Real, but ugly, Unicorns

Unicorns – at least a version of a unicorn – made an appearance in the popular press this week. Kelli Bender of People published a brief article called: Fairy Tales Are Full of Lies: Unicorns Were Real, Lived with Humans and Weren’t that Cuterhino, unicorn (August 21, 2017).

In her piece she discusses Elasmotheriu sibiricum also known as the Siberian unicorn which lived in pre-historic times. The Siberian Unicorn resembles an ugly rhinoceros – not a beautiful horse. It went extinct about 29,000 years ago and roamed the Earth at the same time as pre-historic cave men.

Not exactly the classic image of a beautiful unicorn steed communing with fair maidens. Ah well, it may not be perfect, but it was real.

Ancient Chinese Eclipses and Dragons

Chinese dragon
Chinese dragon photo by Elena Cordery
In honor of the August 21, 2017 eclipse, this post will highlight an ancient Chinese manuscript that covers astronomical magic and magical creatures like dragons. An art blog recently discussed an ancient Chinese book that includes beautiful images of Chinese dragons.

It is a finely illustrated manuscript entitled “Yu zhi tian yuan yu li xiang yi fu” which translates as “Essay on the Astronomical & Meteorological Presages by Emperor Renzong of Ming Dynasty”. It has 878 illustrations in 10 volumes. It includes astronomical events, natural disasters and dragons.

Unfortunately you need to have $75,000 to purchase this one of a kind book, but we can still admire the artistry of it.

From the bookseller (

This splendidly illustrated manuscript depicts 878 astronomical and meteorological observations, each with astrological prognostications. It was prepared for the Emperor Ming Renzong (or Chu Kao Chih or Zhu Gaochi) (1378-1425), for circulation amongst high officials. In spite of his short reign of only nine months, Ming Renzong was known as an innovator whose enlightened reforms and generosity to the poor made lasting improvements.

The preface and index for all the volumes is found at the beginning of Vol. I and is dated 1425. It is followed in the ten volumes by 878 finely painted images of landscapes; shapes of clouds; turbulent oceans; thunder storms; hail; earthquakes; symbols mysteriously appearing in the sky; flames coming out of the earth; rains of various intensities and qualities; moving mountains; mud slides; blood rain; pieces of meat falling from the sky; characters appearing in the sun; dragons in the sky; many comets and extraordinary astronomical events; coins raining down; prolonged extreme weather (cold, hot, or rain); skies portending good fortune; fish rain; extreme wind; the sun and moon having different appearances; eclipses; concentric haloes (“mock suns” or parhelia); the planets including Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; the movements of the planets and their appearances in different seasons; red sky; the appearance of insects; the Big Dipper; the North star; constellations of stars; rainbows; battle scenes; soldiers marching and fighting; etc., etc. At the end, there is a discussion of the art of prognostication with examples.

Each painting is accompanied by a manuscript prediction made by Zhu Xi (Zhu Wengong) (1130-1200) and other Confucian scholars. Zhu Xi’s synthesis of all fundamental Confucian concepts formed the basis of Chinese bureaucracy and government for over 700 years. He has been called the second most influential thinker in Chinese history, after Confucius himself.

Unicorn Tapestries at The Met Cloisters

Some of the most spectacular examples of classical art featuring unicorns are the seven Unicorn Tapestries. Dating from 1495-1505, the tapestries are described as being South Netherlandish”. They tell the story of a unicorn being hunted and imprisoned. Made of wool with silk, silver and gilt, the tapestries are vibrantly colored and retain their beauty still today. The tapestries are on display at The Met Cloisters in New York City and were a gift from John D Rockefeller in 1937.

As part of the public access, open source program through The Met, we are able to share these beautiful images with you. To see a larger digital image, click on the title of the tapestry and it will take you to The Met website. However, if you ever have an opportunity, these tapestries and The Cloisters museum are well worth visiting in person.

The Hunters Enter the Woods (from the Unicorn Tapestries)


This tapestry is one of seven hangings at The Cloisters that depict the hunt of the unicorn, a mythical creature first mentioned by the Greek physician Ctesias in the fourth century B.C. In the Middle Ages the animal was best known for its supposed invincibility and for the therapeutic property of its horn. So strong was the belief in the horn’s miraculous cures that by the twelfth century the tusks of male narwhals, a small whale native to the Arctic, came to be regarded as “unicorn horns.”

The Unicorn Tapestries, as the group of seven is known, were probably designed in Paris but woven in Brussels. They are first documented in 1680, when they hung in the Paris home of François VI de La Rochefoucauld. By 1728 five of them decorated a bedroom at the family’s château in Verteuil, in western France. The tapestries were looted during the French Revolution but were recovered in the 1850s; by 1856 they had been restored and rehung in the château’s salon. No documentation sheds light on the early history of the tapestries, including either their commission or sequence of hanging. Striking differences in dimension and composition have prompted scholars to question whether the hangings constitute one set or are, in fact, from multiple sets.

The Hunters Enter the Woods, like The Unicorn in Captivity, is set against a millefleurs background: a field of dark green spangled with blossoming trees and flowers. Of the 101 species of plants represented, 85 have been identified, including the prominent cherry tree behind the hunters and lush date palm in front of the sniffing hound. The cipher “AE” that is woven into each of the Unicorn Tapestries—and repeated here five times—alludes to their original owners, who remain unknown.

The Unicorn is Found (from the Unicorn Tapestries)


In this tapestry the unicorn kneels before a tall white fountain that has a pair of pheasants and a pair of goldfinches perched on its edge. Other animals both exotic and native to Europe lounge about, while twelve hunters in the back of the scene discuss the discovery of their quarry. Flora and fauna play a significant role in the narratives of the Unicorn Tapestries. Plants prescribed in medieval herbals as antidotes to poisoning, such as sage, pot marigolds, and orange, are positioned near the stream, which is being purified by the unicorn’s magic horn.

The Unicorn is Attacked (from the Unicorn Tapestries)


According to tradition, the unicorn cannot be disturbed while performing a magical act. The attack by the hunters thus presumably begins soon after the action depicted in The Unicorn Is Found, and the scene is one filled with chaos and commotion. The ferocity of the battle is conveyed by the converging lances aimed at the animal, the sounding of the hunting horns, and the menacing hounds. Already wounded on his back, the unicorn leaps across a stream in a desperate attempt to escape his encircling enemies.

The use of hounds to scout, chase, and eventually attack the quarry was typical practice in medieval stag hunts, and the palatial buildings in the background might be a further allusion to the hunt as a royal or aristocratic pastime. Unlike The Hunters Enter the Woods and The Unicorn in Captivity, this and the other hangings are set in realistic landscapes that enhance the drama of the hunt.

The Unicorn Defends Itself (from the Unicorn Tapestries)


Here the injured unicorn is being held at bay by three hunters ready to pierce him with their lances. The furious animal reacts with a gruesome attack on a greyhound before him, almost tearing the dog’s body apart. The horn-blowing hunter at the lower left wears a scabbard with the inscription AVE REGINA C[OELI] (Hail, Queen of the Heavens). He is often thought to represent the Archangel Gabriel, who announced to the Virgin Mary that she is to give birth to the Christ Child. The huntsmen and other figures are garbed in the fashions of about the turn of the sixteenth century, including round-toed shoes and fitted bodices, and their headdresses and hairstyles also reflect contemporary tastes. The mastery of the weavers is evident in the convincing representation of different materials and textures in the costumes, such as brocade, velvet, leather, and fur.

In order to make the tapestries, plain wool yarns (the warp) were stretched between two beams of a large loom; a bobbin then brought dyed and metallic threads (the wefts) over and under the warp threads to create the design. Chemical analyses reveal that the dye pigments used in the Unicorn Tapestries came from such plants as weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue), all of which are grown in the Bonnefont Cloister garden. With the aid of mordants, substances that help fix the dyes to fabric, these three primary colors were blended to achieve a dazzling spectrum of hues strategically highlighted by the addition of metallic threads.

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle (from the Unicorn Tapestries)


Two episodes of the hunt narrative are brought together in this hanging. At left, two hunters drive their lances into the neck and chest of the unicorn, as a third delivers the coup de grâce from the back. It has been suggested that the doomed unicorn is an allegory for Christ dying on the Cross; the large holly tree (often a symbol of the Passion) rising from behind his head seems to reinforce this association. In the other episode, at right, a lord and a lady receive the body of the unicorn in front of their castle. They are surrounded by their attendants, with more curious onlookers peering through windows of the turret behind them. The dead animal is slung on the back of a horse, his horn already cut off but still entangled in thorny oak branches—probably symbolizing the Crown of Thorns. The rosary in the hand of the lady and the three other women standing behind the lord encourage a deeper reading of the scene, perhaps as a symbolic Deposition by the grieving Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and the Holy Women.

The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn (from the Unicorn Tapestries)


In these two fragments of a single tapestry, the unicorn appears to have been tamed. He seems so docile, in fact, that he is oblivious to the dog licking the wound on his back and stares loving at the maiden who must have subdued him. Most of her figure is missing, the result of damage incurred after the tapestries were looted in 1793. The remaining traces include the maiden’s right arm, clothed in red velvet and visible between the beard and throat of the unicorn, and her fingers, seen gently caressing the bottom of the animal’s mane. She sits in an enclosed garden (hortus conclusus), often a metaphor for the purity of a maiden. The more complete female figure may be signaling to the hunter outside the garden, who in turn sounds the horn to summon the others.

The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries)


The seven individual hangings known as “The Unicorn Tapestries,” are among the most beautiful and complex works of art from the late Middle Ages that survive. Luxuriously woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads, the tapestries vividly depict scenes associated with a hunt for the elusive, magical unicorn.

“The Unicorn in Captivity” may have been created as a single image rather than part of a series. In this instance, the unicorn probably represents the beloved tamed. He is tethered to a tree and constrained by a fence, but the chain is not secure and the fence is low enough to leap over: The unicorn could escape if he wished. Clearly, however, his confinement is a happy one, to which the ripe, seed-laden pomegranates in the tree—a medieval symbol of fertility and marriage—testify. The red stains on his flank do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from bursting pomegranates above. Many of the other plants represented here, such as wild orchid, bistort, and thistle, echo this theme of marriage and procreation: they were acclaimed in the Middle Ages as fertility aids for both men and women. Even the little frog, nestled among the violets at the lower right, was cited by medieval writers for its noisy mating.

Explore the Classic Novel: The Last Unicorn

If you are looking for a classical story with beautiful writing, then The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle is for you. Written in 1968, The Last Unicorn has the rhythm and pacing of a classic bard’s tale. It focuses on the narrative and on deep, existential ideas. It has themes of loss and seeking, of identity and belonging and of magic and battles. The storytelling mode is different than the adventure and character focused writing that is typical with more recent fantasy novels.

The writing style is very formal – lending to the bard-like quality. The description of the unicorn also has a unique perspective. Many of the passages read like beautiful poetry. Some lovely descriptions include:

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea. She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight. She had killed dragons with it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs.

#night #stars #magic

Under the moon, the road that ran from the edge of her forest gleamed like water, but when she stepped out onto it, away from the trees, she felt how hard it was, and how long. She almost turned back then; but instead she took a deep breath of the woods air that still drifted to her, and held it in her mouth like a flower, as long as she could.

Sometimes she thought if men no longer know what they are looking at, there may well be unicorns in the world yet, unknown and glad of it. But she knew beyond both hope and vanity that men had changed, and the world with them, because the unicorns were gone.

At one point, the unicorn is captured and displayed as part of a traveling circus. The circus master shows off the mystical creatures in the cages. Most of them are actually regular animals with magical glamours over them. But the descriptions of them are powerful:

This here’s the manticore. Man’s head, lion’s body, tail of a scorpion. Captured at midnight, eating werewolves to sweeten its breath. Creatures of night, brought to light. Here’s the dragon. Breathes fire now and then—usually at people who poke it, little boy. Its inside is an inferno, but its skin is so cold it burns. The dragon speaks seventeen languages badly, and is subject to gout. The satyr. Ladies keep back. A real troublemaker. Captured under curious circumstances revealed to gentlemen only, for a token fee after the show. Creatures of night.

But there are also elements in the story that take a more cynical – almost satirical – view. Throughout the novel, the characters discuss their roles in the story. Are they the hero, or the villain or the princess needing saving or the magical being? This analysis of the roles done by the characters themselves lends a feel of gentle teasing regarding the fantasy and science fiction genre.

For example, in this passage, a band of robbers is explaining that they are NOT like Robin Hood and his band of merry men:

And we don’t steal from the rich and give to the poor,” Dick Fancy hurried on. “We steal from the poor because they can’t fight back—most of them—and the rich take from us because they could wipe us out in a day. We don’t rob the fat, greedy Mayor on the highway; we pay him tribute every month to leave us alone. We never carry off proud bishops and keep them prisoner in the wood, feasting and entertaining them, because company for a bishop. When we go to the fair in disguise, we never win at the archery or at singlestick. We do get some nice compliments on our disguises, but no more than that.”

The story concludes with a bittersweet victory, including the unicorn’s own brush with being mortal:

I will go back to my forest too, but I do not know if I will live contentedly there, or anywhere. I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret.

The Last Unicorn has remained popular over the past few decades and has been re-published multiple times in multiple languages. Ultimately it is a tale of magical unicorns, redemption and the triumph of good over evil. If you are seeking a classical and magical read – this is for you. Enjoy!