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Unicorns — They’re Not Just for Girls Anymore

Ages before the first new-age fantasy, devout Christians told the allegory of the unicorn. In this story, the fabulous creature — like a horse but with a single horn on its head — finds its way into a nearby forest, and soon every hunter in the land desires the unicorn as his trophy. They send the fairest virgin into the meadow, where she sings a song to attract the unicorn. Charmed, the animal comes out to hear her song and rests its head upon her lap. And so it is caught. In the allegory, the unicorn stands for Jesus, the Word who came into the world from heaven. The singer, of course, is His Blessed Mother, Mary. The hunters represent mankind — we who desire the Savior, seek Him, and find Him with Mary’s help. The horn of the unicorn was considered the seat of his supernatural powers. St. John Chrysostom identified the unicorn with Jesus Christ, saying the Redeemer’s single horn of defense against His enemy is the cross. The Douay Bible proclaimed: “But my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn” (Ps 91:11).

What brings this to mind? While two of my kids were at their Bible study the other day, I did what comes naturally. I ducked into the nearest used-book store, and there I found (for practically nothing) The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shepard. He sneers a bit at religion in general and Christianity in particular, but seems fairly conscientious in tracking down his sources. He says that the legend of the unicorn got a spectacular launch from a second- or third-century bestiary called Physiologus, probably produced in Alexandria by Christians. Here’s the Catholic Encyclopedia‘s rundown on the Physiologus:

The book, originally written in Greek at Alexandria, perhaps for purposes of instruction, appeared probably in the second century, though some place its date at the end of the third or in the fourth century. In later centuries it was ascribed to various celebrated Fathers, especially St. Epiphanius, St. Basil, and St. Peter of Alexandria. Origen, however, had cited it under the title “Physiologus,” while Clement of Alexandria and perhaps even Justin Martyr seem to have known it.

The Physiologus picks up on the unicorn, probably from the Greek-language Old Testament’s mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “wild ox.”

Christians of late antiquity drew from the Physiologus and ascribed such authority to the text that Pope Gelasius in 496 found it necessary to condemn it outright as the work of heretics. Nonetheless, it cast a long shadow into the Middle Ages. Thus the tapestries you see in so many museums.

Shepard continues to trace the unicorn’s paper trail:

Probably the earliest narration of the tale in literature outside of the Physiologus itself is that in the Commentary on Saint Basil’s Hexaemeron, long attributed to Saint Eustathius of Antioch, who died about A.D. 330 [sic]. This curious work weaves about Basil’s poetic account of creation a tissue of popular legend which makes it good hunting-ground for the student of folklore. In most of its discussions of animals it drags a wide net through the sea of Levantine superstition, but the unicorn passage follows Physiologus in every detail, its only importance for our purpose consisting in the fact that here we see the virgin-capture story moving out into literature under its own sail, without assistance from allegory.

The legend of the unicorn is a beautiful example of the Alexandrian tendency to allegory. They applied the technique to biblical texts, literary works, and even their observation of nature. Even the beasts spoke to them of God’s grandeur. Even imaginary beasts!

It’s a good thing for me to remember — often. I have five daughters, and for years I’ve lived with posters and clothing and toys emblazoned with unicorns (usually in pink and pastels). If you don’t believe me, ask my son (the only boy in the bunch), who was moved to write and record a satirical girl-song titled “Love Unicorns.”

You see, if the marketers don’t drive you to prayer, they drive you crazy.

(If the ancient Christian bestiaries interest you, please check out The Bestiary of Christ. The author is keen on the Fathers. The book is amazing. A good medieval example, well translated by T.H. White, is The Book of Beasts.)

6 thoughts on “Unicorns — They’re Not Just for Girls Anymore

  1. I’m glad you posted about this. While scouring through the Fathers yesterday for research for my paper, I came across this allegory. I looked at the psalm (RSV:CE translation) it referred to and saw “wild ox”, but no unicorn. I had no clue where where he got the unicorn from. Now it all makes sense.

  2. I think I have a new motto for the blog: Your source for mistranslations!

  3. The owls and dragons always confused me, too. Thank goodness for the many, easy-to-compare Internet editions of the Bible!

  4. Shepard got his dates wrong on St Eustathius (of Antioch). If he’d died in 330, then St Basil would have to have written the Hexaemeron before he was a year old. Granted, the saint was brilliant, but that’s unlikely. Actually, according to Döpp and Geerlings, eds., Dictionary of Early Christian Literature (p 220)

    Other works are certainly not from E.: …a commentary on the hexaemeron (hex.)….

    The year he died is controverted, though he had been exiled. His relics were returned to Antioch in 438. Also, it seems Shepard misunderstood. The Pseudo-Eustathian commentary appears to be on the six days of creation (the hexaemeron), not on St Basil’s commentary on the same.

    I made a post a while ago on the beautiful online Aberdeen Bestiary, and the printed Le Bestiaire du Christ of Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, now available in a complete reprint edition (see comments there for links), and in a beautifully produced though abridged English translation, The Bestiary of Christ (Parabola Books, 1991), sadly out of print. Le Bestiaire du Christ was illustrated by Charbonneau-Lassay with his self-produced woodcuts, which consistency gives the a charming and antiquarian feel.

  5. The Bestiary of Christ is lovely. I see plenty of used copies available on Amazon.

    Thanks for pointing out the weirdness on the dates. I noticed it in the bookshop, but neglected to mark it in the post.

  6. It’s a lovely book, relating the old Christian tales about the various animals, in particular. The author was an old French Catholic, not the hippy kind. (I can say that here, can’t I?)

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