In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, a mystical creature known as the unicornmade many appearances. As described throughout much of literature, the unicornis reputed to look somewhat like a white horse, although it has a long, twistedhorn protruding from its forehead. 1 The earliest description of the unicorn wasby Ctesias (400 BC) (The New Book of Knowledge, Vol. U-V 19: 391). Unicorns havecloven hooves that are somewhat yellow in color; some are said to have alion-like tail.
Male unicorns can be distinguished from their femalecounterparts mainly in part of the goat-like beard beneath the chin. Also, thefemales are more elegant and have a slimmer muscle frame. The typical Europeanunicorn has a coat of hair that is pure white, and has eyes that are either deepsea blue or fiery pink. Long and silky strands of white hair hand down from itsmane and forelock. In his book, The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle describes thismythological creature as looking nothing “like a horned horse.Order now
. . smaller and cloven-hoofed” (1). In his book, Beagle’s unicorn was the”color of sea foam” when it was young; as it aged, its color changedto the “color of snow falling on a moonlit night” (1). A unicorn’shorn is white, silver, or golden in color, is about two to three feet in length,and is said to have special healing powers.
Throughout time, there have beenmany varied descriptions of the unicorn. In Asia, for example, mention of theanimal dates back as far as 26 century BC. 1 The animal described is far moredifferent than the European unicorn. Rather than looking like a horse, the Asianunicorn, known as the k’i-lin, appears more like a dragon, although it hascloved hooves. 1 The k’i-lin’s body was made predominately of shimmery fishscales that shone in every color of the rainbow, and its horn was also thoughtto contain magical healing powers.
1 The k’i-lin is reported to have wanderedthrough the palace of the emperor Huang-ti in 2697 BC, and was honored as theking of all the land animals. 1 Of the two, the European is the more widely knownunicorn, and thus, more information is readily available on that type ofunicorn. In Beagle’s book, he states that “it is their nature to live alonein one place: usually a forest. .
. ” (1). As they are vain creatures, theyprefer to live in solitary places where there is a shallow pool of water nearbywere they can see themselves clearly (Beagle, 1). They normally dwell only intemperate woodlands, away from human activity.
They are herbivorous creatures,living mainly off of tender leaves of the forest and its grasses. Althoughunicorns are immortal, they do have enemies and can be killed. Its enemiesinclude the harpy, dragon, and chimera (Beagle, 95). Not much is known about theunicorn’s reproductive habits, only that it rarely ever mates (Beagle, 1). However, it is believed that when they do, it is for life.
As the unicorn’s hornwas reputed to have mystical healing powers, unicorn hunts were popularthroughout the Middle Ages. Since baby unicorns were almost non-existent, if onecould catch a baby, he was even more richly rewarded. The unicorn’s horn wasthought to be a healing source. It was claimed to cure many diseases and wardoff many others, such as epilepsy and different stomach illnesses.
It was alsobelieved to a neutralizer against poison. 3 The horn was continuously soughtafter to be given to apothecaries; they would grind up the horn to make a poisonneutralizing powder. Also, the horn was said to bleed if poison was brought nearit. 3 For these reasons, over 40,000 gold pieces were offered for the horn of aunicorn (which almost always turned out to be the horn of the narwhal, or”unicorn of the sea”).
Although it was a healer of wounds, the unicornwas a ruthless, savage fighter when cornered. “She had killed dragons withit , and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close. . . “(Beagle, 1). Beagle clearly shows that the unicorn’s horn was its means ofprotection, as well as its healing strength.
He clearly emphasizes the extremechange in the unicorn’s temperate, going from killer to healer. In ancient Greekand Roman myths, unicorns were an emblem of purity. As such, they were placedamong virgin saints whenever they were mentioned in a myth. 2 In medieval societyas well, the unicorn was a symbol of purity and innocence. It was fabled that aunicorn would only allow an “untouched” person of pure heart to touchit.
From this came the tradition a princess bride-to-be would have to go throughin order to marry. Before a prince and a princess could be married, the princesswould have to go into the forest in search of a unicorn. The princess would havea bridle of gold waiting, and would call softly to the unicorn to come and layits head on her lap (Beagle, 73). In most instances, the princess would waituntil a good amount of time had passed and would then go back to tell them thatshe had satisfied the tradition (Beagle, 73-74). This tradition had come aboutmainly to prove that the young girl about to be married was still pure anduntouched. The unicorn was also revered in society as a symbol of honesty.
3 Inthe Middle Ages, many upper-class family crests contained an image of theunicorn for this reason. The unicorn’s counterpart was the lion, as they wereboth considered king of all animals. 3 In many cases, both the unicorn and lionwere placed on the crests as symbols of honesty, purity, and strength. In time,the unicorn came to be seen as an emblem of the spring season, and the lionstood for summer. 3 As the unicorn was a symbol of chastity and purity, it wasclaimed that it could only be captured by a virgin’s touch. 3 Because of this, avirgin was almost always included in the unicorn hunts that were organized.
Eventually, it was realized that it was impossible to capture a real, liveunicorn. Therefore, many people turned to weavers to “capture” them ontapestries. 3 Some of these tapestries, known as the Unicorn Tapestries, now hangin museums across the world. Hanging in the Cluney Museum in Paris are two ofthe most famous of the tapestries. 2 Later, with the resurgence of the Christianreligion, the unicorn became a symbol of the Virgin Mary. It was also believedto be the guardian of the Tree of Life in the Bible.
3 However, before it everbecame a Christian symbol for purity and virginity, the unicorn was a symbol ofthe moon. As such, it was a symbol of the virgin goddess of the hung, Artemis,also known as the Roman goddess Diana. 3 Throughout much of literature theunicorn has made its fair share of appearances. Peter S. Beagle devoted anentire book, The Last Unicorn, to this mythical creature. In many instances, hewrote of the animal as if it were an ethereal creature.
“. . . Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was,and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelionfluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thing legs, with feathersof white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shiveredwith its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight.
She had killed dragonswith it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knockeddown ripe chestnuts for bear cubs” (Beagle, 1). Beagles writes of theunicorn as if it were a kind, giving animal who, when needed, could also bedangerous and threatening. The combination of the color of the horn and itsability to shine with its own light even in the darkest of nights lends theunicorn an ethereal, almost heavenly quality. Later in his book, Beagle relatesto the belief of the symbolic meaning of the unicorn. “?Unicorns are forbeginnings,’ he said, ?for innocence and purity,for newness. Unicorns are for young girls'” (Beagle, 70).
In this passage,Beagle clearly alludes to the beliefs of the Middle Ages where the unicorn wasthought to be a symbol of purity and virginity. By making reference to unicornsbeing for young girls, Beagle indirectly hints at the belief that only pure,untouched girls were allowed to be near it. In pages 72 through 74 of ChapterFive of The Last Unicorn, Beagle makes reference to the tradition surroundingprinces and princesses who are to be married. He has a young princess whounsuccessfully tries to lure the unicorn out of hiding so that she can place thegolden bridle on it, as a way of proving herself to be pure and untouched. It isunderstood that the unicorn will not appear, and after a few futile efforts, theprince tells the princess to leave it be, that she has satisfied custom and theycan now be married (Beagle, 73-74).
This is a distinct reference to thetradition behind the marriage of princes and princesses. Beagle also tries towrite of the unicorn in an almost Christ-like way. “With an old, gay,terrible cry of ruin, the unicorn reared out of her hiding place. Her hoovescame slashing down like a rain of razors, her mane raged, and on her foreheadshe wore a plume of lightning.
The three assassins dropped their daggers and hidtheir faces, and even Molly Grue and Schmendrick cowered before her. But theunicorn saw none of them. Mad, dancing, sea-white, she belled her challengeagain. .
. . . . the Red Bull came. He was the color of blood, not the springingblood of the heart but of the blood that stirs under an old wound that neverreally healed.
A terrible light poured from him like sweat, and his roar startedlandslides flowing into one another. His horns were as pale as scars. . . “(Beagle, 94-95).
In this passage, it is evident that Beagle puts his unicorn ina “God vs. The Devil” situation. Where the unicorn is described in away that portrays her as an angel fighting for her people, Beagle depicts theRed Bull as a Satan figure. Whereas the unicorn is “sea-white”, thebull is blood red. Where the unicorn is surrounded by a white (possiblyrepresenting good) lightning, the bull is enveloped in a “terrible”light. Throughout the entire passage, Beagle contrasts the unicorn and the bullin a manner that can only be described as good versus evil.
Bibliography”Unicorns”. Http://www. geocities. com/Area51/Shadowlands/1272/unicorn. html.
March 11, 2000. “Unicorn Myths and Legends”. Http://members. tripod. com/%7Ewaterdragon/origins.
html. March 11, 2000. “Origins of the Unicorn”. Http://stud-www. uni-marbug. de/~Vigier/unicorn.
html. March 14, 2000 Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: Penguin Publishing,1991 “Unicorns”. The New Book of Knowledge, Volume U-V 19.