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.

Unicorns in Ancient Africa

The unicorn above comes from an ancient Coptic Christian manuscript from an African Coptic community. If you look at it closely, you can see that the drawing of the unicorn gives it the claws and the legs of a lion, and a head of a goat. This is mostly symbolic of how dangerous the unicorn was understood to be, and how it was associated with demonic forces. There is an ancient Coptic Christian folk tale of how, they day Jesus died, a unicorn went to the tomb where his body was laid to rest to bring his soul to the underworld. When the unicorn observed Jesus was alive, the unicorn fled in terror. That the unicorn would be associated with the underworld might be from early Christianity’s close contact with Assyrian mythology, where the unicorn was associated with the two daughters of the moon, one of whom was the goddess Erishkigal, queen of the underworld.

The endless battle between the lion and the unicorn

In Book II, Canto V of the Faerie Queene, the great English poet Edmund Spenser wrote:

Like as a Lion, whose imperial Power
A proud rebellious Unicorn defies,
T’ avoid the rash Assault and wrathful Stower
Of his fierce Foe, him to a Tree applies,
And when him running in full Course he spies,
He slips aside; the whiles that furious Beast
His precious Horn, sought of his Enemies,
Strikes in the Stock, ne thence can be releast,
But to the mighty Victor yields a bounteous Feast.

Others would write of the “never ending” battle between the lion and the unicorn. Perhaps most amusingly, Lewis Carol had the two break from their endless battle to have some tea and cake with Alice before resuming the fight. Images of the lion and unicorn are found together throughout the ancient world, from a lion playing against a unicorn in a board game

to both represented on one of the most ancient game boards found in the Sumerian city of Ur.

There are scholars who think the battle represents the changes of the seasons as represented in constellations, but we know little of astrology when Ur was inhabited. There are other scholars who think the unicorn represents the moon and the lion the sun and the battle is that of night and day, and the periodic eclipse of the sun by the moon. If so, having the lion always win out would be reassuring to people.

What is known is that the unicorn is associated with the two daughters of the moon in ancient Sumerian myth: Inanna and Erishkigal. I go into this in depth in my book, The reality, mythology, and fantasies of Unicorns, available from Dragonwell Publishing later this year.

To catch a unicorn

Betye Saar’s To Catch a Unicorn was painted with a deliberate nod to both mysticism and mythology. As I layout in my forthcoming book, On The Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns, (Dragowell Publishing later in 2021) the unicorn is very closely associated in mythology with the moon, as well as with trees. These associations go all the way back to ancient Sumer, where the unicorn is associated with both the grove near the entrance to the underworld and with the two daughters of the moon.

Saar paints herself as the strong and confident woman whose captivating presence has drawn a unicorn to her side. This delightful print is part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

No rainbow tails with this unicorn

Throughout ancient and medieval documentation, most refer to the unicorn as a very dangerous beast, one that will not permit itself to be taken alive. This etching from Dürer shows the unicorn in its fury, slaughtering the king’s guard. The king himself is attempting to flee, looking behind himself in dismay at the slaughter. If you were not pure of heart, encountering a unicorn in the wild might just be the last thing you ever do. I still look for a unicorn in the wild places, there are worse ways to die.

Does the Unicorn purify water with its horn?

This fragment of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Early Delights (one of my favoriate paintings )shows a unicorn placing its horn into water. There is an ancient myth that the unicorn purifies water when it does so. This is expressed beautifully by Natalis Comes in poetry:

Far on the edge of the world and beyond the banks of the Ganges,

Savage and lone, is a place in the realm of the King of the Hindus.

Where there is born a beast as large as a stag in stature,

Dark on the back, solid-hoofed, very fierce, and shaped like a bullock.

Mighty and black is the horn that springs from the animal’s forehead,

Terrible unto his foe, a defense and a weapon of onslaught.

Often the poisoners steal to the banks of that swift-flowing river,

Fouling the waves with disease by their secret insidious poisons;

After them comes this beast and dips his horn in the water,

Cleansing the venom away and leaving the stream to flow purely

So that the forest-dwellers may drink once more by the margin.

The idea that the touch of the unicorn’s horn could cure poison was common to many cultures. Apothecaries would frequently use a unicorn as a symbol of their business. The wealthy would purchase narwal tusks in the mistaken belief they were purchasing a unicorn’s horn. Some even wen so far as to poison animals and people to test the horn’s properties.

As for me, when I look at the painting, I see a thirsty unicorn taking a drink along with its fellow creatures. A glimpse of an imagined paradise.

Learn more about the unicorn’s horn in my forthcoming book: On the Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns, Dragonwell Publishing.

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.