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Home > Unicorn Symbolism

Unicorn Symbolism
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unicorn tapestry
The unicorn is a lunar, feminine creature, emphasizing the virtues of chastity, purity, virginity and perfect good. Its virtue and strength of mind and body is incorruptible. Having two horns joined in one symbolizes the union of opposites and undivided sovereign power.
A fabulous beast born of man’s imagination, the unicorn plays a leading role in some of his most ancient myths and legends. Its form and function are as variable as the minds and religions of men; but whatever its shape – and it has been described as an ox, ram, goat, bull, antelope, wild ass, horse, rhinoceros, serpent or fish, and as a monster in which the characteristics of several of these animals are combined – a one-horned beast was always a symbol of supreme power, connected with gods and kings. It concentrates into a single horn the vigor and virility associated with the two horns of other animals. The best-known representation is that of a unicorn with the body, mane and head of a horse (and sometimes the beard of a goat), an antelope’s cloven hoofs and a lion’s tail.

The demon Amduscias, who commanded 29 legions, is depicted with a man's body and the head of a unicorn. (Illustration from Collin de Plancy's Dictionnarie Infernal - 1863)
The first mention of the unicorn was by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias of Cnidos, court physician to the kings of Persia for 17 years. He wrote, ‘There are in India certain wild asses, which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs. The base of this horn is pure white, the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder or middle portion is black. Those who drink out of these horns made into drinking vessels are not subject, they say, to convulsions or the holy disease. Indeed they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers…’

This may be a confused reference to the powdered rhinoceros horn used in Indian remedies. In an interesting contrast, while the rhinoceros horn was valued for enhancing potency, the phallic significance obvious, the unicorn’s horn is a symbol of purity. His description, however, appears to be a compound of three animals: rhinoceros, wild ass and a rare, fierce Himalayan antelope which, in profile appears to have one horn.

Aristotle mentions two kinds of unicorn, the Indian ass and the oryx, a kind of antelope that also appears to be single-horned in profile. Roman writers Pliny and Aelian refer to seven different kinds between them, the most important being the rhinoceros, although like Ctesias, neither realized this having never seen one. Pliny emphasized that unicorns could not be captured by men, and Aelian their love of solitude.

The unicorn appears in the translated Bible, although it is not clear what animal is meant by the Hebrew word re’em. It is now believed the word referred to a now extinct wild buffalo, bos primigenius, but at the time the word was translated as the Greek monoceros, or ‘single-horned’, as in Psalm 22:21: “Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.” The mistranslation remained, for the belief was to question any part of the translated Bible was to question the inspired word of God.

Later religious writings and discussions exaggerated the re’em completely out of proportion. A young unicorn is described as being as large as Mount Tabor and as high as the sky. Because it was so large it could not fit into Noah’s ark, it was towed by a rope attached to its horn, ultimately drowning in the flood waters in some versions of the tale.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Bestiaries – collections of moral tales about real or fabulous animals – were very popular. 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 virginal womb.

unicorn tapestry
The unicorn is a courtly symbol of sublimated desire and a Christian symbol of the Incarnation. In chivalry, the unicorn symbolized the virtue of pure love and the power of a chaste woman to tame and transform the horn of sexual desire.

Many different versions, varying depending on local and religious influences, were written of the unicorn, but all included the legend of its capture by a virgin. (Most likely an association of the creature with the older beliefs of virgin moon goddesses of the hunt such as Artemis/Diana.) In it, the unicorn, too fleet and fierce to be taken by hunters, is drawn by the scent of virtue of a virgin seated alone under a tree in the forest. It comes to her, lays its head in her lap and permits itself to be caressed to sleep. The maid breaks off its horn and the creature is captured by the huntsman and his dogs, taking the unicorn to the king.

It is the most ambiguous and poetic of all beasts of fable, usually portrayed in medieval art as a graceful white animal with a single, spirally-twisted horn on its forehead. Different versions exist, however. In some, the unicorn indulges in decidedly unvirginal activities. In others, the virgin is a boy in disguise.

Because of the moral slant of the Bestiaries, some of the tales were retold and changed to be used by the Christian teachers, the somewhat treacherous or erotic slant of the unicorn tales ignored or disguised. The virgin maid became identified with the Mother of God, and the unicorn with Christ. The single horn became a symbol of the unity of Father and Son, and also the ‘horn’ of the cross as the upright projecting beam of the form. The huntsman became the Holy Spirit acting through the angel Gabriel, and the king’s palace was heaven. The dogs represented truth, justice, mercy and peace – a curious interpretation since in the original stories their purpose was to tear the unicorn to pieces.

The symbolism continues in tales of the unicorn’s virtuous horn, the alicorn. In oft repeated legends the forest animals gather to drink, but find the water poisoned with the venom of a great serpent. The unicorn appears, and upon making the sign of the cross over the poisoned supply the water is cleansed. The horn was meant to symbolize the cross, the serpent the Devil, and the poisoned water the sins of the world.

These legends lead to horn drinking cups being represented as alicorn and highly valued. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance they were frequently used as a defense against poison, a common threat to those of power and rank. Apothecaries kept an alicorn chained to their counters, believing it to be useful for healing most ills and even raising the dead.

Unicorns held a high place in the religion and sacred writing of Persia: ’…the three-legged as…stands amid the wide-formed ocean…its feet are three, eyes six, mouths nine, ears two and horn one. Body white, food spiritual and it is righteous…The horn is as it were of pure gold and hollow…With that horn it will vanquish and dissipate all the vile corruption due to the efforts of noxious creatures…’

It is believed that the legends of a Himalayan one-horned beast are the most ancient, and many authorities cite Tibet as the most likely source of unicorn legends. There was also a time when the Mountains of the Moon, high over Ethiopia were considered the likely source. That tradition was long held, and four brazen unicorns dominated the court of the Ethiopian kings. However, the belief in the unicorn is believed to have spread from Tibet into China.

Kwan-yin and Qilin
The Chinese unicorn does not have the fierceness of western unicorns; it is gentle, not even treading on a blade of grass. Its backward horn is fleshy-tipped, indicating it was not used for attack. The creature is the legendary (orKy-lin Ki-lin or Qilin) of China, one of the Four Spiritually Endowed Creatures. Its appearance is that of a deer-like animal with scales, an oxtail, and a furry horn on its forehead. It is a yin-yang (ki – male, lin – female) fertility symbol of wisdom, gentleness, benevolence, good will, felicity, longevity, grandeur, illustrious offspring and happiness. Its horn(s) – it may have up to five – represent the intellect. The horn of the unicorn is good fortune for the Emperor, for to ride a Ky-lin is to mount fame. It was believed to appear at the start of a beneficent reign or the birth of a man equal to an emperor in stature; traditionally it announced the birth and death of Confucius. Portrayals of the gentle goddess Kuan-yin towering over a reclining unicorn are reminiscent of the Occidental pairing of virgin and unicorn.

The unicorn’s most vital function has been as a symbol of power and virility, as well as purity. It is a combination of opposites – the male horn and the female body. This may be its most important role, symbolizing the soul as the spark of divine light in the darkness of matter and evil.



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