International Unicorn Day

Today, April 9th, is International Unicorn Day. So, Happy Unicorn Day! Naturally this is one of my favorite holidays, because the whole-wide world is celebrating the magnificent, one-horned beast that is chased every day on my blog.

I believe unicorns are real, and they are everywhere. But that’s because I define a unicorn as anything that is unique, whether it be a unique thought, experience, life situation, or anything else. And there’s lots of uniqueness in our world. Every new day is different, with something novel and intriguing introducing itself to our lives.

The classic unicorn of mythology is also unique. It’s depicted as having a single, long, twisty horn, body of a horse, a lion’s mane and tail, and cloven hooves. That would be a unique sight to see.

This classic unicorn was thought by medieval Europeans to actually exist. They believed that their natural habitat was in India, which they fancied as a far-off land full of mystery and magic.

But they must have also imagined that these creatures sometimes strayed from India to Europe, because stories were spread about unicorn hunts, and theories abounded about the best way to capture a unicorn.

And these unicorns of yore were reputed to be nearly impossible to catch. Hunters reported that if one was chased to the edge of a precipice, it would leap off the declivity and land on its horn. The horn would absorb the shock of the fall, and so it would survive and escape.

Some claimed there was only one way to catch these wild, untamable creatures. They had a weakness for virgins. As soon as a unicorn laid eyes upon a virgin, it would lose all its fear and ferocity, gently approach the maiden, and lay its head submissively upon her lap. There it would fall asleep and be easily captured by its pursuers.

The Maiden and the Unicorn is a fresco painted by Domenichino around the year 1602. It can be found on the southeast wall of the Palazzo Farnese, in Rome.

To religious scholars, unicorns symbolized the Passion of Christ, and the virgin was the mother, Mary. And this is how unicorns found a curious, unique role to play, in the iconology of ancient Christianity.

Shakespeare told us of another way to capture a unicorn. In his play, Timon of Athens, the hunter would stand in front of a tree and goad it into charging him. At the last second he would step aside, and the unicorn’s horn would become embedded deep in the wood of the tree. The lesson from this was, “wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury.”

Unicorn horns were called alicorn, and were considered to be medicinal. They were thought to cure many diseases, and to neutralize poison. Hence, many a chalice was carved from the horn of unicorns. Although sometimes these horns were revealed to be frauds, derived from narwhals. I wonder how many poor bastards died from cavalierly slurping poison from a narwhal chalice?

Marco Polo wrote about encounters with unicorns, while traipsing through India. He described them as having “the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead . . . They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.”

Poor Marco. What he actually saw were rhinoceros. But they were unique to his experience, so for him they really were unicorns.

Durer’s Rhinoceros is a woodcut executed by the German painter Albrecht Durer, in 1515, more than 200 years after Marco Polo’s rhinoceros-like description of a unicorn. This image is based on a written description and sketch by an unknown artist, of an Indian rhinoceros. It contains many anatomical inaccuracies, but did a good job of capturing the imagination of curious Europeans.

The unicorn is a symbol of Scotland, whereas the lion is a symbol of Scotland’s ancient enemy, England. These two rivals united in 1707, helping to form the United Kingdom. Since that time, the British have had two official coats of arms. The Royal Arms in England is depicted as a crowned lion on the left, and an uncrowned unicorn on the right, whereas the Royal Arms in Scotland is depicted as a crowned unicorn on the left, and crowned lion on the right. I guess the rivalry isn’t completely extinct.

Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (English version).

Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (Scottish version).

These days, unicorns are often depicted through the eyes of a little girl’s fantasy. They tend to be pink in color, with wings, farting rainbows, and surrounded by a cloud of stardust. If you want to make a little girl happy for about ten seconds, just buy her a stuffed, pink unicorn.

And if you want to make yourself happy, start chasing unicorns. Open your mind, welcome new experiences, and seek unique. If you do, you’ll discover an ever changing world, that never ceases to amuse and challenge, or inspire both fear and imagination. It’s a landscape of ups and downs, with polychromatic hues far more varied than the primary colors of the rainbow, and scored with trails, roads, and superhighways, leading toward an infinite universe of adventure.

We may celebrate unicorns today, but any day is a good day for chasing them. Unicorns are fun. So let’s get on with the chase, and I’ll see you on the hunting trail.

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