British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 10v.
So, you want to catch a unicorn. As we all know, the unicorn is a swift and fierce beast, not to be caught by ordinary means. But there is a way: find a pure and virgin girl, sit her down in unicorn habitat, hide in the bushes clutching your spear, and wait. A unicorn will come along, and charmed by the girl’s purity, will lie down with its head in her lap. Once the unicorn is nicely settled in and comfy, you leap out of the bushes and slaughter the beast.
No wonder there are so few unicorns left in the wild.
But why kill the unicorn? Wouldn’t a live unicorn give you more bragging rights than a bloody corpse? Yet in the majority of maiden-and-unicorn illustrations in medieval manuscripts, the unicorn is being killed.
It is killed with spears, it is killed with swords…
Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 4v
…it is killed with arrows…
Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 78 D 40, Folio 149v
…it is even killed with swords and spears and with an ax in reserve just in case…
British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 6v
There’s got to be a reason for all this mayhem.
One possibility is the value of the unicorn’s horn. Dipped in the king’s cup of wine it would reveal the presence of poison placed there by the dastardly duke; if the king was poisoned anyway, he could be cured with the horn. Powdered horn was also known to be a powerful aphrodisiac, as rhinoceros horn is now. Useful thing, a unicorn horn, and difficult to get from a live beast, so it has to be slaughtered.
<digression>Unicorn horns are also very beautiful. I saw and handled one once: a fellow student brought it to a Medieval Cosmology class and passed it around. Her grandfather or great-grandfather had acquired it somewhere, years before, and passed it down the generations. It was about as long as my arm, a rich ivory color, smooth and heavy, and spiraled to a sharp tip. Of course it wasn’t a “real” unicorn’s horn, though it would certainly have fooled a medieval king. It was a narwhal (Monodon monoceros) horn, which is not really a horn, but a very long tooth.
Swarming into an ice hole, males wield their tusks with care.
Photo by Paul Nicklen, from National Geographic.
How, you may be wondering, did the narwhal become confused with the unicorn? Perhaps it was like this:
The Land-Narwhal, ©2008 Carl Huber at the Warehouse Comic.
“So prized was the fabled tooth of the unicorn that Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century paid 10,000 pounds for one, equivalent to the cost of an entire castle”, says narwhal.org. Beautiful. I wanted the one I saw; I can’t image a queen or king being able to resist.</digression>
While a medieval hunter-of-unicorns might find it expedient to kill the beast for its horn, this does not really explain the type and level of violence shown in the illustrations, and it definitely does not explain why the unicorn killers in many illustrations are soldiers. There is more going on here. The basic symbolism of the unicorn is clearly stated in the bestiary: it says that the unicorn represents Christ, who descended to the womb of the virgin Mary, was captured by the Jews, and was crucified. The unicorn’s swiftness and fierceness indicates Christ’s power, that none could take him by force, but only by his willing surrender. While some bestiary versions say the unicorn is captured and taken to the king’s palace, others don’t say what happens to it; the killing of the unicorn is only hinted at through the reference to crucification. That hint seems to have been enough for the illustrators: the unicorn is Christ, so must die violently as Christ died violently, at the hands of the Jews (depicted as civilians) and/or the Romans (depicted as soldiers).
And what are we to make of the maiden’s betrayal of the trusting unicorn? Well, we can’t be sure she was in on the trick; maybe she didn’t know the true intent of the hunters. In some illustrations, the maiden seems upset at the killing:
Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 5v
“Hey!”, she says, “why you kill my unicorn?” and gives the startled hunter-of-unicorns a slap with her big left hand.
So, fair maidens, if they lead you off to the unicorn forest, watch out for guys with spears in the bushes; only you can prevent unicorn killing.
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