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Fierce and SweetMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Nowadays it is hard to believe that once it was considered a very rare breed, that could be seen only in the farthest, wildest countries of the East. Great herds appear to have taken over many a fantasy art gallery. Also, its appearance has changed considerably from the oldest available representations.
While once the unicorn was either horse-sized and bi-colored or a dainty creature with a solid-white coat, now you can find a wide choice of sizes, from that of a Shetland pony to a powerful Clydesdale, sporting a rainbow of coats ranging from canonical white to grey, Isabella, sorrel, bay, black, and anything in between -- and any kind of markings, from stars, blazes and socks to pinto and appaloosa.
Cross-breeding seems to have occurred too, since every now and then a winged unicorn can be spotted in the herd, undeniable proof of Pegasus’s blood in the line, be it the result of an escapade or of an intentional attempt to produce a new designer breed.
No, writing and reading speculative fiction hasn’t caused me to take leave from my senses once and for all. The matter is that for our ancestors as far as Ancient Greece and Rome or as near as the 13th to 14th Centuries, the unicorn was not the stuff of legends. Contrary to its Pegasus cousin (1) there are no ancient myths about the unicorn. Instead we find it in natural history treatises and in bestiaries.
Until modern science took over, the unicorn was thought to be as real an animal as the giraffe or the cheetah. Its first appearance in literary records is in a book written by the Greek physician Ctesias of Cnidus (5th Century B.C.) Ctesias spent many years at the Persian court practicing his craft. There he researched Persian history about which he later wrote, but also gathered news and stories from travellers about what lay beyond, the almost legendary country of India. In one of his books, known to us by the Latin title Indica (things of India), he writes:
In India there are wild asses as large as horses, or even larger. Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and they have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length. The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red. Those who drink out of cups made from it are proof against convulsions, epilepsy, and even poison, provided that before or after having taken it they drink some wine or water or other liquid out of these cups. (2)
Another famous passage comes from the works of Pliny the Elder, one of the most inquisitive minds in classical antiquity whose works have survived to this day, he wrote:
But that the fiercest animal is the Unicorn, which in the rest of the body resembles a horse, but in the head a stag, in the feet an elephant, and in the tail a boar, and has a deep bellow, and a single black horn three feet long projecting from the middle of the forehead. They say that it is impossible to capture this animal alive.
Many others spoke of the unicorn, among them Aelian and Julius Caesar himself, but its real popularity comes from a totally different source. The Bible mentions a creature called re’em. the Septuagint translation (from Hebrew into Greek) renders re’em as unicorn.
A few centuries later another book was written in Alexandria of Egypt. Known by the title The Physiologus,(3) it is an early Christian treatise of a kind that was then popular. It describes animals, either real or mythical, and gives them an allegorical meaning relevant to Christianity. The unicorn, which in the legend narrated in the book only allows itself to be captured while resting on the lap of a pure virgin, is there a symbol of the Incarnation. The Physiologus was one of the most popular books in the Middle Ages, with a great number of translations, and is, without doubt, at the origin of the popularity of the unicorn myth and figurative representations in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
While nowadays the unicorn is portrayed as a horse with a horn on the forehead, in the Middle Ages it was described as having cloven hooves, a goat’s beard and a lion’s tail. One can imagine Marco Polo’s disappointment when he found out that in Sumatra…
They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large, black horn in the middle of the forehead. They do not attack with their horn, but only with their tongue and their knees; for their tongues are furnished with long, sharp spines, so that when they want to do any harm to anyone they first crush him by kneeling upon him and then lacerate him with their tongues.
Even Marco’s book, popular as it was, did not change the way unicorns were represented in tapestry, miniature and paintings up to the XVII century, from a purely aesthetic point of view I don’t think they should be blamed for having shied away from depicting a Sumatran rhinoceros instead of this creature.
(1) “Pegasus” isn’t the name of a species, but the proper name of the winged horse born of Medusa’s blood, the only one of its kind.
(2) We have Ctesias’s works through excerpts or summaries written by other authors. The quote mentioned comes from Byzantine scholar Photius. The full translation can be found at http://www.livius.org/ct-cz/ctesias/photius_indica.html.
(3) “Physiologus” isn’t the original title of the book. It came to be known by this name because, when introducing each animal, the text says: ‘The physiologus says’, meaning ‘the natural scientist says’.
Penned unicorn, detail from the Unicorn Tapestries, the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain)
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