I suppose we have all heard the story of how the unicorn was subdued by the virgin maid." The eagerly attended raconteur reflected that, although he and his fellows had absorbed the wonder of the myth since childhood and seen its expression in numerous works of art, few of them had ever considered the tale seriously. The town in which they lived, like so many European towns, was rich in sacred architecture. All their lives they had taken its bas-reliefs and the statues depicting the Virgin Mary with a sleeping unicorn in her lap as part of their mental and aesthetic environment. And yet they had never thought the story behind such works of art might have any special significance and were, therefore, intrigued to hear their long-absent friend mention the theme in connection with his travels in the exotic East. He had gone out with a caravan through the great passes penetrating the Hindu Kush and Karakoram and along the tapered valleys sloping to meet the curving thread of the silk route. They had often tried to imagine the nature of his journey and had awaited his return with great anticipation, gathering now to learn of the wild and mysterious lands into which he had gone.
"We were camping at the base of an alluvial fan which stretched up into some fine meadows between the hills. A native family had pitched their yak-hair tent further up the valley not far from a stream where some antelope were grazing. In the early morning I noticed that a man and his young daughter left this shelter and walked to a small gully that ran along the edge of the meadow. The girl was made to sit on a stone there while the man disappeared from view into the gully. Having no pressing task at hand and becoming curious about this strange behaviour, I sat quietly behind some brush and watched to learn what it might mean. The sun rose over the hills and the peacefully grazing antelope moved slowly up the valley, drawn by the coolness of its still shaded interior. A large and graceful buck looked back at the seated girl and hesitated. He was unable to tear his gaze away from her and, with great trepidation, turned and began to move towards her. The others of the herd panicked and bolted into the hills, sensing somehow an imminent danger. The beautiful buck looked back to see them flee but he could not break his fascination with the girl. Slowly he walked, hesitated, waited and moved ever closer to where she was seated until, bolting over the last few yards of grass separating them, he lay down beside her with his head in her lap."
The gathered listeners gasped and urged their friend to go on with his remarkable story.
"Well, you may be surprised," he said, "and no less, I assure you, was 1. But I remained still in my concealment and waited to see what might follow. The girl sat quietly fondling the buck's head, and so natural was his attitude of trusting repose that he seemed to be sleeping like a babe in arms. The sun continued to rise and a wind began to stir the grass. Clouds scuttled across the sky and cast the idyllic scene in dark shadow. The young maid grew restless with the cold and shivered, just as her father rushed out of the gully and plunged his knife into the sleeping animal. I recoiled in my hiding place. It had happened so quickly and the cruelty of the act so shocked me that tears sprang to my eyes. Through their blur I saw that the girl herself was crying and that the man comforted her and gesticulated as though to joke away her momentary sadness. He must have reminded her of how hungry they had been and how good the fresh meat would taste. He must have explained away the cruelty as an act of necessity and congratulated her on the important part she had played, for I saw that she began to help him dress the carcass and carry it off to their camp. I watched until they disappeared within their tent and the smoke from a yak-dung fire began to curl up into the gathering breeze. I was transfixed to the spot, my friends, my mind reeling with memories of stone-carved unicorns and Virgins sweetly gazing while hunters approached to make the capture secure. My memory insisted that in the childhood myth the hunters had merely tied the unicorn and taken it alive to the king. But the killing I had just witnessed filled my heart with a sense of betrayal, and my mind floundered with the effort of trying to understand the connection between the innocuous tale of our youth and the cunning entrapment achieved through the young maiden on that wind-swept meadow above me."
The listeners sat in silence. Expressions of wonder and puzzlement fluctuated across their faces as they too struggled to piece together the popular Christian myth with the extraordinarily vivid scene that had just been placed before them. They tried to remember all that they had ever heard about the unicorn, of how its image decorated the standard of many a noble family and its horn was coveted as a rare and powerful talisman. They wondered what the connection could be between a unicorn and an antelope, and they searched their hearts to discover the depth of their belief in the animal's existence. Were there or had there ever been unicorns in the world? Did people in the exotic lands to which their friend had gone also possess legends associating the unicorn with chaste maidens? And if so, did such notions lie behind the extraordinary practice he had described? In the Christian tradition the animal had become so closely identified with the virgin-capture story that in most peoples' minds it was emblematic of chastity itself, and the puzzling listeners wondered if this were universally true.
Centuries later another puzzler named Carl Jung would decide that the unicorn had many different symbolic characteristics, even embracing other single-horned animals like the swordfish or the dragon. But of its many remarkable features the most arresting is the universality of the idea of the unicorn's existence, which has persisted for millennia despite all evidence to the contrary. In the broadest sense, legends seem to identify the unicorn with great strength, fleetness, loveliness, incorruptibility and chastity. There is a strong relationship between it and that which is lunar in the most powerful and positive sense. Thus, the unicorn is associated with the horned (crescent) moon of Diana the Huntress and other virgin moon-goddesses of the ancient Mediterranean world. The Taoists of China believed the unicorn to possess the essence of the five elements and virtues, and the Indo-Iranian tradition focussed upon its embodiment of purity and mystical power. Many are the stories that have floated down through the centuries telling of things like the one-horned goat which belonged to a judge during the reign of Emperor Sun (2200 B.C.). It butted the guilty but refused to attack the wrongly accused. Or there is the case of the single-horned augur of divine will who met the Mongol hordes as they swept towards the Asian subcontinent. It is said that when Jenghiz Khan undertook to invade India in the thirteenth century, a scouting expedition of his army was met in the high plateau country by a creature "like a deer, with a head like that of a horse, one horn on its forehead and green hair on its body". It said to them: "It is time for your master to return to his own land." When the scouting party reported this to the Khan, one of his ministers advised him that the animal must have been a chio-tuan, a variety of the Chinese ki-lin or unicorn. He explained that "for four years the great army has been warring in western regions. Heaven, which has a horror of bloodshed, gives warning through the chio-tuan. Spare the Empire for Heaven's sake; moderation will give boundless pleasure." The great leader must have taken this advice very seriously, for he desisted in his war plans and turned aside from the subcontinent's fabled wealth and allure.
In the old Sumerian and Semitic traditions two unicorns were depicted as guardians of the Tree of Life. They were shown flanking the tree on either side, their horns pointed up towards the boughs in a protective pose, which seems to echo the many tales celebrating their prophylactic powers. For it was widely held that one who drank of a cup fashioned from one of these fabulous horns would never be subject to convulsions or epilepsy, nor would he succumb to poison if administered. In India as well as the Middle East a legend was passed down which told of animals waiting thirstily around the shores of a poisoned lake. A unicorn advanced through their midst to its edge and, dipping its horn into the water, purified it of all taint. Christians later called the unicorn's horn the 'horn of salvation', which acted as an antidote to sin, but the Oriental story is much older and links up with ancient talismanic uses of what came to be known as the alicorn. Widely coveted, the alicorn was so valuable that latter-day sceptics, suspecting the motive of those who traded in them, sought to prove that the cups, knife handles, apothecary prescriptions and magical wands believed to have been fashioned from a unicorn's horn were, in fact, from the horns of the rhinoceros, walrus or narwhal. It is, indeed, striking to compare the horn of the narwhal with that later appended to the European unicorn, for it is singular in the world and corresponds exactly with the tapered straightness and spiralled form of the alicorn. Innocent of such scepticism, many older cultures held that the alicorn was two horns joined in one and thus a perfect embodiment of undivided sovereign power, a rare unification of opposites. In following the custom that only royalty could drink from an alicorn cup, classical Indian rajas both protected themselves from poisoning and symbolically reinforced their divine right of rule.
In China the alicorn was believed to be made of flesh which sprouted from the forehead of a unicorn so gentle in nature that it would not walk on the tiniest creature. First seen in the garden of the Yellow Emperor in 2699 B.C., this ki-lin was considered to be one of the four animals of good omen (along with the dragon, phoenix and tortoise) and foremost amongst all land creatures. It was said to possess a five-coloured coat and a voice sounding like bells, to live thousands of years and wander through mostly hidden places all alone. The Chinese believed that its appearance foretold the incarnation of a noble and upright ruler. At the birth of Confucius, one appeared to his mother and announced the rule of a throneless king. Seventy years later hunters in the forest killed a ki-lin which still bore bits of ribbon that had been tied round its horn by the great sage's mother. It is said that Confucius went to see it and wept over its lifeless form before himself departing from this world.
In the biblical vision of David, a one-horned goat appeared from the west and smote the two-horned ram of Persia, stamping him beneath his cloven hoof. Thus the coming of Alexander the Great was prophesied, and the unicorned helmets and crowns of conquering kings were anointed with the aura of divine right and invincibility. Had not Pericles been presented with a single-horned ram before becoming the sole ruler of Athens and ushering it into its Golden Age? But in stories told about the life of Gautama the Buddha, a different sort of kingship is suggested. It is said that when the Lord delivered his first sermon at the holy park of Sarnath, a unicorned gazelle sat upon his knee listening to his words. Symbolizing the transcendent and kingly wisdom needed to penetrate the portals of Nirvana, the animal's single horn seemed to be bowing before the compassionate vocalization of Bodhisattvic sacrifice. And yet the purity of its mien, the perfection in its straight and spiralling horn, certainly pointed to a path which had been travelled by Buddha himself. Single and long in its symmetrically twisted length, the horn, like the path, was hard to find, powerfully mysterious and solitary in its nature.
As a worldling who had been shaken by the phantom banquet and ethereal music that accosted his subtler senses on Prosperous island, Sebastian declared the suspension of his scepticism with the announcement: "Now I will believe that there are unicorns." As ancient and ubiquitous as the legends have been, many have disbelieved. But reports of their existence have never really ceased to trickle in from the hinterlands of human experience. In 400 B.C. the Greek historian and physician Ctesia carefully recorded a description of the wild asses in the kingdom of India, with their white coats, dark red heads and blue eyes. In the middle of their foreheads they bore a single horn eighteen inches long, whose base was white, middle black and tip red. The dust from this horn was widely used, he said, as a protective potion against deadly drugs. Over the centuries eyewitness reports would continue. In the sixteenth century Fray Marcos de Niza, while looking for the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, was shown a unicorn hide by the Anasazi Indians. Contemporary French explorers encountered stories of a similar creature among the Florida tribes. Around the same time Ludovico di Varthema wrote that he saw two unicorns at Mecca which had been sent to the sultan as a present from the king of Abyssinia. In 1622 Father Jeronimo Lobo, a Portuguese Jesuit in Abyssinia, described a unicorn there which resembled a beautiful horse, having good proportions and a long mane and tail. In the eighteenth century a unicorn was sighted by a British traveller in Tartary, and claims were made concerning others seen in Persia, at Samarkand and in the Carpathians. In 1820 Major Latter of the British army wrote that he had found a unicorn in Tibet, and Captain Samuel Taylor was told by the raja of Bhutan that he had owned one which had died in captivity.
The descriptions of these various unicorns vary in particulars but remain strikingly similar in certain essential characteristics. In Africa the animal was known as an a'nasa or an ara-se or adaka, depending on the locale, but it was always described as being about the size of a donkey or small horse. Julius Caesar wrote of unicorns in the Hercynian forest that resembled stags with one long, straight horn on their brow. Some reported their beautiful ankle bones, others their hooves as heavy as lead and the colour of cinnabar, and still others, like Julius Solinus, that they were "footed like an Eliphant, tayled like a Swyne, and headed like a Stagge". Pliny, during his travels to the East, wrote: "In this country we encountered several species of unicorns." He listed some small as goats, and a monstrous variety which had an armoured hide and was both dangerous and impossible to capture alive. Here Pliny, like Solinus and many before and after him, had unknowingly crossed over into the territory occupied by the very visible and certainly formidable Indian rhinoceros.
The accounts coming from India and Persia frequently stressed the exceeding swiftness and power of the unicorn, the fact that its speed increased as it ran, that its power was so great as to defy capture and that its body was reddish with a white underbelly. But other reports of white, black and red animals have caused some speculators to wonder if the ancients did not derive their facts from colourful Indian fabric designs or painted cups made of rhinoceros horns. In any case, the tendency was to explain any conflicting evidence or possible exaggeration in terms of the animal being a native of India. After all, one does not question the seemingly outrageous if it comes from that exotic land! When Apollonius of Tyana travelled there, he saw wild asses captured near Hyphasis and was told that cups capable of protecting life were made from their single horn. When asked by his companion if he believed this, Apollonius replied, "I should have believed it if I had found that the kings of this country were immortal." It is noteworthy that though Apollonius did not believe in the efficacy of the alicorn cup, he did, apparently, see single-horned animals.
Despite varying descriptions, empirically minded observers like Aristotle believed in the one-horned ass and oryx, and poets explained their scarcity in terms of their having a nature "so virtuous and beautiful, that heaven vouchsafed the earth only one specimen at a time". Others tried to rationalize the persistent sightings of unicorns by pointing to the fact that the oryx's or the Tibetan antelope's straight horns became superimposed and appeared single from a side view, whilst still others simply dismissed the need for explanation by affirming that the unicorn "seems to fill a gap in nature". In the course of discussing "mythical monsters" in The Secret Doctrine, H.P. Blavatsky quoted Charles Gould, who felt that "the specific existence of the Unicorn seems not incredible, and in fact, more probable than that theory which assigns its origin to a lunar myth" He doubted that myths were derived from a contemplation of external Nature, but believed rather that ancient wisdom had been diluted as it was passed down and transformed into the fabulous as knowledge and real insight waned. This is in opposition to the contemporary notion that evolution has been a physical, cultural and mental process of progression from the simple to the complex, the irrational to the rational. From the standpoint of modern science, belief in unicorns represents the 'pre-rational' man's attempt to assign causal powers to tangible objects and elements which could then, somehow, be. manipulated in an effort to control things on the plane of effects. To the less empirically minded, the belief in unicorns has been so pervasive and attractive to the human mind for so long that the need for a deeper and more intuitive investigation asserts itself. The fact that evidence for their existence is confused with descriptions of rhinoceros or that green ones in the Tibetan plateau fail to correspond with red or white or five-coloured ones elsewhere does not cancel the fact that the unicorn, as a recognizable and unique entity, has persisted in exerting its impact as a living idea for millennia. This stands as a central point of importance when addressing the question of whether unicorns coexisted with early man (as some cave paintings suggest) and have since died out, or whether they are the result of a natural hybridization occurring only occasionally and thus are variously shaped and coloured.
In the Western world the unicorn legend has gone through a theological phase (to borrow Comte's idea) to a metaphysical, positivistic and, finally, modern phase. Long ago it was mythologically validated by being made a constellation in the celestial hemisphere, but for centuries the vitality of the idea mouldered in the pages of Pliny and similar authors while experiences of contact and uses of the fabled alicorn continued to thrive in the Eastern world. With the incorporation of the myth into the mainstream of Christianity, the unicorn assumed a much more clearly defined mental and physical shape. The fact that mention of the creature had been made in seven different places in the Old Testament had not escaped people's notice, but all these references emphasized the strength and ferocity of the animal as well as the exalted nature of its horn. Only when these characteristics became juxtaposed with the idea of virgin-capture did the strange blend of elements basic to the Christian unicorn take birth and inspire the early medieval European world. In his Speculum de Mysterius Ecclesiae, Honorius of Autun described the very fierce one-horned unicorn which could be caught only by placing a virgin in the field. He asserted that the animal would come peacefully only to her (a non-virgin attracting instead its anger and ferocity) to lie down in her lap. Theologians asserted that the Virgin was the mother of God and that the unicorn was none other than Christ, whose invincibility was represented by its horn and whose capture by human beings was made possible only because he "lay down in the womb of the Virgin" and took on human shape. In the lap of the Virgin the unicorn shrank to become the sort of toy animal depicted in ecclesiastical sculpture and paintings. Its smallness was associated with humility and its goat-like appearance with the taking on by Christ of the sins of man. The fierceness attributed to this rather docile-looking animal was said to represent the fact that no worldly powers could control the Christos, and the singleness of the horn was made to signify the unity of Christ with the Father.
Leonardo da Vinci, in his often heretical view of things, attributed the unicorn's capture to its lust, which, he said, made it forget its fierceness and jump into the maiden's lap. The story itself takes its source from the Greek Physiologus, which is the fount of all the subsequent Christian bestiaries. Though no one is certain where or when this collection of stories was written down, it does provide the outline of how the virgin subdues the unicorn and, after its capture, sees it taken off to the king. This original maid was apparently capable of attracting larger and more formidable unicorns, and, though one may balk at the notion of her cuddling a rhinoceros, it was only in its Christian theological phase that the animal lost some of its physical power, making it seem more capable of being duped. Leonardo's unicorn seems to have sprung from this more robust stock, and it links up in an unintended way with the inverted notion that the animal represents the devil, who is overcome by the virtue of the virgin.
In the Syriac version of the story, the unicorn (dajja) is attracted and throws itself upon the virgin, who then offers it her breasts. After suckling it she takes hold of its horn and the huntsmen come to tie it and lead it to the king. The theological explanation of this is that "likewise, the Lord Christ has raised up for us a horn of salvation in the midst of Jerusalem, in the House of God, by the intercession of the Mother of God, a virgin pure, chaste, full of mercy, immaculate, inviolate". No doubt Leonardo, like several modern scholars, would have thought that this seemed a rather forced rationale tacked on to a more archaic theme of sexual attraction. But the whole Christian current of thought eddying around the idea of virgin-capture is fraught with ambiguous elements which seem to be the result of a great deal of eclectic borrowing from other traditions. More basic, perhaps, is the question of what affinity did people think existed between a unicorn and a virgin, and why was the animal worth such an elaborate and heartless-seeming ruse? Why is it led to the palace of the king, or is it? There are many medieval tales about the tragic aspect of the unicorn's helpless attraction, ending in its betrayal and death. How is it that, in such cases, the maiden can preserve the expression of pious serenity upon her face even when the huntsmen pierce the animal with their arrows?
It is more agreeable, perhaps, to focus upon the unicorn as a symbol of chivalry and high birth. All of its characteristics of fierceness, pride and solitude and the fact that it is dangerous to foes but gentle in the presence of chastity are perfectly suited as attributes of the knight. True to the ancient legend, he too assumes the aristocratic role of going down to the shore when all the others are waiting patiently for him to deliver them from harm, to con the water with his magic horn (sword). The medieval code of chivalry was based upon an aristocratic turn of mind, whose greatness was such that its proponent would willingly choose death over dishonour, "wherein the unicorn and the valiant-minded soldier are alike" In Richard Wagner's Parsifal (modelled on the Arthurian Sir Perceval), the death of Zidegast provides a rich illustration of this connecting symbolism when Parsifal cries, "A unicorn of loyalty was this man, the object of my desires. Humanity must lament the loss of this unicorn. Because of his purity he had to suffer death." In the chivalrous and heraldic celebration of the unicorn, its lunar and chaste nature was meaningfully wedded to its solar counterpart, so often symbolized by the lion. Thus, in the unification of Scotland with England the lion and the unicorn ceased to be "fighting for the crown" and merged into one of the strongest and most confident imperial powers the world has ever seen. One might assert that the unicorn could have done this on its own, but there was probably something of the pragmatic and worldly-wise nature of the lion that was needed to pull it off. The unicorn is not pragmatic in its nature. It suffers death because of its purity, a recurring theme which throws one's mind back once again to the haunting though troublesome idea of the virgin-capture and the notion that an element of sacrifice is central to its character.
The Buddhist tradition treats the alicorn as the symbol of nirvana, and it is the land from which this religion comes that provides us with a glimpse into a realm of deeper realities concerning the unicorn. In the ancient Mahabharata a tale is told about a young Rishi called Rishya-Sringa ('the Deer-Horned') who was said to be the son of Rishi Vibhandaka (descended from Kashyapa – 'Tortoise') and a gazelle. At his birth he had one horn on his forehead and was brought up in the forest by his father, never seeing another human being until he was verging on manhood. It is said that when King Dasaratha performed the ashva-medha sacrifice for the sake of an offspring, Rishya-Sringa officiated and was there when Vishnu appeared to the king and ensured the birth of Rama. The fame of the Rishi's purity and power spread, and when there was a drought in the country of Anga, King Lomapada was advised by his Brahmins to send for him. Thus it was that his daughter Santa was sent into the forest to lure Rishya-Sringa (called Eka sringa or 'unicorn' in certain Buddhist versions of the story) into a trap. The pious Rishi had imagined her to be a penitent disciple, but she aroused his love with her virginal beauty and caused him to follow her into a cell which rested on a concealed raft moored at the edge of a river. As soon as he was within the cell, the raft was set afloat by the hunters who had waited there and it carried him to Anga, where the Rishi brought about the desired rainfall and married the king's daughter.
This is surely the archetypal myth which spawned the many tales of the unicorn's capture in the East and, finally, in the Christian world. Its power and clarity of story-line are not confused with conflicting elements of cruelty, chastity and love. Furthermore, the unicorn is a man, a great sage who is descended from a line of sages going back to Kashyapa, the cosmogonic being identified in the Artharvaveda with Prajapati. This lends tremendous significance to the idea that the alicorn symbolizes Nirvana, for one can see in it a spiralling path leading back through generations of our true spiritual ancestors to the threshold where the many lines of descent merge into oneness. As an augur of divine will, the unicorn's horn symbolizes both that which pierces the ancestral heavenly realm and transmits back to earth the voice of God. Gautama Buddha seated with the unicorn in his lap has made the journey in both directions, and his Teaching, like that of Christ and others who have followed that spiral path, is capable of alchemizing the poison that resides in the waters of the human heart. To do this, the sacrifice of birth and death is necessary and the entrance into a worldly womb is the means of bringing it about. Thus the unicorn of Buddha or Christos lay upon the lap of the virgin and heralded, like that which visited the mother of Confucius, the birth of an unthroned king. In making the sacrifice of birth and death, however, the great Teachers of mankind are not tricked or duped. They choose to come and accept suffering through the renunciation of Nirvana, They permit the loss of their alicorn of bliss, their 'horn of salvation', in order to take on the burden of purifying a much polluted world. Even in the case of Rishya-Sringa, who seemed to have been duped through love, one can presume the presence of a higher willingness to make this sacrifice.
In the hearts of countless young maidens, even in the darkest night of Kali Yuga, the dream of the unicorn persists. Encouraged on the surface of their minds by diaphanous poster paintings and window decals, still the roots of the dream lie much deeper in their souls, for it is there that the true ancestral memory resides. To be born in a female body is to 'feel' with peculiar poignancy these longings to become a pure and chaste receptacle for the Christos within. The allurement of anticipation in the innocent young girl's eye is an untainted invitation to this highest fulfilment of spiritual conception and birth. How beauteous is the dream flowing through her unconsciously attractive movements and smile. How noble the desire to insist on believing in unicorns, believing that complete fulfilment is possible! Remembering the little native maiden seated as bait in the meadow or the modern maid's loss of innocence as she descends into the business of using her allure for worldly ends, one grieves. So pure and soaring is the dream, how could it sink so low? Yet even in the poor native child who cannot exert a will of her own or the modern child mesmerized by the pounding beat of glamorized materialism, there is still the seed of Buddhic light which can be saluted and nurtured and believed in.
The simple and direct action of King Lomapada's daughter in luring the unicorn is a forthright deed of duty. Santa is fulfilling her role in an occult drama where she opens the way through which the current of adeptship can release the life-giving rain of Divine Wisdom into the drought-stricken world. Like the Virgin Mary, whose similar behaviour symbolically echoes the drama centuries later, Santa is not evil in her allurement. She is not impure in her action, but fulfils, with serenity, the highest dharma. She waits for the unicorn to come and embraces him in the full purity of her receptive love. The hunters who assist the maiden are not outside herself. They are her own inner light of mind, which does not kill but seizes upon the Truth and carries it to the throne of the god within. The young girl longing to see the shape of this highest union can sense within the solitary places in her heart the unicorn's presence. She follows slowly on the spiral path where Santa trod and never ceases to keep pure and inviolate her dream.