Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Unicorns: Pooping rainbows since the beginning of time

Selling them whiskey and taking their gold
Enslaving the young and destroying the old
Run to the hills.  Run for your lives.
--Run to the Hills, Iron Maiden

The unicorn is one of my favorite mythical beasts, immortalized in story, art and song.  The song part I’ve experienced first hand after my best friend wore a giant penis- shaped hat into a local Irish Pub.  Before you question her fashion chops, it was her bachelorette party and phallic items are like the little black dress of those affairs.  Within a minute of our arrival, the Celtic Folk Band playing that night launched into this song: 

Unicorns have existed in Eastern mythologies for thousands of years.  These unicorns, aka Kilin or Qilin, are not the white stallions of Western folktales.  The Eastern unicorn is colorful and dragon-like.  It has the tail of an ox, the body of a deer and the hooves of a horse.  Folklore gives the Eastern Unicorn props for giving Emperor Fu Hsi (the inventor of writing) a scroll of characters that later inspired the Chinese alphabet.  Which makes unicorns the official writer’s muse.  Here’s a very cool interpretation of a Kilin by BlackUniGryphon on Deviant Art.

The Western unicorn evolved from tales gathered from Middle Eastern cultures in the 4th century B.C.  A Greek physician named Ctesias wrote about the wild asses of India, fantastical beasts with white bodies, red heads, dark blue eyes and an 18” multicolored horn sticking out of their skulls.  Although Ctesias never actually saw a unicorn, his manuscripts were enough to sway Aristotle as well, who believed an animal like this seemed no more fantastical than a giraffe or a zebra.  

Over the centuries, others told tales of unicorns, including Pliny the Elder and Roman scholar Aelian.  Alexander the Great claimed he rode a unicorn into battle.  Julius Caesar said he saw one in the forests of Germany.  Al Gore said he invented the unicorn.  And Neil Patrick Harris saw one when he was stoned on mushrooms.

The last unicorn sighting is attributed to Genghis Khan, who ran into the beast on his way to conquer India.  He took it as a sign from heaven to turn back, and India was spared.  Marco Polo also saw unicorns, but historians now believe the fantastical animals he described were rhinoceroses.  Or rhinoceri.
The unicorn achieved religious status when the Old Testament was translated into Greek around 300 B.C.  The Hebrew version mentioned a beast called the Re’em, described as “fleet, fierce, indomitable, and distinguished by the armor of its brow.”
The Books of Job, Psalms, and Numbers all mention unicorns.  In some translations, the unicorn was the first thing Adam named in the Garden of Eden.  When he and Eve were ousted, the unicorn went with them as a reminder of the loss of purity and chastity.  Sort of like an equine mother-in-law.
In medieval times, the unicorn was sometimes used to represent Christ.  A series of seven beautiful unicorn tapestries dated to the 1500s is owned by the Cloisters in NYC.  It depicts the Hunt of the Unicorn, which some believe is a symbolic representation of the passion of Christ.  The pictures follow the capture and killing of the unicorn, and then its resurrection in captivity to live among men.  The final tapestry shows the archetypal unicorn as we know it.
The unicorn killed and brought to the city.
The seventh tapestry shows the unicorn captured---but very much alive.  Some feel this represents Christ's resurrection.
How did hunters catch a unicorn?  Just like in many a romance novel, apparently all it took was a virgin.  According to belief, unicorns are completely smitten by virgins and rendered docile and helpless. In fact, rumor has it many a unicorn met its demise with its head in the lap of a virgin.  Which is a sexual metaphor for a very different blog. 
Zampieri's Unicorn and Virgin Fresco.
Other less Freudian explanations of the unicorn's demise were also popular.  For instance, Jewish folktales claim that during Noah’s great flood, the unicorns were so demanding that they were banished from the ship.  Other stories claim they were too busy playing to notice the coming rains.  When the great flood hit, the unicorns were forced to swim.  This has led some to speculate that God changed the unicorns into narwhals so they would not perish.  

Around the 19th century, unicorns were retired to folklore and fairy tales.  All of the “true unicorns” were thought to have been hunted to extinction for their horns, aka the alicorn.  The alicorn had the ability to neutralize poisons and provide immortality for those who drank a potion made from it.  Royalty often had their eating utensils made from alicorn to prevent poisoning.  Fake alicorns were rampant as they were worth more money than gold.  Many actually were horns from bulls or oryx.  Queen Elizabeth I owned a unicorn horn in her private collection, but it was later determined to be from a narwhal.
A narwhal.
Such horny animal confusion gives support to the belief that the unicorn was indeed a real creature.  Some historians believe it originated from sightings of an extinct Eurasian rhinocerus called the Elasmotherium.

Others blame genetic malformations of normally two horned beasts.  The search for a living unicorn has led to some popular hoaxes.  In the 1930s, Dr. W. Franklin Dove manipulated a calf’s horn buds to make a bull with a single horn growing from its head.  Others repeated the experiment with goats--P.T. Barnum often included these faux unicorns in his sideshows.  The most famous one was a goat named Lancelot.

Unicorn Deer photograph from TIME in 2008.
Dr. Dove's creation. 

Lancelot and unidentified virgin.

You may never see a true unicorn these days, but if you’re in the mood for a fun recipe, try this one my sons and I came up with for Unicorn Poop.  There's a rainbow in every bite.
Melt together 3 TBSP Butter, 10 oz mini marshmellows on the stove or microwave.  Add six cups of Fruit Loops cereal and mix off of the heat.  With buttered hands, shape into small balls.  Dip into white frosting and top with colored sprinkles.  If you have a unicorn with some issues, like my sons and I did, sour gummy worms are a nice touch.

"...Well, now that we have seen each other," said the Unicorn, "If you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you."
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll


  1. Cool, Julie! I learned quite a bit of stuff here! And I loved the Neil Patrick Harris video!

  2. I love your posts! Aaaaaaaaall of your posts. :)

    Unicorns are preeeeeetty. Even that one-horned cow is kind acute ;)

    Love the Ark cartoon, hahaha

  3. >>...Al Gore said he invented the unicorn.

    (I thought you said that when it came to "politics" you were like nowhere, man? ...Uhm... ma'am!)

    That's something I would have said...if I had said it!

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  4. Interesting theory about Noah banishing the unicorns for being "so demanding!" Great cartoon of the rhino running next to a poster of a unicorn on a treadmill! You always come up with the most original topics. Julie

  5. Great post, Julie. All you ever wanted to know about unicorns and more. =o)

  6. Get that unicorn some worm pills, stat!
    I have a copy of that unicorn tapestry from a visit to the Cloisters in NY where the original hangs. It's hard to see, but it's bleeding out of it's anus, I think, or at least in some of the tapestries. I will refrain from trying to figure out what that means...

  7. Amazing info, as usual. Love the story about walking into the bar with your best friend in her hat, and the song. And now I'm a unicorn believer! (Those tapestries at the Cloisters. . .at first I thought, how wonderful, I've got to go see them. But then they are sad and hard-hearted! That poor captured unicorn in the last one hardly has room to lie down inside his fence. Ok, ok, I'll just think of that as a metaphorical fence. But still. . . Free the Unicorns!)

  8. Ha! I like the cartoon of Greg and Arnold on Noah's love boat. So that's what happened...

  9. What didn't Al Gore invent?
    I remember something about 'The Living Unicorns' in the late 70's/early 80's. They were goats bred so that their horns grew together. Not really that majestic looking though.

  10. Becky--Everything is better with Doogie in it.

    Trisha--I do think the deer is a cutie. Like he has a waffle cone on his head.

    Stephen--I could not resist. Some politicians just beg to be included in discussions of magical beliefs.

    Julie--I do love the idea of a rhino dreaming of being a unicorn. Kind of like if I put a poster of Heidi Klum on my wall.

    B.E.--I spend entirely too much time on Google

    Lydia--You've taken this blog to a scary place where there is anal bleeding.

    Linda--I agree. I couldn't imagine wanting to kill something so, well, magical.

    L.G.--If Noah had this difficulty with sexing animals, it explains the mass extinctions of prehistoric creatures.

    Alex--There is something lost in translation from the classic unicorn to a one horned goat. Doesn't do it for me, either.

  11. This was really interesting. I particularly liked the first picture. I'd never heard of unicorns as being anything other than white horses.

  12. Whoever would've guessed you're a unicorn expert :)

    Happy Weekend!

  13. Unicorn-ologist. I like it and never thought about Rhinos being confused for Unicorns.

  14. I LOVE unicorns! Such an interesting mythology and they span so many cultures. When I was doing research on Chinese dragons, I found out that unicorns are a major creature in their legends and folklore as well. I love how I learn something new every time I come to your blog :) Have a great weekend, Julie!

  15. I've never singled out unicorns, love all mythological beasties :) Great post Julie! I learn something new every time.

  16. You may never see a true unicorn these days, but if you’re in the mood for a fun recipe, try this one my sons and I came up with for Unicorn Poop. There's a rainbow in every bite.
    'Melt together 3 TBSP Butter, 10 oz mini marshmellows on the stove or microwave. Add six cups of Fruit Loops cereal and mix off of the heat. With buttered hands, shape into small balls. Dip into white frosting and top with colored sprinkles. If you have a unicorn with some issues, like my sons and I did, sour gummy worms are a nice touch.

    "...Well, now that we have seen each other," said the Unicorn, "If you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you."
    -- Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll'

    Made my month. Thanks, Divinity.

  17. Julie, such a lovely post with gob-smackingly-amazing images, funny and serious. Love it.


  18. What an interesting post. I have not listened to the unicorn song in a while. I learned quite a bit about folklore and mythology from your most. How magical-unicorns.

  19. I adore Neil Patrick Harris. Adore him!

    I cannot believe I didn't know that unicorns were in the Bible?!
    And I want to make that recipe. It looks like sugary heaven!
    Cool post, Julie!

  20. I had no idea Unicorns had such a long and varied history. That picture of the rhino on the treadmill is priceless. I might have to print it out and tape it to my torture track for a laugh.

  21. Came here looking for some 'Insecure Writers' inspiration and found something way better. Al Gore, Neil Patrick and Unicorn poop,now roll that into a ball...

    Thanks, I'll be back.

  22. Very interesting! I'm actually reading Rampant by Diana Peterfreund which features killer Unicorns.

    Hope you're having a fantastic week! :)

  23. Art appreciation is a weak suit...I admit, but I was still surprised to learn that the unicorn had been a symbol of the Christ! I've not encountered that before.

    Love the Iron Maiden lyric, btw...Run To The Hills is my favorite IM song.

  24. Unicorns are so cool. As always, I've learned so much by stopping by here. Thanks!

  25. This was a hilariously informative post as always. Now, all I need are some 'shrooms so I can have my very own Rainbow Bright unicorn hallucination. ;) Think my nephews would get a kick out of the uni poop. I'll have to make some for the little guys.

    Love NPH in Harold & Kumar. I may have to pull that movie out to watch.

  26. I am a collector of unicorns. I would love for you to send me a site where I can buy Unicorns that have everything on them. I new from day one that they really existed. Thanks you for all the info. Bless you.

  27. i was just looking for games and it brought it to me

  28. What's up colleagues, its impressive article regarding teachingand completely explained, keep it up all the time.
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