Friday, February 17, 2017

The Unicorn... or is it a Rhino?

This Pic was taken by my Ma at Stirling Castle. Medieval pic, the unicorn is captured. Post virgin! 

These days the elegant and noble unicorn has been reduced to a pink cutesy teen toy. This week I’m going to expose the unicorn… that sounds totally wrong… okay, you know what I mean! 

The first images of unicorns turn up in the archaeological record at the ancient site of Harappa, in the Indus valley. These motifs are dated to between 2,300 BC and 1200BC. They are a little different from what we’d expect a Unicorn to look like. Appearing on seals, carved in semi-precious stone, the Harappan Culture unicorn is a hybrid between antelope and water buffalo, or bull. The debate still rages whether the portrayal with a  single horn is just artistic or intentional. The jury is out. Have a look and see what you think. 

Harappan Seals from the Indus valley... I'm not convinced at all!

So what is a Unicorn? It is described as beautiful animal with the body of horse, a stag head, elephant feet, the horn is straight and 4 feet long. Discounting the mysterious Harappan seals (that may or may not be unicorns), where else do they appear in antiquity? Let’s find out. 

The Unicorn really makes its entrance in the Medieval period, despite a few accounts from Greek and roman authors from the classical era. These earlier accounts amount to speculation on the veracity of the unicorn and reports of its existence. Indeed the early Grecian writers were convinced of the unicorn’s existence (even though it never appears in any of their myths, unlike the Centaur). Funnily enough the location cited is very often India - an ancient Indus valley reference perhaps? However a monoceros and the rhinoceros are also mentioned… could it be that our elegant unicorn was some distorted Chinese whisper? The horse with the elephantine feet? Could that be a rhino?

Another pic courtesy of me Mudder. From Stirling castle, Scotland.

Well, the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, saw one and this is what he has to say on the matter:  "scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead... They have a head like a wild boar's… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions." 

Sounds like a Rhino to me. 

The Unicorn is fully adopted and adapted during the middle-ages. It appears on many a heraldic device including the two that hold aloft the royal arms of the King of Scotland. Long before Marco Polo’s time the unicorn had risen in elegance and symbolic heights. This is partly because the unicorn is mentioned in the Bible (Psalms). Indeed Christ is the unicorn because of the virgin birth, for only a virgin can lure the unicorn to her; the beast just can’t resist and will gallop up and lay its head in her lap -  and that’s when the hunters can seize it! I’d like to see them try that with a Rhino! 

Sure enough in Medieval bestiaries the unicorn is fierce and the elephant hates it. The Unicorn has sharp claws and a powerful horn.  It was the mortal enemy of the lion, which would flee up a tree to escape but the unicorn would charge at the tree, shaking the lion from the boughs and impaling it on its horn.  This fierce aspect was the reason why many medieval royal houses put the unicorn on their shields and crests. Seems a world away from the image we have of the unicorn in our day and age! 

Need I say more?


Early Christian Symbolism in Britian - J. Romilly Allen 
The Ancient Indus Valley - Jane McIntosh

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