India, according to the Natural History of the Elder Pliny, was home to some of the world’s most amazing animals (Plin. nat. 8.76, transl. H. Rackham):
He says that in India there are also oxen with solid hoofs and one horn, and a wild animal, named axis, with the hide of a fawn but with more spots and whiter ones, belonging to the ritual of Father Liber (the Orsaean Indians hunt monkeys that are a bright white all over the body); but that the fiercest animal is the unicorn, which in the rest of the body resembles a horse, but in the head a stag, in the feet an elephant, and in the tail a boar, and has a deep bellow, and a single black horn three feet long projecting from the middle of the forehead. They say that it is impossible to capture this animal alive.
The magic of the fabled, indomitable unicorn (monoceros in Greek, unicornis in Latin – often thought to be a reference to rhinos or antelopes, despite some apparent discrepancies in their appearance as it is described in Graeco-Roman sources) was not lost on the ancients, either.
Aelian reports (On Animals 3.41, transl. A. F. Schofield):
India produces horses with one horn, they say, and the same country fosters asses with a single horn. And from these horns they make drinking-vessels, and if anyone puts a deadly poison in them and a man drinks, the plot will do him no harm. For it seems that the horn both of the horse and of the ass is an antidote to the poison.
Perhaps the single-most remarkable account on unicorns that survives from the ancient world, however, is that of the so-called Physiologus (‘the Naturalist’), a Christian didactic text dating to the mid-to-late Empire. Originally written in Greek, the Physiologus survives in multiple languages through a most peculiar tradition, and it has been hugely influential beyond the ancient world with its description of (partly fabled, partly real) creatures as well as its provision of allegorical exegeses.
In its twenty-sixth chapter, the Physiologus reports on the unicorn (here in Latin, following versio B 31-32; my translation):
Physiologus dicit unicornem hanc habere naturam: pusillum animal est, simile haedo, acerrimum nimis, unam cornu habens in medio capite. Et nullus omnino uenator eum capere potest; sed hoc argumento eum capiunt: puellam uirginem ducunt in illum locum ubi moratur, et dimittunt eam in siluam solam; at ille uero, mox ut uiderit eam, salit in sinum uirginis, et complectitur eam, et sic comprehenditur, et exhibetur in palatio regis.
The naturalist says that the unicorn is like this in nature: it is a small animal, like a kid, yet very fierce, with one horn on the middle of its head. And no hunter can capture it; yet there is one way of capturing it: a maiden girl is led to the very place where it dwells, and they send her into the grove alone; and the unicorn, as soon as it sees her, jumps into the maiden’s lap and embraces her, and that how he is captured and can be introduced to the royal palace.
The Physiologus quickly volunteers a Christian interpretation this creature and its appearance (ibid.; transl. Verner/Carmody):
In this way our lord Jesus Christ, the spiritual unicorn, descended into the womb of the virgin, assumed human flesh, was captured by the Jews, and was sentenced to death on the cross; concerning this David said: and as the beloved son of unicorns [Ps. 28.6]; and yet again in another psalm it is said of him: And my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn [Ps. 91.11]. And Zachariah said: he has raised up a horn of salvation to us, in the house of David, his servant [Luc. 1.69]. And in Deuteronomy Moses blesses the tribe of Joseph: his beauty as of the firstling of a bullock, his horn as the horn of the unicorn [Deut. 33.17].
That he has one horn on his head signifies what the savior said: I and the father are one [John 10.30]. He is said to be shrewd since neither principalities, powers, thrones, nor dominations can comprehend him, nor can hell hold him. He is small because of the humility of his incarnation. He said “Learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart” [Matt. 11.29]. He is so shrewd that that most clever devil cannot comprehend him or find him out, but through the will of the Father alone he came down into the womb of the Virgin Mary for our salvation.”And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” [John 1.14]. The unicorn is like the kid, as is our Savior according to the Apostle: “He was made in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin he condemned sin in the flesh” [Rom. 8.3] This was spoken well of the unicorn.
Even to the staunchest among present-day Christians this late-antique and medieval form of exegesis must appear somewhat … shall we say … inscrutable – but then, who knew that the unicorn was so closely linked to Christmas!
What appeals to me first and foremost, though, is the beautifully romantic idea that an otherwise indomitable, wild, elusive, and magical creature – a creature in many respects similar to a haedus, a baby goat, with its fierce energy and lascivious abandon, a creature that no man can capture – is attracted to, and altogether submitting to, the purity of a girl.
This year has seen so much misery, so much pain, so much death, so much destruction, so much hatred, so much needless suffering all over the world.
Kid-like abandon, a spirit that cannot be captured, but is ready to yield to innocence, and protective powers against toxicity and dastardliness: those seem like excellent wishes for the festive season and for a better 2017.
Happy Holidays, everyone!