April 7, 2015

Unicorns

        I have to confess that I’ve always thought unicorns were sort of useless.  I mean, so you stick a horn on a horse’s head - so what?  Well, it’s true that unicorns have some useful properties, notably that their horns can purify poisoned water and heal sickness.  It would certainly be worth having a unicorn around for that alone.  Assuming it makes every sort of water safe to drink, whether poisoned, polluted, or otherwise contaminated, it would be handy to take traveling, too.  So perhaps my failure to appreciate unicorns in my childhood stemmed from a lack of practicality.
        According to the ancient Greeks, unicorns hail from India and are white, red, and black.  I think that’s all at once, not three different varieties.  Most ancient sources also describe their horns as black, contrary to our common modern view.  It must be the northern European species of unicorn that’s all white with a white horn.  Pliny accuses the unicorn of having feet like an elephant, but I’m thinking Pliny was confusing the unicorn with some other one-horned animals, perhaps a rhinoceros, because really, elephant feet on a unicorn would just be silly.
        In the 6th century Cosmos Indicopleustes reported something interesting about unicorns, “When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.”  That would be something to see!  That’s also why, as everyone knows, if you want to catch a unicorn you have to bait it with a virgin.  Leonardo da Vinci described the method, and I believe (as I’ve discovered in research for a sequel to The Extraordinary Book of Doors) that he was reporting from eye-witness.  What he describes and what we’re always shown is maidens charming unicorn stallions, but presumably a virgin youth could catch a unicorn mare?  No one seems to have commented on that, so I 
recommend some experiments be done.  In the meantime, the other method of capturing unicorns, described by William Shakespeare, is to stand in front of a tree, goad the beast into charging, and step aside at the last minute so that the unicorn gets its horn stuck in the trunk.  I picture the hunter waving a red matador’s cape in front of the tree and quipping, “Eh, what’s up, Doc?”
        Of course, most known unicorn horns around today are really narwhal horns.  I would love to have a narwhal horn for my cabinet of curiosities, but trade in them is banned or limited in many countries.  This is a good thing, lest narwhals become as rare and mythical as land unicorns.
        There are many many depictions of unicorns in art, from the kitschy to the sublime, so I’ve chosen just a couple of particularly nice old wood block prints for you.

[Pictures: The Unicorn, woodcut from The history of four-footed beasts and serpents by Edward Topsell, 1658 (Image from University of Houston Libraries);
Woodcut title page of Hore dive virginis Marie, published by Thielman Kerver, 1511 (Image from University of Virginia Library);
From Perigrinatio in terram sanctum, woodcut by Erhard Reuwich, 1486 (Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art).]

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