Throwing Down the Gauntlet

Justine, in her otherwise excellent post covering Simon Pegg’s elegant and insightful article about zombies-as-metaphor-and-cultural-phenomenon, continues her appallingly prejudiced stance against unicorns:

Unicorns as a metaphor? For what exactly? Tooth decay? Give me a break. They are a beastie entirely without resonance.

Au contraire, mon Aussie amie! Also, fie! There are very few monsters with more allegorical resonance than the unicorn. Alchemists actually used the unicorn in their pictoral language as a symbol of purity, of femininity, and of fertility. As a phallic symbol the unicorn can’t be beat. Carl Jung, who was a big fan of the idea of symbols belonging to the collective unconsciousness, was downright obsessed with the unicorn and its place in alchemical literature. He says, “The virgin represents the passive feminine aspect while [the unicorn] is the wild, rampant masculine force.” (And really, that only scrapes the surface of what Jung said about the unicorn, but I’m sure you can imagine a lot more.)

In the early Christian church, the unicorn was represented (due to mentions in Psalms) as possessing health and strength. It is alternately aligned with Christ (whereby the image of the unicorn and virgin would be an allegory for the Pietas, or the dying unicorn/Christ in the lap of the Virgin) or, more specifically, the unicorn and virgin were a symbol of Mary having conceived by The Holy Spirit, which is a slightly more sexualized take on the matter.

The unicorn-as-Christ metaphor linked with the unicorn-as-symbol-of-Holy-Spirit belief was prevalent throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. During this time, it was believed that animals with strong symbolic connotations actually possessed certain abilities. (Think about how people even now in some parts of the world will consume parts of a rhinoceros or tiger — both which are symbols of virility — in a belief that it will increase their sexual prowess.) If a unicorn was aligned with Christ, who everyone knew could heal the sick, raise the dead, transform water into wine, etc — woudl not having a piece of a unicorn do the same thing? Unicorn horns were thought to cure disease, purify wells, neutralize poisons. Unicorns, like virgins, were symbols of purity, which was why the unicorn would be attracted to or only tamed by a virgin.

Due to this inextricable link between the unicorn and the virgin, it became commonplace for the symbol of the unicorn to appear in a portrait of a woman in order to advertise her virginity. Nowadays, on dating sites, you see a picture of a woman and underneath, her stats: age, interests, occupation. Back then, portraits were painted of woman that did the same thing in an allegorical language. You may see a picture of a woman wearing a particular color or holding a flower (symbolizing her family crest), wearing jewelry or sitting in front of a backdrop of the land she would bring into the marriage as dowry. It was popular to include a unicorn in said picture, as if to say, “And she’s a virgin, too!”

Take this picture, painted by Raphael (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER: This picture plays a big part in my book.)

This was painted as part of a betrothal contract, and sent to the groom and his family as proof of what they were getting. Pretty girl, totally untouched. See the unicorn? What other proof do you need?


Justine has issued the following fighting words on her blog:

“Maybe in the olden days, Diana. But I don’t know if you noticed: this isn’t the olden days. No one allegories or alchemises no more. Unicorns are metaphorically as dead as the dodo.”

And again I say, not so!

Metaphors change over time. As Simon Pegg explains (and as Carrie Ryan will pontificate on to anyone who holds still for long enough), zombies were originally a Caribbean islander metaphor for slavery. More than “the walking dead” zombies were mindless slaves controlled by a voodoo master. It is only more recently, thanks to George Romero (who was strongly influenced by the vampire book, I Am Legend), that zombies became a metaphor for the spread of pandemics — the cannibalistic, brain eating, walking dead we know and love today.

The unicorn as metaphor has changed over time too. Retaining its original symbol of purity and innocence, the modern unicorn is now a symbol of childlike innocence and fantasy. this was an especially prevalent idea in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Unicorns were a common motif in psychedelic artwork, where they were a stand in for hallucinations. The horn was occasionally likened to the opening of the “third eye” in transcendentalism, and overall of the embrace of fantasy and of innocence as a powerful and positive lifestyle choice. The plot of The Last Unicorn is in large part a parable of the end of fantasy. In Legend and Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, unicorns are so aligned with goodness and purity that only the most evil of beings (Tim Curry as the Devil int eh former, and Lord Voldemort in the latter) would ever think to harm one. Unicorns are also used facetiously as a stand in for fantasy and innocence in the sense of “You’re living in a dream world.” Only yesterday, popular blogger and science fiction writer John Scalzi encouraged folks to get real about their expectations of the future president: “Barack Obama does not fart cinnamon-scented rainbows. He is not trailed by angels and unicorns.”

But perhaps you think this only further justifies the argument that unicorns have been taken out of the equation in terms of their ability to induce terror. Unciorns have been so embraced as good and innocent and pure and blahblah that they are, in fact, toothless, while zombies are still scary. I will concede that point to you. (See, I can reach across the aisle!) Which is why I attempt to reclaim unicorns in my book. Because they are big beasts and they have a spear attached to their foreheads.

Oh, and they run. FAST. Take that, you shuffling, shambling, death-symbol. Unicorns aren’t the death that creeps up on you. It’s the one that pounces and spears you right through the gut.

Posted in Justine, literature, unicorns, zombies

9 Responses to Throwing Down the Gauntlet

  1. You’re right. Unicorns are still a symbol. Of lame boring stuff. Hence my mentioning tooth decay. Because modern unicorns are saccharine beyond words. Sweeter than sugar even.


    The only fear they instill is of sugar overload.

    Clearly they are ripe for a renovation. Just as well Rampant does exactly that, eh?

  2. Pingback: Why zombies rule (updated) » Justine Larbalestier

  3. Carrie says:

    Since you are clearly sitting still since you are reading this, let me pontificate… actually, the Simon Pegg article does a pretty good job of summing up what I’d say anyways. I will point out how I think zombies (and zombie like monsters) have changed to reflect current social horrors. I think zombies create an excellent mirror to some of our worst social and personal fears which is why they’re so fun to write about.

    And I echo Justine on the unicorn renovation. Do you have to be a licensed contractor for that?

    Also interesting the Jung quote because I feel like there are so many different ways to find meaning in your title!

  4. Patrick says:

    Zombies are more frightening.

    There. I said it. Yes I did.

    See, with zombies(vampires and werewolves) it isn’t just fear of them killing you, there is fear of becoming one or having a loved one become one and eat/kill you.

    Fighting a bad unicorn, well, that’s sort of like being on the wrong end of the food chain.

  5. JulieLeto says:

    I just hope no one ever asks me to pontificate academically on phantoms.

  6. Phyllis Towzey says:

    I think the most terrifying stories of all are those when something trusted and familiar is portrayed in a different, evil light. Say, an angelic-looking small child in THE OMEN. Songbirds in THE BIRDS. The clown in IT. I can’t wait to see your vision of the unicorn, Diana.

  7. Pingback: Yatterings » Larbalestier on Zombies and Peterfreund on Unicorns

  8. Commander Smutticus says:

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Planet Unicorn.

    What other evidence do you need of unicorns still being metaphorically active?

    This further reinforces the view that unicorns are happy, _gay_ fun loving creatures. Of course it also ruins any notion of unicorns as virginity by tying them exclusively to a sexual orientation.

  9. Another nice example of the unicorn-as-symbol is the use of the term “unicorn” in the world of non-monogamous people to refer to a (single, young, attractive) bisexual woman who is interested in interacting sexually with (and/ or committing to)a heterosexual couple.

    Since these women are a) often sought and b) very rarely found, they answer nicely to key aspects of the unicorn’s mythological qualities.

    The inversion of the unicorn as symbol of female purity to a symbol of female promiscuity is interesting, to say the least. Apparently our views of hard-to-find-women and the qualities they embody has changed.

    The inversion of the the unicorn historically representing the attraction of the phallic to the virginal but now representing the sexual woman herself is probably also easy to explain. Projection much? 😛