The Unicorn in Captivity. One of the series of seven tapestries The Hunt of the Unicorn, 1495-1505. Flanders.
“Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.”
The legendary unicorn is perhaps one of the most recognizable and well-known mythical beasts known to modern and medieval literature and lore. Since antiquity, the unicorn was a beast with a large, pointed, spiralling horn from its forehead. But the actual description of this “beast” remains unknown, despite pictorial imagery that we have today. The mentioning of the unicorn dates back to ancient seals, arising from the Indus Valley Civilisation, and is further mentioned by the ancient Greek authors in their own natural history accounts. Greek authors such as Ctesias, Strabo, Pliny, the Younger and Aelian all made reference to this fantastical creature. Furthermore, the Bible holds faithfully to the reference of the unicorn as noted in the above Psalm.
Initially, Greek historians placed the origin of the unicorn in India. The earliest reference is recorded by Ctesias in his book, Indika, ‘On India’. Other references follow including Aristotle, and Pliny. Later medieval knowledge of the unicorn also stemmed from its popularity and reference within the Bible and Greek literature.
The unicorn also established roots within European folklore. The beast is depicted as either a white horse or a goat like animal with it’s characteristic long horn, and cloven hooves. Sometimes it even has a goat’s beard. During the Middle Ages, the animal was described as a woodland creature, with associated symbolism of purity and grace, hence only a virgin was capable of capturing it. Some records tell that its horn had properties that could if made into powder, could be used as remedy for poison and curative for illness. The horn of a narwhal during the Middle Ages often was sought as a replica of the unicorn horn and sold to believers.
In depictions of Medieval art and Literature, and famous for their reference to the theme of ‘Entrapment’, as noted by Italian artist and philosopher, Leonardo Da Vinci,
‘The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.’
One of the most famous and well know depictions of the unicorn in context to this idea of entrapment in medieval culture is in the ‘Maiden of Lady and the Unicorn’ (Dame à la licorne) tapestries, now displayed in the Musee De Cluny, Paris, known to be woven in the Netherlands around 1500. Additionally, a series of seven tapestries, ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn’ tapestries held in the Cloisters division in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York also emphasise this common medieval theme.
The unicorn not only made its way to heraldry, and other artistic representation, but today it is a used as the symbol of Scotland. It is a beast that was known to be ‘proud and haughty beast which would rather die than be captured’ resembling the Scots, a people of strong will, strong ties to their own sovereignty, and ultimate desire to be unconquered. The unicorn today rests on the heraldic arms of her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II’s royal arms.