Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, , at sacred-texts.com
HAVING considered some of the more important arguments and observations that have been advanced to prove the existence or non-existence of the unicorn, we may now assume the role of the sceptic who regards the whole legend as probably a product of the fancy, asking ourselves how the belief first arose. This question plunges us at once into the remote past; it forces us to think as much as possible in the way of men whose mental habit was very different from our own; it is a question, therefore, to which no conclusive answer, carrying final conviction to all, can be expected. I shall arrange my conjectures in the order of plausibility, passing from those one feels tempted to accept immediately to others that may seem at first highly dubious.
Several authoritative scholars have held that the unicorn legend derives entirely from Oriental beliefs about the rhinoceros. This was the opinion of Cuvier, for example, a man whose expert knowledge and good sense command respect, and it is an opinion in keeping with the tendency of our time to prefer the light of common day to "the light that never was". An impressive "case" can be made out for this view.
We have repeatedly seen the rhinoceros crossing the unicorn's path or plunging through the undergrowth in a direction remarkably parallel. Ctesias, Aelian, Pliny, and Isidore mingle large ingredients of rhinoceros with their unicorns. Learned Christian Fathers such as Tertuillan, Jerome, Ambrose, and Gregory reject the unicorn entirely in favour of his doppelganger, and later scholars had to exert constant effort to prevent the animal from slipping down--or back?--into the huge Indian hog. And this is not surprising when one considers that almost exactly the same beliefs were held in India about the one animal as those entertained in Europe about the other, and that from the beginning of the sixteenth century Portuguese commerce made possible a constant infiltration of Oriental superstitions into the Western world. We cannot ignore the fact that Western interest in the alicorn increased at just the time when this infiltration began, and that rhinoceros horns were actually used in Europe, although to no great extent, precisely as alicorns were. A curious illustration of the uncertainty regarding the "true horn" is seen in the fact that the treasury of St. Mark's in Venice contains, beside the two famous alicorns brought from Constantinople and another one of later acquisition, the unmistakable horn of a rhinoceros, hanging with them. In this way the Cathedral assured itself against error, however the learned might eventually decide.
The parallelism between the two traditions may be shown in the words of a famous traveller of the sixteenth century. Linschoeten says of the rhinoceros that "some think it is the right Unicorne, because that as yet there hath no other bin found, but only by hearesay and by the pictures of them. The Portingalles and those of Bengala affirme that by the River Ganges in the Kingdome of Bengala are many of these Rhinoceros, which when they will drinke the other beasts stand and waite upon them till the Rhinoceros hath drinke, and thrust their horne into the water, for he cannot drinke but his horne must be under the water because it standeth so close unto his nose and muzzle: and then after him all the other beastes doe drinke. Their hornes in India are much esteemed and used against all venime, poyson, and many other diseases . . . which is very good and most true, as I myselfe by experience have found."
After reading this passage one is disposed to agree with the assertion of de Laborde that the rhinoceros is the sole source of all the marvellous qualities attributed to the unicorn. One is not surprised to find that Conrad Gesner used Durer's famous drawing of the rhinoceros as the illustration accompanying his account of the monoceros, or that John of San Geminiano could say "Christus assimilatur rhinocerote." Arabian writers constantly described the one animal under the name of the other, and in Europe there seems never to have been a time when some one did not suspect that the two were identical.
It is true that those who thought thus had always vigorous opponents. Andrea Bacci disposed of the notion to his own satisfaction by pointing out that the Romans knew the rhinoceros perfectly and yet believed in the unicorn as a totally different animal. He found the horns of the two animals in the treasury of Don Francesco and characterized that of the rhinoceros, a beast that he seems to have regarded with contempt, as black and thick and vulgar. Julius Caesar Scaliger fell foul of Cardan in this fashion: "By what evil fate does it happen that in spite of the frequent beatings you receive from the rods of grammarians you must now fall under the censure of naturalists? There is no help for you, Cardan, when you describe the monoceros under the heading of rhinoceros, for these two animals are entirely different." This serious charge, like many another that Scaliger brought against his foe, was unjustified, for Cardan had said with all possible clearness that the two animals were quite distinct and that nothing but the vague similarity in their names had caused confusion. But the most amusing of all those who strove to defend the unicorn from this contamination was Luis de Urreta. I have already quoted the passage in which he describes what he calls the unicorn in terms that apply exclusively to the rhinoceros and then refers with an indulgent smile to the belief of "certain holy men", who could not be expected to know better, that the two animals were really the same.
These passages show that the rhinoceros was as mysterious in Europe as the unicorn itself. Familiar to the Romans of the Empire, it was remembered in the Middle Ages chiefly because of a few references in Martial and other ancient writers. For a thousand years Europe forgot what the rhinoceros looks like. There is, to be sure, a curious little figure in the pavement of St. Mark's at Venice--near the Door of the Madonna--which seems, when one first comes upon it, to contradict this statement. This figure, the original of which seems to have been placed here in the thirteenth century, shows the unmistakable head of the rhinoceros with the horn properly placed, although the body is that of a bear, the feet are furnished with claws, and the ears are very large and shaped like those of a bat. The more learned cicerones of St. Mark's always refer to this pavement mosaic as the rhinoceros under the palmtree, explaining that it symbolizes the wrath of God, but they do not tell us why the rhinoceros should stand so near the Madonna's door or how a mosaicist of the thirteenth century happened to know even thus much about the appearance of an Indian beast. Hazardous as it may seem, my conjecture is that the mosaicist did not intend to represent a rhinoceros at all but a unicorn. For an accurate description of the unicorn it is not unreasonable to suppose that he went to his contemporary and fellow-townsman, Ser Marco Polo, recently returned from India where he had seen the rhinoceros in the wild state and had come away with the belief that he had seen the unicorn--although he had to admit (Book III, Chapter ) that it "is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin; in fact, 'tis altogether different from what we fancied".
The first rhinoceros seen in western Europe in modern times was brought round Cape Horn in 1498 and taken to Lisbon. The second, much better known and indeed a celebrated animal, arrived in the same city seventeen years later, where it became a great favourite at "the palace of the king" and on one occasion was pitted against an elephant, which it put to ignominious flight. A sketch of it sent to Albrecht DŸrer was converted into the well-known engraving, delightfully inaccurate, which did duty for more than a hundred years in books of zoology. In 1517 this rhinoceros--whose name should have been Ulysses--set forth once more for Rome, intended as a gift to the Pope; but his ship was wrecked off Marseilles and in spite of his gallant effort to swim ashore only the dead body was recovered. The skin was stuffed and sent "to the palace of the King" of France. It was a hundred and fifty years after this that England first acquired a live rhinoceros of her own.
Some of the traits ascribed to the unicorn were almost certainly derived from facts observed by hunters of the rhinoceros. The hide of this beast is impervious to primitive weapons, so that the belief might well get abroad that it could be taken or killed only by stratagem. The people of India and China have long thought, indeed, that their beakers of rhinoceros horn were made of the horns of animals killed by elephants. Until the invention of the modern rifle the Indian rhinoceros had been killed or captured chiefly by great drives, such as that led by Tamerlane, in which many men and horses took part. Although not very swift of foot, the rhinoceros runs more rapidly than its bulk would lead one to expect, and it begins slowly, as early writers said of the unicorn, increasing its speed little by little. With reference to the Western belief that the virgin decoy attracts her victim by her odour it is worthy of remark that the eyesight of the rhinoceros is weak and his sense of smell very keen. The repeated statements that the unicorn belongs in some sense to the king reminds one that even in modern times Eastern potentates have been known to keep the rhinoceros in their parks and to take him with them on royal progresses as a symbol of power and sovereignty. Just as the unicorn came to represent chastity and solitude in Europe and became especially dear, therefore, to Christian monks, so the rhinoceros symbolized chastity and solitude in India and was regarded as a model of the ascetic life. Alkazuwin says concerning the animal's solitude that when it has chosen a grazing ground it will not tolerate the presence of any other beast within one hundred parasangs on any side, and those who know the literature of solitude will understand how readily this trait would be accepted by the Forest Hermits as a mark of holiness and wisdom. Finally, there is to be considered the tradition of the unicorn's great strength which persisted even when the animal was likened by Physiologus to a kid. Does it not seem probable that there is some memory here of the elephant-fighter? Joshua Sylvester, after speaking in high commendation of the elephant, proceeds as follows:--
Even more is claimed for the rhinoceros on the score of medicinal value than for the unicorn, for not his horn alone but his entire body is held to abound with magical virtues. These virtues, it would seem, were regarded as merely brought to a higher potency in the horn, according to a belief that his strength chiefly lay in the member with which he fought and defended himself. The hunting, transport, preparation, and sale of these horns has been one of the more romantic details of Oriental business activity for a very long time, comparable only, so far as the East is concerned, with the commerce in dragon's bones. There are even records showing that Occidental merchants shared in this business. Lying in the Strait of Malacca in 1592, James Lancaster sent commodities to the King of Junsaloam "to barter for Ambergriese and for the hornes of the Abath, whereof the king only hath the traffique in his hands. Now this Abath is a beast which hath one horn onely in her forehead, and is thought to be the female Unicorne, and is highly esteemed of all the Moores in these parts as a most soveraigne remedie against poyson."
Caspar Bartholinus tells us that when he was in Italy about the year 1620 the rhinoceros horn was on sale in several of the larger cities and that it was recommended as a specific against poison and fevers, small-pox, epilepsy, vertigo, worms, impotence, and stomachache. Forty years later Father Lobo could say that this horn, as compared with true alicorn, was "not so sovereign, though used against poison". Pierre Pomet, writing in 1699, asserts that the rhinoceros horn is still used in the belief that it is as effective as alicorn.
This is what one would expect, but it is a little surprising to find precisely the same set of beliefs at the Cape of Good Hope in the eighteenth century, applied there to the white rhinoceros. Whether to attribute this to a prehistoric transmission across the length of Africa or to the influence of the Dutch and Portuguese one is not quite sure. Charles Thunberg writes that in the region of the Cape the horns of the rhinoceros were kept "not only as rarities but also as useful in diseases and for the purpose of detecting poison. The fine shavings of the horns, taken internally, were supposed to cure convulsions and spasms in children, and it was firmly believed that goblets made of these horns in a turner's lathe would discover a poisonous draught by making the liquor ferment."
With these facts and considerations in mind one is strongly inclined to agree with de Laborde that the rhinoceros is the sole source not only of the superstition regarding the alicorn but of the whole unicorn legend. Before committing oneself to the rhinoceros theory, however, there are a few questions that one would like to have answered. How did the unicorn acquire from this animal, so mild and phlegmatic when not molested, his reputation for extreme pugnacity? Does it seem likely that the rhinoceros suggested the unicorn's reputation for extreme fleetness? With the rhinoceros alone in mind, what sense can we make of Topsell's assertion, founded upon good ancient authority, that the unicorn "fighteth with the mouth and with the heels, with the mouth biting like a lion and with the heels kicking like a horse"? Again, what is the connection between the rhinoceros and the unicorn of Physiologus, of which we are told that it is like a kid? Finally, how is it possible to identify an animal of such delicacy and refinement as the unicorn's with the gross, grunting, slime-wallowing rhinoceros? One hesitates to think of him as related to that beast even in the way that the water-lily is related to the mud.
Looking for a way of escape from the almost inescapable evidence accumulated above, one recalls that the rhinoceros was not the only one-horned animal known to or imagined by the ancients. Both Pliny and Aristotle believed that the oryx was a unicorn.
This animal, as we learn from Oppian's poem on the art of hunting, was regarded in the ancient world as extremely formidable both to man and beast. Although it does not look much like a goat to the modern eye, the ancients, with their loose zoological terminology sometimes called it that, and certainly it is far more goat-like than the rhinoceros. The oryx, or rather a bronze figure of one, was probably the original of the drawing of a "monoceros" preserved in an early manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The nimble and delicate unicorns of mediaeval manuscripts are all of the same general kind--that is, they are all vaguely like antelopes. The painted figure of a unicorn found by Sir John Barrow in a South African cave was clearly that of some sort of antelope. The descriptions of unicorns left us by Vartoman, Thevet, Lobo, Francis Magellanes, Caravaial, Ruppell, and several others, suggest the oryx strongly, and in one of these descriptions--that of Magellanes--the same assertions are made regarding the medicinal value of the horn as those with which we are familiar. The horn of the rhinoceros was not the only one with which this superstition was connected, so that de Laborde may be wrong after all in asserting that it was the source of the whole belief concerning the alicorn. Aelian tells us that it was a custom of ancient hunters to reserve the oryxes they captured as presents for their kings.2' It will be recalled that we have already been obliged to call in a large antelope of some sort to explain the unicorn of Ctesias. In short, almost if not quite as much may be said for the oryx as for the rhinoceros by one trying to find the source of the unicorn legend.
Almost as much has, in fact, been said. Samuel Bochart devoted twenty folio pages of amazing erudition to an attempt to prove that both the Re'em and the unicorn derive from the oryx, basing his argument upon a firm belief--for which he had the authority of Aristotle and Pliny--that all oryxes are one-horned. (Such are the charming results of studying zoology in libraries.) Professor Martin Lichtenstein of Berlin, a far less learned man but better acquainted with antelopes, supported the oryx theory by citation of Egyptian monuments. He reproduced a mural decoration found in the pyramid at Memphis showing five antelopes, one of them certainly intended as a unicorn, led by human figures, the whole scene representing a ritualistic offering. In another plate shown by Lichtenstein we see a god with a saw in one hand holding a one-horned antelope by the other, and the suggestion is that one of the horns has just been cut off. The antelope here shown is apparently the small and graceful dorcas, sacred to Isis, and it is significant, therefore, that in this second plate the god and the antelope stand before that goddess, enthroned. We may perhaps draw the inference that Isis preferred to have her antelopes appear before her with one horn.
Although Lichtenstein does not mention the fact, one cannot help remembering in this connection that the early Christians of Alexandria transferred to the Virgin Mary some of the attributes of Isis, the Egyptian Mother of God, and that even the conventional Christian paintings of Mother and Child are sometimes said to have had this pagan origin. A question grazes the mind whether we have found here the channel by which a heathen superstition was diverted to the uses of Christian symbolism. (This question arises with unusual emphasis when one stands before the beautiful painting of the Madonna and Child by Stefan Lochner in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum at Cologne. On the Madonna's bosom there is a large jewelled brooch which shows in the middle a seated maiden with a unicorn resting in her lap.) Here, at any rate, we have a unicorn vaguely simile haedo which belongs to the country of Physiologus and is in some way related to a goddess who, in spite of her own practice of incest, was regarded as a patroness of chastity. Bochart's argument would have been stronger if he had admitted a possibility that other antelopes beside the large and fierce oryx may have had some influence upon the unicorn legend. The dorcas is a smaller and more kid-like animal, altogether a more appropriate companion for virgins seated in the woods.
As we shall see, both Pallas and Cuvier admit that the oryx may now and then, as a lusus nafurae, have only one horn, and far more frequent than such "sports" must be the animals that have had one horn broken off in conflict with their fellows. The most important consideration is, however, that when seen in profile the oryx really seems to have only one horn--a fact to which there is abundant testimony and which anyone can test for himself by visiting a large menagerie.
The pertinence of this fact is made clear in a communication that appeared recently in a daily newspaper. Referring to the report that the present Duke of Gloucester had shot an oryx in Tanganyika Territory, the correspondent writes: "The African, even when he is a professional hunter, is not anything of a naturalist. One day a man passed me carrying in the manner of a sceptre or wand of office a long, straight horn. I asked my African companion about the horn and was assured that it was a very rare trophy indeed; it came off a great antelope that was only to be found, and then but rarely, in the desert country far to the North. When I asked whether the owner would not be better off with the two horns instead of with only half a pair, my companion said that the remarkable beast which provided the horn carried only one . . . . Some time later I moved to a part of the country where oryx were to be found. The animal is a very shy beast, not easy to approach. From a distance, and especially when broadside on, he certainly appears to have only one horn. Moreover, the first I saw head-on had, in fact, only one horn. But when I managed to drop that oryx and looked him over I found that, though the beast had only one horn, he had had two; there was a stump of the second, just where one would expect it. Male antelopes at times bicker with one another, and they do it with their horns; one can hear the rattle of them as their wearers battle together. In a bout of the sort the long slender horn is apt to snap off, and that, no doubt, was how the single-horned oryx came to be. Perhaps it was by some such means that the fabulous unicorn found its way into heraldry."
Discoveries of this sort are made many times before they become common property. Sir William Cornwallis Harris made much the same remarks about the oryx seventy years ago, but with important variations. His passage, though wretchedly written and full of errors in statement of fact, deserves partial quotation. "Romance", says he, "aiding the skilful hand of nature with her richest embroidery, has succeeded in investing the group to which the Oryx belongs with a degree of interest that few other quadrupeds can claim. The figure of the renowned Unicorn can be seen traced in all the ancient carvings, coins, and Latin heraldic insignia; and from our earliest childhood the form of that fabled animal has been made to occupy so prominent a place in our juvenile imaginations that, arriving at years of discretion, we are still almost tempted to regard it as a creature having actual existence. Of all the whimsies of antiquity the Unicorn, unquestionably the most celebrated, is the chimera which has in modern ages engrossed the largest portion of attention from the curious . . . . The alterations required to reduce the African oryx to the standard of the heraldic unicorn are slight and simple, nor can it be doubted that they have been gradually introduced by successive copyists, the idea of the single horn being derived from profile representations of that animal in hasrelief on the sculptured monuments of ancient Egypt and Nubia. Excepting in the position and forward inclination of the horn, the cartazon of the ancient Persians, figured on the monuments of Persepolis and described by Aelian, tallies in every respect so exactly with the Algazel or North African Oryx--as the latter would appear en profile, with the straight and almost parallel horns precisely covering each other--that little question can exist as to that animal having furnished the origin of the design. Accident may indeed have contributed to strengthen the opinion, once conceived, of the existence of the monocerine species, for it is well known that among the savage tribes of Africa the art of twirling, carving, and otherwise adorning the horns of their domestic animals was carried to a singular extent-the most fanciful forms being imparted and the two even sometimes twisted together. It is, however, unnecessary to look beyond the ignorance of the limner and the credulity of the describer, satisfactorily to trace the progress of the whole delusion. . . Both the oryx and the wild ass inhabit the same regions and possess in common the essential attributes of figure, colour, and carriage; nor is it at all unlikely that the mutilation of individuals of the first-named species, by the fracture of a horn, may afterwards have tended to strengthen the belief derived from these imperfect representations . . . . Such would appear to have been the origin and progress of the fable of the Unicorn, from its foundation in ancient Persia to its diffusion over the whole of western Europe; and such, at the present day, is the figure of the fictitious animal forming the sinister supporter of the Royal Achievement of England." The author's painting of the oryx which accompanies this text is more convincing than the text itself.
Already it begins to appear that the difficulty in finding the source of the unicorn legend does not lie in poverty of materials or lack of plausible theories. Quite as convincing an argument can be made for the oryx as for the rhinoceros--indeed a somewhat better one by the test of Physiologus--and either argument looks cogent and final when separately considered. From this fact there seem to be three possible inferences: that the two bodies of belief grew up independently; that the beliefs relating to one of the two animals have been transferred to the other; that both legends are derived from a body of belief lying farther back in time. The first of these possibilities seems to me so nearly impossible that I shall waste no space upon it. The second, although certainly arguable, presents numerous difficulties which I think could not be overcome. One can hardly think, for example, that the medicinal attributes of the rhinoceros could be transferred to the antelope without the transfer of some of its more obvious physical characteristics, of which the unicorn of Physiologus and of Europe is entirely devoid. Neither does it seem probable that the great prestige of the unicorn and of the "treasure of his brow" could have been derived from either of these animals. We are left, then, with the third possibility, that the rhinoceros and oryx legends are indeed related, though not in the sense that one is the parent of the other; they have a common ancestor. Some greater unicorn looms behind them both. We must continue the quest.
It was said of Cuvier that he could reconstruct the skeleton of a prehistoric animal from a single knuckle-bone, and there is just a possibility that the popular imagination has built up the unicornnot the various items of his legend and of what may be called his character alone, for these are obviously products of fancy, but his physical aspect-on the basis of a "horn" which never grew on his brow. A remarkable horn, or an object everywhere so-called, did certainly attract much attention in the Middle Ages, and there can be little doubt what sort of object this was. Representations of it in mediaeval manuscripts show that it had precisely those "anfractuous spires and cochleary turnings" which I see in the ivory stick on the desk before me and which are to be found in no other natural object. This ivory stick is perfectly straight, suggesting that it grew single and alone, as indeed it did. As I have already said, the Italian word licorno, "the horn", was almost certainly made at a time when the object was regarded as independent and no origin for it had been imagined. The rather awkward extension of this word to name the beast from whose brow the horn was supposed to spring suggests that the animal was deduced from the horn. If this could happen in Italy during the Middle Ages it may have happened elsewhere and much earlier. We do not know for how long such objects as my alicorn have been familiar in Mediterranean countries, but the commercial history of the race that chiefly purveyed them stretches back for a very long time. Furthermore, it is not necessary to this conjecture that the kind of horn before me and no other should have always served to suggest the unicorn; there are several horns, particularly those of certain antelopes, so straight and apparently independent as to suggest, when seen singly, that they grew alone. It is a matter not of conjecture but of fact that the single straight horns of antelopes have been used in Tibet during many centuries for magical and ritualistic purposes, and that these sacred horns have been dispersed by pilgrims over a wide territory, acquiring more and more, as they went farther from their source, the reputation of talismans and of being the horns of unicorns. Here we see a unicorn legend in the making.
The highly significant passage that I have quoted from Colonel Prejevalsky shows all the essential phases of the unicorn legend assembled in Tibet, and it shows also how they might be put together. We start, to be sure, with an actual animal, sacred and taboo. Its blood is thought to be medicinal; its long straight horn is used by priests in necromatic and religious rites; it has some sort of symbolism. In this same region there has been, since the time of Genghis Khan and probably for very much longer, a belief in onehorned antelopes. The priests who use the horns in divination may know that they grew in pairs, although they use them singly, but the pilgrims who buy these horns and carry them into the surrounding districts are probably not aware of this. At a distance from the distributing centre everyone is convinced that they are the horns of unicorns. The representations of salesmen praising their wares tend to increase belief in the magic powers of the horns, and this belief grows as it spreads West and East. Tibet lies between Persia, from which we get our first notices of the Western unicorn, and China, which has a highly developed unicorn legend not of native origin. Tibet was included in the "India" of Ctesias.--Why should we look farther for the sources of the unicorn?
There is a possibility, however, and one that must not be ignored, that unicorned animals actually exist in rare instances as lusus naturae. This possibility was urged by Peter Simon Pallas, one of the most competent zoologists of the eighteenth century, who believed that the legend of the unicorn sprang from chance encounters with such one-horned sports. The theory is not unattractive, accounting as it does for the universal belief that the unicorn is exceedingly rare and also for the facts that it has been reported from many different parts of the world and has been described as resembling a wide variety of animals. A nineteenth century scholar points out that there are antelopes whose horns are joined for the first few inches from the base, and he asks what is to prevent nature from prolonging this juncture, now and then and as a freak, throughout the entire length. These speculations are brought into the region of fact by an authentic record of a onehorned animal. In his Natural History of Oxfordshire Robert Plot describes several sheep with six or eight horns kept in his time by Lord Norreys at Ridcot; "and there was one other sheep", says he, "that excelled them all in being a Unicorn, having a single horn growing in the middle of its forehead, twenty-one inches long, with annulary protuberances round it and a little twisted in the middle. There was, to be sure, another little horn growing on the same head, but so inconsiderable that it was hid under the wool."
This Oxfordshire unicorn seems to have been a freak, but others have been produced artificially by the deliberate man-handling of horns, of which there has been a good deal, early and late, in various parts of the world. "Among us", says a modern writer, "the horn does not seem capable of much modification, but a Kaffir can never be content to leave the horns as they are. He will cause one horn to project forward and the other backward. Now and then an ox is seen in which a most singular effect has been produced. As the horns of the young ox sprout they are trained over the forehead until the points meet. They are then manipulated so as to make them coalesce, and so shoot upwards from the middle of the forehead, like the horn of the fabled unicorn."
This passage is corroborated by another in a more recent book which seems to bring the unicorn almost to one's door: "Few domestic sheep are more remarkable, or have given rise to more controversy, than the Indian one-horned or unicorn-sheep, of which the first living specimens ever seen in this country formed part of a large collection of Nepalese animals presented to King George V when Prince of Wales, that were exhibited at the London Zoological Gardens in the year 1906. Although receiving the name of unicorn-sheep, these animals really possessed a pair of horns, for if we examine one of their skulls and remove the horn-sheath from its bony support it will be noticed that the latter is composed of two quite separate structures . . . . There appears to be a certain amount of mystery regarding the origin of these creatures, and some doubt as to whether their peculiar horn-formation is not the outcome of artificial manipulation." A letter from the British Resident at the Court of Nepal is then quoted in which these words occur: "There is no special breed of one-horned sheep in Nepal, nor are the specimens which have been brought here for sale natural freaks. By certain maltreatment ordinary two-horned sheep are converted into a one-horned variety. The process adopted is branding with a red-hot iron the male lambs when about two or three months old on their horns when they are beginning to sprout. The wounds are treated with a mixture of oil and soot and when they heal, instead of growing at their usual places and spreading, come out as one from the middle of the skull . . . . I am told that the object of producing these curiosities is to obtain fancy prices for them from the wealthy people in Nepal." The original writer then continues: "Notwithstanding the above explanation, the majority of naturalists are inclined to doubt whether a true understanding has even yet been arrived at concerning these sheep, for it has been pointed out that the mere fact of searing the budding horns would not result in those appendages sprouting out at the summit of the skull instead of towards the side, and moreover, if there is any secret attending their production it has been remarkably well kept from the ever-prying eyes of zoologists. It is true that the horns of a young animal might be induced to grow together by binding them up, but in that case we should expect the bony supports to be bent aside at their bases as a result of the unnatural strain put upon them, whereas on the contrary, those of the unicorn sheep arise in quite a straight manner from the skull."
Whatever the process may be there is no doubt that the thing is done, and for the present purpose the motive is more important than the method. The British Resident at Nepal says that the artificial unicorns of that country are produced "to obtain fancy prices", but we should like to know why a sheep with one horn is thought to be worth more than a sheep with the normal equipment, and also why such a sheep was thought a suitable gift for the Prince of Wales. Some light is thrown upon this question by the fact that the tribe of Dinkas, who live just south of the White Nile, not only manipulate the horns of their cattle as the Kaffirs do but use this practice as a means of marking the leaders of their herds. One can readily believe that the practice is one of great antiquity and that it was used as the Dinkas use it in many parts of the world during the pastoral ages. In the minds of primitive men living a pastoral life the leader of a flock or herd is a valuable possession and he is also a natural emblem of sovereignty and supreme power. We have already seen that the unicorn has been used as such an emblem in lands far apart and during a great stretch of time, the remarkable vision in the Book of Daniel providing the most striking instance. It seems possible, therefore, that what I may call the unicorn idea, the notion that one-horned animals exist in Nature, arose from the custom of uniting the horns of various domestic animals by a process which is still in use but still mysterious to the civilized world. Here may be the explanation of the one-horned cows and bulls that Aelian says were to be found in Ethiopia and of the unicorned cattle reported by Pliny as living in the land of the Moors. The cows with single horns bending backward and a span long seen by Vartoman at Zeila in Ethiopia may have been of this sort. The one-horned ram's head sent to Pericles by his farm-hands may have been that of the leader of their flock, and so a perfect symbol of that leadership in Athens which, according to Plutarch's interpretation, they wished to prophesy for their master. Finally, the mysterious one-horned ox mentioned three times over in the Talmud as Adam's sacrifice to Jehovah may have been the most precious thing that Adam possessed, the leader of his herd of cattle.--Once more the question rises whether there is any need of seeking further.
One goes on seeking for the source or sources of the unicorn legend partly because other explanations of it, perhaps not so immediately plausible as those just considered but quite as able to stand scrutiny, continue to suggest themselves. Another reason for continuing the search is that none of the suggestions thus far made is completely convincing. They suggest no sufficient reason why the single horn--whether found alone or on the head of a beast, whether growing naturally or as the product of artifice--should have attracted so much attention and should have won such prestige as the horn of the unicorn has long had. Even if we accept one or all-for this too is possible--of the suggestions put forth above we feel that they are not primary or fundamental because they do not explain the strange fascination exercised by unicornity (if I may venture the neologism) upon the mind. They require explanation in their turn by something lying behind and towering above them all.
Among the ruins of the Palace of Forty Pillars at Persepolis, on the left-hand side of the western staircase constructed by Artaxerxes III, there is a bas-relief showing the figure of a lion with teeth and claws fastened upon a one-horned animal of uncertain species resembling at once a bull, a large antelope, and a goat. Three other treatments of the same subject are found in the corresponding positions, the figure of the unicorned animal varying slightly from one to another. During the last century and a half these bas-reliefs have been studied, minutely by many competent scholars and the suggestion has been made repeatedly that they may have some bearing upon the problem of the unicorn.
No purpose would be served by a full survey of this extensive literature. I may say, however, that there has been much discussion concerning the species represented by the unicorn, some contending that it was intended for a goat, others that it is an antelope, and still others that it is certainly a wild ass. For my own part, dependent as I am upon the numerous photographs and drawings, I am chiefly impressed by the confidence in his own opinion displayed by each of the contenders, for it seems obvious to me that the animal was intended by the sculptor--who could be realistic enough when he chose, judging from his lion--to represent a composite beast in which ass and goat and antelope and bull were included. One of the most interesting of the conclusions upon which there is fairly general agreement is that Ctesias was influenced by these figures in writing his description of the unicorn. There seems to be no reason why we should not accept this opinion, provided that we see how little it signifies. Ctesias probably saw the bas-reliefs and others like them at Susa, and one cannot say that his one-horned onager is utterly unlike the rather nondescript animal of the Persepolis sculptures; but he certainly did not derive from these figures his precise ideas about the colours of the horn and of the astragalus, about the use of the horn by Indian princes, or about the unicorn's habitat and characteristics. From the bas-reliefs of Persepolis he could have got little more than a belief that there existed somewhere--and why not in "India", the home of wonders?--a beast vaguely resembling the wild ass that he had seen in Persia but, unlike the local variety, furnished with a single horn. For the appearance and properties of this horn he would have had to inquire elsewhere.
Ctesias may well have accepted these figures as those of unicorns, but did the sculptor intend that they should be so understood? This is a question which one would suppose that any thoughtful person sitting down before the present problem would try to answer first of all, but on the contrary the question is not even stated or grazed for over a hundred years by any of the writers engaged in the main discussion. Niehbuhr, Rhode, Ker Porter, Heeren, Lassen, and Robert Brown all tacitly assume that all representations of animals in ancient sculpture that look like unicorns were intended as such. This strange ignorance or ignoring of an obvious art convention vitiates some of their results and weakens confidence in their powers of observation.
The statement is often made that the artists of Egypt, the Euphrates, and Persepolis knew nothing of perspective and that they always showed two legs for four, one ear and one horn for two, through sheer inability to represent the third dimension. This statement is untrue. There was an artistic convention--which grew up, probably, before the technic of representing perspective was mastered--allowing the artist to show one horn or ear instead of two when representing animals in profile, but this convention was by no means universally followed, and the fact that ancient artists were not consistent in observing it lends some excuse to the enthusiasts named above who found unicorns everywhere in ancient art, on coins and seals and gems as well as in sculptures, somewhat as Sir Thomas Browne found quincunxes.
The fact that the sculptors of the ancient world sometimes showed two horns in representing animals in profile must not be taken as proof that when they showed only one they had in mind an actual unicorn. Far more important for our purpose than the sculptor's intention, however, is the effect of his work upon the public mind, the interpretation put upon it by ignorant laymen. We have just seen that several acute modern scholars, most of them students of ancient art, were convinced that the one-horned figures of Persepolis were intended to represent unicorns. If this was true of them, what are we to expect of ignorant men, for whom graphic and plastic art is always a record of actuality? Millions of ignorant men saw the unicorn bas-reliefs at Persepolis and Susa, and millions more saw others almost exactly like them at Nineveh and Babylon, for these figures, like almost everything else in Persian sculpture, were derived from the remote Euphratean past. If these millions had not believed in unicorns before they saw the figures, we may be quite sure that they did believe after they had seen them. Whatever the original artists meant to do, this is a part of what they accomplished: either they corroborated an already existing belief in the unicorn or else they gave the first hint leading to that belief.
Those who doubt whether this is possible will do well to read Jean Wauquelin's Merveilles d'Inde, in which it is perfectly evident that the six-handed men, the horned women, and the griffins with lions' paws, all regarded by the fifteenth-century author as actual creatures, derive ultimately from the symbolic monstrosities of Indian religious art. It has even been suggested, quite credibly, that the griffin itself was the imaginative creation of Indian tapestry workers and that the Greeks, seeing these tapestries at the court of Persia and elsewhere, thought the figures on them represented real animals and described the animals in words as best they could. The fact that esoteric symbols are constantly subject to exoteric interpretation, that symbolic images are almost everywhere regarded by most people as idols and these idols as physically present deities, is familiar to every student of the history of religion, and purely artistic representations of animals--if indeed there were any such in the times of which we are speaking--were subject to similar misinterpretation. We have seen that Arabian travellers, finding certain figures carved on rhinoceros horn, thought that they grew naturally in the horn, and that when Sir John Barrow, a highly educated traveller of the nineteenth century, found in South Africa a cave painting of an antelope showing only one horn he could only infer that one-horned antelopes must exist in Nature. The numberless millions of Persepolis and the Euphrates valley, who lived all their lives with powerful representations of one-horned animals constantly before them, may have been no more intelligent and cautious and critical.
Not only on the great public monuments were such apparently one-horned animals to be seen; figures of them were spread broadcast through the known world by the constant use of them on sealcylinders in Persia, Assyria, Babylon, Chaldea, and Elam. The spread of these cylinders was not confined even to the wide territory in which for many centuries they were in daily use, for the figures upon them, impressed on tablets of clay, were employed to identify and protect personal property, so that they must have had a dispersion similar to that of modern trade-marks. Almost indestructible by weather, seal-cylinders made over four thousand years ago lasted on into a time when the symbolism they at first conveyed was quite forgotten. Everywhere they went--and they went everywhere--they suggested the existence of one-horned animals, and they suggested also that these animals were in some way highly important. If there had been no belief in the unicorn before the use of these emblems on seal-cylinders or independent of it, they alone would have been sufficient to suggest and develop such a belief.
But the unicorn, like das Ewig Weibliche, lures us on and on. Although it seems likely that faith in the animal was corroborated by seal-cylinders and profile figures in bas-relief, I should be sorry to think that his first emergence wore such "hues of hap and hazard", that he was born of a mere blunder. If the facts point to that conclusion we must of course accept them, but I am not sure that they do. I venture to suggest that the ignorant millions of Persepolis and Nineveh and Babylon might have been justified and right in accepting these figures as representations of unicorns, and that the artists who made them intended that they should be so accepted.
I am well aware that this suggestion is counter to expert opinion. Early writers upon the one-horned figures at Persepolis and elsewhere assumed unanimously, as I have said, that they were always intended to represent unicorns, and later writers have assumed with the same unanimity that they never were. The second assumption seems to me hardly less hasty than the first. No one doubts that there was a widespread and long-enduring artistic convention by which one horn was commonly depicted to represent two, but this convention was often ignored, and furthermore its existence does not prove that none of the animals represented as unicorns were ever intended as such. Conclusive evidence of a pre-Ctesian belief in the unicorn would be given by a full-face figure dating from before the time of Ctesias and showing only one horn, but I am not aware that such a figure exists. We can do fairly well without it.
Strong probability that the unicorn legend is older than Ctesias and older than the Palace of Forty Pillars is indicated by many of the facts already discussed, but there is no need of resting the present argument upon anything in the slightest degree uncertain. It can be shown that animals clearly described as unicorns held a high position in the religion of Persia.
The basic idea of Zoroastrian religion is an intensely conceived dualism worked out in the moral sphere as a perpetual conflict between forces of good and of evil captained respectively by the primal gods Ormuzd and Ahriman. The forces comprise and the struggle involves not human beings alone but the whole animal creation, part of which is regarded as belonging to the god of virtue and light, part to his rival. All the creatures or "servants" of Ormuzd consider it their highest duty to cherish others of their own kind and to destroy the creatures of Ahriman. The division of the animal kingdom into pure and impure creatures is made, of course, according to the utility or hostility of different species to mankind. Thus the horse and the ass stand high among the servants of Ormuzd, but highest, king and progenitor of all, is the bull. The chief of the impure animals is either the martichore or the lion. In many primitive beliefs, probably in most, the snake is of good omen, primarily because a need is felt of placating it, but Zoroastrianism shows what seems to most modern minds the natural attitude in regarding it as evil, at war with all pure animals, who kill it when they can.
In the sacred writings of Persia there are several references to an animal of Ormuzd's creation that is of utmost importance to the present problem. The context of one of these, a passage almost modern in feeling, brings together for adoration the beneficent forces and elements of nature, and then come the words: "We worship the Good Mind and the spirits of the Saints and that sacred beast the Unicorn which stands in Vouru-Kasha, and we sacrifice to that sea of Vouru-Kasha where he stands." In another context, not unlike the sanitation chapters in Leviticus but on a much higher level, there is mention of water polluted by the creatures of Ahriman--that is to say, presumably, stagnant water, always mysteriously dangerous in a country such as Persia. But Ormuzd has provided against this danger, for "the three-legged ass sits amid the sea Varkash, and as to water of every kind that rains on dead matter. . . when it arrives at the three-legged ass he makes every kind clean and purified with watchfulness." The most important text reads thus: "Regarding the three-legged ass they say that it stands amid the wide-formed ocean, and its feet are three, eyes six, mouths nine, ears two, and horn one. Body white, food spiritual, and it is righteous . . . . The horn is as it were of pure gold, and hollow. . . . With that horn it will vanquish and dissipate all the vile corruption due to the efforts of noxious creatures. When that ass shall hold its neck in the ocean its ears will terrify, and all the water of the wide-formed ocean will shake with agitation . . . . If, 0 three-legged ass! you were not created for the water, all the water in the sea would have perished from the contamination which the poison of the Evil Spirit brought into its water through the death of the creatures of Ahuramazd."
These passages throw at least a glimmer of welcome light upon more than one aspect of the unicorn problem. Here we have an ass, although a supernatural and symbolic and celestial one, with a single horn, and that horn when dipped in water is thaumaturgic in its power against poison. Ctesias, physician to the Court of Persia, may have had something other than travellers' tales and bas-reliefs to work upon in his account of the one-horned ass, and in any case he was not the inventor of the unicorn. That animal has now definitely escaped from human records into timeless myth.
It will be recalled that after a laborious effort to explain the unicorn's water-conning trait in the terms of mediaeval theories of medicine I was obliged to abandon that problem--promising, however, to return to it later. The tentative explanation advanced at the end of the fifth chapter gave no clue, as I said, to the reason why the water is poisonous, and it did not include the other animals which, in nearly all versions of the story, wait beside the water for the unicorn's coming. The Bundahis suggests unmistakably that the water is poisonous because the impure creatures of Ahriman have in some way made it so, and it makes clear also that the animals waiting beside the water are the pure creatures of Ormuzd expecting the advent of their champion and preserver.
Lest there should linger any doubt that the three-legged ass of the Bundahis and the unicorn of Europe are of the same stock, let us place beside the third quotation just above, the account given by John of Hesse of the water-conning which he says he saw beside the bitter waters of Marah: "Even to-day the venomous animals poison the water after the going down of the sun, so that the good animals cannot drink of it; but in the morning after sunrise comes the unicorn, and he, dipping his horn in the stream, expels the poison so that during the daytime the other animals may drink." This is the unicorn of Europe in his most characteristic action, but this is precisely the action also of the three-legged ass. John of Hesse even speaks of animalia bona and animalia venenosa exactly as though he were a Zoroastrian worshipper of Ormuzd instead of a Christian priest, and it would be hard to find a stranger tangle of cultures and beliefs than his Christian use of an ancient Persian symbol to illustrate and enforce a Hebrew tale. How glibly we talk about "melting-pots" as though they had been invented in our own day!
With every wish to avoid the appearance of dogmatism, I cannot even pretend to doubt that the horned ass of the Bundahis and the unicorn of the West belong to the same tradition. But here we seem to have come, at last, to something final. I cannot trace the three-legged ass--that is the unicorn, with a less euphonious name--to his origin, for he fades into the clouds of mythology and the distance blots him out. One may say that he bears some resemblance to the horned horse of Indra and to the snake-killing horse of Pedu, but these surrogates, if such they are, merely take him farther away. So little is known and heard of him in Persian literature that he is probably an importation from another culture, and it seems likely that his legend is older than the Avesta. James Darmesteter regards him as one of the many personifications of the storm-cloud, and so considered by the people of a thirsty land a beneficent creature and a serpent-killer. Angelo de Gubernatis identifies him with the gandharvds of Hindu myth who guard the sacred soma in the midst of the waters. However this may be, the sea of Varkash in the midst of which he stands represents either the ocean as contrasted with the Persian Gulf, or else, more probably, the "waters of the firmament." He is called three-legged for purely symbolical reasons, either because he is supposed to stand on air, earth, and sea, or because his reign is to endure for three Zoroastrian ages. As the guardian of the pure animals and chief antagonist of Ahriman he is usurping the position of the Primitive Bull which, according to the Avesta, is at the head of Ormuzd's creation. This usurpation carries one's thought back to the long controversy over the question whether the one-horned animal of the Persepolis bas-reliefs was intended to represent a bull, a goat, or an ass. Possibly the sculptor intended that it should represent all three of these and stand for the entire animal kingdom of Ormuzd. The pollution in the waters which the three-legged ass is said to destroy or disperse by dipping its horn need not be taken literally, for the myth is symbolic in every detail. It may represent the darkness of night dispersed by the first beams of dawn or by moonlight; it may stand for drought overcome by the golden horn of the lightning; ultimately, however, it is an emblem of evil overcome by good.
Like the unicorn of Europe, the three-legged ass is a symbol of purity and a champion of those oppressed by the devil. In him the Christian makers of Physiologus had ready to their hand a perfect emblem of a Saviour sent into the world for the healing of the nations, and the fact that they chose instead of this the trivial and inept tale of the virgin-capture merely shows again how puerile they were.--But perhaps they were not given the choice, for the Persian tale may have been one of the very few myths and legends that were never heard in Alexandria.
It is natural to suppose that the three-legged ass must have been a glorification of some actual animal, perhaps the onager of the Persian plains; and if that were so he would not stand at the end of our quest but would be merely another point of departure; his attributes, however magnified, would be those of some terrestrial creature which we should feel obliged to find. Fortunately for the present investigation, the mythopceic fancy did not work in this way. Difficult as the conception may be to us, the worshippers of the three-legged ass, instead of atributing to him the characteristics of actual asses, derived what they took to be those characteristics from what they knew of him, their divine prototype. The wild ass merely performs on earth the role created for him by the three-legged ass of Varkash, and if he kills serpents that is only because his celestial prototype destroys the poison that Ahriman has spread in the sea, annihilating evil-doers with his golden horn. One might say, perhaps, that the three-legged ass is the Platonic idea to which all actual asses strive to conform. They are the shadow of which he is the substance. For this reason the myth of the three-legged ass may be regarded as one source of the unicorn legend.
But this is not the only unicorn referred to in the sacred literature of Persia. We are told that the race of goats is divided into five orders of which sheep-goats form the second, and that these are subdivided into five kinds, the second of which is the Koresck, which has "one great horn and dwells upon separate hills and takes its pleasure there." We know also that the Koresck is of the fold of Ormuzd because it is said in the same passage that he educated one of the Zend kings. This helps to explain the fact that several of the one-horned animals represented at Persepolis have cloven hoofs and look far more like goats than like either the bull or the ass. From the time of Aristotle to that of the British College of Heralds scholars have been perplexed by the unicorn's combination of caprine with equine characteristics. The unicorn of Albrecht DŸrer, for example, is a horse in most respects, but it has cloven hoofs and a goat's beard, and so has the unicorn of the British Royal Arms. This confusion, preserved by a surprising tenacity of tradition, may have been due originally to the effort of Zoroastrian artists to represent not any single species of animal but a combination of several species which they regarded as the leaders of the pure creation.
In thinking of the one-horned figures at Persepolis we are not to ignore the fact that they are grouped about the royal palace, just as were the four brazen unicorns seen by Cosmas Indicopleustes about the four-towered palace of the King of Ethiopia. The King of Persia was regarded as the general overseer of the realm of Ormnad, and it was natural that his chief lieutenant, the king of pure beasts, should be associated with him. The relationship between unicorns and royalty is brought out again by the fact just mentioned that one of the Zend kings was reared by a Koresck. It may be implied by the symbolism of the Persepolis bas-reliefs, for we find that the same animal--closely resembling a lion but possibly intended to represent the martichore as well--which is seen springing upon the unicorn in some scenes is shown in others fighting with the King, who drives a sword through his body. Heeren and Porter would have us believe that this familiar group was originally intended merely to exhibit the King's prowess as a hunter; to me it seems symbolic of the final victory of Ormuzd, just as the other scene represents, I think, his temporary defeat. The sculptors would scarcely have dared to show the King overcome even by the powers of darkness, and this may be the reason why they used his animal representative for the first scene; but it was natural that he should appear in person when victorious. In any case, the King here takes the place of his chief subaltern. Even at Persepolis kings and unicorns stand side by side, reminding one of the phrase recurring so frequently in the Bestiaries: "They lead him to the palace of the king."
The four brazen unicorns seen by Cosmas about the palace in Ethiopia may have been stationed there primarily as symbols of sovereignty, but it is probable that they had another more important function--that of guardians. For this belief I can advance no coherent evidence, yet I am more confident of it than of many assertions that I have "documented" heavily. I might show that the seal-cylinders on which apparently one-horned animals were so frequently represented were used not as trade-marks and substitutes for signatures only but as amulets, and I might speak of the human heads of stone equipped with formidable single horns that are set up at the corners of Chinese houses to keep away demons. In Italy to this day single horns set in heavy blocks of wood are placed against open doors, and I have seen in Italy three little bronze unicorns made and used for the same purpose. A dozen such parallels and examples would not amount to proof, but they may produce conviction. Recent excavations have shown that almost every private house in Nineveh and Babylon was protected against invasion from the unseen world not only by charms and ritual but by symbolic figures of various kinds buried in the floor or placed above the lintels. Now the king's house needed special attention because he bore the brunt of every attack from the forces of evil, and whatever harm came to him was a national calamity. Here I think we find a hint for the explanation of the colossal stone bulls that guarded the palaces of Assyria-bulls with human heads and faces of majestic power. The unicorn belongs with these. As the one-horned bull protects the herd of which he is the leader and as the three-legged one-horned ass protects the pure creation, so the unicorn protects the king and thereby the people. He is a devil-fighter.
Thus far we have paid no attention to the total scene, represented four times over in great prominence at Persepolis, in which a beast resembling a powerful lion attacks an apparently one-horned animal probably intended, as we have seen, to stand for the ass and goat and bull. Consciously begging several questions at once, I shall call these animals the lion and the unicorn. The delineation of their conflict was remarkably popular over a great extent of territory and of time. One sees it continually and with only slight variations on cylinder-seals of Babylon and Assyria, on coins of Mycene, and on objets d'art of uncertain origin that were spread through Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages by Scythian traders. The inference is that it had more than a decorative value and was widely recognized as a symbol. But a symbol of what?
Here and there in the unicorn literature of Europe one finds references to a clever ruse employed by the lion in capturing unicorns. Little is made of this story because it has not the sanction either of Physiologus or of the Greek and Latin authorities, and as it has no Christian significance it seems to have been crowded out by the story of the virgin-capture, yet it may be much older than the Holy Hunt allegory and may have served for ages as a religious symbol in the East.
Several European writers assert that this story was first told in "a letter written in Hebrew by the King of Abyssinia to the Pope of Rome". This seems at first a rather obscure reference, and one has not much hope of discovering the letter referred to in the voluminous correspondence of the Holy See; but a little reflection breeds a little encouragement and one turns again to the celebrated "Letter of Prester John", which may be read, if not in Hebrew, in every important language of Europe. Half-way through the French version upon which I happen to pitch occur the words: "Item sachez quen nostre terre sont les licornes qui ont sur le front une corne tout seulement; & en y a en touts maniers, cest assavoir de vers de noirs & aussi de blancs. Et occissent le lion aucune foys mais les lions les occisent moult subtilement, car quant la licorne est lasse elle se met du coste dung arbre & le lion va entour & la licorne le cuide frapp de sa corne, & elle frape larbre de si grant vertu quelle ne le peut oster; adonc le lion la tue."
The Latin original of this passage seems to have been the source of all later European versions, such as that of Edward Topsell, who says of the unicorn: "He is an enemy to Lions, wherefore as soon as ever a Lion seeth a Unicorn, he runneth to a tree for succour, that so when the Unicorn maketh force at him, he may not only avoid his horn but also destroy him; for the Unicorn in the swiftness of his course runneth against a tree, wherein his sharp horn sticketh fast. Then when the Lion seeth the Unicorn fastened by the horn, without all danger he falleth upon him and killeth him."
Although this story never took deep root in Europe it had sufficient vitality to spring up there, with variations, in the literature of the people, as we see in the following tale:--
"'Before you win my daughter and the half of my kingdom,' said the King, 'you must accomplish yet another heroic deed. You must capture a unicorn that is at large in the wood and doing great harm there.'
"The tailor took a halter and an axe and started for the wood, telling the party that was with him to wait outside. The unicorn came in sight immediately, and made for the tailor as if to gore him without ceremony.
"'Steady, steady,' cried the tailor. 'Not so quick!'
"He stood still and waited till the animal was quite close, and then sprang nimbly behind a tree. The unicorn made a frantic rush at the tree and gored it so firmly with his horn that he could not get it out again, and so was caught.
"'Now I've got you, my fine bird,' said the tailor, coming from behind the tree. He put the halter round the beast's neck, cut its horn out of the tree, and when all this was done led the animal home to the king."
If this has always been an idle and meaningless tale then it is a very strange one. It is so odd, so unlikely to occur to the free excursive fancy, that one suspects a symbolic significance. But what significance? Can this question be connected with that other, which we have left in suspense, concerning the symbolism of the lion and unicorn bas-reiefs at Persepolis and their innumerable congeners? They too present a version of the lion-capture story although they show, perhaps because of the limitations of plastic art, only the denouement. We may be able to answer the two questions together more easily than we could either one of them separately.
As I have pointed out, the one-horned figures at Persepolis were imitations, both in subject and treatment, of others at Nineveh and Babylon. These in their turn were by no means original, for recent diggings at Ur of the Chaldees have shown that precisely the same conventional treatment of horned animals and the same interest in them that we have seen at Persepolis existed as far behind Persepolis in time as it lies behind us. On the lid of a toilet-box found at Ur there is worked in gold and lapis-lazuli exactly the same subject as that presented in the gigantic bas-relief under the staircase at Persepolis--a lion gripping with teeth and claws the hind quarters of a one-horned beast. A shell plaque of amazing delicacy in this collection shows two one-horned goats standing back to back on either side of a tree, and another shows a creature with the body of a goat and the head of a man, in profile and one-horned, with a foreleg thrown over the shoulder of a similar monster seen full-face and with two horns.
Looking at these objects from the city of Abraham, one realizes that, beautiful as they are, they were produced in a time long antecedent to any nonsense about art for art's sake and were certainly not intended as mere ornaments. Each of them had a meaning and was a compact symbol or metaphor in a language now lost to us. That meaning was evidently an important one, for the pattern or theme of the lion and unicorn conflict can be shown to have endured in art for at least twenty-five hundred years, and that of the two unicorned goats on either side of the tree for somewhat longer. Is it possible to make a plausible guess at the meaning these objects had for their makers? The scholars who are best equipped to answer this question are precisely those most reluctant to hazard even a conjecture. Gazing at these ancient unicorns, however, one cannot help recalling that they come from a region which we have always considered, perhaps because of our ignorance, the very cradle of astrology. Is it possible that the lion and the unicorn (I continue, consciously, to beg the question), so strangely brought together in that dim past, were solar and lunar emblems? Well aware as I am of the bad reputation earned for all such theories by the wild excesses of the "solar myth" euhemerizers of the nineteenth century, I am willing to give this possibility its chance.
That there is some kind of connection between the moon and the unicorn is not a theory but a fact. To be convinced of this one need scarcely look farther than the miserere seat in the Parish Church of Stratford-on-Avon which shows the figure of a unicorn with a crescent moon over its head. On ancient cylinder-seals the crescent moon frequently appears in conjunction with figures of animals which, whatever the original intention, are represented with single horns. Selecting characteristics of the unicorn at random we see that the animal may be likened to the moon, as the astrologers see it, in several ways: The unicorn is commonly, though not always, thought of as white in body; it is an emblem of chastity; it is very swift; according to the best authorities it cannot be taken alive. The animal is most readily associated with the new or crescent moon, which might indeed seem to dwellers by the sea to be leading the stars down to the water and to dip its own horn therein before they descend. The crescent moon has been used for ages to represent both celestial motherhood and virginity, whether of Ishtar, Isis, Artemis, or the Madonna. In all his pictures of the Assumption at Madrid Murillo painted the crescent moon over Mary's head. Old alchemical charts commonly designate the figure of Luna by placing in her right hand a single horn. The ki-lin, or unicorn of China, is commonly represented in bronze, bearing a crescent moon among clouds on his back.
These matters may seem little to the purpose, and I mention them merely for their cumulative force; but when we turn to consider the unicorn's medicinal properties and to ask what parallel these may have in old beliefs about the moon we discover something more significant. According to astrological belief and also that of magic and early medicine, the moon's phases exercise controlling influence upon all "humours", including not only the waters of the earth but the juices of plants and the blood of animals and of man. The close relationship between the moon and the tides, well known if not well understood from very ancient times, may have suggested this idea which later attained a surprising extension and complexity. Alkazuwin asserts that the vigour of all animals grows with the waxing moon, that the milk of kine and the horns of beasts and even the whites of eggs increase with it, that during the first half of every lunar month more snakes come from their holes than in the second half and that their venom is more deadly. He recounts also the belief, still current in rural England, that trees planted in the waning moon seldom come to any good. Physicians of the Middle Ages foretold the results of illnesses and regulated their treatments with constant attention to the moon's phases.
But this mere swaying and increasing of tides and humours by the new moon, although it has intimate connections with medical theory, does not bring us closer to the unicorn's magic power of dispelling poison. For the parallel to that we must look to another astrological belief. It was thought by early astrologers, and therefore by most educated Europeans of four centuries ago, that the moon, either by virtue of its proximity to earth or by the swiftness of its course, purifies the air of the noxious vapours supposed to rise from the earth during the night. The belief in these poisonous fumes, which correspond to the venom of Ahriman in the Bundahis myth and to that left floating in water by serpents in the unicorn legend, is still strong enough to keep tightly closed at night the windows of three houses in every five throughout rural England, Europe, and America, but the faith in the moon's purifying power does not seem to have survived. That faith was destroyed, apparently, and the moon came to be regarded as positively unwholesome in her influence, by the same turn of thought that made many theorizers regard the unicorn's horn, once the very emblem of purity, as essentially poisonous. At first the moon's effect in dispersing noxious vapours was explained partly by the speed and proximity of her course which enabled her to fan the air and keep it in motion, and partly also by reference to her essential purity. "As Albumasar sayth, the mone clensyth the ayre, for by his contynuall mevynge he makyth the ayre clere & thynne. And soo yf mevynge of the spere of the mone were not the ayre sholde be corrupte wyth thyckenesse & enfeccion that sholde come of out-drawynge by nyghte of vapours & moystures, that grete corrupcion shold come thereof." 69 The more common and less learned view of the ancient world was, however, that the moon acted upon poisons by simple "antipathy", she herself remaining pure. By the time of Ptolemy the Geographer this opinion seems to have changed, in accordance with changes going on in medical theory, and the moon's effect upon noxious vapours was attributed to her "sympathy" with them; it was apparently ascribed to the high potency of poison in her own essence which enabled her to draw all lesser poisons into herself. Using the jargon of later times, her action was no longer explained by the principle of "allopathy", but was regarded as "homoeopathic". For a long period, however, the two explanations overlapped and were used alternately as occasion served, just as they were in discussions of the alicorn's medicinal action and just as a modern physician may turn from one theory of medicine to the other with no feeling of inconsistency. We may surmise that the shift was not due so much to passage of time as to differences of latitude and climate, for the moon has always seemed beneficent and pure in the southern lands from which astrology came, but in northern countries it has usually been thought unwholesome, sinister, dangerous, while remaining unquestionably therapeutic.
The pertinence of all this to the problem now in hand, whether the moon and the unicorn can be in any way identified with each other, is made clear by Ptolemy and two of his commentators. We are told in Ptolemy's Tetrabiblon that the chief influence of the moon is exercised upon "humours", and that it is able to wield this influence because it is nearer to the earth than other heavenly bodies and so can draw vapours from the earth into itself. In another place the same author remarks that the moon is saturated with the exhalations of the earth. The Arabian astrologer known to Europe as Albumasar doubted these assertions, holding that the earth's vapours cannot rise higher than sixteen stadia--less than two miles--and that the moon is considerably farther away than that. Albumasar was triumphantly answered by Cardan, who says in his amplified translation of Ptolemy that we can actually see the moon drawing vapours and that she does this not by contact and immediate absorption, like a sponge, but by innate and essential power acting at a distance like the power of a magnet upon iron. In other words, her action is due to her forma, and is exactly analogous to that attributed by Andrea Bacci to the alicorn.
One comes upon these passages and fits them into their place with something like the thrill a mason may feel when he sees his keystone slip smoothly down between the two halves of an arch on which he has been labouring with secret doubts of final success. (The petty triumphs of literary research are so minute and they are so commonly made in large libraries, where one is not allowed to shout "Eureka!" above a whisper, that this bit of confession may be pardoned.) For is not the belief in the moon's power to absorb poisons rising from earth during the darkness closely similar to the belief in the unicorn's water-conning? Does it not recall the vivid picture of the three-legged ass dipping his golden horn into the waters of the firmament and dispelling their corruption? One's fancy, warmed by exercise, rushes on into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, almost ready to believe that in these ancient superstitions about the moon there may be found a source for the beliefs concerning the unicorn.
When fancy rushes forward at such speed, however, it is always well that some other faculty of the mind should hold back. Solar and lunar hypotheses, as we ought to know by this time, are dangerously seductive sirens, and many a tall ship has gone on the rocks just here, so that the voyager who will not stop his ears should lash himself to the mast. And yet I have agreed to give this hypothesis its chance. No harm can be done by a merely tentative and experimental assumption that the unicorn of the lion-capture story once stood for the moon. Let us make this assumption and see whither it will lead.
If the unicorn is to represent the moon, then the lion, a common solar emblem, should of course represent the sun, and we have only the tree left to be explained. Trees are involved in several problems concerning the unicorn. Many descriptions of the virgin-capture specify that the maiden must be seated either in a wood or under a tree, and nearly all the mediaeval illuminations place her there. Professor Otto Wiener has advanced an ingenious theory that in the original form of the story the animal was captured by the tree itself, and in the story now before us the tree does take the place of the virgin as the lion takes that of the huntsman and his dogs. Unicorned animals are often found on Assyrian cylinder-seals grouped with a single conventionalized tree in symbolical arrangement. This tree of the cylinder-seals is usually called the Tree of Fortune, but it seems to be ultimately indistinguishable from the Cosmogonic Tree, the Tree of the World, springing from the nether darkness and holding the earth and heavenly bodies in its branches, familiar in the myths of many peoples but best known to us by the Scandinavian name Yggdrasil. If the lion and unicorn are to represent sun and moon they will need no less a tree than this as the scene of their encounter.
We are now prepared for a bald statement of the solar-lunar theory concerning the lion-capture, and I make it in the words of that theory's most enthusiastic exponent: "The Lion-sun flies from the rising Unicorn-moon and hides behind the Tree or Grove of the Underworld; the Moon pursues, and, sinking in her turn, is sun-slain." In other words, just as the lion of our story slips behind the tree to avoid the unicorn's onrush, so the sun goes behind the Tree of the World, or perhaps into that western grove called the Garden of the Hesperides; and as the unicorn is caught by the horn so the moon is held fast during the interlunar period--at which time, as many myths assert, the sun eats it up.
To this audacious theory the cautious critic objects at once that the moon is two-horned and that a far more fitting emblem for her is the common one of the bull or cow; and yet the young crescent moon standing upright in the sky does suggest a single horn, and if we are to do justice to the lunar theory it is of the crescent moon that we must think, in spite of the awkward fact that only the old moon is slain by the sun. It is possible, furthermore, that the unicorn may symbolize a normally two-horned creature such as a bull or cow whose horns are being constantly brought together and twisted into one as the herdsmen of Africa still twist the horns of their herdleaders. To a pastoral people it may have seemed that the moon was thus marked out as the leader of the herds of the sky that follow her down to the sea, but do not drink until she has dipped her horn.
Robert Brown, the chief contender for this lunar theory, makes much of the fact that the "unicorns" of Assyrian sculpture and gems and seals are for the most part "regardant"--that is, that they are shown with heads turned and looking backward. This is indeed a remarkable characteristic of these puzzling figures. Careful examination of hundreds of examples shown by Felix Lajard shows that almost but not quite all of the animals shown in profile and with two horns are looking forward, whereas almost all of those shown with only one horn are regardant. In explanation of this Brown says: "The unicorn-goat [that is, the moon] during the first half of its career bounds forward from the sun, at which and the earth it looks back, and hence it is regardant; during the second half of its career it bounds back toward the sun, looking back to the point whence it has begun to return."
Brown also finds significance in the fact that many of these creatures are shown touching or nearly touching the symbolic tree with their horns, and that their heads are invariably turned toward this tree. From this topic he turns, naturally, to the mysterious "Horn of Ulph", which is probably the most remarkable relic in unicorn lore.
This large drinking horn was given to the Church of Saint Peter, now York Minster, in the ninth century by a certain Prince of Deira named Ulph as a token of his donation to that church of all his lands; the See of York still holds by virtue of this horn several valuable estates called Terrae Ulphi. The designs carved upon it, wherever and whenever they were made, are ancient and Euphratean in ultimate origin, highly symbolistic, apparently Byzantine in style. We may account for this fact, if we like, by recalling the influence of the Orient and the Near-East upon Scandinavian art which was made possible by the great overland routes, or we may explain it by reference to the activity of Scythian traders. At any rate, the designs include the favourite theme of the lion leaping upon a horned beast--in this case apparently a fawn. What is far more important, they include the symbolic Tree of the World and an unmistakable unicorn ; for there can scarcely be any doubt that the artist who carved this design was thinking of one horn and not of two. The end of this horn is embedded in, or at least is touching, the tree, so that the figure represents exactly the symbol of the setting moon already discussed. The body and legs and head are those of a cow or bull, but there are two additional details that prove beyond a doubt, in Brown's opinion, that the figure is a moon-emblem: the creature's tail is converted into a serpent by being equipped with a snake's head at the end, and beneath its belly there emerges from the earth the head of a dog. Now it is a fact remarkable in this connection that the goddess Hecate Triformis appears in the Argonautica in the three forms of horse, dog, and snake, which are usually interpreted as representing respectively the full, the waning, and the crescent moon. If the unicorn of the Horn of Ulph--which Robert Brown manages to call a "horned horse"--does stand for the moon, its one horn must symbolize the two horns of the crescent coalesced.
This Horn of Ulph, one must admit, is an awkward obstacle for those who are determined not to believe anything that goes by the name of solar and lunar interpretation. And indeed such incredulity is often made to look like mere prejudice, for there are of course many myths based upon primitive attempts to explain the apparent motions of sun and moon. Robert Brown's effort to show that the unicorn legend is one of these is at least impressive in spite of its awkwardness and extravagance. If Brown had brought to bear such corroborative evidence as I have cited from Ptolemy and Cardan concerning early beliefs about the moon and if he had related his theory to the total sweep of the unicorn legend, I do not say that he would have established his thesis, but at any rate he would have left less room than he did for another book in English about the unicorn.
I find that I have suggested eight possible sources for the unicorn legend: the rhinoceros, the oryx, the separate horn, the freak of nature, horn-twisting, a misinterpreted art convention, the three-legged ass, and lunar myth. For each of these I have argued faithfully as though, for the time being, I believed in it alone. The fact is that I believe in them all, and I see no more necessity that the unicorn legend should have sprung from a single source than that the Nile should rise in a single spring or that an oak with fifty arms should have a single root. It is true that one stream out of all the many that are braided together at last in the Nile comes from farthest back in the mountains, so that all the others are reduced to the rank of affluents and tributaries, but men quarrelled and explored for ages before they could decide which stream that is. Similarly, there may have been a primitive unicorn, a unicorn almost divine, of which the rhinoceros and oryx were only the unworthy avatars, so nobly conceived that every object and creature that called it to mind--separate horns, single-horned sports, cattle with twisted horns, bas-reliefs that suggested one-horned animals--aroused a kind of awe, so holy that it gave rise to a Persian myth. The influence of these subsidiary sources may have been to revive the earlier belief when it was languishing and to provide fresh nuclei round which ideas that had at first no connection with them might cluster. The rhinoceros and the oryx, for example, may have been at first mere earthly representatives of the supreme unicorn, as the onager of Persia was a representative of the three-legged ass, acquiring later in popular belief some of the characteristics of their great progenitor, which was then forgotten. But through all these languishings and revivals the unicorn has maintained an amazing consistency. From beginning to end of his long history he has been wild, fleet, chaste, solitary, and beneficent.
And now, having pursued the unicorn through the ages and seen him take refuge at last in the sky, we may end our search for the source of his legend. We end it not because we have plucked out the heart of his mystery but because there is no farther to go, seeing that we cannot enter the dark, brooding heart and mind of early man. The unicorn escapes us at last, as we should wish, for "he is not to be taken alive". Like every other thing or idea that we pursue to the limits of our powers and knowledge he goes forth into mystery.