The Association of the Lady and the Unicorn, and the Hunting Mythology of the Caucasus. (Research Article)

By Hunt, David | Folklore, April 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Association of the Lady and the Unicorn, and the Hunting Mythology of the Caucasus. (Research Article)


Hunt, David, Folklore


Abstract

Written evidence from the hunting folk literature of the Caucasus is presented together with the suggestion that the origin of the unicorn lies in hunting mythology and that remnants of it are to be seen in the figures in "The Lady and the Unicorn" tapestries in France.

Introduction

This paper discusses the association between the figures of the lady and the unicorn, particularly in light of records of survivals of the cult of a hunting goddess in the Caucasus Mountains. The hunter might be considered as a subsidiary figure in this association. The basic argument of the paper will incorporate the following.

* Classical descriptions of the unicorn; nearly all refer to hunting and often to mountains. In high mountainous areas of Europe and the near East, the most important prey animal for hunters is typically a goat, ibex or chamois (in the lower forested areas, it is often a deer).

* Ancient depictions of the unicorn usually show an animal with many goat-like characteristics.

* In all hunting cultures there is an owner; sometimes a master, but more often a mistress of the beasts.

* Stories of the owner of the beasts have faded from Western Europe but still exist in the Caucasus Mountains, where the owner's special animals have some characteristics in common with the legendary unicorn.

* There are a few recorded remnants in Western Europe, where there is a divergence of traditions associating the lady and the beasts. These two traditions are epitomised in the contrast between two famous sets of tapestries that were each woven c. 1500 A.D. and known as "The Lady and the Unicorn." In one set, now housed in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the lady is a virgin whom the hunters appear to use purely as bait to lure the wild unicorn to her lap so that it can be captured or killed (Freeman 1976). In the other set, held by the Musee National du Moyen Age in Paris, the lady appears to own or control both the unicorn and a large feline animal, which is usually identified as a lion. In this latter set of tapestries, she is clearly in a position of authority relative to her animals, and there is no sign of a hunter.

This paper combines some of the evidence, especially from the Caucasus Mountains, to suggest that the unicorn legend has its origins in ancient hunting mythology, which has almost disappeared from most of Europe, but has survived in the Caucasus Mountains.

Some Classical Descriptions of the Unicorn

Quite understandably, none of the writers who described the unicorn had actually seen one; they relied on second-hand information, verbal or pictorial.

* One of the earliest descriptions is by Ctesias, about 400 B.C.. After a detailed description of the animal "as large as a horse," and with a white body and a single horn of one cubit (about 50 cm) in length, he described in detail how they can be hunted. He stressed the extreme speed and strength of the unicorn, and that it cannot be taken alive by hunters. He placed this animal in India (Ctesias 1947, 80-2).

* A unicorn is mentioned in the Bible (Daniel 8:5-7 and 21).

* Aristotle (384-22 B.C.) gave a brief description of two animals, one with a cloven hoof and one with a solid hoof (Aristotle 1965, 221). Here it is described as "a he-goat [who] came from the west, skimming over the whole earth without touching the ground; it had a prominent horn between its eyes."

* Julius Caesar (102-44 B.C.) described an "ox, shaped like a stag," with a single tall, straight horn, which sticks up higher and straighter than those of the animals we know, and it lived in the Hercynian Forest in Germany (Caesar 1951, 37).

* Pliny (23-79 A.D.) depicted an animal "with a body like a horse, head like a stag, feet like an elephant and tail like a boar ... one black horn two cubits long projects from the middle of its forehead." "This animal cannot be taken alive" (Pliny 1956, 57).

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