The History of the Unicorn
The unicorn is the only fabulous beast that does not seem to have been conceived out of human fears. In even the earliest references he is fierce yet good, selfless yet solitary, but always mysteriously beautiful. He could be captured only by unfair means, and his single horn was said to neutralize poison. -Marianna Mayer, The Unicorn and the Lake
The Modern Unicorn
The Modern Unicorn is result of many different people's imaginations. He has changed from the delicate, goat-like creature to one of simple equine beauty. A beast ridden by a Virgin who he can actually trust not to lead him to the Hunter. He comes in every color and size, from the purest ivory to the darkest ebony and every shade of the rainbow in between. He can have the wings of Pegasus and take the name of Alicorn, or he can be given the leathery wings of a Demon and be a creature yet unnamed. Today's Unicorn is special to each of his followers, but he still holds the basic principles of nobility, selflessness, and purity. And he shall always be one of the most beautiful creatures conceived by the mind of Man.
Today it is said that the unicorn never existed. However, it is marvelously clear that when the unicorn was first described and centuries later when the tapestries were woven, everyone believed in unicorns. -Marianna Mayer, The Unicorn and the Lake
Another theory is that the unicorn was invented to explain the appearance of a narwhal tooth. The narwhal is a small whale of the most northern seas. The male grows a single long tusk that can be up to 10 feet long and it twists in a spiral. The horn is actually quite beautiful and it is easy to imagine that the people of the north would trade these to travelers for great amounts of goods and may have made up stories to enhance their worth to gullible tourists. Much the same happens today to tourists in exotic places. The Vikings of Norway were known to trade in narwhal horn and kept the secret of where they came from for over 300 years, from the Middle Ages through to the 17th century. During these time the horn of the unicorn became extremely valuable and sought after as is was thought to cure any disease or ailment as well as neutralizing all poisons and purifying water. It was also thought that since the unicorn was a symbol of purity, and only a virgin could touch him, that the horn would prove the virginity of a noble bride. In France the custom was to carry a horn, or a cup made with unicorn horn, around the table and to touch all the food and drink to test it for poison. This ceremony continued at the court of the King until as late as 1789. There are written accounts of great amounts of money spent on powdered horn, as well as for pieces said to be unicorn horn. So prized was the fabled horn of the unicorn that Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century paid 10,000 pounds for one, equivalent to the cost of an entire castle. It is still in the royal treasury today. The royal scepter in England is made from the rare tusk. In Japan, two crossed narwhal teeth adorn the entrance to the Korninkaku Palace. In Denmark multiple teeth comprise the frame of the Danish throne.
The unicorn appears in the Old Testament as something to both fear and revere. Many writers have speculated that the unicorn inhabited the Garden of Eden, but it is not specifically named. There is a theory that the unicorn perished in the great flood. Although this would be rather tricky for theologists during the Renaissance when the popularity of the unicorn was at its height. How could he have perished in the flood and yet be considered a symbol of Christ and a real beast at the same time? Another theory is that he was able to swim behind the ark and so survived that catastrophe to become the icon seen in the many tapestries of Europe. For many people, the mere mention of the unicorn in the Bible was proof of its existence. As well, Sir John Mandeville penned “The Traveler's Tales” in which he told of many adventures taken by the traveler and wrote as if the unicorn was a real animal. This book was taken as truth for many years. Reports of unicorn sightings were written as late as 1673 ,they were often penned by monks and missionaries and so were believed to be true.
Unicorn and Beauty
The Christians of the day adopted the unicorn as a symbol of Christ. It was well known that only a pure maiden could tame a unicorn and therefore Mary, the Virgin Mother, was often depicted in art with a unicorn with its head in her lap and hence it became a symbol of Christ himself in allegory. During this time the unicorn was often part of heraldry and included in a nobleman's coat of arms. The French were partial to the combination of the unicorn and the iris as symbols of nobility and loyalty. The English used the rose and unicorn to stand for strength, constancy and immortality. When England, Scotland and Wales consolidated into the United Kingdom of Britain many Coats of Arms then included the lion of England with the unicorn of Scotland. In the 15th century a series of 6 tapestries were woven in Brussels that depicted the unicorn being captured with the lure of virgin maidens. These tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn, were created as a wedding present to a noble and today reside in the Cluny Museum in Paris, France. Another famous series, The Hunt of the Unicorn, is comprised of 7 tapestries that are at the Cloisters Museum in New York. They are collectively probably the most famous art works of all time.
Information derived from http://members.shaw.ca/unicornhaven/UnicornHistory.html
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