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Unicorns as Phallic Symbols

Unicorns, often paired with virgins, may appear innocent, but the unicorn is part of many sexual legends in mythology.

By Filthy StaffPublished 8 years ago 14 min read
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A documentary movie about the uncharted central region of New Guinea made its rounds in the art-theater circuit many years ago. It boasted some outstanding photography, an uncommonly intelligent narration, and—since the American censor boards frown on the genitals of civilized people only—some unusually frank sequences of naked natives. One of the more memorable reels showed a tribe of savage Papuans whose penises are sheathed in long, horn-like shields, tied to their waists to resemble the erect phallus.

As one New York film critic put it, "It is the ultimate expression of wishful thinking"; the only civilized equivalents one can think of are the "falsies" worn by men in the days of tight silk trousers. The striking similarity between these impressive contraptions and the horn of the unicorn on the British Royal Arms may not be intentional, but it is by no means merely coincidental. You don't need an all-embracing erudition in folk customs or a wild imagination to perceive that they represent one and the same thing.

Photo via Unicorn in Art

Symbolism of Horns

Horns have had sexual significance since the dawn of history—not only because of their shape, but because they represent the power, virility, and fierceness of the great god of fecundity worshipped by most early civilizations, the bull. Representing the animal-god in initiation ceremonies and in rites of seasonal prosperity, horns became a symbol of fertility and abundance. Primitive shamans, savage chieftains, Assyrian kings, Persian emperors, Roman priests, Viking captains, Venetian doges, Indian sepoys, German soldiers, and, proverbially, plain ordinary cuckolds have worn them, have drunk from them, or have blown into them since primordial days.

Unlike the less inhibited Papuans, they usually wore them on their heads; but the displacement does not change the horn's symbolism. The terms of reference—conscious or otherwise—have always been the same. There is little difference in symbolic significance between King David's collection of Philistine foreskins and the belt of skulls or scalps with which the savage headhunter adorned his hips. In both cases, the trophies served as proof of the courage and total triumph of their new possessors, and provide a way to acquire the virility or mental prowess of the dead foe. For the conjuration of such double victories, the cranially located and phallically shaped horn, taken from the formidable bull, was the most obvious choice. There was only one flaw: Nature manufactured horns in pairs, and for the phallic purposes of Homo sapiens this was one too many. The human imagination, therefore, created a horn that was single, besides being straight, strong, and long: the phallic symbol par excellence.

True, a single-horned beast—the Indian rhinoceros—did and does exist. In fact, the legend of the unicorn was born in India, and in his infancy, about 2,500 years ago, the creature bore a remarkable resemblance to the rhino. But as the ideal image of the perfect male became progressively gentler, tamer, and more civilized, the rhinoceros with its graceless, stubby horn could no longer serve as an appropriate symbol. Some careful breeding and crossbreeding with snakes, horses, antelopes, goats, and asses had to take place in the human mind before the animal could emerge as the answer to man's mystic needs and become the ideal reflection of himself. Then, around the fifth century after Christ, after 1,000 years of transformation, the beast matured: graceful yet invincible, gallant yet ferocious, humble yet heroic... the valiant knight, the king of beasts, the charging male, the living god—the unicorn.

Painting by Raphael

The Unicorn is Born

Thus endowed, the unicorn attracted more attention in the next 1,000 years than any other animal, legendary or real; He was the only imaginary animal to survive the transition from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. In all of Western history, no beast has been more significant to the imagination and more prominent in literature and art than the unicorn, and none has added a more sexually revealing and universally meaningful legend to the lore of the human race.

There are many versions of the legend, and a standard one runs as follows: "The unicorn, something between a horse and a kid, is amazingly powerful for his size. He has one long sharp, conically shaped horn on his brow. He cannot be taken by force, but only through the following trick: The hunters lead a virgin into the woods, and as soon as the unicorn smells and sees her he runs to her and lays his horn in her lap. She fondles him until he falls asleep. Then the hunters approach and either capture him and lead him to the palace of the king, or kill him, cut off his horn, and bring it to the king."

As if to dispel any doubts about the strong sexual character of the story, some of the versions specify that the virgin is beautiful and naked; that the unicorn "throws himself upon her"; that she offers him her breasts, he sucks them and "conducts himself familiarly with her"; that she "openyth her lappe and the Unycorne layeth thereon his heed"; and that she grasps his horn and thereby renders him capturable. All these are clerical versions in which the language is tame.

The secular versions were a little blunter. One of them, by the 16th century Italian Noel Conti, states: "The wild beast desires the virgin's sexual embrace." In the Vedic versions of the story the unicorn is beguiled by a woman of the lowest caste. In another, it is the king's daughter who leads him to the palace by a ruse. In a Far Eastern version he is seduced, loses his powers, and is taken to the royal palace with the girl riding him. According to a Tibetan legend, the unicorn "is first angered by his son who breaks his [the unicorn's] vessels which contain water, and then, in his fury, he stops the rain in the land and causes a drought. The daughter of the king intoxicates and seduces him, and as long as he has intercourse with her it rains, thereby securing the fertility of the land."

The unicorn captured the imagination of writers in all parts of the world, and in the European literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance he occupied a dominant position. Descriptions of the unicorn abound in European epics from the 3rd century to the 16th, and Shakespeare, who was one of the first disbelievers in its existence, mentions the unicorn several times. The animal almost invariably provided writers with a useful erotic metaphor. In his Parsifal saga, the 13th century German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach describes the ruby taken from beneath the unicorn's horn to cure the King of the Grail:

We caught the beast called unicornThat knows and loves a maiden bestAnd falls asleep upon her breast;We took from underneath his hornThe splendid male carbuncle-stoneSparkling against the white skull-bone.

Rabelais says of the horn, "Commonly it dangles like a turkey-cock's comb, but when a unicorn has a mind to fight or put it to any other use, what does he do but make it stand, and then it is as straight as an arrow." And in Aubrey Beardsley's Venus and Tannhäuser there is a chapter about Adolphe, Venus's pet unicorn, who has "no mate except the queen herself," and is insanely jealous of her. Venus, having the kind of taste that befits her role, commences her day by masturbating the unicorn and drinking his semen as an apéritif before breakfast.

Photo via Wired

Unicorns in Religion

The psychological connotations of the unicorn legend were not lost on the subconscious of the Medieval clerics. Incredibly, the virgin of the legend—despite her duplicity and her pronounced sexual attraction to and for the unicorn—was identified with the Virgin Mary. The simultaneously humble and all-powerful unicorn represented the Messiah, and the identity of the hunters ranged from “Representatives of the Holy Spirit led by the angel Gabriel” to “the perfidious Jews.” (The implication that the Virgin Mary should go to all that trouble to help the Jews kill her son constitutes one of those quaint twists of the Medieval mind.)

The superposition of a religious allegory on an obviously sexual legend, and particularly the identification of the scheming, lustful Delilah-like virgin with the Virgin, presented an enigma for many centuries. Only contemporary psychoanalytical techniques offer satisfactory explanations, of which several are plausible.

In the strong patriarchal Hebrew-Christian tradition, the unicorn may have represented the son who is punished for his incestuous designs upon his mother. The pre-Christian stories about Reuben, who “defiled” his father Jacob's bed, and about Absalom, who launched his rebellion by copulating with his father David's concubines on the roof of the royal palace, are precedents. But the most convincing interpretation is based on Ernest Jones's contention that the unicorn, like the dove or the wind, represents the Delegate, the Word of God, which is so powerful that it can impregnate the virgin. The maiden is virginal and deceitful in the fantasy because the son subconsciously wants her to detest the father, only to pretend to love him, to remain chaste, and to deliver him to her real friends—the son and his emissaries. The hunters, the emissaries of the son, kill this symbol of the father and “bring him to the palace of the [new] king.” The son, the new king, now gets the horn of the old king, his power and virility, and probably the virgin. Thus the fundamental, ancient drama of the Oedipus murder is re-enacted in the classic legend of the unicorn.

In spite of the fantastic legends, or perhaps because of them, the belief in the actual existence of the unicorn continued well into the 19th century, and as late as the 1600s doubts about his reality were considered almost tantamount to heresy in the Christian world. The scarcity of wild animals in Europe and the great distance and unapproachability of the mysterious lands of Asia, Africa, and—later—the Americas can partly explain the Medieval lore of fantastic animals. If the 20th century can enjoy serious arguments about the existence of the Loch Ness monster and the Abominable Snowman, it should not be surprising that man once believed in the existence of the unicorn, which, after all, was mentioned in various versions of the Bible (through an incorrect translation from the Hebrew) and about which, such notables as Aristotle and Caesar, had no doubts.

Even the most fantastic descriptions of the unicorn did not make his physical characteristics any less plausible and more baffling than the platypus’s. But in the Medieval mind the unicorn was much more than an animal whose natural idiosyncrasy was an urge to put his horn in a maiden's lap. His role as the leading actor in the universal folk-play of the god-murder and the symbolism of his horn gave the unicorn an aura of omnipotent magic. And during the better part of his career, for almost a thousand years, the unicorn provided Medieval and Renaissance Europe with the most expensive wonder drug in history: the unicorn's horn, the alicorn.

Photo via Eros

All Hail the Alicorn

No story of human credulity can surpass the saga of this horn (“specimens” of which can still be seen in Europe), and none can serve better to mirror man's folly. With the exception of a few travelers, hunters, and other natural liars, who as recently as 100 years ago described unicorns that had crossed their paths in the deserts of Asia (particularly in the Holy Land), the jungles of Africa, the woods of Europe, or the wilderness of Long Island, virtually nobody has ever claimed to have seen the animal in the flesh—dead or alive. But his horn—the alicorn—was bought and sold in Europe for twenty times its weight in gold, and as much as 100,000 pounds sterling was paid for the British “Horn of Windsor.”

No self-respecting king, pope, prince, or nobleman felt secure without it. Set with regal splendor in silver and gold and extravagantly studded with rubies and diamonds, alicorns were kept in palace treasuries with the crown jewels, in castles under armed guard, and in great churches and monasteries under lock and key. They were regarded as sacred objects, were used as pontifical staffs, and were never shown to the public except on state occasions. All of which can hardly be surprising, for what other possession could match it for practical value?

It could provide you, according to one Medieval doctor's advertisement, with “A Most Excellent Drink, made with a true Unicorn's Horn, or a powder of same Horn [which] doth Effectually Cure these Diseases: Scurvy, Old Ulcers, Dropsie, Running Gout, Consumptions, Distillations, Coughs, Palpitations of the Heart, Fainting Fits, Convulsions, Kings Evil, Rickets in Children, bites of mad dogs and scorpions, worms, fluxes, Melancholy or Sadness, The Green Sickness, Childlessness, Obstructions and all Distempers proceeding from a Cold Cause, and it prevents Diseases and Infections by fortifying the Noble Parts, and powerfully expels what is an Enemy to Nature, preserving the Vigour, Youth, and a good Complexion to Old Age. The Virtue is of such force, as to resist an Injury from an unsound Bedfellow. None can excel this, for it is joyned with the Virtue of a true Unicorn's Horn, through which the Drink passeth, and being impregnated therewith, it doth wonderfully Corroborate and Cure, drinking it warm at any time of Day, about a quarter of a Pint at a time, the oftener the better, the Price is 2 shillings the Quart. Likewise the horn hath Admirable Medicines for the Cure of the Pox, of Running of the Reins, with all Simptoms and Accidents thereto belonging whether newly taken or of long Continuance....Whosoever makes use of these Admirable Medicines may have further Advice from the Doctor without Charge.” (Why anyone might need a doctor's advice after taking this medicine is puzzling).

The horn itself acquired a reputation as the only reliable detector of poisons, the administration of which was a popular past time among the princes, as well as the paupers of the time. The fact that kings and prelates, despite their alicorns, died like flies in the hands of poisoners, and that the plagues showed no discrimination on behalf of alicorn owners, did not seem to bother anyone, and it affected the price of alicorns least of all.

A case in point is the discovery in Italy of a society of young women devoted solely to the systematic poisoning of their mates. The husbands had obviously forgotten to use their alicorn powders, because most of the women had become merry widows by the time the plot was uncovered. (The members of this quaint sisterhood were punished rather severely for their success: They were marched naked through the streets of Rome, flogged in public, and hanged). But the reputation of the unicorn's precious horn remained intact.

Until the French Revolution the magic horn, which was supposed to “sweat” in the presence of poisons, was passed over all foods served at the king's household. Whether this ritual was merely a custom sanctified by tradition or an expression of real belief in the horn's supernatural powers, the point is that nobody dared abolish the practice. For centuries, men of great wisdom and learning argued, debated, and wrote hundreds of books about the properties of the alicorn; its shape and color, length and breadth, texture and weight, efficacy and usage. Ironically and ludicrously, a major part of this effort was devoted to the differences between fake and “real” alicorns, and the fine points of the tests required for the determination of the genuine article were fought over with scholastic zeal and passion.

Painting by Dosso Dossi

Artificial Alicorns

Like today's FBI warnings against unlikely bargains offered by con men, the basic Medieval advice to the innocent about the purchasing of the alicorn stressed the implausibility of too low a price. “The true horn is rarer than precious stones so that none but great princes can hope to possess even a piece of one.” Nevertheless, there was hardly anything that could not, or did not, pass for an alicorn, and particularly for alicorn powder; common substitutes were burned cow horn, whale bone, various kinds of clay, the bones of dogs and of pigs, limestone, and the bones of fossilized animals.

And what was the “real” alicorn, that ultimate prize, that greatest treasure known to man, which commanded twenty times its weight in gold? Usually a walrus or narwhal tusk, molded according to the specifications of the legends through the childishly simple process of boiling and reshaping. Incredibly, until the 17th century, no scientist bothered to discover that the “real” horn was not made of horn at all, but of ivory. And even after the discovery, more than 200 years elapsed before all faith in the reality of the unicorn finally died.

What made this monumental gullibility possible? Scientific scholarship in the Middle Ages was, in most areas, almost completely paralyzed by the general acceptance of superstition as fact. It is perhaps a measure of the Medieval man's barbarity that he accepted, without question, anything that originated in the more advanced East, adapting and incorporating it into the Christian ethos and revering it as divine.

By importing the fabulous Eastern legends about the unicorn's godliness, the crusades probably did more for his reputation as a panacea than the millions of learned words written by monks about the miraculous properties of his horn. Additionally, the doctors and pharmacists, who had an interest in selling the alicorns and their by-products to the public, made every possible effort to perpetuate the myth. Throughout Europe, the common sign of apothecary shops was the figure of a unicorn or of his head and horn, and as late as 1617, when the Apothecaries’ Society of London was founded, two unicorns were chosen as the supporters of its arms. The English Royal Society of Physicians, which listed drugs that every registered pharmacist in London had to carry, had the unicorn's horn on all its lists until 1746.

Painting by Domenichino

Phallic Significance of the Unicorn

But the millennium-long European enslavement to the unicorn cannot be fully explained without returning to the phallic significance of the horn and its role in man's cultural development. In many Eastern languages, the slang term for the phallus means “horn,” and in English the expression horny is well known. The same is true in Italian: The word corno (“horn”) is the argot for phallus—and, significantly, all sorts of charms and amulets are called un corno.

Present manifestations of the age-old belief in the prophylactic power of the horn can be seen throughout Europe, particularly in the Mediterranean countries, where the corno, an amulet representing a single horn and made of coral, silver, nickel, or bone, is used as a charm against the evil eye. It can be seen on necklaces and under clothing, on baby carriages, shop windows, and wagons, and as headgear for horses suspended so that it is constantly in motion and pointing forward. The Zulu witch doctor's medicine bag contains nothing but twenty horns tied together, and the Hindu who recovers from illness gives thanks to sculptured phalluses.

The common symbolism in all these is self-evident. The passionate, blind belief in the unicorn was phallic worship in European dress. In seeking the protection of the horn, the European man of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance expressed his fear of the unknown, his dread of disease, his mystic primordial guilt, and his desperate aspiration for eternal life. In these he was not very different from us.

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Filthy Staff

A group of inappropriate, unconventional & disruptive professionals. Some are women, some are men, some are straight, some are gay. All are Filthy.

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