Notes from a master class

Two poems written in response to a “master class” I took as part of the Tell it Slant poetry festival:

The instructor said (and because it sounded like a question independent and within their larger statement I lost the rest of what they said)

“How does the poet get off…


Within my own thoughts suddenly and again

I quipped, sounds sexual

And self corrected


It is sensuous.

Words do breath

Meaning like gasps

And pull the two – who may never have met


As understanding dawns within

Fertile, and grows

No wonder

People are afraid

To read poetry

The instructor called Emily an odd interrupter

forgetting, I suppose

that we are reading her PRIVATE thoughts

and she is not, as described

as that crazy woman who

walks up to you in the market to ask

Are you a nobody?

I wish I could meet her

some place other than

the unconsented edits of her words

privately written

for nobody.

Shall we play a game?

In the middle of the second row from the top you see one of the older images of a unicorn. This one was found on one of the five different game boards found in the excavations at Ur.

The game is an exciting game of chase, and was played in multiple cultures for many centuries. Over time, landing on certain squares took on a predictive nature regarding life events. People also bet on the outcomes.

You also find lions, gazelles, goats, cows, and the rosette associated with Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of Love and War.

If you want to learn more about unicorns, you can find my book available for purchase at:
Dragonwell Publishing
Barns & Noble

The unicorn as a messenger of heaven

The Chinese traditionally thought of a unicorn, called qi-lin, as a messenger of heaven. The creature would not harm anything, not even bending a blade of grass in its passage. A unicorn appeared to Confucius’s mother just before she gave birth, bringing her a jade tablet. In the hopes of greatness for their own children, many a mother will hang a picture of a qi-lin in their quarters, and to say to a person that a qi-lin appeared at their birth is still a complement.

The reference for the qi-lin was shared by Ghengis Khan. According to his biographer, as Ghengis Khan began his planned invasion of Nepal and India, a qi-lin appeared to him, stood squarely in the path of his army and did homage to him. The great Khan turned around.

I used this in my novel, The Garden at the Roof of the World, to explain why the King of Lo Mantang is so eager to help save the life of a unicorn.

If you wish to learn more about unicorns, try my forthcoming book, The Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns available for purchase at:
Barns & Noble

and at the publisher’s bookstore.

The unicorn in Judaism

With the High Holidays coming up, it is a good time to reflect on the unicorn within Judaism. The unicorn is considered one of the four beasts of the Tabernacle, sacrificing itself so that the Tabernacle could use its hide for the curtains. The unicorn is a symbol of Joseph, Jacob’s son. The dreamer who wore a multicolored coat, who saved both Egypt and his people.

In this ceiling painting, the flowers suggest paradise, and the placing of the horn in the lion’s mouth may be a symbol of the horn blown to announce the holiest of the Jewish holidays.

The lion is also an enduring symbol within Judaism, referring to the tribe of Judah itself.

Most of the references to unicorns in English translations of Jewish scripture are a mis-translation of re-em, which is a auroch. Aurochs were wild cattle, extremely large and powerful. They’re the ancestors of most modern cattle.

However, in the book of Daniel, there is a battle between a two horned ram and a one horned goat. This is the singular reference to a unicorn which can not be explained as a mis-translation of re-em.

To my Jewish friends and family, l’shana tova tikateyvu!

If you wish to learn more about unicorns, try my forthcoming book, The Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns available for purchase at:

Barns & Noble

and at the publisher’s bookstore.

Our winged myths and unicorns

The Borromeo family in Italy have a unicorn in their family crest, unicorns impaling lions in large and lovely tapestries in the family home, and this delightful statue of cupid riding an obviously male unicorn on their grounds. In some ways, their images twist the noses of those who would take the symbolic language of the unicorn as the antithesis of cupid (see last week’s weekly unicorn) or those who believe the silly rhyme of the lion always besting the unicorn in combat.

The Borromeo family certainly made an impact in the history of Italy, and in the Roman Catholic Church, with members of the family serving both in each organization’s long and varied histories, so perhaps celebrating the unicorn’s triumph over the lion, letting the unicorn ride with instead of over cupid is the right approach?

Curious to know more? You can learn so much more about unicorns in my forthcoming book, The Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns available for purchase at:
Barns & Noble

and at the publisher’s bookstore.

The Unicorn and the Virtue of Chastity

Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s Triumph of Chastity was painted to celebrate a marriage. the coat of arms on the swan, also a symbol of chastity, belong to the Gabbrielli and Luti families, who celebrated a wedding in 1464. Cupid, with his wings clipped, is driven in front of the procession by two unicorns, one with its horn lowered in a threatening gesture.

While it may have been the virgin that could tame and capture a unicorn, chastity was one of the most important of medieval European virtues. Chastity in the modern world is somewhat misunderstood as never having sex. On the contrast, the abstinence of sex ended in marriage, and then one remained chaste by being faithful to one’s spouse, having sex only with them.

Living this way was no more easy then than it is today, but it was celebrated as one of the seven virtues and a clear path to heaven, unlike following the flighty fickleness of sexual desire as represented by cupid in this painting. The message: one can have love and desire only with one’s spouse, and that this was a beautify and celebrated thing. That the painter had a pair of unicorns pull the carriage of the chaste woman was a clear message of the power of such a life.

The chest being pulled would likely have contained the bride’s trousseau, and the painting likely celebrates the real transit of herself and her trousseau to the home of her groom in the hopes of a chaste and loving marriage.

You can learn more about unicorns in my forthcoming book The Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns, available at Amazon & Barns & Noble & the publisher’s website.

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.