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.

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