Unicorns ~ The Creature that came from Nowhere!
The Unicorn (Briabhall) along with the dragon is probably one of Europe’s best known mythical creatures. With the sleek head and body of a white horse, the strong legs of a buck antelope, a lion’s tail, and a single sharp horn on its head it stands as a beautiful, graceful attractive beast, giving it high profile in human imagination.
It is an emblem of purity, pure white in colour, strong, fierce and wild in temperament, untameable by nature. And yet also it is meek and gentle towards both its young and with human virgins.
It is the symbol of supreme magical power. It teaches that every action is creation, so make every day count. It also helps us to understand the relationship between physical and spiritual realities.
Inhabiting the forests and light woodland of Eurasia particularly India, and with a lifespan aprox 40-60 years Unicorns mate once, for life. They are noted for their tender behaviour to each other and especially for being gentle with their young. But they are solitary by nature only coming together during the spring breeding season.
Their horns are straight with a spiral groove projecting from the middle of their foreheads. Usually bout 18”/45cm long and variegated, white at the base, black in the middle with a crimson tip.Also seen in all black or light brown.
- Observed in the 5th century by Greek historian Ctesias was said to have a purple head and dark blue eyes.
- A splendid black horn almost 3 ft/1m long was observed by early Greek Ambassador to India – Megasthenes.
Horns as Antidotes
A unicorn’s horn is stronger than any other organic substance known it is a remarkable material not yet fully understood.
- Potent anti-toxin
- Medieval time said dipping it in water purified whole lakes and rivers (exaggerated!)
- Invaluable as an antidote to toxins right up to 18th century.
- True Unicorn horn would stop silk wrapped around it being burned by hot coals
NB The Tower of London Treasury 1641 Inventory valued unicorn in the Royal Treasury at £40,000 (equal to £1 million today)
Unicorns and Lions
Unicorns evolved from stumpy horses of Pliocene era (2 million years ago) developing into the majestic thoroughbreds of today but with greater speed, strength, intelligence and a fearsome brow weapon. If left alone they are a peaceable creature, but in battle they are strong and ferocious – a necessary trait as they were natural prey for large predators like lions and tigers.
The age old conflict between unicorn and lion is a feature of the British Royal Family’s Coat of Arms (shield supplied by the English Lion and the Scottish Unicorn) Also in well known nursery rhyme. The Lion’s victory is a metaphor for the Lion’s evolutionary triumph.
“The Lion and the Unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The Lion beat the Unicorn
All around the town.”
The Unicorn’s exceptional speed and strength made it impossible to hunt in the normal way. Unicorns are prone to charging horn first at all adversaries and piercing all armour. Consequently the hunters would stand in front of a tree, stepping aside at the last minute and the unicorn horn would spear the tree leaving it open to attack.
Devotion to their young means if threatened they can be forced to stand and fight
- They’re easily mesmerised by their own reflection eg in a virgin’s mirror!
Hunters can catch the unicorn only by placing a young virgin in his haunts. No sooner does he see the damsel, than he runs towards her and lies down at her feet and so suffers himself to be captured.
The Bestiary of Gullaume, Clerc de Normandie (13th century)
The hunter would then kill the unicorn or chop off its horn leaving the unicorn vulnerable to all kinds of predators. Virgins were largely responsible for the destruction of the European Unicorn population. The practice was ended in 17th century when virgins suddenly became extremely rare!
Post Renaissance Horn Trade
Hunting pretty much ceased in the absence of horn demand, which initially dropped off between 1563 and 1638 when it was banned in churches and hailed valueless by those who claimed, they were instead “Narwhal” tusks. But Unicorns had already been hunted close to extinction for the horns that made them unique. In Europe populations WERE extinct. The few remainder continued to live a lonely life in North India, Central Asia and the Caucasu, untamed and unbowed. Legend says they disappeared when Noah forgot to take any on board the arc. However there is evidence enough of their survival into the modern age before they became extinct.
Unicorns are unique because they are not in mythology. There are no mythical tales about Unicorns unlike Pegasus – the winged horse. For a creature that came from nowhere, never really existed and has no real origins the Unicorn stayed alive in the imagination of the human race for a remarkable length of time. No other creature paralleled it apart, possibly from the Griffon, and that not to the same degree.
Greek scholars believed it to be real and to have come from India. At that time little was known of India either, so both seemed magical and mythical, and the mystical, mysterious Unicorn was a creature who commanded great respect and power.
This was perhaps also because the Unicorn is the only mythical creature not based on human fears. They were not monsters, but were revered and respected. They were strong, solitary creatures who sought to do good for all, and never posed a threat to humans or any other creature that did not first seek to harm them.