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Hitchhikers may discover that many cultures have stories concerning a
curious one-horned beast.  This beast, called unicorn, monoceros, ki-rin, ki-lin, karkadann, etc., was often pictured with a dualistic nature -- the horn gave it great strength and yet the beast was gentle; it was very beautiful but impossible to tame.

For European society on Earth, starting with the Age of Enlightment, the existence of unicorns was doubted.  Before that, unicorns were an accepted fact based on their mention (later discovered to be a mistranslation) in the religious text known as the Bible. However, actual unicorn sightings were rare. There are several theories why unicorns are not seen.  One is that they never actually existed as the fantastic creatures griffins, sphinxes, and phoenixes.  Another theory is that the unicorns were never more than essences without corporeal presences. It is altogether possible, even probable, that unicorns can exist only in a non-rational environment.  In which case, they can only exist where their existence is not appreciated.  This means, if you want to see a unicorn, you can't want to.

   

In James Thurber s Fables for Our Times there is a short tale of a man who told his wife that he had seen a unicorn in his garden. She informed the authorities. When they arrived the husband was out, and while they waited, the woman insisted that her husband had said he saw a unicorn. The husband had returned, and they asked him if he had seen a unicorn in the garden. He replied:  Of course not! The unicorn is a mythical beast!  So the authorities carted off his wife to the madhouse. End of fable, with
Thurber s moral:  Don t count your boobies before they re hatched.
Through Thurber s fable is about man-woman relationships, it is interesting to us that he chose the unicorn. It is the imaginary beast that continues to capture the man s imagination as it did in earlier ages. The general iconography so well illustrated in the Unicorn Tapestry at The Cloisters in New York City shows a white horselike animal with a single horn about three feet long protruding from the middle of its forehead. The
iconographic version of the animal, however, is not the only one. Pliny says the unicorn s body resembles a horse, its head a stag, its feet an elephant, its tail a boar, while its horn is black.
The unicorn s horn was its most valuable possession, since it was believed to be able to cure everything from epilepsy to poisoning. One reputed unicorn horn was kept in water in the Cathedral of St. Denis in France. It was so potent that even the water could cure the sick. An Italian who visited England early in the reign of Henry VIII, commenting
upon the riches of the religious houses and monasteries, wrote:  And I have been informed that, amongst other things, many of the monasteries posses unicorns  horns of an extraordinary size.  Queen Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I all had unicorn horns listed in the inventories of their possessions. The Great Elizabeth s was valued at a phenomenal 100,000 pounds.
Monasteries and royalty were not the only seekers of the unicorn s horn. Apothecaries until the eighteenth century powdered them to mix into drugs. Since there was no such horn, all sorts of horns were substituted,
usually the entire tusk of a narwhal. Even though the unicorn did not exist, folklore evolved a method for
capturing one. A virgin was put in a field to lure the animal to her. This she accomplished by exposing her breast. The animal, unable to resist such purity, would come up to the virgin, lie down, and placing its head on her
lap, fall asleep. The hunters could the trap the beast. In T. H. White s novel of King Arthur s life, The Once and Future King, three young boys tied a servant girl to a tree in hopes of catching a unicorn for their mother:
The unicorn went up to Meg the kitchenmaid, and bowed his head in front of her. He arched his neck beautifully to do this, and the pearl horn pointed to the ground at her feet, and he scratched in the heather with his
silver hoofs to make a salute....he went down first on one knee and then on the other till he was bowing in front of her. He looked up at her from this position, with his melting eyes, and at last laid his head upon her knee.
He stroked his flat, white cheek against the smoothness of her dress, looking at her beseechingly. The whites of his eyes rolled with an upward flash. He settled his hind quarters coyly, and lay still, looking up. His
eyes brimmed with trustfulness, and he lifted his near fore in a gesture of pawing.
The gorgeous animal, however, was not long for this earth. White goes on to describe how the unicorn was slaughtered, making of the scene of the novel almost an account of the Passion of Christ. The symbolism is not
outrageous, since the animal was often used in medieval imagery as a sign of Christ s Incarnation. Just as the world destroyed Christ, so it destroys his image, the unicorn.
The identification of the unicorn with Christ, however, upset the members of the Council of Trent of the Roman Catholic Church held in the sixteenth century. They forbade its use as a symbol of Christ s Incarnation, though it was still retained as a sign of chastity.
It is not known whether the prelates came to their decision through scientific inquiry (the animal did not really exist) or thought the animal an inappropriate symbol for Christ, since in one legend, narrated by Leonardo da Vinci in his bestiary, the unicorn was captured by a virgin as a result of its own lustful advances.
The Church Fathers therefore thought it was best to remove the animal from church symbolism. There was one problem, however, in their decision. They could not remove all the references to the animal in the Bible. When
the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), the translators took the word reem, which might stand for wild ox, and translated it monokeros, or one-horned. This rendering was followed in later Latin versions, Which in turn influenced English translations such as the King James Version. In the Book of Numbers (23:22) we have the verse: God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.
The Revised Standard Version substituted  wild ox  in the verse. One Jewish folktale said the unicorn had perished in the Great Flood, since it was too large to enter Noah s Ark. But another tale argued that
God never destroys his own creation; if the unicorn was too large, then it would swim behind the ark.
The unicorn obviously did swim behind the Ark, for it continually engaged in combat with the lion, its arch-enemy in medieval lore. If a lion spotted a unicorn, it would run behind a tree. The unicorn, spotting its enemy, would then make a mad dash for the lion but in the process get its horn stuck in a tree. The lion would then come round and kill the unicorn. The fact that the unicorn and the lion were both symbols of Christ did not seem to bother the medieval imagination. One nineteenth-century explanation for the rivalry of the unicorn and the lion was that it preserved the ancient belief in the rivalry between the sun (the lion) and the moon (the unicorn). As the sun sets it seems to flee from the oncoming moon, but the moon in turn is caught in a tree of darkness, which many cultures believed to have its roots in the Underworld. While the moon was trapped in the massive tree, The sun would rise again to full strength.
The unicorn was not peculiar to the West. The Chinese also have a unicorn called the Chin-Lin, one of four animals of good omen, the others being the phoenix, dragon, and tortoise. The Oriental unicorn differs from the western conception in that it has the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse. Its horn is short and made of flesh, the opposite of the long, ivorylike horn of Western tradition. While according to some Western writers the unicorn is a fierce animal, the Oriental Chin-Lin is gentle in nature. So gentle that it walks softly on grass for fear of killing any other creatures. When Confucius was born, Chin-Lin announced the birth to the philosopher s mother by spitting out a piece of jade that had written on it:  Son of the essence of water, kingdoms shall pass away, but you will be a king, though without a throne.  Seventy years later the unicorn was
caught and killed. Confucius went sorrowfully to see it and noticed it still wore the ribbon his mother had tied to it at birth.
Chin-Lin has been pushed to the background along with other Confucian myths by the Chinese communists, so the animal has not been subjected to any modern Chinese investigation. In the West, however, whether the unicorn existed or not has continually been of great concern to many scientists and lay believers. Up until the start of the French Revolution, in 1789, the unicorn s horn was still used to detect poison in royal dinners. Eventually scientific observation (or lack of it) won out, and the animal was declared a figment of the imagination. We do have the evidence of Dr. Franklin Dove, a biologist, who apparently tried to create his own unicorn. He wrote in
1933 that he had performed an operation on a one-day-old Ayrshire calf in which a single spike was solidly attached to its skull and could be used to pry up barriers. Could such a beautiful and godlike beast then have really existed? Perhaps the truth is in Edward Topsell s remark in Historie of Four-Footed Beastes, written in seventeenth century:  God himself must need be traduced, if there is no unicorn.



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