Archive for myth

The Unicorn- Not a uniform myth.

Posted in Science Articles, UNDER THE APPLE TREE: with tags , , , , , , on June 15, 2008 by redshiftblue

How the myth of the unicorn came about, has been something of a mystery. While other mythical creatures appear to embody our fears as humans (from vampires to werewolves), the unicorn has been described as a peaceful animal, albeit with magical properties which would lead people to search the earth in the hope of finding one. Perhaps there was never anything to drive the beginning of this myth, other than a common perception of deer/horse-like animals as beautiful and noble. Maybe it just stemmed from a need for hope, the human need for the otherworldly, which gives us comfort in bad times, and allows us to believe that ordinary life is not all that there is.

 

The collective name for a group of unicorns is a “blessing of unicorns” so it’s likely the creature is mixed up another great source of hope, namely, religion. The single horn of a unicorn was believed to neutralize poison; it was the good to heal the bad. Another handy use for unicorns was in deducing whether a woman was a virgin or not. Only virgins could tame a unicorn (as we know virgins, and the Virgin Mary herself rate very highly in the catholic religion), and seemingly only a virgin could mount a unicorn. So if he kicked her off then you knew someone was telling porkies. Then again, perhaps this method of distinguishing virgins was about as accurate as the old floating witch trick (stick a suspected witch in a chair, put her in a lake, if she floats she’s a witch, if she doesn’t she’s normal but also sadly, recently deceased..).

 

According to the traditional medieval description of unicorns, they are like a horse, but sport a billy-goat beard, a erhm..lion tail and cloven hooves. And have that single horn in the centre of their forehead. However, according to Marco Polo, the famous explorer round the 13th century, unicorns were

 

scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead… They have a head like a wild boar’s… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.  (excerpt stolen from Wikipedia).

 

It seems Marco Polo had bumped into a few rhinos on his travels. It’s doubtful that these animals had anything to do with the unicorn myth. They are so unlike the graceful horse type creature we imagine a unicorn to be. A great deal of truth altering and creative blindness would have to be employed to turn a rhino in the classic unicorn. In the world of Harry Potter (the most recent representation of unicorns in popular culture) they are seen as pure, glowing white angel of a horse, with a noble spiraled horn and silver blood. Drinking the blood of a unicorn will prolong ones life, but it brings curse upon them (according to Hagrid). The only indication that a rhino may be the source of the myth, lies with the fact that a rhinoceros’ horn has an interesting property- it reacts with alkaloids by turning a different color .A majority of the medieval poisons were made from alkaloids (naturally occurring chemical compound which have a nitrogen containing base), which coincides with the myth that unicorn horns change color when a poison in placed within them.

 

As of last Wednesday (the 11th June 2008), a fresh idea has literally been born, regarding how unicorns came about. A deer with a single horn in the centre of its forehead was spotted in a nature preserve in Tuscany, Italy, much to the surprise of well..everyone. Previously, deer with one horn have been born but usually with the horn to either side of the head. The single horn is believed to be the result of a mutation, a genetic anomaly which occurred in just this deer (name Roe Deer) and not his twin i.e. it was not an inherited mutation, just one which arises as a “once-off” of sorts. A deer is a much more likely candidate to inspire a unicorn myth, being as it is like a smaller, graceful horse. If other single-horned deer were spotted back in the Middle-Ages, there’s no doubt they would have been named a unicorn and the shy, nervous and quick-to-bolt, nature of deer (when approached by humans) would have definitely fit the bill. As for Roe Deer, many have flocked to the nature preserve to catch a sight of him, but he is hard to coax into the limelight. Maybe it’s time to send in the virgin maidens?