Why We’re All So Horny About Unicorns

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UnicornsI lost the hope of seeing one because some say they only appear to virgins.”

We see the colourful horned steed on the t-shirts of mustachioed hipsters in Shoreditch; their silver blood is the lifeline for Lord Voldemort; the creature has become a catch-word for success in Silicon Valley; they’re featured in silly addictive online games like Robot Unicorn Attack and even sillier viral YouTube videos like Charlie the Unicorn.

Cultural trends typically parallel the world around them. In our current climate of financial and political uncertainty, for instance, we see the rise and popularity of dystopias and tales of the apocalypse (just walk into any cinema or read The Sunday Times Best Seller List). Clearly such depictions of disaster are very much in our shared cultural imagination. But one current trend seems to defy this theory, to spit in its face with a sickly mix of cute and whimsy. Somehow, out of the grim, financially destitute, and morally bankrupt world that is the 21st century, the classic myth of the unicorn has returned to our hearts and minds.

It all started with the ancient Greeks who didn’t see the unicorn as a mythological beast, they thought it was real. A winged horse like Pegasus could totally be considered make-believe, but a horse with a horn made out of who knows what (fairy dust? philosopher’s farts?) was completely credulous. And so, the unicorn started off as a creature written about by natural historians. The earliest recording of the unicorn was by Ctesias in his book “On India.” Aristotle was next, then Pliny the Elder, and soon enough, Marco Polo too. Contemporary historians suggest that all of these philosophers and explorers are mistakenly attributing the word “unicorn” to a variety of animals including: the rhinoceros, the oryx, and the narwhal (and in case you didn’t know what a narwhal is: it’s a whale with a spirally horn).

Vikings in Norway would trade narwhal horns for over 300 years, keeping the secret of where or what they actually came from. A genius money-making scheme considering back then it was believed that unicorn horns could detect poison. By the middle ages, unicorn horns had become a cottage industry. It was widely believed up to the 18th century that unicorn horns had medicinal properties. Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century was given a unicorn horn by explorer Martin Frobisher and the horn was triumphantly titled: “The Horn of Windsor.” At the time, such a horn was worth ten times its weight in gold.

Now when Pliny wrote about the unicorn, he described it as “the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of it’s forehead. It’s cry is a deep bellow.” Pliny’s unicorn doesn’t sound like a friendly guy, he seems to embody all the fears of the unknown world that our forbearers had yet to discover. All rather telling of their times.

So at what point did we transform our fantasies of the unicorn into the pearly white, fairy-like creature sprinkling happiness and joy, when originally it was believed to be such a beast? And whilst our new unicorns are lovely, colourful and fun – one still wonders: where did they come from and why, in our current history, have they become so popular again?

The truth is a unicorn is a made-up thing, and can be anything you need it to be. Pliny needed to scare people, and we today need something magical to pin our hopes to. Of course we know unicorns aren’t real, but it does it really matter? We all know that the make-believe is much more comforting than reality, and since for much of the Western world religion is no longer so widely practised, perhaps we enjoy having faith in something else, whether its true love, veganism or… unicorns. In an interview with Art News Magazine, contemporary artist Shinique Smith, who keeps My Little Ponies on her desk for inspiration, sums this idea up saying “I feel like they evoke a sparkle of graceful mystery and remind me of my own youthful wishes.”

But bad to good, beastly to kindly, isn’t the only transformation in the unicorn tale. In the Middle Ages it was common knowledge that to capture a unicorn you had to have virgin woman at hand. Even Raphael used this idea; his ‘Portrait of a Lady with Unicorn’ given to the future in-laws of the pretty blonde subject, show the bride-to-be with a tiny pet unicorn symbolising her chastity.

Given the track record of unicorns caught, society seemed to suggest a virgin woman was a tough find. If you happen to be the lucky one who finds either of these supposedly mystical creatures, you’ve stumbled across the real Holy Grail.

Shinique Smith commented on this herself, noting “I suppose as an adult I lost the hope of seeing one because some say they only appear to virgins.” But virgins are no longer the desired dish of choice and unicorn bait. Urban Dictionary describes a unicorn as a woman willing to sleep with a husband and wife, move in and raise their children – but not have any of her own, or her own partner – a mythical figure… but surely there’s one is out there?

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