I was never a great baseball player but I had my moments. Somehow, though I am not tall and never was very fast or in possession of a strong arm, I fanangled my way into playing the outfield. Compared to the infield, one had less action, but the action was superior and more intense. The stakes were higher. Muff a grounder and no one really notices, but not so a fly ball. Of course chasing down a long moon shot had its pleasures, but my favorite moments were always the high, lazy fly balls, the “cans of corn” as known in baseball parlance. You knew you would catch these, and so you could just stand under them serenely, watching the ball spin against the blue sky. Time stood still, one needn’t worry about Republicans or Democrats, the past or the future–it was enormously satisfying.
This will sound weird, but Odell Shepherd’s The Lore of the Unicorn, an examination of various arguments before and against the existence of the fabled beast, struck me in just this way. There were so many ways this book could have gone wrong. We would be disinclined to believe a medieval writer. In the 17th century the book would have been too technical. In the 18th century it would have had way too many commas and semi-colons. A 19th century treatment would be too emotional and romantic. Bill Bryson on this topic would be too jocular and snarky. But Shepherd brings a light writing style combined with proper reverence for the sources pro and con.
Why not unplug for a bit and consider the unicorn?
When I began the book I thought the foundation for belief in the unicorn’s existence in the pre-modern west rested on a few old Greek guys, and that is true. But, it is only partially true, and true in more complex ways than I expected:
- Ctesias wrote about the unicorn around 400 B.C., but he lived much of his life in Persia in service to the Persian kings. Xenophon writes that Ctesias healed the wound of Artaxerxes II after the Battle of Cunaxa. Seeing as how Ctesias kick’s this question off, we’ll quote him in full.
“There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes blue. They have a horn on their forehead which is about 1 ½ feet long. The dust from this horn ground is made into a potion that protects against poisons. The base of the horn is pure white, but the top is the purest crimson, and the remainder is black. Those who drink from this horn, they say, are not subject to epilepsy.
The animal is exceedingly swift–powerful and fierce, so that nothing can overtake it.”
- Aristotle thought Ctesias untrustworthy overall, but he agreed with him that the unicorn did exist.
“We have never seen an animal with a solid hoof (i.e., not cloven) and two horns, and there are only a few with a solid hoof and one horn, as the Indian ass [unicorn] and the oryx. Of all animals with a solid hoof, the Indian ass alone has a talus [he large bone in the ankle that articulates with the tibia of the leg and the calcaneum and navicular bone of the foot].Animalium Book 3, Chapter 41
Perhaps only second to Aristotle in authority for such questions would have been
- Pliny the Elder, ca. 60 A.D.
The Orsean Indians hunt an exceedingly wild beast called the monoceros, which has a stag’s head, elephant’s feet, and a boar’s tail, the rest of its body belng like that of a horse. It makes a deep lowing noise, and one black horn two cubits long projects from the middle of its forehead. This animal, they say, cannot be taken alive.Natural History, Book 8, Chapter 33
Some of what we read here may perplex us, such as the multi-colored horn (did he see painted or decorated horns?) and the fact that the unicorn is not white. If we take also the testimony of Appolonius of Tyana and Aelian, we get some basic agreement, but more disagreement than I expected. Pliny introduces the question of whether or not we should be thinking of a rhinoceros. All in all, the ancient sources appear to me to operate basically independently.
If you have a King James Bible, one notes that several passages mention a unicorn (Num. 23:22, Deut. 33:17, Ps. 39:6, Is. 34:7, Job 39:9-10, etc.). Some of these passages could possibly refer to a rhinoceros, and others, not so much, i.e., in Psalm 39:6 the unicorn is said to “skip like a calf”–rhinos don’t skip. Also, different passages mention “exaltation” like the horn of a unicorn, and a rhinoceros horn doesn’t quite fit this.
For some, the fact that the Bible mentions the unicorn is proof that it never existed, since for them the Bible contains so much fanciful gobbledygook. Others assert that the unicorn can’t exist because they haven’t seen it and don’t know anyone who has. These silly attitudes merit little attention. But I have also seen Christians who say, “The Bible mentions unicorns, so if you believe in the authority of the Bible, you must believe in unicorns.”
The question has more complexity, however. It mainly involves the translation of a two key words: “re’em” in Hebrew and “monoceros” in Greek. St. Justin Martyr, St. Ireneaus, and St. Basil the Great all seem to profess belief in the unicorn based on how they translate the Greek along with other factors. But St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory the Great all believed that the passages quoted above speak of a rhinoceros and may have denied the existence of unicorns altogether. We cannot say that such men denied the authority of Scripture.
Still, for medievals the case for the unicorn remained stronger than the case against. Even Albert the Great, teacher to St. Thomas and one of the best scientific minds of that era, believed in its existence (though doubted the horn’s medicinal effects). Interestingly, belief in the unicorn may have increased in the Renaissance as the ancient Roman arts of poisoning found a new home in the classically obsessed Italians. Various dukes traveled with unicorn horns (so called) in hopes of having them ward off poisons.
But in time, belief in the unicorn ebbed away, and why this happened deserves attention as well, but more on this later. All throughout the history of unicorn belief, skeptics have weighed in with alternate theories.
Theory 1: The Unicorn as Rhinoceros
We have touched on this briefly already from the Bible, but a few other points of interest could be mentioned:
- With its very tough hide, the rhino cannot be hunted in the standard way other beasts can
- Like the ancient descriptions say, the rhino is very strong
- Some even today believe in the medicinal powers of its horn
- The “elephant’s feet” from Pliny’s description match that of a rhino.
For me, however, this stretches things a bit too far. More persuasive, in my view is
Theory 2: The Unicorn as the African Oryx
- Like the descriptions of the unicorn, it is tall, fast, and powerful
- It somewhat matches the colors mentioned by some ancient authors
- Its location in Africa matches that of many ancient sightings
- The oryx was known as difficult to hunt and rare even in the time of Oppian (ca. 160 A.D.).
- As for the two horns, there are two possibilities: 1) African natives testify that when two oryx’s fight, sometimes a horn can break off, or 2) Some naturalists suppose the possibility of a genetic anomaly occurring and an onyx being born with just one horn.
And, one rare form of the species, the Arabian Oryx, is actually white:
Some also think that Aristotle thought that unicorn was in fact, the oryx.
I much prefer this theory to the unicorn as rhinoceros. I am very nearly convinced, but still . . . two horns is not one horn, and the ancients and medievals could count.
Theory 3: The Unicorn as a Transmuted Eastern/Christian Myth
St. Isidore of Seville (7th century) did believe in the unicorn, and he had a strong influence on the formation of medieval bestiaries. He writes,
“Rhinoceron” in Greek means “Horn in the nose,” and “Monoceros” is a Unicorn, and it is a right cruel beast. And he has that name for he has a horn in the middle of his forehead of 4 feet long. And that horn is so sharp and strong that he throweth down all, and all he rests upon. And this beast fights oft with the elephant and wounds him and sticks him in the belly, and throws him down to the ground. And a unicorn is so strong that he cannot be taken with the might of hunters. But men that write of such things say that if you set out a maid [i.e., a virgin] he shall come. And she opens her lap [or possibly, her breast], and he lays his head thereon, and leaves all of his fire, and sleeps thereon.
In the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis there is a curious image of what appears to be a unicorn and a lion:
Lions represent the masculine and kingly power. Some see in this image, then, that either 1) The power of the king was mighty enough even to hunt and kill a unicorn, or 2) The masculine sun triumphs over the feminine moon, day triumphs over night (it seems even in Persia unicorns may have been thought of as white in color).
I agree with Shepherd that we should view this image mostly in mythological rather than historical or political terms. But Shepherd makes nothing of the violent depiction here, and the contrast with the medieval version of the similar story.
We have already noted the power of the unicorn and that no one can capture or contain him. The medieval versions of the story go deeper into the archetypal patterns. First, the singular horn. Shepherd cites numerous stories of how single-horned beasts had a position of great honor. For example,
- Plutarch relates that Pericles’ farmhands presented him with a one-horned bull (the horns had merged into one) as a mark of thanks and honor.
- One-horned cattle are seen as bending towards the king in Ethiopian carvings.
- In the Jewish Talmud, Adam offers to God a one-horned bull after his exile from Paradise, the most precious thing he owned.
The singularity of the horn unites all these instances. In the standard bestiary of the middle ages, the author writes as a postscript,
The unicorn signifies Christ, who was made incarnate in Mary’s womb, was captured by the Jews, and was put to death. The unicorn’s fierce wildness shows the inability of hell to hold Christ. The single horn represents the unity of God and Christ. The small size of the unicorn [relatively, one must assume–an elephant is certainly bigger], is a symbol of Christ’s humility in becoming human.
Even as far back as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the feminine has always humanized or tamed the masculine. This pattern finds its ultimate expression in the Incarnation itself, where the Virgin Mary contains the uncontainable God, and, dare we say, “humanizes” God? They went on to say that that through the virtues of the spotless Virgin Mary, humanity “wooed” God–the so-called “Holy Hunt.”
So, it should not surprise us that in the famous Unicorn Tapestry, the unicorn is captured within a circular fence, reminding us of a wedding ring–God binding Himself to humanity.
Lions make their way into this tapestry as well, though in a different way than ancient Persia:
So, some argue that the maybe the medievals never really thought the unicorn was a real beast, but simply a helpful story to convey spiritual truth. Or, if they did believe in a real unicorn, they did so only as a mistake, a pleasing and helpful tale incarnated too far in their fertile imaginations.
My one beef with Shepherd’s marvelous book is that he refuses to pick a side in this debate, but I will do so.
I am able to accept that the theory of the unicorn as rhinoceros has merit, but I am not convinced. It does have one horn which many regarded as salutary. But the horn is not “exalted,” and the rhino simply lacks the grace, dignity, and metaphorical heft history has placed upon it.
The oryx theory very nearly convinces me. The speed, elusivity, and necessary “dignity” of the beast are present. Imagine a genetic anomaly with an Arabian oryx with one horn and it nearly solves the problem stem to stern. But oryx’s have two horns, and as we have seen, the singular horn stands as a crucial fact in the case. True, in a pure profile one would only see one horn of the oryx. But again, oryx’s do move, and people can count to two.
In fact, Shepherd mentions many citings of the unicorn throughout the centuries. Yes, hypothetically all could be mistaken, exaggerating, or lying. Maybe some saw the Arabian oryx. And yes, it seems strange that in the era of iphones, that none would have a picture if it existed. Possibly it did exist and went extinct some centuries ago.
What I can’t abide are those that say that because the medievals allegorized at length with the unicorn, it shows that they are easily fooled or cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction. It also minimizes the importance of the patterns laid down throughout all the ages–as if isolated”facts” that have no meaning had greater importance than all of our stories. Undeniably certain myths existed around the unicorn, but myth is not a symbol for “falsehood.”
Which brings us to why belief in the unicorn has sharply declined over the last few centuries, and especially in our day. Belief in dragons declined rather markedly after the Middle Ages, if they were ever literally believed in at all. Clearly many ancient and medieval people believed literally in unicorns. Unlike other so-called fanciful beasts, unicorn belief persisted after the medieval era, into the Renaissance and beyond. Even in the 17th century some still believed in the unicorn, as did some British explorers into the 19th century–a Major Latter wrote in 1820 that he had definitely seen a unicorn in Africa. None of this has happened with dragons.
I think the reason for the decline, regardless of whether the unicorn ever existed or not, is that we have lost the stories, we have lost the reasons for anything being anything in the first place. True, if the unicorn had not existed, the medieval people might have made him up–it fits that well into their symbolic world, just as it did for other cultures. I suppose this could be slight critique against them if one really felt the need for it. But we, on the other hand, have no need for anything to exist for any particular reason, including ourselves. Many of us are, as Walker Percy brilliantly deduced some 40 years ago, Lost in the Cosmos.
I think a discussion on cable news over whether or not the unicorn existed would reveal a lot about us, such as the role of tradition, science, and the sexes. I say, we should get at all our major worldview questions not through Twitter, CNN, Fox, or the National Review, but through pleasant cans of corn like the one Odell Shepherd has given us. These moments that stop time are likely the most important of all.
[…] medieval thoughts about unicorns. I address whether or not unicorns actually physically existed in another post. For us “literal” existence of the unicorn is what really matters, but not so for […]