Unicorn
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Source: Heritage Image Partnership Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 10v


 

Unicorn

Latin name: Unicornis

Other names: Kardunn, Karkadann

The unicorn is a fierce beast that can only be captured by a maiden

 

 
General Attributes

The account of the unicorn is often combined with that of the monocerus, with some sources saying that they are the same animal. Other sources treat the two as separate beasts, and describe them quite differently. Some manuscripts have accounts and illustrations of both.

The unicorn is described variously as resembling a small goat, an ass, or a horse. It has a single horn in the middle of its head; the horn is usually depicted as straight and long, and often with a spiral groove running up it. The unicorn is fierce, strong and swift, and no hunter can catch it. To tame the beast so it can be captured, a virgin girl is placed in its path. The unicorn, seeing the maiden, comes to her and puts its head in her lap and falls asleep. The hunters can then easily capture or kill it. Some accounts say the girl must bare her breast and allow the unicorn to suckle. If the unicorn is captured, it is taken to the king's palace.

The unicorn is the enemy of the elephant, which it attacks with its horn, piercing the elephant's belly. Some sources say that it is the sharp nail on the unicorn's foot that pierces the elephant.

A unicorn's horn is highly valued. It can be used to detect poison, and if dipped in a poisoned drink, the horn causes the poison to be rendered harmless. Powdered unicorn horn is used as an aphrodisiac.


Allegory/Moral

The unicorn signifies Christ, who was made incarnate in Mary's womb, was captured by the Jews, and was put to death. The unicorn's fierce wildness shows the inability of hell to hold Christ. The single horn represents the unity of God and Christ. The small size of the unicorn is a symbol of Christ's humility in becoming human.


Sources (chronological order)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 31): The unicorn (monocerotem) is the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead. Its cry is a deep bellow.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 2:12-13): The Greek word rhinoceros, meaning "with horn in nose," refers to the same beast as the names monoceros or unicorn [Isidore does not distinguish between them]. This is a four-footed beast that has a single horn on its forehead; it is very strong and pierces anything it attacks. It fights with elephants and kills them by wounding them in the belly. The unicorn is too strong to be caught by hunters, except by a trick: if a virgin girl is placed in front of a unicorn and she bares her breast to it, all of its fierceness will cease and it will lay its head on her bosom, and thus quieted is easily caught.


Illustration

The illustrations for the unicorn and the monocerus are often similar, and sometimes the only way to know which is intended is to read the accompanying text. The unicorn is usually smaller and goat-like, and the illustration usually includes the maiden. In a few cases the maiden is shown nude (for example, British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 10v and Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 132, f. 70r), but she is more often clothed. The attack on the unicorn is usually bloody; in some illustrations, the maiden shows signs of regret or remorse for her part in the killing. Some manuscripts illustrate both the unicorn and the monocerus, including Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511 and British Library, Harley MS 3244. The fight between the unicorn and the elephant is shown in British Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii (f. 100v), while British Library, Royal MS 10 E. iv (f. 157r) shows a unicorn battling two bears.


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