Page name: A Brief History of the Unicorn of English Lore [Exported view] [RSS]
2009-02-19 18:38:17
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A Brief History of the Unicorn of English Lore

What is it about the unicorn that so captures our imagination? It is easily and readily identified as a fantasy figure – the typical white horse with a single spire jutting from its forehead, simple in its anatomy but steeped in mystery. 

From its obscure origins, many tales and legends have been woven about this mythical creature.

In its beginning it was a goat-like or antelope-like creature. Perhaps the transformation to being more horse-like may have to do with the images from the Medieval artworks, whose unicorns bear a strong resemblance to both goat and horse.

Unicorns have long been thought to harbour magical powers. Among these powers is the ability to heal, to sweeten acrid water, to disable poisons and to hold its climate in a perpetual spring. In Medieval times, unsavoury traders made fortunes selling narwhal tusks as unicorn horns. A bit of the horn ground into powder was touted to render poisonous liquid pure and to cure various ailments. The tusks were often shaped into cups into which suspect wine was poured for purification. However, not one of the traders was ever able to produce an actual skeleton of the said unicorn from which the horn was supposedly taken. It was taken on faith that such an animal existed, as were numerous other animals in the Medieval bestiary.

They were guardians of forests and protectors of the animals therein. They are immortal if left alone but they can be slain. There are several woven tapestries of hunters chasing the unicorn in order to slay it merely for the properties of its horn. Another image, taken from an illuminated manuscript, portrays hunters cornering a unicorn which has fled into the arms of a virgin. The animal is then subject to the peril of the hunters. 

Unicorns are renowned symbols of sexual and moral purity. , They have no weakness save one – the presence of a virgin woman. It is said that when a virgin calls the unicorn will immediately hearken; or perhaps it is merely drawn by her scent. This is sometimes the beast’s own undoing. Virgins were used to compel unicorns to them only to be killed by huntsmen hiding nearby. Though utterly untameable, the virgin can easily ensnare a unicorn when he comes to her. He has an overwhelming desire to sleep with his head in her lap. While under this enchantment, the virgin may slip a bridle of gold over his head and thus the unicorn will be under her power as long as her virginity lasts. But, if she is virtuous, she will let the creature awaken of its own accord and return to its forest home.
(a recent piece of artwork resembling an illuminated manuscript)
(perhaps the most famous tapestry image of a captured unicorn)

In religious lore, the unicorn was also depicted in paintings of the Madonna, symbolising Mary’s perpetual virginity. 
It was also symbolic of Christ. Because of the said magical properties of the horn, its abilities to heal and convert poisons to pure water were often compared to the miracles of Jesus in the four gospels. The tapestry and illuminated manuscript mentioned above are both allegorical of Christ being surrounded by His enemies before His impending slaughter. Since Biblical scripture is mentioned, this will no doubt lead to the controversy of the word “unicorn” appearing in the text of the Book of Psalms and other books of the Bible. The rendering of the original Hebrew word re’em (רְאֵם) into the term unicorn was an intentional error on the part of the translators of the King James Bible. Better details of this error can be read at these links: and . It should also be noted that in the KJV other mythical animals were used in place of the actual animal that was meant in the original Hebrew texts. Among these are satyrs, dragons and cockatrices. This, perhaps, was a consequence of the thinking of the society in the early 1600’s when such things were still believed to exist.

Recently the presence of “living unicorns” became a world-wide phenomenon. The goat-unicorn, Lancelot, made his appearance in the news media nearly overnight in 1980. Lancelot, a goat bred from Angora stock to produce its silky coat, was an artificially made unicorn. By using a simple medical procedure to transplant the horn buds to the centre of the forehead Lancelot was able to grow a single horn. The owners, Otter and Morning Glory Zell, produced a few more of these unicorns and later sold them to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. The unicorns drew huge crowds. But Otter and Morning Glory came under fierce scrutiny from the animal rights crowd and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After some examination they found the goats to be normal, healthy animals that were well cared for and very precious.

Another story rocked the world recently with the discovery of a single-horned deer in Italy. The little roe deer, simply named “Unicorn”, was born with a genetic flaw that enabled him to grow just one spike of antler on the very top of his head.


The unicorn in song:

“The Unicorn Song” by Shel Silverstein

“The Last Unicorn” by America

“I was born (a unicorn)” by The Unicorns

Back to ECM Unicorn
Unicorn Images found by Ir-Iddyn

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2009-02-19 [Dark Side of the Moon]: If anyone wants to collaborate and add to this, please let me know and I will make it editable by everyone. 

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