After the England football team beat Tunisia at this summer’s World Cup, they celebrated with a swimming-pool race on inflatable unicorns. Purple hooves, rainbow manes, cutesy eyes, yellow horns like upended Cornetto cones. The millennial unicorn is unrecognisable from the medieval. The proud unicorns of bestiaries and courtly romances have become the twinkling Bambis of Instagram. Search #unicorn (more than nine million posts) and canter into a pastel clearing of long lashes, swishy tails and crystal horns. ‘My favourite colour,’ announces one unicorn, pink, prancing, wide-eyed, ‘is glitter.’ Compare the simpering My Little Unicorn of the emoji palette with the noble creature in the ‘Unicorn Tapestries’ (c.1500), which hang in the Metropolitan Museum Cloisters in New York. Here, the unicorn, bucking and furious, pursued by chasseurs and hounds, uses its horn to lance the soft underbelly of one of the dogs. Blood spills in the millefleurs forest.
The unicorn has always been a shape-shifter: hunter and hunted, wild and tamed, a symbol of feminine stillness and masculine quest, of chastity and insatiable desire (‘My, what a big horn you have…’), but never has the change been as startling, or sparkling, as in the past few social-media years. The unicorn’s elusive nature is finely illustrated by Magic Unicorns, a ravishing exhibition at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. The show, with the ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries (c.1500) at its heart, takes us from the ancient Greek doctor Ctesias to the fluffy pencil-cases of today’s unicorn-crazed schoolgirls. In Indica, Ctesias, physician to King Artaxerxes II of Persia, collected stories from the Silk Road. He described wild asses as large as horses with white hides, red heads and white, black and flaming red horns a cubit in length that had the power to cure convulsions and epilepsy and to protect against poisons. Ctesias’ unicorn was swift and almost impossible to capture.
As tales of fantastical beasts came to the west from China, India and Pakistan, the unicorn (unus — one; cornu — horn) took on the characteristics, according to the teller, of the donkey, horse, antelope, goat, bull, oryx and rhinoceros. Aristotle doubted its existence — he had never seen one — while Pliny wrote in his Natural Histories of a wild beast with the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant and the tail of a boar.
The Biblical unicorn came to symbolise both God — ‘God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn’ — and, as in Psalm 22, the enemies of God: ‘Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.’ When Saint Jerome made his vulgate translation of the Bible (c.400 AD) he drew a distinction between the rhinoceros (malevolent) and the unicorn (benign). Saint Bernard of Clairvaux advised good men to defend themselves against ‘the greed of the lion, the lust of the goat, the rage of the monkey and the pride of the unicorn’.
In bestiaries and illuminated manuscripts of the 11th and 12th centuries, the unicorn appears grazing in the Garden of Eden and wedged into Noah’s Ark. Later images of the unicorn resting its head on the breast or lap of the Virgin stood for Christ’s Incarnation and the sanctuary offered by the Church. The hunters who pursue the unicorn are the pagans, the Jews, the heretics and all other unbelievers. The single horn exemplified the unity of the Father in heaven and the Son on earth.
Unicorn horns were thought to have the power to drive away demons and to purify food and water. There is a graceful example in the exhibition of a bronze ‘aquamanile’ (c.1400) — a ewer for washing hands before a Mass or a banquet — in the shape of a unicorn with a horn that curls like an Elvis quiff. Better yet was a horn of one’s own. Hanseatic traders sold narwhal tusks from the Atlantic waters between Ireland and Greenland as genuine relics of the holy unicorn. There were two such tusks in the basilica of Saint Denis, two at Westminster, three at Saint Gall and seven at Saint Mark’s in Venice. Pope Clement VII sent François I of France two barley-twist tusks to protect against Protestant plots. Charles IX of France would eat or drink nothing that wasn’t ‘unicorn-tested’. The Reformation poured scorn on the horny enthusiasms of credulous priests and princes.
In the 14th and 15th centuries the unicorn changed from a symbol of sacred love to profane. In chivalric romance, the unicorn is sometimes the protector of a virtuous princess; sometimes, with its unmistakably phallic horn, her assailant. In the ‘Touch’ scene of the Cluny’s ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries, thought to be an allegory of the five senses and the heart’s inner desire, the Lady tenderly, almost absent-mindedly, wraps her fingers around the unicorn’s horn. If there is an innuendo, she at least is innocent of it.
In Leonardo and Giorgione’s sketches, unicorns appear as ladies’ lapdogs, spaniels with added spike. For Gustave Moreau, the unicorn was a soft-focus shorthand for fairyland dreamscapes. John Tenniel, in his ‘Lion and Unicorn’ illustration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, gave the lion the features of Gladstone and the Unicorn those of Disraeli. The unicorn tells Alice that he had always thought of children as ‘fabulous monsters’. He concludes: ‘Well, now that we have seen each other, if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?’
Who now, but children, truly believes in unicorns? I failed to keep a straight face this summer reading soppy unicorn stories to my cousin’s five-year-old daughter. Bring back Elizabeth Goudge. The unicorns of J.K. Rowling and T.H. White are both more vulnerable and more sinister than more recent make-a-wish unicorn books prettily written for little girls. In Harry Potter, it is the blood of a slaughtered unicorn that restores Lord Voldemort’s strength. In The Once and Future King, the fateful murder of a unicorn heralds dark deeds and deaths to come. In art and literature, the white unicorn is becoming ever rarer; the purple one not worth the chase.
Magic Unicorns is at the Musée de Cluny, Paris, until 25 February 2019.