Baronage heading



.......Curiosity Corner .......

THE UNICORN

Although some of our previous articles on fabulous beasts have provoked expressions of doubt among a few of our less experienced readers, those but recently admitted into the world of heraldry, we present here the unicorn whose reality no one will deny. Indeed, many readers have made enquiry into our reasons for not writing of this beautiful equine earlier, for its rôle as a supporter of the Royal Arms justifies high precedence in any bestiary, and perhaps we have been remiss in leaving discussion on its origins, on its majesty and magic, until now.

Unicorn by Starlight
Sable starlight on a unicorn’s head couped all Proper
(from A Roll of Arms for the 21st Century)
Unicorn Head
The unicorn was once believed to be mythical, its origin being said to be that of an oryx viewed from the side so that its two horns appear as one, and the “unicorn horns” circulated in eastern markets being claimed as the tusks of the narwhal appropriately carved with a spiral indentation.
These superstitions have been overcome in modern times by the large number of recorded sightings, many captured for us on canvas by such artists as Sharlene Lindskog-Osorio, a reader who sent us the close-up shown here on the left and the moonlight glimpse below right.
The earliest known reference to the unicorn is in the work of the Greek writer Ctesias who returned from a visit to Persia around 398 BC with news of a white ass whose single horn held magic properties. The powder ground from the horn, he claimed, gave protection against poison.
The unicorn is a truly international animal. It was first believed to be confined to India, but it was known in China as Ch’i-lin where it was believed to recognise evil in a man’s heart, which it would then pierce with a thrust of its horn, and in Japan it was known as Ki-rin.
Unicorn by Moonlight
Although mediaeval Europe was dominated by a militant Christianity that sought to exterminate all remnants of pagan beliefs, the Church accepted the unicorn, using its sanctity and virtue to symbolise Christ. Its association with chaste ladies allowed it the caresses of the Virgin Mary.
The unicorn’s link to virginity is twofold. First, it is wild and untamed, but noble, selfless and pure ~ a highborn maiden. Second, although wild it becomes tame in the presence of a true virgin. This is the basis of tales of the unicorn hunt, where a virgin is used to seduce the unicorn into the hunters’ trap for the sake of its valuable horn.
The most famous appearance of the unicorn is in the de la Rochefoucauld tapestries where it appears in settings full of symbolism. On the left here is the first of seven scenes in which the wild unicorn has been tamed by the virgin lady in the centre. Scholars argue about the meaning of the series, but it is generally believed to celebrate a marriage.
Unicorn Tapestry
In heraldry the unicorn appears most famously as a supporter of the Royal Arms, in both England and Scotland, as mentioned above. Many families have used it as a crest, but in arms it is comparatively rare ~ recorded for families with names such as Edwards, Steede, Hoy, Trevithick, Chatford, Harling and Ker.
The heraldic unicorn differs a little from the depictions provided by those artists who have actually seen them. A hundred years ago A.C. Fox-Davies described it as being drawn with the body of a horse, the tail of the heraldic lion, the legs and feet of the deer, the head and mane of a horse, a beard and, of course, the long twisted horn. How long? One early writer reported “that horn the King of England possesseth . . . . . is of so great a length that the tallest man can scarcely touch the top thereof, for it doth equal seven great feet.” Readers may with some justification consider this an exaggeration.
Another old writer tells of the method used to trap unicorns, which may account for why so few are seen today. “The greatnesse of his mynde is such that he chooseth rather to dye than be taken alive. . . . A maid is set where he hunteth; and she openeth her lap, to whom the unicorn, as seeking rescue from the force of the hunter, yieldeth his head and leaveth all his fierceness, and resteth himself under her protection, sleepeth until he is taken and slain.” Whether the writer was aware of the symbolism of this we can only surmise.
More information

martlet icon
The Martlet featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 1
gryphon icon
The Gryphon (or Griffin) featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 2
cockatrice icon
The Cockatrice (and Basilisk) featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 3
dragon icon
The Dragon featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 4
The Raven featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 5
The Chimera featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 6
The Pegasus featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 7
The Harpy featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 8
The Kelpie featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 9
The Wyvern featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 10
The Phoenix featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 11
The Yale featured in Curiosity Corner ~ 12
Baronage Press icon
The Current Contents Page
© 2003 The Baronage Press and Pegasus Associates Ltd