Did you know that there is a “Unicorn crestfish”? Eumecichthys fiski is a real, though rare species lurking off the coast of South Africa and Australia, 1000 metres deep.
Check out this beauty:
Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that they are “herbivorous algae eaters.” while Fishes of Australia describes their exciting superpower: “As a defence against predators, the Unicorn Crestfish can expel black fluid from around the anus.” Much better than farting rainbows.
The Jesus-unicorn is a cornerstone of classic medieval and renaissance unicorn iconography. Today we’re going to get to some delightful, slightly wacky versions.
“Jesus-unicorn?” you may say with bewilderment. “How does
Jesus fit into the unicorn story of virgins tempting wild beasts into their
laps, only to be slaughtered by hunters?”
It’s pretty simple if you think about it like a medieval
person, where the natural world is structured to reinforce theological
Essentially: the unicorn, representing purity, healing, the supernatural, can only be called into contact with the profane world of humanity through the spiritual integrity of a virgin is the same as Jesus (healer of mankind and son of God) being born of the faultless virgin Mary. While the unicorn’s virgin and Mary are both guiltless themselves, they live in a morally compromised world, one that is hostile to the unicorn/Jesus. Whereas the virgin is aligned with the Jesus-unicorn’s healing, male hunters are violent and deadly.
In the image below from the Ormesby Psalter, for example, we can see the virgin raising her hand in distress.
Things never go well for the unicorn. In the famous fifteenth-century Unicorn Tapestries, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the unicorn is brutally killed and taken to the castle. He even has his horn – the source of magical healing – cut off. Allegorically, the hunters, like the persecutors of Jesus, prioritize the wrong thing. They kill the healer and consider themselves triumphant, bearing his body to the site of secular power.
In the last and most famous tapestry of the series, the unicorn is magically alive again (parallel to the resurrection of Jesus). Though he still bears the wounds of his attack, the unicorn resides peacefully in a garden that resembles paradise. Essentially, the message is that you can’t really kill the unicorn or Jesus; both are more powerful than mankind’s ability to hurt.
So far, this is “Unicorn 101” stuff. Which is why we’re going to look at some quirky alternatives to the elegance of the Met’s Unicorn Tapestries.
The next three images are a more obvious use of allegory in presenting the Jesus-unicorn…and are therefore more confusing. Perhaps this has to do with the way the weavers approach time. In the Ormesby Psalter illustration the entire story of Jesus is compressed into one moment of time: his arrival on earth (being in Mary’s lap) and his death (the attack by soldiers) happens at the same time. In the Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the story is segmented and linear.
In the images below, we have – like in the Ormesby Psalter – a compression of time, with the Jesus-unicorn caught between a soldier and a virgin. But the composition is a little kooky. Can you see why?
Instead of having the virgin as an inherent attraction or reason to approach mankind, with actual men as the aggressors, here we have the Archangel Gabriel as the hunter. What? Yes…Gabriel is dressed up in hunting gear, with dogs, a trumpet, and (in two of the images) a spear. And he’s chasing the unicorn. As a result, the unicorn is running, full throttle, with his horn down, at Mary.
In the first image, we can only imagine the family dynamics
in Heaven which have led to this situation. “You…will…join…humankind!!!” we
hear Gabriel shrieking between toots of his trumpet. “Your dad…told…you…so!!!”
The Jesus-unicorn is so unwilling it takes some scary dogs to convince him to finish
Mary’s expression is the real delight. Here, Mary has her
hand raised in a futile attempt to ward off her oncoming animal friend. Her
hair is flying back at the force of the impact. Her eyes are wide open and her
mouth is round in hopeless anxiety. Gabriel is supposed to be announcing
soothing Mary’s fears by saying something along the lines of “Fear not,
Mary: for thou hast found favour with God…Surprise, thou art pregnant” (that’s
a loose paraphrase of Luke 1:30-31). But whatever Gabriel’s saying, Mary doesn’t
seem the least soothed.
In this next tapestry, both Gabriel and Mary are much calmer.
Possibly this is because Gabriel’s long robes aren’t quite right for hunting so he’s not that much in a hurry. Mary has obviously had enough time to plan her reaction, because she seems to be deploying some judo or tae-kwon-do. With one hand on the unicorn’s horn and the other on his foreleg, she’s going to bring him up short and maybe flip him into a docile pose. Perhaps her move will even turn him into a baby. Anyways, this Mary is a pro. Her look of resignation is that of a practiced unicorn-flipper.
Lastly, we have a true return to form in the woodcut below.
Again, Gabriel, the dogs, and the unicorn are going at full throttle. The unicorn has his horn aimed right at Mary’s womb, as if he’s planning to transfigure himself into a fetus in a moment or two. As if to remind us what’s happening, full-grown man-Jesus is looking down at the proceedings from above and giving it his blessing. Mary has her arms up in what is now the international sign for choking but was then a sign of prayerful acceptance. At least she’s ready for it?
After all of these high-energy, anxiety-provoking representations of the Jesus-unicorn, let’s end with a more calming portrait Madonna and Child:
This unicorn’s horn is pointed down, and out of any danger. His hoofs are in her lap, her arm is around his neck. He and the virgin gaze at each other in a moment of calm. The hunter hasn’t found them yet.
thinks she knows the gloomy Fenlen Forest. But when her treasured unicorn
fawn, Sida, goes missing, Elizabeth tracks her into a strange land
where the people think Elizabeth is a changeling, a malignant
being who too closely resembles a missing girl.
Elizabeth can find her fawn and uncover the fate of her lost double, can
she stop the fear from turning into hate? To solve the deepening mystery,
Elizabeth befriends a handsome, skeptical young shepherd whose stories
hint at a dark secret lurking at the forest’s edge, and follows a
herd of wild unicorns with the ability to unlock the past.
Open the pages and find “an
entertaining and mysterious read, one that will engage audiences and encourage
a second reading to discover more secrets of the forest” -CM Magazine
“Elegantly conceived and richly crafted, Magyarody has
given us an enchanting tale of old world magic with relevant themes. A fun,
mysterious ride for anyone who has dreamed of wandering into a dark forest, and
perhaps never returning…” – Tyler Enfield, author of Hannah and the Magic Eye and the Wrush fantasy series.
“Textured and evocative Katherine Magyarody’s The Changeling of Fenlen Forest takes readers down a delicately unfolding journey of love, loss, and self-identity. Unicorns, superstitions, and a shrouded forest that hides its secrets darken the mystery of Elizabeth’s resemblance to a missing girl. Her journey will linger with readers long after the last page has been read.”— Natasha Deen, author of In the Key of Nira Ghani
It’s been half a year since I started sharing my love of strange and startling unicorns! Now that there’s a good number of posts, I’ve added two pages, Unicorns by Theme and Unicorn Book Reviews. These will help you peruse according to your taste!
I’m currently working on a post about the use of unicorns in modern philosophy…but it’s taking a bit longer than usual because I have to read philosophy. 😉
For anyone who has read guides to pony care, horseback riding, and equine breeds, this is the book for you! If you know an eight-year-old girl who loves horses, you should get this for her NOW!
This image doesn’t quite capture the shiny silver! Wheee!
Seraphini and Robin successfully use the conventions of children’s non-fiction nature books to create a convincing (if tongue in cheek) guide to unicorns. The book provides a biological overview (evolution, horn physiology, magical properties, life cycle), an overview of unicorns in legend, and, most inventively, a history of famous (and diverse!) unicornologists.
The illustrations are a delightful blend of cartoon and scientific diagram. My favourite section has to be the double spreads devoted to species, ranging from the Icelandic Volcanic Unicorn (ridged horn, eats pine resin) to the Nepalese Mountain Unicorn whose hair-infused soup helps hermits live 600 years. But who wouldn’t love to pore over the illustration of different horn-types, whether pearlescent or smooth?
This page nicely demonstrates the balance of whimsical illustration and “serious” scientific description.
Though The Secret Lives of Unicorns touches on the history of unicorn legends, from Odin’s messenger Sleipnir and the Qilin of Ancient China, the book wears this heritage lightly.
In style, it’s reminiscent of Graeme Base’s lovely The Discovery of Dragons (1996) and to a lesser extent, Dugald Steer’s entertaining Dragonology (2003) and Wizardology (2005). Lovers of mythological creatures and those eager to suspend their disbelief will heartily enjoy The Secret Lives of Unicorns.
Synopsis: A disorienting, brutal retelling of the Bible story about Noah’s Ark. Doctor Noah Noyes is happily terrorizing his wife, sons, and wives’ sons, when he receives a surprise visit from his old friend, Yahweh. A party trick gives Yahweh the idea of obliterating Creation with a flood. Although Noah obeys eagerly, Mrs. Noyes and her cat Mottyl must scramble to find a way to survive. A dainty, peaceful unicorn is brutally hurt in Noah’s attempt to dominate his wife and progeny…one incident in a string of violence and an ambivalent ending. The one uplifting thing is possibly the surprise appearance of Lucifer in female guise. (Yeah, that’s scraping the barrel…)
I wonder whether the intense power of this novel is limited to “patriarchy – BAD. VERY BAD.” Does it offer any hope? At the very least, this book makes me realize how our society really has evolved in its representation of gender since 1984.
Analysis: Coming off the last two weeks’ posts about unicorns and desire and unicorns and seduction, Not Wanted on the Voyage focuses on the dark side of the maiden-unicorn narrative. In this iteration, the unicorn – a benign, shy animal with its own life and consciousness – is brutally reduced to a symbol of forceful masculinity.
The Unicorn appears only a few times, but he is crucial to the confrontation between Noah and Mrs. Noyes. Noah and Mrs. Noyes’s conflict is channeled through their young, dangerously naïve son, Japeth, and Japeth’s even younger, unwilling wife Emma. Yet, before the Unicorn becomes an object of human violence, Findley portrays the Unicorn through the eyes of other animals.
The Unicorn first appears in an encounter with one of the novel’s main focalizers, Mrs. Noyes’s cat, Mottyl. Findley masterfully portrays a cat’s-eye view of the Flood, wherein Mottyl’s instinctual “whispers” battle with learned, conscious knowledge about the world. Mottyl’s encounter with the Unicorn subconsciously creates an opposition between this mythic animal and Noah as a legendary man.
In contrast to Noah, the Unicorn provides possibly the only positive representation of masculinity in the whole book. Where Noah shouts, the unicorn speaks in “a mere, hoarse whisper” (52). Noah is big, the unicorn is “not more than fifteen inches” in length, with his horn making up “a good six inches” (52). He’s the size of a small dog, while Noah takes up more than his fair share of space. Whereas Noah walls off the orchard as his own special place and makes sure that no one but himself has privacy, the Unicorn shuffles quietly through the undergrowth of a forest teeming with life, listening and advising Mottyl the cat when he is “feeling most unsafe.” Whereas Noah commands his family to obey and crushes any self-doubt, the unicorn has a “nervous habit of talking to himself” (52). Unlike Noah (and Yahweh), the arch-patriarchs, the Unicorn serves his Lady and seems to have a quiet, loving relationship. Whereas Noah demands that Mrs. Noyes (and his daughters in law) serve his increasingly gross appetites, the unicorn saves the choicest flowers for his mate. She, in turn, pines away without him.
Indeed, whereas Noah grasps at recreating Yahweh’s punitive authority, the Unicorn and the Lady’s behaviour in the forest seems to mimic that of a benign god and goddess amongst the animals. Some creatures believe that “the Unicorn and The Lady were only an idea,” yet the creatures are merely reclusive and observant (53). Because of the Unicorn’s peaceable nature and rarity, places it likes to feed have the “atmosphere almost of holy places” or “sanctuaries” (54). Unlike the combative humans, the forest animals seem to develop a consensus about protecting and venerating a pair of vulnerable creatures.
Unfortunately for the Unicorn, much of Not Wanted on the Journey is about Dr. Noyes’s ambition to subjugate humans, animals, and nature to his will. Continue reading
I have high hopes for Netflix’s “Always Be My Maybe,” a rom-com starring Ali Wong and Randall Park, and the language in a New York Times feature gives me an excuse to mention it on this blog. The author of the article, Devin Gordon, uses the word “unicorn” twice…an unusual and self-conscious act of repetition.
Gordon notes that the film, featuring “a pair of Asian-American stars, an Iranian-American female director — make it something of a unicorn in Hollywood.” Later on, Gordon mentions that “Park’s character, Marcus, is another kind of movie unicorn: the stay-at-home stoner” who, though “a really good guy” is “just stuck.” (Again,I think the unicorn-ness refers specifically to race…there’s a plethora of white stoner dudes populating Hollywood films. This leads to my own grumbles about the hapless stoner dude being Hollywood culture’s milquetoast attempt to reimagine masculinity. Why can’t we be more creative in providing men with role models who are caring and strong? But I digress…)
The use of the word unicorn gives room for pause. If a unicorn is “fabulous and legendary” (according to the OED) and rare to the point of possible near-existence, then in an ideal world, “Always Be My Maybe” shouldn’t be a unicorn at all. It should be a horse or a pony prized for its exceptional horse-ness or pony-like qualities.
I’ve often hungered for more narratives that engage positively with people’s ethnic/racial/cultural identities without catastrophizing or subtly hollowing out divergences from an implicitly WASP-y cultural norm…though we seem to be at a turning point, momentum must be maintained. The article’s reference to “the era of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before'” is telling. Two films don’t make an era. Without further momentum and other films in their wake, CRA and TAtBILB risk becoming anomalies. (Did the article leave out John Cho in “Searching” because it wasn’t a rom com?) “Always Be My Maybe” is a step further to making movies — and rom coms specifically — reflect their culturally varied and rich viewership.
Also…were those kids eating Pocky Sticks in the trailer? That’s what the cool kids ate at my highschool!
And now I think I’ll watch “Always Be My Maybe,” followed by some “Kim’s Convenience.” That’s also one heck of a unicorn!
Age Range: 15+ … if you are below 12, you will definitely not enjoy this book or this review.
Synopsis: This novel imagines the creation of the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries of the Parisian Musée de Moyen Age (formerly the Cluny Museum).
When lusty painter Nicholas des Innocents receives a commission to design a tapestry for the icy Jean Le Viste, he thinks he’s going to create a battle scene. But an encounter with Le Viste’s vivacious daughter, Claude, and sad wife, Genevieve, convinces Nicholas to change the design – to the seduction of the unicorn instead. The unicorn is both a story Nicholas habitually uses to woo girls like Claude…but the unicorn also comes to represent Genevieve’s desire to withdraw from the world. In the years Nicholas dedicates to the creation of the tapestries, he has occasion to consider and reconsider women’s desires – spiritual, vocational, romantic – and makes longing central to the tapestries, uniting them through the phrase “À mon seul desir.” Following the process of creating intricate medieval artwork, The Lady and the Unicorn is woven out of the voices and perspectives of characters from Paris to Brussels, from palaces to workshops to convents and ale-houses. Like a tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn can be appreciated as a whole or in its small, intricate set-pieces. Chevalier shows great attention to detail, reviving the art of tapestries for modern readers and giving texture to medieval life. That being said, if you are looking for characters that you will like and identify with, this is probably not the book for you. There are straightforwardly sympathetic characters later in the book, but Chevalier intentionally makes the deep flaws of the main figures, Nicholas, Genevieve, and Claude, central to the plot. If you don’t like the main characters, Chevalier nevertheless asks you to consider when and whether they deserve sympathy.
“Taste,” from The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries. Flemish. 1490-1500. Tapestry. Musee National de Moyen Age.
A strong historical novel and an interesting look into medieval craftsmanship.
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.
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.)
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.
disturbing for two main reasons:
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.
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.
side of kiddie unicorn culture is the sarcastic use of the word “unicorn” to
describe parts of current sexual practice.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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)
you feeling uncomfortable, too?
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
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).
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?
Does the slaughter of the unicorn next to Tristan and Isolde foretell the fate of their tragic but faultless romance?
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…
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.
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.
found any narratives about queering unicorn desire yet. But they are probably out there. If you know of one, tell me!
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.
the Oxford English Dictionary does list
one meaning of unicorn as a “figurative or allusive” way of referring to a
Example: 1607 T. Dekker & J. Webster North-ward Hoe iv. sig. Fv Fetherstone..it seemes
makes her husband a vnicorne.
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.
Synopsis: Dissatisfied with her timid and lazy hamster, the bespectacled protagonist of If I Had a Gryphon imagines more exciting alternatives. Despite the gryphon of the title, a unicorn is her first choice.
Thoughts: Okay, a board book seems out of place considering some of the other posts on this blog, but I like tongue-and-cheek humour when it’s well done.
The unicorn is silky, silvery, tinkly, prancing, essentially, the incarnation of the present glittery unicorn phenomenon. Endearingly, the narrator informs us that despite the unicorn’s flashiness, she is “very shy” and suspicious of grade-school unicorn fanatics. (There are also subtle hints of other possibilities, like nerdy professorial unicorns.) With each following creature (hippogriff, Sasquatch, Chupacabra…) the narrator reduces mythological powers to the domestic hazards of house pets. Ultimately, the hamster seems safest, though (surprise!) even it has a secret.
The book is notable for reaching beyond Western mythological
beings, and distinguishes between the unicorn and the kirin, a
sometimes-similar mythological creature known to Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese
and Korean cultures. (Unlike the shy unicorn, the Kirin is a proud creature who
asserts its demands for ample fodder.)
A playful consideration of pet ownership, mythological or otherwise, If I Had a Gryphon is a treat for readers young and young-at-heart.