the movie 'Legend'
The tale of the virgin's ability to tame the unicorn seems to
have arisen in Medieval times. as the legend goes, if a virgin is lead to
a place that the unicorn has been seen and left there, the unicorn, upon
seeing her will run to her, rest his head in her lap and fall asleep. This
was how the unicorn was frequently captured and killed. The unicorn was
the symbol of chastity and was sought after by king's who wanted to
display it as a symbol of power.
A thirteenth century poem by Thibaut describes the essence of the
The unicorn and I are one:
He also pauses in amaze
Before some maiden's magic gaze,
And while he wonders, is undone.
On some dear breast he slumbers deep
And Treason slays him in that sleep.
Just so have ended my Life's days;
So Love and my Lady lay me low.
My heart will not survive this blow."
The following is a work in progress.
The origin of the
virgin-and-the-unicorn myth is rather complex. The unicorn itself is not
a creature with a definitive origin. The virgin did not become a part of
the text until much after the first tales of the unicorn surfaced. Even
now there is great debate as to just where the idea of the Unicorn and the
At the time the
unicorn-and-the-virgin myth developed, the myth of the unicorn described
by Ctesias & Aelian was circulating in
the Mediterranean world. The two mythos are very distinct from one
another. For the first account of the virgin and the unicorn, we have to
look towards a book called the Bestiary or Physiologus.
This text, originally the Christian Beast Epic, looked at all of nature as
a fable, in other words they thought there was a lesson in all things.
Each article began with two items, a quotation from scripture and the
line: “But the physiologus (the naturalist) says….” This was followed by
the description of the animal, its traits, and the lesson to be learned
from it. As the text was copied, it was altered. The morals were
separated from the animal descriptions, a key line was also changed: “The
Physiologus says..” As time progressed, Physiologus became
the name of a person, the author, not a professional title.
Physiologus, as it came to be called, was translated into many
languages and varied considerably. Interestingly, Pope Gelasius condemned
the text as being the work of heretics in 496ce.
The references to the
unicorn in the various copies of Physiologus offer this basic
description of the unicorn (bare in mind that there were many variations,
this is a summation of them):
“He is a
small animal, like a kid, but surprisingly fierce for his size, with one
very sharp horn on his head, and no hunter is able to catch him by
force. Yet there is a trick by which he is taken. Men lead a virgin to
the place where he most resorts and leave her there alone. As soon as
he sees this virgin he runs and lays his head in her lap. She fondles
him and he falls asleep. Then hunters then approach and capture him and
lead him to the palace of the king.”
The original Christian
symbolism may hold the key to the addition of the virgin to the tale of
the unicorn. Symbolically, the unicorn is a representation of Jesus, the
horn represents the unity of Jesus and God, its fierceness & defiance were
said to be a reminder that nothing can control Jesus against his will, and
the small size of the animal represented Jesus’ humility, etc. The
virgin, then, became the symbol of the Virgin Mary and the hunter become
symbolic of the angel Gabriel. It’s hard to say which came first, the
virgin and the unicorn or the Virgin Mary and the Unicorn Jesus. This, of
course, gave a tremendous boost to the legend of the unicorn.
However, not all
copies of Physiologus agree on the symbology of the unicorn.
Syriac & Provencal versions of it the unicorn becomes not the symbol of
Jesus but the symbol of the Devil. Its capture by a virgin becomes
reinforces the idea of the time: evil can only be overcome by virtue.
This is the Syriac version:
an animal called dajja, extremely gentle, which the hunters are unable
to capture because of its great strength. It has in the middle of its
brow a single horn. But observe the ruse by which the huntsmen take
it. They lead forth a young virgin, pure and chaste, to whom, when the
animal sees her, he approaches, throwing himself upon her. Then the
girl offers him her breasts, and the animal begins to suck the breasts
of the maiden and to conduct himself familiarly with her. Then the
girl, while sitting quietly, reaches forth her hand and grasps the horn
on the animal’s brow, and at this point the huntsmen come up and take
the beast and go away with him to the king. – Likewise the Lord Christ
has raised up for us a horn of salvation in the midst of Jerusalem, in
the house of God, by the intercession of the Mother of God, a virgin
pure, chaste, full of mercy, immaculate, inviolate.”
(1) Translated, into Latin, by J.P.N. Land
in his Anecdota Syriaca, Lugd. Batav., 1870, vol. Iv. P. 146
Many Christian authors
expanded on the idea of the unicorn’s ability to detect virgins. This
expansion included the idea that if the young maiden was not really the
virgin she claimed the unicorn would kill her. This idea is not unique to
unicorns. The ability to detect virgins, and the killing of those who
were pretending to be virgins, was also attributed to the stag, the
elephant & the lion. Other variations on the theme stated that the virgin
must be completely nude and others insist she must be very beautiful.
Alanus de Insulis, a writer at the end of the 12th century
explains the phenomena of the virgin’s power over the unicorn in the terms
of medieval science. “He concludes that the virgin’s power is due to a
radical difference in “humours”, the calidissima natura of the unicorn
being drawn irresistibly to its opposite, the femina frigida et humida.
The unicorn, he says, has an excess of fervent spirits or humours which
dilate his hear, and when he comes into the pure moist air surrounding the
virgin he feels such relief and is so delighted by that feminine
atmosphere that he lies down in her lap.” (2)
Lore of the Unicorn. Odell Shepard. Avenel Books. ©1930
The unicorn’s ability
to detect virgins is not as keen as one might think. The Syriac Bestiary
the ‘virgin’ can be, as Shepard puts it, “so obviously not a virgin that
no unicorn with the slightest discernment in such matters would be
deceived by her…” Additionally, a Greek grammarian of the 12th
century states that a boy dressed as a maiden will suffice since the
unicorn cannot tell the difference, but the garments must be heavily
Another development in
the Unicorn-Virgin stories is the method the unicorn is drawn to the
maiden. In the early stories, the maiden is left alone in the woods in
the hope that a unicorn would find her by scent. In later stories, the
maiden is no longer alone but is joined with several other maidens. In a
later development, the hunters were no longer passive observers waiting in
the wings to capture the animal. Now they a joined by hunting dogs,
together they ‘herd’ the unicorn in the direction of the virgin. Once in
site of the virgin, the unicorn is drawn in by her captivating “virgin
scent” thereby allowing itself to be captured by the hunters.
There were numerous
accounts of the unicorn throughout the Middle Ages. However, they were
only unique in the types of embellishments attached to much older
stories. As the stories grew in number it became much more difficult to
tell who had borrowed from whom. One thing is certain, the unicorn
attracted more attention in the Middle Ages than nearly any other
creature. It was also the only creature among the mythological beasts
mentioned in the Physiologus to survive into the Renaissance.
As to the origins of
the Unicorn-Virgin myths may lie in what we now refer to as a typo. Dr.
Leo Wiener of Harvard University draws a parallel to the descriptions of
the unicorn in Physiologus to a creature called the antholops
(antelope) from an 11th century Latin manuscript. The
antholops is a fierce creature, unapproachable by hunters. It has two
long horns that can cut down oak trees. It drinks from the Euphrates
River where it finds soft branches of a vine that it plays in, and which
it gets completely tangled in. Once trapped in the vines it cries out for
help only to be heard by hunters who then kill it. This sounds strikingly
like the unicorn stories. The ‘typo’ referred to earlier lies in the
words virge (twigs) and virgo (virgin). It is Dr. Wiener’s opinion that a
scribe may have copied the word incorrectly. This text could have been a
source for Physiologus. If it was, it would date the Physiologus
to 711ce – since this is when the Arabs came in contact with Latin.
However, Shepard states that there are flaws in this theory. There
existed Unicorn-Virgin stories before 711ce, some 400 years before.
Additionally, Pope Gelasius condemned the Physiologus in the fifth
century, long before Wiener claims the work appeared. Unfortunately my
background is not such that I can determine the truth or falsehood behind
either man’s theory. Since I have not read Dr. Wiener’s work myself, I
can only provide the opinions and statements of Shepard.
Arabic literature in
the 14th century has its own Unicorn-Virgin story. It contains
a few differences from the other texts I have discussed. Notably, once
the unicorn sees the virgin, it goes to her lap and indicates it wants
milk, since it loves milk. Once it has suckled from the virgin’s breast
it becomes drunk from the milk. It is at this point that the hunters can
kill it. The text also indicates that any beautiful girl will do if a
virgin is not available.
Shepard draws in many
interesting parallels between the Unicorn-Virgin mythos and other similar
mythos. One story details how elephants are hunted – 2 nude maidens go
into the forest and sing, the elephant (who likes music) comes to them,
suckles their breast and falls asleep, the maidens then drain its blood
(which is used as fabric dye). Another item Shepard lists is in Siam and
South Africa the horn of a virginal female rhinoceros is sold for ten
times the price of any other rhinoceros horn as it is believed to be a
much more powerful prophylactic. He even attempts to parallel the myth of
Diana (the virgin goddess of the hunt) and her ties with the “horned moon
which has had control over poisons since the beginnings of superstition.”
(Lore of the Unicorn. pg 65) However, one thing that Shepard continually
leaves out of his book is the dates and origins of his sources. These
comparisons are certainly worthy of investigation but without knowing
their age and origin, it is hard to build a timeline. (I am working on
creating this currently)
story comes from Jesuits missionaries who visited Ethiopia. They tell of
how the rhinoceros is hunted. Ethiopians begin by training a female
monkey for the hunt. They wait for the rhinoceros at the base of the
Mountains of the Moon (where they state is the only place a rhino can be
found). Once a rhino appears, they send the female monkey to dance and do
tricks for it. It is amused by the monkey’s antics and in its state of
amusement the monkey climbs on the rhino’s back and ‘scratches & rubs his
back.’ The rhino is even more pleased with this, the monkey then jumps off
and rubs his belly. The rhino is so sedated by this that it is easily
overcome and killed by the hunters. [My cat would fall for this too]
Shepard does point out that it is uncertain which tale is older but this
one certain seems to be the more realistic of the two. It is also more
likely to be ancient as the monkey tale is one told by hunters