Thursday, August 5, 2010

Unicorn

Well, we've finally made it to Animal #100! So let's start out this themed week with one of the most recognizable of all mythical creatures: The Unicorn. Variations of the Unicorn appear in the histories and mythologies of civilizations spanning from China to Mesopotamia to Greece. Images of horned horse-like creatures can be found in the cave paintings at Lascaux, written reports of Unicorns date back to at leas the 4th century BC. In short, for hundreds, even thousands of years, Unicorns have captured the interest and imaginations of people around the world.

"The Unicorn in Captivity"
Netherlands, ca. 1500
The Cloisters, New York
There are many variations of the Unicorn, but regardless of the name and culture, they all carry the characteristic horn. It is also common for them to possess cloven hooves, a lion's tail, and a goat-like beard. They carry a variety of traits and powers, depending on the culture. In China, the Qilin is a horned creature that brings good luck and prosperity. The Medieval Unicorn is a creature that represents purity and chastity, and which carries magical properties in its horn. Unicorns became symbols for both Christ and the nobility. References to a horned creature called Re-em are found in the Bible, and many of these passages later translated that word to Unicorn. Unicorns are found in paintings and tapestries, and many of these artworks depict the Unicorns with their heads resting the the laps of young maidens. This is a not so subtle nod to the belief that only a virgin could tame a Unicorn.

And what of the Narwhal? One legend holds that the Unicorns were too slow to make it on to Noah's Ark, and thus were left behind at the mercy of the sea... and they became Narwhals. While science demonstrates that Narwhals existed far, far before when the flood story would've occurred, Narwhal horns, which are long and spiraled, may have been inspiration for some of the medieval Unicorn legends. For hundreds of years royalty would pay exorbitant sums to acquire these horns, and they adorn thrones and crown jewels today. Other real-life creatures, including Rhinos, Oryx, and even Deer, may have also contributed to the Unicorn story.

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