Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

WARNING: If you are under twelve, maybe even under fifteen, you should probably skip this post. You might not be able to look at your sparkly unicorn stuff the same way ever again.

Bestiary., whole page, Folio/Page #: fol. 070r. c. 13th century, middle. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/.

The current craze for sparkly rainbow-pooping unicorns assumes that unicorns are for kids. Female kids, specifically. (Where are the unicorns for boys??? This point will get more striking as we dig deeper into this issue.) The unicorns are coded as either female, and therefore the same-sex pets, friends, or mentors of the girls who love them or as non-sexual males. (I may have to venture into My Little Pony Land to see if this gets complicated, but I’m on pretty firm ground in terms of general unicorn iconography.)

But, at the same time, if anyone knows anything about traditional Western unicorn narratives, it’s that there’s a maiden/virgin and a unicorn. Making unicorns for pre-teens, or even pre-tweens, erases the history of unicorn iconography that relies on thinking and rethinking the roles and identities assigned to young women. Young women – not little girls.

This is disturbing for two main reasons:

  1. There’s a squicky implication that anyone over the target age of consumerist unicorn culture is somehow engaged in a sexualized popular culture. And given the target demographic for unicorn stuff is usually pretty young, this points to some uncomfortable territory.  
  2. If the infantilization of unicorn culture suggests that “virginity” is a simple and outdated concept, popular cultural content around unicorns avoids respecting people live beyond the bounds of sexualized pop culture. More importantly, it avoids rethinking what “virginity” might mean or how young women’s integrity gets refigured through time and history.

The flip side of kiddie unicorn culture is the sarcastic use of the word “unicorn” to describe parts of current sexual practice.

Jost Amman, “Woman on a Unicorn.” German woodcut. c.1539-1591. The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol 20. pt. 2, German Masters of the Sixteenth Century.

Urban Dictionary lists among the meanings of unicorn “that girl that you can’t catch” but more commonly, a person “who is willing to join an existing couple, often with the presumption that this person will date and become sexually involved with both members of that couple, and not demand anything or do anything which might cause problems or inconvenience to that couple.”

And anyone who’s gone to a university campus has probably seen t-shirts of unicorns in awkward positions, or with…um…unusual horns. Or you’ve seen some idiot dude wearing one of those unusual horns at a Hallowe’en party and thinking he’s invented something frightfully clever. If you haven’t seen this stuff, and you can’t imagine what I’m talking about, count yourself lucky.  

Of course, these frightfully clever people are engaged in quite simple subversions of the kiddie-rainbow-unicorn images. There’s nothing complex about what they’re doing. It’s usually a teenage reaction against the childhood they feel they’ve just recently freed themselves from. These very same people would be shocked and horrified to know that unicorns in their historical narrative form often do have a sexual component. And that – like anything to do with desire – it’s complicated.

Chris Lavers, in The Natural History of Unicorns ()2009 tracks the maiden-and-unicorn story to the Syriac translation of Physiologus, a book from the late second century so popular it flavoured Western European unicorn iconography for nearly two thousand years. In the translation Lavers uses, we find the unicorn approach a “young virgin” and

conduct himself familiarly with her. Then the girl, while sitting quietly, reaches forth her hand and grasps the horn on the animal’s brow, and at this point the huntsmen come up and take the beast and go away with him to the king.

Likewise the Lord Christ has raised up for us a horn of salvation in the midst of Jerusalem, in the house of God, by the intercession of the Mother of God, a virgin pure, chaste, full of mercy , immaculate, inviolate. (Shepard qutd in Lavers 71)

Oooookay….Are you feeling uncomfortable, too?

As Lavers mildly puts it, we find “an echo of an ancient non-Christian tale about a wild creature, symbolizing the younger, carefree, wilder side of maleness, and its life-changing interaction with the female sex” (73). What’s interesting to me in both the Physiologus and Lavers’s interpretation is the power the young woman has. Taking the unicorn by the…uh…horn not only tames him but civilizes him and brings him into the company of men. Of course, the power the young woman has is sexual power, so that’s a downside. I mean, it is 200 AD…Where’s the loathly lady from The Wife of Bath’s tale when you need her?

The tension between the secular and the sacred interpretations of the virgin-and-unicorn story that have made the two Unicorn Tapestry sets famous. The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have a fairly straightforward narrative that accords with Christ’s persecution, death, and resurrection. BUT the lady in this set looks sneaky in comparison to the Virgin Marys in more clearly Christian allegorical tapestries (granted, this is a bit of the tapestry that is badly damaged).


“The Lady and the Unicorn” from The Unicorn Tapestries. South Netherlandish. 1495-1505. Tapestry. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris (formerly the Cluny Museum), the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries feature the titular characters without any obvious Christian narrative. They are sensuous, focusing on taste, touch, sound, smell, and sight…the last one announces “Mon Seul Desire”…my only desire. I don’t think it’s heavenly? Thus, Tracy Chevalier’s 2004 novel The Lady and the Unicorn, which imagines the creation of the Cluny tapestries, has a seduction scene that relies mainly on the protagonist, Nicholas, explaining the metaphor to a young girl.

I’ve found a couple of similarly odd images of lovers and unicorns. Are the unicorns supposed to be testaments to the lovers’ purity? Or to the potency of their desire?

“Pair of Lovers with Unicorn.” Swiss Tapestry. c.1475-1500. Basel. Getty Images.

Does the slaughter of the unicorn next to Tristan and Isolde foretell the fate of their tragic but faultless romance?

“Tristan and Isolde, Capture of the Unicorn.” Casket. 1375-1400. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

In our current moment, a surprising number of unicorn stories feature desire that is romantic and/or sexual. I remember being disappointed that Chevalier’s novel didn’t feature any real unicorns and feeling shocked at the seduction scene. But, in retrospect, it prepared me…

Peter S. Beagle’s classic The Last Unicorn (1968) draws a great deal of its emotional power from the fraught relationship between the female unicorn and Prince Lír. After the unicorn is forced into human form, she struggles with Lír’s attraction to her. (The unicorn’s disassociation from her human body could be interpreted as a metaphor about the trauma of female puberty.) The unicorn eventually regains her bodily integrity, but her relationship with Lír has permanently alienated her from other unicorns untroubled by human (romantic) desire.

Steven R. Boyett’s Ariel (1983) devotes a great deal of page space flirting with – but not consummating – the love between the titular female unicorn and the protagonist, Pete. Ariel wishes she were a woman, but all her magic cannot make her one. Pete ends up rejecting his love for Ariel and redirecting his desire towards human women. In this story, Pete’s literal virginity is a huge embarrassment for him…and he must counterbalance his sexual inexperience with a great deal of anger towards women and aggression towards men.

Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage (1983)arranges the unicorn and young Emma as unwilling participants in a ceremony that shatters them both. The unicorn and Emma are both victims of patriarchal power.

Similarly, Margo Lanagan’s excellent short story “A Thousand Flowers” in Zombies vs. Unicorns (2010) takes the metaphor of maiden-and-unicorn and makes it real…then forces readers to think through the implications. Weirdly enough, in the violent human world that Lanagan portrays, a princess’s visceral love for a unicorn seems the only viable compassionate, mutual relationship. The resulting baby represents a stillborn future, a path not taken by nobility committed to protecting their privilege through murdering the defenseless.

I haven’t found any narratives about queering unicorn desire yet. But they are probably out there. If you know of one, tell me!

In briefly reviewing the narratives that address unicorns and desire, I find the unicorn working as a lens that refracts patriarchal power and offers authors to think through the violence of prizing purity and literal virginity over compassion and care.

Random tidbits:

Okay, and the Oxford English Dictionary does list one meaning of unicorn as a “figurative or allusive” way of referring to a cuckold.  

Example: 1607   T. Dekker & J. Webster North-ward Hoe iv. sig. Fv   Fetherstone..it seemes makes her husband a vnicorne.

Awkward. Anyways, the OED hasn’t updated its definition of unicorn since 1924. Those guys are going to be in for a shock!

ALSO – Kathleen Duey’s story “The Third Virgin” does a good job rethinking “virginity.” Check out my review of the collection it’s in, Zombies vs. Unicorns here.

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