History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

27 April 2007

Medieval Unicorns and Maidens of the Purest Kind

I recently learned more than I wanted to know about unicorns. Just surfin the net one night last week doing “research,” I decided to just look up what the hell a unicorn really is. A cross between a horse and a goat? A horned ungulate with equid mane and tail? What exactly?

If you want an in depth explanation of what unicorns really might have been, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicorn.

But since the unicorn has such a prominent presence in western medieval mythology and symbolism, I focused on the “can only be captured by a virgin” part of the lore.

Gotta say, when I poked a little deeper (no pun intended) into the obviously erotic and very phallic symbolism behind the unicorn’s horn, it me made me think twice about the beasts.

I had no idea that the relationship between the elusive unicorn and the virgin of the “purest kind” (is there any other kind?) was anything but platonic. Medieval art frequently depicts women in suggestive poses or scantly clad in the presence of a unicorn. Apparently, unicorns were incredibly attracted to a virgin’s scent and in some cases (but not always) she must be naked before he would climb into her lap and fall asleep---this of course after he suckled at her breast (let us assume he was thirsty), or she suckled him (not gonna go there), or she fondled him. Once he was asleep, he was killed by hiding hunters and his horn was removed. The prized horn you see, could detect the poison in a great lord’s drink.

In 12th and 13th century England, it was a common belief that a woman’s truthfulness about her virginity could be definitively determined by a unicorn. If you stood a woman in front of a unicorn, he could tell if she was a virgin or not…if he determined she was not, he would run his horn through her heart. If she was a virgin he would naturally take a liking to her, and if she had a suitor or got married, her lover or husband was at risk for being run through.

So maidens beware. Avoid encounters with a unicorn. They are not warm fuzzies. ;-)

Any other unicorn facts and trivia you care to share?


Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Fabulous picture!

I need to read my bible a little closer, obviously. They're listed in both psalms and job? Wow.

And really, who doesn't enjoy a good phallic symbol? ;)

7:15 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I just want to take the opportunity to urge all and any of you who haven't seen the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters in New York City to do so on your next trip there.

It's an easy (if long) subway ride uptown; take your choice of 2 stops, after which you get to the cloisters by one of two lovely walks: one thru playground and park, the other through a gorgeous garden.

Here's a link to a video about the tapestries. And some info about how the tapestries got to the Cloisters. And more info about the Cloisters themselves, an astonishing collection of medieval art housed in buildings reconstructed from actual medieval cloisters.

The stuff of fairy tale high on a hill in a workaday neighborhood at the upper tip of Manhattan. (If you're going, contact me and I'll tell you more about subway routes and the two walks to get there.)

7:57 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Pam! Love the link! Thank you for posting that. Amazing!

6:59 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Beth,

Th image is a painting by Gustav Moreau (1826-1898).

The guy had a thing about women and unicorns! Check out:





7:06 PM  

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