Monday, September 24, 2012

Of Virgins and Unicorns

Perhaps the most famous of the mythological beasts, save for the dragon, the unicorn (monoceros) has a long history dating back to antiquity, where he may be found in the writings of Aristotle, Aelian, Philostratus, and Pliny the Elder.  In the eyes of the ancients, he was a hybrid animal like the ones that the Greeks and Romans were used to describing in their mythologies, even though this animal plays no real part in the lore of that culture.  They describe him in fantastical terms, with the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the tail of a boar, and the feet of an elephant. And, of course, the single horn on its brow that identified him as the unicorn.  One other detail remained, one that would persist throughout the rest of the unicorn's history: it could not be captured alive.

In the Middle Ages, the unicorn was a commonplace element in bestiaries that described real and imagined animals alike.  In manuscripts, he is shown in a range of colors from brown to white to blue.  He sometimes looks like a horse, at other times, a goat.  Of course, the most famous image of him is held here in NYC, from the Cloisters Unicorn Tapestries.  There, he is shown as a slight white horse tamed by a maiden.

The legend has it that only a virgin could tame the unicorn.  This came down to us through the Physiologus bestiary: "He is a small animal, like a kid, but surprisingly fierce for his size, with one very sharp horn on his head, and no hunter is able to catch him by force. Yet there is a trick by which he is taken. Men lead a virgin to the place where he most resorts and leave her there alone. As soon as he sees this virgin he runs and lays his head in her lap. She strokes him and he falls asleep. The hunters then approach and capture him and lead him to the palace of the king." 

The identification of the unicorn with Christ, white in his purity, able to only be tamed by the Virgin Mary, seems clear.   

But thinking of what the unicorn of my imagination could have been like, I wondered about him and his tamer.  Girls in this period were married very young, so in order for the tamer to be a virgin, she must have been just a child.  What a horrible thing for a young girl to be used as the means to catch the elusive unicorn.  Since many of the medieval images showed the unicorn as a goat, I wonder if he had some qualities of the goat.  I made him slight and small, like a pony, and swift of foot, not so much larger than the child who would tame him.  His cloven hooves make it easier for him to ascend rocky passages, where mounted hunters could not easily follow.  His horn follows the twisting pattern of the narwhal horns (actually a tooth) that were sold as unicorn relics in Europe.  In the border that surrounds him, I made a medieval-style unicorn hunt through the forest at night.  Though the dogs and hunters close in on him, we know he will escape. There is no virgin to be found here, so our unicorn will win the day.

"The Unicorn" Pencil. Copyright 2012 Jessica Boehman

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