Monday, November 22, 2010


With the premiere of Tornerose a mere four days from now (coinciding with one of the most beloved homeland holidays, Black Friday!), life in Det Kongelige Teater has been very busy and stressful and anxious and sparkly. Ergo, lack of posting is a result of lack of free time/energy. And because my recent existence revolves around all things related to a certain princess who is fond of really, really, ridiculously long naps, this post will have nothing to do with ballerina dancing or Tornerose or the theatre, but everything to do with a subject near and dear to my heart: unicorns.

The word unicorn comes from the Latin unus ('one') and cornu ('horn'). Today, when we think of a unicorn--and when do we not?!--we basically picture a horse, only with a fancy horn on its forehead. But the traditional image of a unicorn also has a billy-goat beard, a lion's tail, and cloven hooves added to the already-fabulous mix. In The Unicorn and The Lake, children's book author Marianna Mayer waxed poetic about my favorite equine: "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." Basically, Mayer is eloquently saying what I already know to be true, which is: Unicorns are perfect, plus they can neutralize poison.

A lot of people probably think unicorns are found in Greek mythology--because let's face it, there's tons of magic in Greek myths. But unicorns were actually first noted in Greek accounts of natural history. Like many rational-thinking people, Greek writers of natural history were convinced of the reality of the unicorn. Which they of course found in India. The earliest description of a unicorn comes from Greek physician/historian Ctesias who described them as "wild asses, fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half in length and colored white, red and black." That famous thinker Aristotle comes next, talking about two one-horned animals, the oryx (a kind of antelope) and the so-called "Indian ass". Greek geographer Strabo says that in the Caucasus there were "one-horned horses with stag-like heads." Pliny the Elder (a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher with an awesome nickname) tells tales of three one-horned beasts: the oryx, an Indian ox, and finally, "a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length." We've also got Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th century merchant of Alexandria (who I'm guessing just went by "Cosmas"). He made a voyage to India, and in his subsequent works on cosmography, describes a unicorn--but not, as he puts it, from actually seeing one. His description comes from four figures of unicorns in brass held in the palace of the King of Ethiopia. Cosmas reports that "it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound." So his description is a little less magical than Mayer's, and also apparently, unicorns were sort of like cats when it came to falling, in the sense that they always landed on their horns.

Unicorns are all up in the Bible, too: an animal called the re’em is mentioned quite a few times in the Hebrew Bible, usually as a metaphor for strength. The re'em is described as a wild animal of great strength and agility, with a mighty horn or horns. This description fits the Assyrian rimu, another creature often used to personify strength. The rimu is shown as a powerful, wild mountain bull with large horns, and was often used in ancient Mesopotamian art, with only one horn visible. The Authorized King James Version of the Bible used "unicorn" as a translation for re'em, and thus gave us a familiar animal known for its wild nature. The American Standard Version translates this term to "wild ox", which is not nearly as magical, in my opinion. But perhaps my favorite Biblical unicorn use comes in the classical Jewish understanding of bible. This did not identify the re'em as a unicorn but instead spoke of the Tahash animal. The Tahash was thought to be a "kosher unicorn" (Wikipedia's words, not mine!) with a multi-colored coat, and it only existed in biblical times.

Fast forward to medieval times. There's a popular story going around in which a unicorn, representing the Incarnation, is trapped by a maiden (who is obviously the Virgin Mary). As soon as the unicorn sees her, it lays its head on her lap and falls asleep. MAGIC. The medieval idea of the unicorn was related to the popular tales of "beguiled lovers." Then you also had some medieval religious writers interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. Older myths often referred to a one-horned beast that could only be tamed by a virgin, so of course, many medieval authors turned this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary. The unicorn was also big with the court people--for some 13th century French authors, "the lover is attracted to his lady as the unicorn is to the virgin." And when humanism became popular, the unicorn got a bit more secular; it started to symbolize "chaste love and faithful marriage." But perhaps my favorite medieval use of the unicorn occurred in my current country of residence. Way back in the good old days, the royal throne of Denmark was made of "unicorn horns." (Which we now know were almost definitely the horns of the Narwhal, a medium-sized Arctic whale, but whatever.) Danes used the same material for ceremonial cups because the belief that unicorn's horns could neutralize poison was still the cool way to think. At this time, unicorn products were not cheap, since everyone was hearing about their aphrodisiac qualities and other alleged medicinal virtues. Plus, unicorns were said to be able to determine whether or not a woman was a virgin. Which I'm sure on more than one occasion would have been very useful, if that sort of thing was considered an important factor.

So do unicorns exist? Hunts for an actual animal have added a further layer of mystery to the unicorn. Example: There were many prehistoric bones found at Unicorn Cave (new vacation destination!) in Germany's Harz Mountains. In 1663, some of these were picked out and rebuilt by the mayor of Magdeburg, Otto Von Guericke, into a shape resembling a unicorn. Guericke's so-called unicorn had only two legs, and was made from fossil bones of a Woolly rhinoceros and a mammoth, with the horn of a narwhal stuck on for full unicorn effect. Another view came from Baron Georges Cuvier, who said that since the unicorn was apparently cloven-hoofed, it must therefore have a cloven skull--which would make the growth of a single horn impossible. To disprove this, University of Maine professor Dr. W. Franklin Dove, aka A Heroic Man Indeed, artificially fused the horn buds of a calf together, which resulted in the appearance of a one-horned bull.

In addition to actual hunts and experiments, there is historical evidence which makes one trend very clear: Once upon a time, there were a whole bunch of animals that really looked like unicorns. One example comes from the thought that the unicorn is based on the extinct animal Elasmotherium, which is a giant Eurasian rhinoceros. Elasmotherium didn't really look like a horse at all, but its selling point was its large single horn in its forehead. It became extinct about the same time as the rest of the huge ice age animals, but two sources dispute this: Nordisk familjebok (Nordic Familybook) and science writer Willy Ley. These guys say the animal may have survived long enough to be remembered in the legends of the Evenk people of Russia as a huge black bull with a single horn in the forehead. And they might not be crazy--13th century traveller (and inspiration for modern-day children's game) Marco Polo claimed to have seen a unicorn in Java, but his description of the animal makes it clear today that he actually just saw a Javan Rhinoceros. (But he probably died believing he'd seen a unicorn, and how awesome of a thought is that?)

In addition to these examples, there are several other animals who have been mistaken for unicorns throughout history. The Biblical vision of Daniel is to blame for the single-horned goat's confusion with a unicorn (as is the work of self-described "Wizard" Timothy Zell, whose webpage I strongly urge you to visit, because words cannot do justice). And as mentioned before, the narwhal was also falsely identified as a unicorn, along with the oryx--an antelope with two long, slender horns--and the eland, a South African antelope with a history of mythical importance.

But the interest in unicorns is not only in the distant past (and not exclusive to me, which makes me feel marginally better about the state of my brain). Just two years ago, in 2008, a new possibility for the inspiration of the unicorn came with the Italian discovery of a roe deer with a single horn. Single-horned deer are not uncommon, but what is very unique is the placement of the horn in the middle. The scientific director of Rome's zoo, Fulvio Fraticelli, has described the central horn placement as "a complex case." He also says that the placement of the horn could have been the result of some type of trauma in the life of the deer. And according to Gilberto Tozzi, director of the Center of Natural Science in Prato, “this single-horn deer is conscious to its uniqueness and does not come out a lot, always hiding."

So. Unicorns maaaybe don't actually exist. But they were fairly important in a lot of different cultures for many, many years. Plus, they're pretty to look at, and make appearances in current fantasy movies like Harry Potter and Stardust. I say for that, we keep them around. (Also, you never know when one will swoop in to neutralize some pesky poison. I'm just sayin'...)


Philip said...

Hi Carling,
Some day you should go visit the world's largest miniature world in 1:87 in Hamburg, Germany, called MiniatureWunderland. You are bound to love hundreds of funny situations adapted from almost real life. This is a detail of a new section being built: seven dwarfs with their unicorn :-)

or see their complete web site

Keep smiling, Philip

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