Sakea: the unicorn of Assyria

The obelisk of Shalmaneser III is the only image of a unicorn from Assyria where the beast is described by associated text. Erected in 825 BCE in the city of Nimrud, this shows the tribute of four ancient kings to Shalmaneser III. One of those Kings was King Jehu of Israel. The obelisk has the only Assyrian portrait of an Israeli king, and this somewhat provides independent verification of some of Israel’s history as recorded in the books we know of as Kings I and II.

In the tribute from the Kingdom of Musri (Egypt), we have a sakea. While some translate this as a rhinoceros, the image carved into the stone has the horn on the head, not the nose. Sakea may be the Assyrian word for unicorn, but that is presuming that unicorns (elasmotherium) didn’t entirely die out before this obelisk was made. Egyptians have different hieroglyphs for rhinoceros and unicorn. I’ll dedicate a future blog post to this.

In the end we have two choices: to believe the sculptor who accurately portrayed other tribute sent to Shalmaneser put the horn for the sakea in the wrong place, or to believe that the sculptor carved a unicorn.

From other evidence I present in my book, “On the Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns”, I believe the sculptor carved a unicorn, and sakea is the assyrian word for unicorn.

It is National Unicorn Day!

Today is National Unicorn Day! Starting today and every Friday going forward I’m going to tell you some of what I learned about unicorns in writing my forthcoming book On the Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns ( later this year)

Reality you say? Unicorns are a myth you say? Unicorns were real, once upon a time. Their scientific name is Elasmotherium. They lived in Europe and Asia. We have some bones which show them to have been massive, the size of mammoths. They had a single large horn on their forehead.

Around 13,000 years ago, in France, someone drew this sketch of an Elasmotherium. The sketch closely matches the bones we’ve found in the archaeological record. This is the only known picture of a real unicorn. They kept their heads down to graze.

Their legs were long, and so could run fast like a horse. The descriptions in the ancient Greek manuscripts match Elasmotherium rather nicely, as does the description given by Marco Polo. While we can’t prove this, yet, Elasmotherium may have survived into the historical era.

Novel, Story, and Swan’s Way

In reading Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, he reminded me of the part of E.M. Forester’s Aspects of the Novel where he laments that the novel’s primary purpose is to tell a story. Perhaps that is correct, even in this day and age when each novelist is urged to focus less on plot (the story) and more on character development (also the story, just a different and “better” story.

I’m not certain that Forester had read Proust. I’d be surprised if Delaney hadn’t. I’m also reading Swan’s Way, and the first thing that strikes me is that story (either character development or plot) is the secondary purpose of why Proust wrote and people read Swan’s Way. The book is about memory and time, not plot, nor as far as I can tell, the development of a character. I’m taking my time (if you will excuse the pun) in reading Swan’s Way. The book’s sentences are long and luxurious. They are rich with philosophical musing and almost nothing had happened in the novel so far (plot) and the character has not developed much despite having some interesting internal conflicts. My interest is held in Proust’s exploration of time and memory, in his philosophical musings on the subject. At first, the book was daunting. When was something going to happen? When would we see the narrator grow up a bit, become the man who sips the tea instead of the child who the adult is remembering in rich detail.

Delany warns against the use of flashbacks, especially long flashbacks. In many ways, Swan’s Way is all a flashback, a reflection on life. Small things have happened, visits from Swan, visits to relatives, conversations about art and literature.

I’ve read one other book that also explored memory and time. Nabakov’s Ada or Ardor. The entire novel is a dialog between two older people of the life they’ve lived together and apart from each other, while exploring the nature of reality through the differences of memory, while exploring the nature of time. In many ways the subject of the book is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. However, in Ada or Ardor, things happen quickly, the characters grow quickly. The exploration of time and memory is better mixed in with the living through time, and the framing of the narrative as memory is often lost. When it is restored, it almost comes as an intrusion.

I’ve a long way to go before I finish the book. Perhaps the cadence will change, events will start to happen, the pace will pick up, the narrator will grow. However, I suspect that the reason why Proust’s work is hailed as the greatest novel of the 20th century is because the primary purpose of the work is not to tell a story, but to explore his search for lost time.

Odd thoughts about epic poetry and my life

I love narrative poetry. I think my first epic to fall in love with was Homer’s Odyssey, but it could well have been Beowulf. The recent translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley is delightful, I am often reading it out loud, laughing at the joy of the poetry. In her care, Beowulf sings again, like it sang for those who first heard it ages ago.

Only one other translation has brought me this much joy, and that is of another poem. Barbara Reynolds’ translation of Orlando Furioso is equally delightful – after reading this for the first time I found myself talking and writing in rhyming couplets – she’d so inspired me.

I long for a good translation of Gilgamesh. The ones I have are so academic and correct.

Narrative poems I’ve read include:

The Elder Edda,



The Iliad

The Odyssey

The Metamorphosis


The Romance of the Rose


El Cid

The Song of Roland

The Ring of the Nieblungun








Fairie Queen

Orlando Furioso

Eric and Enide

The Women of the Garden at the Roof of the World, a sestina.

Some time ago, Barbara Chepaitis challenged me to write a Sestina. If you are unfamiliar with the form, you can read about it here:

As the form was created by medieval French troubadours, and my novel, The Garden at the Roof of the World is heavily inspired by poetry written by women troubadours, I have written one that reflects on the six women that risk their lives to travel across the heavily conflicted lands of the mid 13th century in the hope of saving the life of the unicorn that walked with Eve in paradise.

The Women of the Garden at the Roof of the World

Gwenaella, to save her brother, swore to the sorceress she’d save the Unicorn

Eldest and ancient, precious to Numüe and to the first of Women

Though heartbroken at her beloved’s death she knew her deed Holy

Despite the sorceress, for she had great Faith

And while not strong willed she was mighty of Virtue

The strangest thing she would find in her holy journey was Love

Adelie the unwanted bastard daughter of power and her mother’s Love

Now orphaned and hunted for her birth’s secret is called to help a Unicorn

Street wise and a fighter, raised by a woman without understood Virtue

She knew self-worth from her mother’s hidden true love, noble of Women

Raised in the shadow of others wrong judgment and their empty Faith

She found strength in strife, joy in being, and a broken life as Holy

Galiana, the refugee turned whore to survive had no clue she was Holy

The greatest illusions were a caring God and the existence of Love

Every day a scheme built on increasing despair without a foundation of Faith

All a lie, her existence a crime her life devoid until she saw the Unicorn

Understanding that love and beauty exists, and sin not the fault of Women

Reborn she would become what she thought just a bitter lie, Virtue

Garcenda, the faithful servant, patient with a spoiled mistress in whom she saw every Virtue though it is she who was called to aid the unicorns because it is she who is Holy

She let her mistress claim that errand for herself as they joined the Women

On their errand to see what cannot be found without sincere prayer and Love

She gave everything to her mistress except her life, which she gave for the Unicorn

Her death shattered her mistresses’ heart and broke her simple Faith

Kavundi called to be sannyasi, learning the Vedas and Bhakti Yoga of her Faith

Knowing the woman who sent her to be a warrior monk was a goddess of the highest Virtue

She would rise to deeper call to come to the aid of the first woman and the Unicorn

Striving in all that she knew and believed for the preservation of all that is Holy

Only to be destroyed by the most holy thing of all, the discovery that she’d fallen in Love

To be and to becoming in the eternal cycle the one thing she never expected, a Woman

Élise lost her mother and learned from her aunt too young what it was to be a Woman

But her foundation was set in the music and poetry in which she put all her Faith

Taught to seek affection and that sex and romance was all there was to Love

Where having many lovers who fight for her attention was the highest Virtue

Accidentally encountering truth and beauty and what love really is and all that is Holy

She put aside all she knew and was taught to be to die to save the life of a Unicorn

It was more than their Virtue that would be tested on their Holy errand

To save a Unicorn, they must reconcile the first wife with the first Woman

To repair the unity of bitterly divided Faith and walk the hidden paths with Love

Writing non-fiction vs writing fiction

Obviously this is my perspective and your own experience may differ wildly, but I find I need different motivations to get seat in chair and write fiction vs. non-fiction.

First, by the end of next year, I’ll have 3 non-fiction titles in print to my one novel in print, but I don’t consider myself more successful as a non-fiction author than that as an author of fiction, just luckier I suppose. I had the right book at the right time for that market. (I do have two completed novels I’m shopping with agents and publishers – so hopefully this will change soon)

To write fiction, you have to be interested in the character, their journey their motivations and how they get past their challenges. It sometimes helps to know how this will all work out, sometimes it helps to discover this as you go. If you know too much, you can get bored in the writing, if you know too little, you can flail around for ideas on what does the character do next.

To write non-fiction you have to know what you are writing in advance. The work has to be clearly laid out and organized so that others can follow you. While in fiction you may wish to mislead your readers (such as in a mystery where you don’t want the reader to see the ending too clearly) and you can use unreliable narrators to help you achieve this, in non-fiction you have to be amazingly transparent and work hard to ensure that anyone who reads your work understands what is going on. Outlines are a must.

To write non-fiction, you must be exited about your subject matter. If you’re writing for adults, the books are often long. A book of 300 pages takes a long time to write, and if you are not exited about the subject, that will become an unwanted chore quickly.

I’m the kind of non-fiction author who wants to get my points down and then fill in the foot notes as I edit. I don’t recommend this, but it can help you focus on the production of text on the page. It helps me, but the review of the text looking for each place where I need to place in foot notes should be a separate edit than the read to ensure it makes sense, and read for typographical errors. This means you’ll want to leave yourself with enough time for at least three edits before you send it to your publisher.

The lion who dwells within

Without pride, the lion who dwells within
Sought to follow the Buddha
Walking alone, like the unicorn
Until moonlight broke the neon glare of Times Square
And in taking my hand, gave me a pride
And walked with me and I sought no more
But for my pride, I find myself hunting for unicorns
An endless journey through moonlit forests
Like a knight in service to the Fisher King
My grail a unicorn who will walk with a lion in peace