DP118983 Healing croppedA unicorn uses his horn to purify a stream of water.
Section of a tapestry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

For about two years I was obsessed with unicorns.  Not just any unicorns.  I was studying, writing about, responding to, two sets of unicorn tapestries from 500 years ago.  These are the Hunt of the Unicorn series in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Lady and the Unicorn series in the Musee du Moyen Age in Paris.

These unicorns are a different species (yes, species) from those imagined in our time.  Today’s unicorns look like horses.  The unicorns of circa 1500 are goats, with beards and cloven hooves.

They also can be dangerous.  They have magic as well as physical power, and complex symbolic meaning.

Their horns were believed to heal.  For lack of actual unicorns, the tusks of narwhals, creatures who live in the north Atlantic sea, were sold as unicorn horns.

In A Natural History of Unicorns Chris Lavers has identified some one-horned animals in east Asia.  After discounting a number of theories about the origin of unicorns as errors and mistranslations he cites a 19th century letter from an English explorer who recounts how unicorns are created by humans: the herders choose a newborn goat and bind his horns together.  Having one horn in the center of his head instead of two angling out apparently gives this kid an advantage and he becomes a leader.

When did these feisty beasts turn into gentle horses?  Was it Disney, with his stuffed animal creatures in Fantasia, or did it happen earlier?  I see it as part of a modern human tendency to reject mystery, and to insist that nature, even imaginary nature, can be tamed.  Another loss from the so-called Enlightenment.

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