Perhaps the most famous of the mythological beasts, save for the dragon, the unicorn (monoceros) has a long history dating back to antiquity, where he may be found in the writings of Aristotle, Aelian, Philostratus, and Pliny the Elder. In the eyes of the ancients, he was a hybrid animal like the ones that the Greeks and Romans were used to describing in their mythologies, even though this animal plays no real part in the lore of that culture. They describe him in fantastical terms, with the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the tail of a boar, and the feet of an elephant. And, of course, the single horn on its brow that identified him as the unicorn. One other detail remained, one that would persist throughout the rest of the unicorn's history: it could not be captured alive.
In the Middle Ages, the unicorn was a commonplace element in bestiaries that described real and imagined animals alike. In manuscripts, he is shown in a range of colors from brown to white to blue. He sometimes looks like a horse, at other times, a goat. Of course, the most famous image of him is held here in NYC, from the Cloisters Unicorn Tapestries. There, he is shown as a slight white horse tamed by a maiden.
The legend has it that only a virgin could tame the unicorn. This came down to us through the Physiologus bestiary: "He is a small animal, like a kid, but surprisingly fierce for his size, with one very sharp horn on his head, and no hunter is able to catch him by force. Yet there is a trick by which he is taken. Men lead a virgin to the place where he most resorts and leave her there alone. As soon as he sees this virgin he runs and lays his head in her lap. She strokes him and he falls asleep. The hunters then approach and capture him and lead him to the palace of the king."
The identification of the unicorn with Christ, white in his purity, able to only be tamed by the Virgin Mary, seems clear.
But thinking of what the unicorn of my imagination could have been like, I wondered about him and his tamer. Girls in this period were married very young, so in order for the tamer to be a virgin, she must have been just a child. What a horrible thing for a young girl to be used as the means to catch the elusive unicorn. Since many of the medieval images showed the unicorn as a goat, I wonder if he had some qualities of the goat. I made him slight and small, like a pony, and swift of foot, not so much larger than the child who would tame him. His cloven hooves make it easier for him to ascend rocky passages, where mounted hunters could not easily follow. His horn follows the twisting pattern of the narwhal horns (actually a tooth) that were sold as unicorn relics in Europe. In the border that surrounds him, I made a medieval-style unicorn hunt through the forest at night. Though the dogs and hunters close in on him, we know he will escape. There is no virgin to be found here, so our unicorn will win the day.
About fifteen months ago I was lying in my bed in the middle of the night. I wasn't sleeping well as I was recovering from my third abdominal surgery since I was a teenager. It's impossible to roll over due to the incisions (I sleep on my side) and my back was sore from being in one position. So I spent my time daydreaming, even though it was nighttime.
I imagined drawing a series of mythological beasts that looked realistic, and looked like they had been found within the pages of the books that described them. Did you ever wonder if these creatures were real and we've just forgotten them, or chose not to believe in them? If you consider mythology, it tells the stories of a culture that is defunct, or the stories of a religion in which you do not believe--but people once did believe. Is it possible, with some squinting of the eyes, that we could still see these creatures in the shadows of the forest? Is it possible to believe them back into being?
I can't pinpoint why the Griffin was the first on my list, the one that demanded attention from me. I like his long history, his roots in Egypt and Greece. In Egypt, old renditions associate griffins with the sun and with the lotus flower, so I've imbedded four lotuses within sun disks as a nod to his ancient heritage. I always imagine encountering such beasts nesting high up in dense forests; so I've filled his border with trees growing black feathers. The Egyptians, the Greeks (including Philostratus), the Italian writer Dante, and even the Persians wrote about griffins.
The text in the image below (yes, I've been playing on this concept recently), is from the middle ages. It's from a text of the fictional Sir John Mandeville, simply called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. It reads:
"In that country be many griffins, more plenty than in any other country. Some men say that they have the body upward as an eagle and beneath as a lion; and truly they say sooth, that they be of that shape. But one griffin hath the body more great and is more strong than eight lions, of such lions as be on this half, and more great and stronger than an hundred eagles such as we have amongst us. For one griffin there will bear, flying to his nest, a great horse, if he may find him at the point, or two oxen yoked together as they go at the plough. For he hath his talons so long and so large and great upon his feet, as though they were horns of great oxen or of bugles or of kine, so that men make cups of them to drink of. And of their ribs and of the pens of their wings, men make bows, full strong, to shoot with arrows and quarrels."
The text claims that Mandeville had traveled through the known world, from England, all the way through Europe to Northern Africa, Persia, and Turkey. He claims to have seen cotton plants that sprouted wooly lambs and goats:
If he believed in such wondrous plants, then the griffins of which he spoke must be real as well. I hope they are, somewhere out there.