The Truly Amazing Lore of the Unicorn
While my personal association with the famed unicorn began in the year 1974, I can now piece together dozens of “unicorn accounts” beginning before the advent of the printing press.
By virtue of the sheer volume of these stories, myths, sightings, books, and artistic renderings, it is an established fact that the unicorn doth exist. (I own the singular distinction of having been business partner with the “last of the species” for well over 30 years.)
As good a writer and trustory teller as I am, I cannot synthesize the massive volumes of unicorn accounts preserved in words, pictures, and poems in a typical format suitable for a blog. However, I shall do my best! You, the reader, are about to be amazed and mesmerized. I guarantee it!
Let’s begin this well documented account with you. Close your eyes and search your childhood memory: See if you can locate the memory of the nursery rhyme: the Lion and the Unicorn. Goes like this:
“The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake and drummed them out of town.”
Remember? Well perhaps….. At any rate here is the origin of that rhyme. The lyrics date from 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became James I of England unifying the Scottish and English kingdoms. The union of the two countries required a new coat of arms combining the two English lions and the Scottish unicorn . This compromise is memorialized in the once familiar nursery rhyme….
How familiar are you with the King James Version of the Bible? (No, this is not a litmus test for the right wing of the Republican Party!). It is a fact that our subject, the ubiquitous unicorn, appears nine (9) times in the Old Testament. For example, in Job (the oldest book in the Bible) 39:9,10:
“Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide in thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? Or will he harrow the valley after thee?”
As a special favor to you, reader, I will not subject you to the archaeological debate that this unicorn in the Bible has promulgated. In order to join that nefarious debate you’d need to master Greek, Hebrew, Assyrian and be some kinda nutcase to boot (in my opinion). However, in FBI lingo let’s label this Biblical incursion “an item of interest.”
In scholarly pursuit of the legion of legendary unicorn accounts, we should note that the “lore of the unicorn” will, of necessity, take us to Syria, China, India, ancient Greece, and medieval Europe. Just pretend that your visa has run out and we will not dwell on every single reference to our mystical subject. After all, this is not a PhD dissertation. Thank goodness!
For the skeptics among us, this scholarly survey must provide credence to the most pervasive of the scientific explanations for the prevalence of the unicorn mythology, given the absence of empirical evidence and stuff like that. This is it: The male narwhale, a deep sea Arctic whale possessed of a long, spiraled tusk, is projected to have been washed ashore and its twisted tusk to have been fabricated by pre-scientific folk into an imagined animal, namely our unicorn subject. It is known that sailors-of-old (forefathers of all antiques dealers) collected and sold these tusks to an audience of rich people who desired an antidote to poison as well as a remedy for impotence (no comment!). Queen Elizabeth I is reported to have paid 100,000 pounds for such a unicorn horn.
Now, I ask you a simple question. How can it be that a mythical beast could have such influence over Western culture? More than most “real” animals…. I invite you to read on (join in), as this account attempts to respond to that thoughtful query.
The unicorn has been described as living in India, central Asia, and Tibet, as well as Ethiopia- in the Mountains of the Moon. Marco Polo, we learn, joined the search for the truth of the unicorn. Unicorns were even reported in America in 1673: “….On the Canadian border there are sometimes seen animals resembling horses, but with cloven hoofs, rough manes, a long straight horn upon the forehead…..” The only consistent fact regarding physical appearance of the Unicorn, is a single horn in the midst of the forehead. Most depictions are white in color with a flowing mane and sensuous eyes.
The essential story line of the unicorn that has filled the pages of much literature and fueled the imaginations of mystics, story tellers and screen writers is that the unicorn lays its head in the lap of a virgin damsel dispensing certain gifts, often including the antidote to poison. Sexual innuendos are obvious, even in the most prudent of times and cultures. (Is it possible, you conjecture, that this fact alone may contribute to the omnipresence of this creature we study?) Most accounts reveal that the unicorn can only be witnessed by those of exceptional virtue and honesty. Consequently, there is but a single account of an antiques dealer ever having seen one. It appears that Gaines Steer is alone in this company; he is partner to one!
Not to be overlooked in this amazing expose’ of the unicorn, is this little known jewel: By the end of the sixteenth century apothecaries (precursor to drug stores) would prescribe powdered unicorn horn as a remedy for whatever ailed you (snake bites to pleurisy). Thus the unicorn became the customary symbol advertising the drug store in the 17 Century. In this manner, our unicorn became not only allegory, but the ally of science (as it was). Amazing, isn’t it!
Returning to more familiar ground, the unicorn makes an appearance in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The Unicorn and Alice exchange one-liners. They both thought the other was a monster. “Well now we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?”
Thus the Unicorn, master of allegory, subject of legend, religious icon, bearer of medicine and repository for imagination (including architectural antiques) has had more influence over Western culture than any other single animal. Only a mythical event? Hardly! A symbol so strong that its meaning can change vividly, yet the embolic significance remains. Therefore, it is indeed a fact that the unicorn exists. Agreed?
Perhaps the most enduring feature of the medieval unicorn was its reputation as a healer. Based upon Greek sources the unicorn was credited with the magic skill to make poison benign. A very real danger, you may recall…. (Wonder if I can package and sell that notion…)
In medieval times, facts were less important than allegory. Even nature was only important as a source of educational and supportive metaphor. Little wonder that Alexander the Great claimed to have ridden a unicorn into battle and the infamous Roman Emperor Julius Caesar reported citing a unicorn in Germany.
Personally, I witnessed most of my Unicorn’s before I quit drinking in 1989. Since then I have focused on becoming a collector of Unicorn lore and I have indeed witnessed more miracles than mirages. I mean that!