As always, the only thing linking the two items mentioned in this post in my mind is that they both start with the same letter of the alphabet.
A white, horse-like, mythical creature symbolizing purity, fantasy and endowed with magical healing powers? To a lover of horses pretty much a given, all things considered — all the more, if Greek mythology was among the first kinds of storytelling that made a mark on her childhood brain.
It’s got to be the original, the mythical creature of yore, however; not the saccharine-oozing pink, purple or otherwise pastel-colored bambies whose pictures your search engine will throw at you as the allegedly “most relevant” (*rolls eyes*) results of a “unicorn” keyword image search. (OK, OK — I do actually like the depiction in the movie The Last Unicorn, based on the book by Peter S. Beagle, though.)
An ancient Babylonian, Greek or Roman would probably not even recognize the images showing up in a modern internet search as similar to a unicorn at all: in fact, one of the things that fascinate me about these creatures is that they’re a prime example how a mixture of the writerly reliance on second-and third-hand source material, the conflation or muddling of the descriptions of several different kinds of animals, and accidental mistranslations, can combine to create a completely new and original powerful myth — and it also fascinates me that unicorns are an example where the origins and the genesis of that myth are fairly well-documented and easy to trace.
One of the first authors to mention unicorns was 5th century BC Greek physician Ctesias of Cnidus, who in his Indica (one of the ancient world’s classical texts on the Indian subcontinent) described the unicorn as an animal native to India, similar to a wild ass, but much swifter. Relying on Persian records and archives, Ctesias wrote:
“There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses and even larger. Their bodies are white, their heads are dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn in the middle of the forehead that is one cubit [about a foot and a half] in length; the base of this horn is pure white … the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson, and the middle portion is black. … Other asses, tame or wild … do not have an ankle-bone … but these do have an ankle-bone … the most beautiful that I have ever seen. … This animal is exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it.”
(For reference: the Asian wild ass that Ctesias referred to (the Onager) has a sandy or fawn coat with extensive white shading on the lower part of its rump, can run almost as fast as a horse, and stands up to 14 hands, about the same size as horses of Ctesias’s time.)
Ctesias also mentions the pharmaceutical value of the horn from the the “unicorn” that he describes, which, when his description is taken in its wider context, just may equally well have been the Asian rhinoceros, however, or a conflation of the characteristics of the Asian rhino and the Onager — and indeed, rhinoceroses have been killed for centuries for the alleged qualities of their horns as aphrodisiacs and antidotes –, thus quite conceivably not only laying the groundwork for the perception of the unicorn as a horse-like animal but also one with magical, healing powers. (The word “rhinoceros”, incidentally, is an accurate and literal description, taken from the Greek, of an animal having a nose [rhin] with a horn [keras] sitting on it.)
Over three centuries later, Julius Caesar in his commentary on the Gallic Wars (De Bello Gallico) described the unicorn as an inhabitant of the Hercynian Forest, which then stretched all across Western Central Europe, from Northeastern France to the Carpathian Mountains, including most of Southern Germany, and which formed the northern boundary of that part of Europe known to writers of Antiquity. According to Caesar, the unicorn was an ox-sized deer, from which “between the ears, a single horn comes forth.”
Another century or so later, Pliny the Elder in his Natural History expressly described the unicorn as looking (except for its head) more like a rhinoceros than anything else, with “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] has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits [ca. three feet] in length”; all of this combined with a bellowing voice and an irascible temper that made the animal virtually impossible to capture alive. And as mentioned above, Pliny may have had a point, as the Asian rhinoceros may after all have been the animal (or one of at least two entirely different animals) that Ctesias found described in the Persian source texts on which he was relying in turn.
Possibly, however, what these ancient writers really were describing was yet another animal, namely an aurochs; the now-extinct wild ox that is depicted in many cave paintings: typically as brown or black, but on occasion also as white. The aurochs was once widespread across Europe, western Asia and northern Africa and is the ancestor of modern domestic cattle; the last animal of the species died in 1627, in a Polish nature reserve. Babylonian imagery often shows them in profile, with only one horn visible. — It is probably the aurochs, too, which is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as an animal named re’em, which in the Bible’s Greek translation accidentally became monokerōs (one-horned) and subsequently, in the Latin translation, unicornis.
And once re’em had become a one-horned creature in the Greek and Latin texts, accidentally equally garbled follow-up translations likely also played a role in shaping the image of the unicorn that has come down to us from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when the Latin word became “unicorn” in English (the Middle English pronunciation of the letter “h” in “horn” was very similar to the Scottish or German “ch”, or to the modern English transliteration of the Arab or Slavic sound typically rendered as “kh”), “licorne” in French (for the horn’s allegedly curative ingredient, alicorn), and in a straightforward but of course equally faulty translation, “Einhorn” in German. Thus, the re’em of the Hebrew Bible, for example, shows up as “unicorn” in the 1611 King James Version’s rendition of Job 39:9-10:
“Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?
Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?”
So, too, in Luther’s 1545 Bible translation the animal appears as a unicorn, not an aurochs, in that same passage:
“Meinst du, das Einhorn wird dir dienen wollen und nachts bleiben an deiner Krippe?
Kannst du ihm dein Seil anknüpfen, die Furchen zu machen, daß es hinter dir brache in Tälern?”
Unicorns also feature in the translations of several other passages of the Bible and their retellings, including those concerning the Passion of Jesus Christ and the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, thus causing the unicorn to be likened to Christ, who raised up a horn of salvation for mankind and dwelt in the womb of the Virgin Mary; and more generally bringing about associations of godliness, chastity and purity, from where they made their way into medieval notions of chivalry and courtly love and, eventually, into heraldry.
In Scotland, for example, the unicorn became part of the royal coat of arms in the 12th century under William I; and in the 15th century, when King James III was in power, gold coins with the unicorn on them were in use as well. Until the unification of Scotland and England under James VI of Scotland / James I of England in 1603, the Scottish royal arms had two unicorns supporting a shield with the royal Scottish lion rampant. To symbolize the union of the two countries, James had one unicorn replaced by the English lion, and the arms of England and Scotland were quartered (with one quarter also added for Ireland, which at the time was also ruled by the English king). James used a different version of his royal arms in Scotland, however, and the arms of the United Kingdom used in Scotland continue to differ from those used elsewhere even today.
It was thus ultimately in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that the unicorn gradually took on the characteristics that we associate with it today; namely, of a pure white (or white with a golden mane and tail) horse-like animal with a twisted horn on its forehead, which horn was believed to have magical powers, such as purifying water, neutralizing poisons and healing wounds. A cup made from a unicorn’s horn was also believed to detect poisons; in fact, as the shape of the horn resembled that of a narwhal tusk (straight but spiraled), there was a lucrative trade in narwhal tusks being sold as unicorn horns (whereas today, narwhals in turn are known as “the unicorns of the sea”). Similar healing and purifying powers were ascribed to the unicorn’s tears; and only virgins pure of heart were believed able to capture and tame a unicorn, which was believed to forget all of its fierce nature upon seeing a virgin maiden and be overcome by an irresistible urge to lie down in her lap and fall asleep. (Christ in the Virgin Mary’s womb all over again.) However, medieval sources and images (e.g., tapestries and illuminated manuscripts) still also depict the creature as having a deer’s feet, a goat’s beard, and / or a lion’s tail. And as ever, those who had the rare opportunity to form a personal impression instead of having to rely on retold tales and traditional imagery, instantly turned skeptic — Marco Polo, after having been shown an alleged “unicorn” during his travels, had this to say:
“Their hair is like that of a buffalo, and their feet like those of an elephant. In the middle of the forehead they have a very large black horn. … Their head is like that of a wild boar, and is always carried bent to the ground. They delight in living in mire and in mud. It is a hideous beast to look at, and in no way like what we think and say in our countries, namely a beast that lets itself be taken in the lap of a virgin. Indeed, I assure you that it is quite the opposite of what we say it is.”
Well, let’s face it: The intrepid Venetian probably saw an Asian rhino after all …
Finally, in the 1800s, the Victorians paired unicorns with rainbows, that other major symbol of fantasy, romance and divine protection. From this the unicorn emerged as a general symbol of fantasy, fantasies, and romance; as well as, since the 1980s’ LGBTQ movement’s adoption of the rainbow flag, as a symbol of pride, especially in parades and protests. For this, the LGBTQ community draws on the unicorn’s connections to rainbows as much as on its historical associations with the powerful and the possible, the mystical and the magical, the fantastical and the fabulous.
And come on, all kitsch aside, it’s hard not to love a creature that for centuries has stood, if for nothing else, for the magical, the fantastical and the fabulous, right?
Unicorn depiction in the 6th century BC Apadana hypostyle hall, one of the oldest buildings of Persepolis (Iran). Included in the original design for Persepolis by Darius the Great, Apadana was eventually completed by Xerxes I.
An aurochs in profile, with only one horn visible, Ishtar Gate
(ca. 575 BC Babylonian; reconstructed in Pergamon Museum, Berlin (Germany)
Left and center: The “two unicorns” version of the royal Scottish arms (King’s College, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh Castle); right: the Scottish version of the arms of Queen Elizabeth II, on the wall of an enterprise appointed royal purveyor in Ballater near Balmoral, Aberdeenshire.
The slogan “In Defens” (or “In Defence”) above the crest is a contraction of “In My Defens God Me Defend”; the Latin motto of the Order of the Thistle (the highest chivalric order of Scotland), Nemo me impune lacessit — literally: “nobody disturbs me without being punished“, or more colloquially just: “don’t mess with me” — was added during the reign of King Charles II.
Details from two of the six pieces of a tapestry series entitled La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn) (Loire workshop, late 15th century; Musée de Cluny, Paris, France)
(Image sources here and here)
The Unicorn Purifies Water (Unicorn Tapestries, 1495–1505,
Dutch weaving on cartoon from Paris, France; Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, USA)
The Last Unicorn
While I really did only pay attention to the alphabet in compiling my “likes” and “dislikes” lists, there’s a certain symmetry to this particular post in that we are going from an archetypal symbol of purity to everything that spells “impurity”. Though I don’t mean the latter in moral terms; and for the record, one of the many excellent reasons why I didn’t end up marrying one particular boyfriend I had in another life many eons ago was that I would fairly soon have clashed over notions of cleanliness and order with his mother, who actually used to clean her house before her cleaning lady came in, so the cleaning lady wouldn’t think she was being made to work in a den of depravity. (In other words, at heart this was not about cleanliness at all, but rather about keeping appearances.) The experience didn’t exactly leave me scarred for life, but there’s a reason why I’ve had these thingies sticking at eye level near my kitchen door (and in easy view from my living room couch and chairs) for a considerable amount of years now:
(The German magnet is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, in approximate translation: “The small mind keeps order — the large mind surveys / masters chaos;” or in the somewhat brasher version to be found on Goodreads: “Order is needed by the ignorant but it takes a genius to master chaos.” — And for those who don’t recognize her, the lady in the bottom row, second from left, is George Sand.)
So no: cleaning, and housekeeping chores generally, aren’t exactly my favorite occupations; in fact, if I could perform the glingleglingleglingle trick from Hogfather, I’d definitely talk a housekeeping fairy into existence — and even way back in school, I once answered a similar essay question (“What type of robot would you like to be able to invent) the same way.
With that out of the way, though: Medical and scientific pioneers such as Edward Jenner, Robert Koch, Rudolf Virchow, Paul Ehrlich, Louis Pasteur, and John Snow did their level best to help ridding the world of the epidemics that have been plaguing it literally since day 1. Thanks to their work and that of their many valiant successors, we finally have a very good understanding as to the causes, spread and methods of prevention of epidemic diseases. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes are the causes of many (though not all) infectious diseases; of everything from the common cold, chickenpox, whooping cough and athlete’s foot to bubonic plague, tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, tetanus, diphtheria, and you name it what else.
And regardless whether transmitted by personal contact (touch, sneeze or saliva: cold, influenza, measles, mumps, whooping cough, scarlet fever, diphtheria, coronavirus), contaminated body fluids (hepatitis B, HIV), contaminated water (cholera, typhoid), carrier insects (malaria mosquitos, infected rat fleas carrying the bacterium causing bubonic plague) and whichever other method, we now know that the first line of prevention is always and invariably sanitation, beginning with the simple act of washing your hands: “It is well documented that the most important measure for preventing the spread of pathogens is effective handwashing,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point out in their fact sheet General information on Hand Hygiene (CDC, May 8, 2019) — to which routine everyday act add disinfection, sterilization (particularly in medical, scientific research, food-related and other sensitive environments), access to clean water, and ultimately, of course, vaccination.
We’ve known all of this for well over a century at this point. So I find it flat-out infuriating that large parts of the Earth’s population — particularly, but by far not only in the developing world — even in th 21st century still have no access to clean water and are living on a de-facto or even an actual refuse dump.
For the same reason, restroom vandalism — again, wherever it occurs — fills me with considerable anger. As do “wild” (unregulated) waste dumps.
This post obviously isn’t the place to try and remedy the failures of decades of developmental and public health policies the world over, but come on, people, surely we can at least treat restrooms (public and our own) with the respect they deserve for helping us to maintain basic standards of sanitation, can’t we … and dump our waste at home, instead of polluting the environment?!
Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Triumph of Death (ca. 1562)
— inspired by plagues and religious wars in Europe