The unicorn bull on the Ishtar gate

The Ishtar gate to Babylon was constructed about 575 BCE by King Nebuchadnezzar II on the north side of the city, part of a grand walled processional road leading into the city. The annual new year’s parade flowed through this gate. There are three animals represented in mosaic form on the walls of the gate: Mušhuššu, which are composite animals meant to represent dragons, lions, and one horned bulls.

A recent translation of the cuneiform on the gate reads, “I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that Mankind might gaze on them in wonder.”

The bull was sacred to the Babylonians. Likely these were aurochs, the ancestors to modern cattle, standing over six feet tall, armed with enormous horns. The chief god of the Babylonians, Marduk, was described as a bull calf, whose father was the sun god, Shamash. In the old Babylonian period, the horns of the bull were associated with the crescent moon.

With that in mind, the question becomes why show the bull with just one horn?

The Babylonians were very adept at depicting the auroch with two horns, even in profile.

The image below is a cylinder sea that shows some with two horns, and others with one. The drawing to the right highlights the image to make it clear.

Perhaps the Babylonians modified some of the aurouch’s horns to have bulls with just one horn for ceremonial purposes much like the sheep I discussed in last week’s unicorn? I’m certain that there was a reason that these bulls were portrayed with just one horn. It could be a stylistic choice, it could be for a symbolic reason.

Knowing that these creatures were placed at the gate to the city to prevent any evil from entering suggests that a mythological and symbolic context is important, especially in the context of the dragons also placed on the gate.

To learn more about unicorns, read due out in September.

Creating unicorns

You can imagine the delight in the English royal family when two unicorns were sent to the then crown prince from the crown of Nepal.

You can then imagine the disappointment when the truth of their existence was revealed. The “unicorns” in the above image are a pair of Barwal sheep, not unicorns at all. When the sheep are very young, a small surgery is performed on their horn buds which causes the horns to grow together and fuse. This sort of surgery was performed on cows in ancient Egypt, and is still performed on cows by the Dinka and Nuer peoples.

The modified Barwal sheep are highly prized by the wealthy in Nepal, and are sold at exorbitant fees.

It is possible that the many travel reports of finding unicorns in the Himalayas came from travelers encountering a herd of Barwal sheep in ignorance.

The unicorn in ancient India

Unicorns are the most popular motif found on the seals excavated from the Indus valley. The language, currently not translatable into English, is believed to be Dravidian, with the characters symbolic much like the cuneiform that is a rough contemporary script.

Much like in Sumer, a unicorn statue was featured on the New Year’s parade. The clay figure of a unicorn was placed on a tall pole and carried at the lead of the procession. This Vedic story celebrated in the pre-cursor to this parade featured a sexual union of a prostitute and a formerly celibate bard.

The horn for the unicorn was thought to be the only material strong enough to form a parīśāsau, which was used in a Vedic ritual involving an earthenware vessel being filled with molten metal.

The seals themselves are made from dolomitic steatite, requiring a furnace able to generate heat in excess of 1200 degrees Celsius.

We don’t know enough of the civilization of the ancient Indus valley, but we do know there was active trade with Sumer, as objects unique to each culture have been found in the archaeological record of the other.

The Unicorn in Ancient Egypt

We don’t know much about unicorns in ancient Egypt. They don’t feature in any myth or legend. We do find them listed as ordinary animals in Egyptian hieroglyphs. They show up along side other horned animals. This argues strongly that the Egyptians thought of the unicorn as both real and nothing special.

Other horned animals:


Antelopes, goats and gazelles.

The hieroglyph of the antelope is unique in that it also has just one horn, but is an obvious match to a known species of antelope.

All of these can be found in a book of hieroglyphs which can be found online here:

Cover Reveal! On the Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns!

The image comes from the beautify tapestry from the Lady and the Unicorn series known as La Vue (Sight) which currently hangs in the Musée de Cluny. WE chose this image for a number of reasons: to highlight the ever present mystical relationship between unicorns and women, because the tapestry also shows the lion (in this case defeated and subservient to both the Lady and the Unicorn), and it shows the grove of trees. The images of lady, unicorn, lion, and a sacred grove of trees re-occurs throughout human history, appearing together for the first time in ancient Sumer. There the Lady is the goddess Inanna, the daughter of the moon. The unicorn is also associated with the moon, throughout human history, but this, alas, is not depicted in the tapestry.

You can reserve a copy of the book on amazon at:

Alone of the tapestries in the series known as The Lady and the Unicorn, this one brings the unicorn front and center, to have us reflect on the unicorn.

To capture a unicorn, medieval style

Unlike many portrayals of the unicorn in Medieval European art, this famous tapestry shows a unicorn content in captivity. The fence is too low to hold the creature, which wears a beautiful halter around its neck. The tree is a pomegranate, often associated with the tree whose fruit Adam and Eve ate and became thus banished from Eden. Pomegranates were then and are still strongly associated with fertility, as is the abundance of flowering plants in this delightful tapestry. Even the little frog in the tapestry was associated by medieval authors as being noisy in its procreation. This tapestry is a lovely depiction of the bounty of life.

The cover for my forthcoming book, On the Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns (Dragonwell Publishing, September 2021) will feature a different tapestry.

How to catch a unicorn, medieval style

This lovely and odd bit of embroidery brings us closer to the cover reveal for my forthcoming book on unicorns, On the Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns to be published by Dragonwell Publishing this September.

One of the more common myths of the the unicorn found in Medieval Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa is that a chaste or virginal woman was the ideal bait to capture a unicorn. The woman would be left in a clearing alone, and the unicorn couldn’t resist coming to her. Some versions of this myth required the woman to be naked.

Nudity in the European medieval mind was a step away from civilization and a return to being more like an animal – going wild if you were. If you were naked, you were not civilized. Despite this, it was not uncommon to find people portrayed as naked in Medieval European art, both in public and private settings.

The woman in the embroidery is portrayed wild in her nudity, covered in fur like an animal to express this exact thought symbolically. Her hair is long and flowing, with a wreath of flowers. Medieval women are often depicted in art with their heads covered, the hair often hidden. In this embroidery, it is not enough to be a chaste maiden, a woman must strip off the niceties of civilization to attract a unicorn.

Heliotrope put out an album of music called:The Romance Of The Rose – Feminine Voices From Medieval France, which uses this image on the cover. It is beautiful. Listen to a sample from it at:

Our full desire

There are two major tapestry cycles which feature unicorns, one currently hangs in the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, New York, USA. The other hands in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, France. This cycle is rich in symbolism, pulling at symbolic language which has surrounded the unicorn since ancient Sumer. There is the grove of trees, and a lion, ancient mystical symbols, which in combination of the presence of the unicorn portent mighty things.

In this case, there seem to be multiple levels of meaning portrayed. In the context of the entire tapestry cycle, you may see the story of Joan of Arc laid out for those who can read the complex symbolic language. Read the brilliant analysis here by Yuki Fukazawa This particular tapestry shows the lady either setting aside her deepest desire, or taking it out of its case, supported by the lion and the unicorn, which were in opposition to each other in other tapestries in the cycle.

What is your true desire?

Learn more about the unicorn in my forthcoming release: On the Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns, available from Dragonwell Publishing September 2021.