded” compared to the Unicorn 🙂

    I wonder…could I cajole you to do one about Dragons? I fell in love with Dragons when I watch Dragonheart…lol. And since then have liked them since then…and of course being born in the year of the Water Rat, Dragons and Rats go very well together 😉


  13. Dewin Nefol says:

    Hey Monika,

    It is perhaps something of an indulgence on my part to extrapolate further insight from your assiduous commentary and wonderful visuals when your posts are always so well orchestrated, detailed and highly informative, and your site a wonderfully rich repository of distilled knowledge and personal reflection that delineates the passionate association you have with the subject matter. Given the potential magnitude, range and scope of your vigorous research and investigation, it must on occasion prove quite difficult sustaining the exact focus of your erudite words when there is so much information you could include and so many tributaries flowing into the river of your selected themes….but perhaps that is not so surprising when the essential and superior (transcendent) value of traditional symbols that span thousands of years speak to us as allegories, metaphors, analogies, and psychic intuitions, which together offer an unrealizable philosophy defining the spiritual and mystical dimension of life beyond human experience.

    A fascinating entry in The Complete Dictionary of Symbols in Art, Literature and Myth describes the Unicorn’s physical appearance as that of a hybrid, a chimera, a fantastic product of the imagination exhibiting the body, mane and head (sometimes goat-bearded) of a horse or a pony, an antelope’s cloven hoofs and a Lion’s tail. Such mystical imagery suggests at the actualised absorption of the eternal power and benign ferocity (Lion) of the numinous mercurial Spirit by the purified Soul. As such, alchemically, one could argue a case suggesting that the Unicorn in this guise is the composite product of the process of transformation rather than being merely one aspect of a Moon / Sun duality. In considering this phenomenon from an esoteric point of view it could eloquently describe a state of balance: the imagery of the Unicorn exists as a manifestation of both male and female characteristics. The Lion within the whole representing the male principle of the universe, characterized as creative and associated with heaven, heat, and light. The Deer (cloven hoof) within the whole expressing the passive female principle of the universe, characterized as female and sustaining and associated with earth, dark, and cold. The product of their homogenised union expressing the concept of opposites existing in harmony within a unified whole, or as it is sometimes expressed in Taoist literature, The Supreme Polarity that is Non-Polar’, ‘Non-polar and yet Supreme Polarity’. The Supreme Polarity in activity generates the male principal; yet at the limit of activity it is still. In stillness it generates the female aspect; yet at the limit of stillness it is also active. Activity and stillness alternate; each is the basis of the other. In distinguishing male and female, the Two Modes are thereby established. The alternation and combination of female and male aspects generate water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. With these five phases of life force harmoniously arranged, the Four Seasons proceed through them. The Five Phases are simply female and male; female and male are simply the Supreme Polarity; the Supreme Polarity is fundamentally non-polar. Yet in the generation of the Five Phases, each one has its individual nature.

    In extending this symbolic definition under the umbrella of medieval Christian art (as you have so convincingly portrayed) one witnesses a pictorial tapestry woven from several strands, notably a pagan tradition that this strong, swift and fierce creature could only be captured by a ‘virgin’, whose purity it sensed and in whose lap it rested. (Tapestries now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum show it being hunted and ‘captured’). The phallic and spear symbolism of the horn, combined with a mythology of purification, made the Unicorn an elegant symbol of spiritual penetration, specifically the mystery of Christ’s entry into the virgin’s womb. This is the allegorical meaning of Gothic miniatures and later paintings and tapestries in which a Unicorn lays its head in a woman’s lap, attends her in an enclosed garden or rose bower, or is guided to her by a ‘huntsman’ symbolically representing the angel of the Annunciation, Gabriel. As an aside, I do think one must be careful in seeking to qualify the word ‘virgin’. Outside of Christian thought, where the allegory is clearly ascribed to the immaculate conception, but remaining within the dimension of spirit, the word has a highly layered and contextualised meaning that could suggest equally at the consistent purity and motivation of one’s thoughts and actions, or the starting point for the development of the uninitiated Soul, or even the state of remaining open-minded and true in the quest for acceptance of Spirit/Source with the white light of enlightenment describing the moment of spiritual penetration.

    Interestingly the Unicorn was associated with courtly love: it was likened to a man who becomes the helpless servant of the lady he loves. In chivalry, it symbolised the virtue of pure love and the power of chaste women to tame, transform and transcend the horn of desire…which in effect permits retention of the mystical wildness of women as Amanda so succinctly suggests in her comments. Perhaps when given a modern interpretation, the word chastity really does describe a state of being where one remains unwaveringly true to their deeply felt beliefs, morals, ethics and underlying principles about life, the universe and everything, and seeks to uphold the real values about what it means to be a conscious spiritual being existing within a hosting body. In medieval Christian art Unicorns draw the chariot of Chastity, which reinforces yet again the purity of this equanimical, enigmatic and phantasmagorical creature of myth.

    Thank you Monika for such a wonderfully thought provoking post. I feel richer for the participatory experience of being momentarily submerged within the legend of the mystical Unicorn…Hi Ho Silver away!

    DN – 10/09/2014


    • Hi Devin, what a thrilling thing to get such a comment. I cannot even dream of doing it justice with my reply. I love this: “Perhaps when given a modern interpretation, the word chastity really does describe a state of being where one remains unwaveringly true to their deeply felt beliefs, morals, ethics and underlying principles about life, the universe and everything, and seeks to uphold the real values about what it means to be a conscious spiritual being existing within a hosting body.” Some time ago I wrote about the archetype of Virgo here: https://symbolreader.net/2013/09/04/images-of-the-zodiac-contemplating-virgo/ where I pondered a lot about the real or deeper meaning of virginity and chastity. When you say “the purity of this equanimical, enigmatic and phantasmagorical creature of myth” I am really in awe of the beauty of your phrase. Oh, and I am with you 100% that we cannot put an equals sign between a unicorn and the moon – no! the unicorn is a unicorn, the moon is the moon. We say no to simplistic symbol reading.
      Where have you been hiding with your wisdom?
      In gratitude,


      • Dewin Nefol says:

        The Virgo post you highlight is a deliciously dense and sweet-tasting treat for any Virgo to devour and/or internalise with deliberate contemplation! I recall having read it earlier in the year and book-marking it then as an essential port of call for times when an uplifting and positively affirming perspective on my Virgo nature was much needed….particularly when ‘caught in the dilemma of having to choose between the safe, well-paid and ultimately barren path of external compliance and the fertile but often lonely path of inner loyalty!’ Indeed, I might well have been a millionaire already if such a thing didn’t sit so damn uncomfortably with a predisposition for truth and a desire to remain outside of the ‘matrix’! 🙂

        In following your blog, I have often contemplated leaving comment but have failed to do so as I felt somewhat intimidated by the depth of your subject knowledge and the confidence with which you present it. Your writing is always so carefully considered and totally absorbing and your themes always chosen with such care and personal interest that I imagine the process undertaken in approaching your work is one built on foundations of absolute contemplative joy. Your passion and keen interest is always most evident. And whilst I share your interest and fascination with symbols, I do not readily possess the tenacity or strength of resolve as you do in always pursuing that interest to its enlightened conclusion. However, for several years now I have kept about my person two trinkets of immense symbolic value to me. The first trinket is a two sided pendant upon which is embossed an eight-pointed star on one side and a seven pointed star on the other: the former being symbolic of Ishtar in her evening guise, and the latter being symbolic of the Mystic. This trinket serves to remind me of the beauty and sustaining grace of Divine Love that pours into the soul and gives life to the creative potential in all things. (I read your eloquent post on the eight-pointed star some months ago and found it compelling reading, quite superb.) The second trinket is a small blue carved crystal skull. It is far more than just a symbolic reminder that the seat of all experience is present in the mind as well as the soul. It speaks without words to impress belief in the ultimate potential of pure expansive thought to make manifest the word of the infinite within the shadowed world of (unenlightened) man. Curiously the blue skull always emits a golden glow when placed in the light, and more curious still is that the golden glow extends from the middle of the skull, from what may be the pineal gland area, to include the eyes and downwards to include the mouth. It is a poignant and powerful symbol that eagerly encourages the transmission of received truth and pure thought through the mechanism of words either as speech or as written expression.

        As for ‘hiding’…well yes, I have been absent from WP for several long weeks whilst managing convoluted family affairs, resolving personal matters therein, and finding space within it all to breath. As for ‘wisdom’…well, I can only hope that as another year passes and draws me closer to a birthday so too will the life experiences I have had and the friendships I have made on the way draw me ever closer to wisdom. I can only hope that in this regard I am positively learning to be discerning yet accepting and in the process expanding my consciousness in steady upward increments. Indeed, of all the important and enduring experiences of participating within the WP community, the magical gift of camaraderie and friendship made possible through the power and resonance of the written word maintains its unquestionable ability to nourish, guide, support, and provide in ways that still often surprise and delight. I have been away from WP for to long.


        DN – 10/09/2014


      • Thank you, again, for your kind words. As for confidence, I may not have as much of it as you think, but the sheer contemplative joy is always there. I sensed there was more to the unicorn that I managed to put into my article but it was late at night and I was determined to finish before the Super Moon in Virgo/Pisces reached its culmination. I am really grateful to you for finishing my thought and opening the doors to undrrstanding wider. I am so blessed with my readers and their understanding. Oftentimes writing feels like lucid dreaming to me: it is not a completely conscious process, more like chasing phantoms that I know are somewhere there. Thank you so much.


  14. It would be very disappointing if we found that the Unicorn was a referral to a Rhino.. I love the mysticism of the Unicorn Monica.. And was fascinated to read All of that information you had gathered here.. A truly wonderful homage to this creature I grew up wanting to be real.. 🙂

    Bless you .. Love Sue


  15. libramoon says:



    Posted on September 5, 2014 by laurie corzett

    I chase a marvelous goat –
    the young idea
    frisky and rambling.
    I fenced her in with words.
    A mazing race though the whishing wind.
    She laughed when I claimed to have caught her
    and led me on
    through newborn autumn fields.

    Looking for repose.
    Straining for that certain something
    which will linger as satisfaction.
    Waiting for a sign — a way to go toward unity.

    So you think to tame the unicorn?
    Why not, instead, become one?
    Wild satyr infused with magic.
    Briskly cavort through changing trees,
    audacious, beautiful in freedom.


  16. Pingback: Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Gemini | symbolreader

  17. Micheal says:

    I’am looking mystical magical creature .. And I love the theory of unicorn.. Another True place long forgotten, but from which many are still connected toooo…Thanks for sharing
    unicorn symbolism

    Liked by 1 person

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