Horses and People
Magazine

We share your passion

Available worldwide by subscription and in Newsagents and select stores in Australia.
App Store - Logo Google Play Store - Logo

The Unicorn

April 2019 by Dr Georgina Downey
An art historian who's published extensively on the domestic interior, Dr Georgina Downey is the human of Classic, the dressage schoolmaster and Angas, the Cairn terrier. In this regular Horses and People in Art column, she provides a unique equine-centred perspective to famous equestrian artworks.

…And “the Loveliest of All” was the Unicorn! This month we explore the unicorn; from its distinctly not-so-cute past in myth, art and history to its sparkly, commodified image today.

One characteristic of the unicorn that rings true for today’s horse people lies in the unicorn’s perennial concern in helping humans in our endeavours, even at the risk of its own wellbeing.

Unicorns are generous spirited, playful, kind, elusive, and magical. The unicorn, this little horse-ette ‘with benefits’ [the horn] is currently a global craze; blink, and you will see a logo of one.

However, back in the mists of time, the unicorn was far more than a new addition to the social media emoji palette - it was a powerful symbol that captured people’s imaginations, maybe because it was such a positive, yet shapeshifting and mysterious motif.

Even now, despite being hopelessly commercialised, it still manages to symbolise optimism, hope and harmony in uncertain times.

In order to understand why the unicorn is such a shape-shifter, or such a multivalent image – we need to go back into its past. Was it ever real?

During the Middle Ages, its existence was considered a zoological fact. It was essentially, physically speaking, the consequence of a set of ‘Chinese whispers’ accounts from word of mouth, then written down by Europeans of what strange animals travellers had seen in India, and Africa. In the period before mass travel, these accounts were ‘good enough’ for the figure of unicorn, or Monoceros, to take root.

The unicorn was first described by Ctesias the Ancient Greek doctor in his book on India, five hundred years before the birth of Christ. The creature he described was white, a bit like an ass crossed with a horse, with a red head, and a twirly, black, white and red single horn, one ‘cubit’ or 27 inches long. It was swift and beautiful in motion, and nearly impossible to capture. Its horn could cure epilepsy, and purify tainted water.

Accordingly, paranoid monarchs in sixteenth century France insisted all their food and drink was ‘tested’ by a unicorn horn. These were easier to come by than we might think. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, crafty Hanseatic League traders had been passing off narwhal tusks as unicorn horns, and ‘genuine relics’ of this holiest of beasts.

Unicorns are mentioned several times in the Bible and other Gnostic texts through the medieval period. These texts place them firmly in the Garden of Eden as real animals. So nobody questioned for a very long time whether they really existed or not. This shaped its character as being an exceptionally wild creature, a ‘strange beast’ only accessible through hunting or taming’ and only touchable by virgins.

The Medieval period was a great time for unicorns and unicorn imagery, and the little horned horse came to symbolize Christ Our Lord, and it circulated both the Western and Eastern worlds as an image of purity, sacrifice, healing and uniqueness. Moreover, while unicorn legends evolved in the West, in the East, similar creatures emerged in folklore.

The Japanese unicorn, or kirin (after which the beer is named) was a fierce creature able to root out criminals, instantly punishing them by piercing them through the heart with its horn.

In China, the similarly named qilin was far gentler. It was incapable of harm and its presence is considered a good omen.

The unicorn was, therefore, cross-culturally, able to function as an allegory for powerful moral behaviours, with the added twist that it did so by invoking and inscribing the very nub of animal-human relationships, the tension between taming and wildness, trust and fear.

As unicorn scholar Julia Weitbrecht points out; we do not usually think of the unicorn as a ‘biblical creature,’ but it can indeed be found in Bible translations from Late Antiquity …

The mere existence of the unicorn in biblical lore is an important factor in how the unicorn has been integrated into Christian symbolism. Appearing as an elusive hybrid creature throughout time, the unicorn, nonetheless, avoided objectification through its (imagined) desire to associate with humans.’

As Weitrecht also points out ‘In antiquity, natural history regarded it as a chimera that defied essentialist description. According to Pliny the Elder, “the body resembles a horse, but in the head a stag, in the feet, an elephant, and in the tail a boar”. Despite its small size, it is considered to be “the fiercest animal”’. (Pliny, Natural History 8.76, 56f.).

The idea that the unicorn, or monoceros, is only tameable by a beautiful virgin goes back to Ancient Greek texts. The influential narrative of the unicorn being first found in the Greek Physiologus tradition: ‘The hunter cannot approach him because he is extremely strong. How then do they hunt the beast? Hunters place a chaste virgin before him. He bounds forth into her lap and she warms and nourishes the animal and takes him into the palace of kings’. 

Here we see one of the most beautiful and precious art works that depict these elements of ‘unicorn lore’; the Musée de Cluny’s exquisite ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestry. The Lady and the Unicorn (French: La Dame à la licorne) is the modern title given to a series of six tapestries woven in Flanders of wool and silk, from designs (“cartoons”) drawn in Paris in the late fifteenth century.

The suite is often considered one of the greatest works of art of the Middle Ages in Europe. We think it might illustrate the five senses, with the last being the sense of ‘the heart and soul’. This tapestry has recently been cleaned by conservators and features in their current exhibition “Magical Unicorns”.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City also has a tapestry from the same era, ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn’ with one final panel showing the unicorn captured in a round yard, set within a lavishly flowery ‘hortus conclusus’ or enclosed garden.

Both works turn on the notion of the unicorn being tameable only by a beautiful virgin, an idea further worked through to a greater degree by Raphael in his 1506 work ‘Young Woman with Unicorn’ (see previous page), where we see a solemn young aristocratic girl of marriageable age caressing what looks like a super cute baby unicorn that snuggles on her lap.

These earlier representations of unicorns are so richly relevant for current horse people because they echo so strongly ordinarily daily horse behaviour, from the runaway horse darting towards the spectator in the crowd whose body language is the most gentle and submissive, to the role of horses in providing therapy for humans with PTSD and other stress related disorders.

It’s reflected in a thousand multi-viewed YouTube horse trainer workshops where the trainer shapes the need for a quiet and composed body language response to bringing a wild or freshly trained horse into human contact.

‘Millennial Unicorns’ might be mere cute logos adorning pencil cases and backpacks for children the world over, but I think they still have real meaning for us in the horse world: how many times do we see in ‘wanted to buy’ horse-sales sites the phrase ‘looking for my unicorn’?

Unicorns appear on our riding t-shirts, clip-on horns can be purchased from horse gear outlets [what my sensible schoolmaster would think of one of these doesn’t bear description!]; and affectionate young owners with their horses often unwittingly pose themselves for double selfies with their equine partners in very much the same gestures as artists and tapestry designers have done with young woman and unicorn imagery over more than two millennia.

So, in this sense, the unicorn remains an enduring image as, for us, they represent the mystery and marvel of the equine species. The unicorn’s horse-like qualities continue to resonate - with those of us who work daily with horses, and who will respond to the myth as it is played out in daily life.

Once their basic needs as horses are met (and these are more complex, as equine science is showing us, than might be first thought), horses’ unicorn-like helpfulness, with regard to our own desires, could, and should, make us humbler, and, therefore, better humans. Our unicorns are closer than we think!