Category Archives: Myth & Legend

Explainer: from bloodthirsty beast to saccharine symbol – the history and origins of the unicorn


Domenichino’s A Virgin with a Unicorn. Artists of the Middle Ages believed the unicorn could only be captured by a virgin.
Wikipedia Commons

Jenny Davis Barnett, The University of Queensland

The unicorn is an enduring image in contemporary society: a symbol of cuteness, magic, and children’s birthday parties.

But while you might dismiss this one-horned creature as just a product for Instagram celebrities and five-year-old girls, we can trace the lineage of the unicorn from the 4th century BCE. It evolved from a bloodthirsty monster, to a tranquil animal bringing peace and serenity (which can only be captured by virgins), to a symbol of God and Christ.

These days the term unicorn can refer to a privately held start-up company valued at over US$1 billion,
a single female interested in meeting other couples, or the characters in My Little Pony.

Over the centuries, the meaning and imagery of the unicorn has shifted and persisted. But how did we get here?

Ferocious beasts and where to create them

The earliest written account of the unicorn comes from the text Indica (398 BCE), by Greek physician Ctesias, where he described beasts in India as large as horses with one horn on the forehead.

Ctesias was most likely describing the Indian Rhinoceros. The unicorn horn, he wrote, was a panacea for those who drink from it regularly.

A contemporary interpretation of the once ferocious beast.
Hachette

In the first-century CE, claiming to quote Ctesias, the Roman naturalist Pliny (Natural History, 77 CE), wrote that the unicorn was the fiercest animal in India, with the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single horn projecting from the forehead.

Pliny also embellished the animal’s description by adding a trait that became extremely significant to society in the Middle Ages: it was impossible to capture the animal alive.

Just over a century later, the second-century CE Roman scholar Aelian compiled a book about animals based on Pliny. In his On the Nature of Animals, Aelian wrote that the unicorn grows gentle towards the chosen female during mating season.

The unicorn’s tender disposition when near the female became a highly symbolic trait for authors and artists of the Middle Ages, who believed it could only be captured by a virgin.

Despite the authoritative texts of the Greeks and Romans, the unicorn remained mostly unknown in the centuries leading up to the Middle Ages. For the public to become familiar with it, the creature had to come out of the library and develop a role in everyday events and popular culture: ie a role in Christianity.

Lost in translation

It was in the third-century BCE that the unicorn entered religious texts – although only by accident.

Between 300 and 200 BCE, a group of 70 scholars gathered together to create the first translation of the Hebrew Old Testament in Koine Greek. Although the Hebrew term for unicorn is Had-Keren (one horn), in the text commonly known as Septuagint (seventy) the scholars made an error when translating the Hebrew term Re’_em (ox), from Psalms as monokeros. In effect, they changed the word “ox” to “unicorn.”

The unicorn’s inclusion in a text of such magnitude laid the foundation for an obsession with the creature that thrived in both literary and visual arts from the earliest dates of the Middle Ages and continues to the modern day.

By the 12th century, the one-horned animal came to be associated with the allegory provided in the Physiologus, a collection of moralised beast tales on which many medieval bestiaries are based. One of the most widely read books in the Middle Ages, the Physiologus often identifies Christ with the unicorn.

The Rochester Bestiary (c late 1200s) draws on Physiologus to represent the unicorn as the spirit of Jesus.
Wikipedia Commons

The illustrations that accompany textual references to the unicorn in the Bible and medieval bestiaries often showed the allegorical representation rather than the literal.

The modern unicorn.
mlp.wikia.com

So instead of images depicting Christ as a man, the artists drew horses and goats with one large horn protruding from its head. In this medieval legend, the fanciful myth of the one-horned animal became the foundation of the unicorn image that circulated throughout Europe.

Contemporary images of the unicorn have changed very little since the medieval era. The creature in The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Cluny museum in Paris, symbolising various overlapping meanings including chastity and heraldic animals, looks a lot like the My Little Pony characters Rarity and Princess Celestia.




Read more:
Explainer: the symbolism of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry cycle


Imagery of the unicorn persisted sporadically in literature, film and television through the 20th century, but the 2010s saw interest boom.

The modern Instagram star

Social media helped lure the magical creature into quotidian life – the one-horned horse looks great as a Facebook emoji and surrounded by rainbows on Instagram. National Unicorn Day (April 9) was first observed in 2015.

Searches for “unicorns” reached an all-time high in April 2017, the same month Starbucks introduced the colour and taste-changing Unicorn Frappuccino, sparking a trend in adding glitter and rainbow colours to any food or beverage.

Now, the unicorn is marketed to children and adults alike on coffee mugs, keychains, stuffed animals, t-shirts. In secular contemporary culture it has become an LGBTI+ icon: a symbol of hope, something “uncatchable.”

The contemporary unicorn is a far cry from Ctesias’ beasts. Social media platforms like Instagram encourage us to project an idealised version of our life: the unicorn is a perfect symbol for this ideal.

If the last decade is anything to go by, its intrigue will only continue to grow.The Conversation

Jenny Davis Barnett, Academic in French, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The ancient origins of werewolves



File 20181026 71029 bprt57.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
In Ancient Greek texts, the king Lycaon is punished for misdeeds by being turned into a wolf.
Wikimedia

Tanika Koosmen, University of Newcastle

The werewolf is a staple of supernatural fiction, whether it be film, television, or literature. You might think this snarling creature is a creation of the Medieval and Early Modern periods, a result of the superstitions surrounding magic and witchcraft.

In reality, the werewolf is far older than that. The earliest surviving example of man-to-wolf transformation is found in The Epic of Gilgamesh from around 2,100 BC. However, the werewolf as we now know it first appeared in ancient Greece and Rome, in ethnographic, poetic and philosophical texts.

These stories of the transformed beast are usually mythological, although some have a basis in local histories, religions and cults. In 425 BC, Greek historian Herodotus described the Neuri, a nomadic tribe of magical men who changed into wolf shapes for several days of the year. The Neuri were from Scythia, land that is now part of Russia. Using wolf skins for warmth is not outside the realm of possibility for inhabitants of such a harsh climate: this is likely the reason Herodotus described their practice as “transformation”.

A werewolf in a German woodcut, circa 1512.
Wikimedia

The werewolf myth became integrated with the local history of Arcadia, a region of Greece. Here, Zeus was worshipped as Lycaean Zeus (“Wolf Zeus”). In 380 BC, Greek philosopher Plato told a story in the Republic about the “protector-turned-tyrant” of the shrine of Lycaean Zeus. In this short passage, the character Socrates remarks: “The story goes that he who tastes of the one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitably transformed into a wolf.”

Literary evidence suggests cult members mixed human flesh into their ritual sacrifice to Zeus. Both Pliny the Elder and Pausanias discuss the participation of a young athlete, Damarchus, in the Arcadian sacrifice of an adolescent boy: when Damarchus was compelled to taste the entrails of the young boy, he was transformed into a wolf for nine years. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that human sacrifice may have been practised at this site.




Read more:
Friday essay: the female werewolf and her shaggy suffragette sisters


Monsters and men

The most interesting aspect of Plato’s passage concerns the “protector-turned-tyrant”, also known as the mythical king, Lycaon. Expanded further in Latin texts, most notably Hyginus’s Fabulae and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lycaon’s story contains all the elements of a modern werewolf tale: immoral behaviour, murder and cannibalism.

An Athenian vase depicting a man in a wolf skin, circa 460 BC.
Wikimedia

In Fabulae, the sons of Lycaon sacrificed their youngest brother to prove Zeus’s weakness. They served the corpse as a pseudo-feast and attempting to trick the god into eating it. A furious Zeus slayed the sons with a lightning bolt and transformed their father into a wolf. In Ovid’s version, Lycaon murdered and mutilated a protected hostage of Zeus, but suffered the same consequences.

Ovid’s passage is one of the only ancient sources that goes into detail on the act of transformation. His description of the metamorphosis uses haunting language that creates a correlation between Lycaon’s behaviour and the physical manipulation of his body:

…He tried to speak, but his voice broke into

an echoing howl. His ravening soul infected his jaws;

his murderous longings were turned on the cattle; he still was possessed

by bloodlust. His garments were changed to a shaggy coat and his arms

into legs. He was now transformed into a wolf.

Ovid’s Lycaon is the origin of the modern werewolf, as the physical manipulation of his body hinges on his prior immoral behaviour. It is this that has contributed to the establishment of the “monstrous werewolf” trope of modern fiction.

Lycaon’s character defects are physically grafted onto his body, manipulating his human form until he becomes that which his behaviour suggests. And, perhaps most importantly, Lycaon begins the idea that to transform into a werewolf you must first be a monster.

The idea that there was a link between biology (i.e. appearance) and “immoral” behaviour developed fully in the late 20th century. However, minority groups were more often the target than mythical kings. Law enforcement, scientists and the medical community joined forces to find “cures” for socially deviant behaviour such as criminality, violence and even homosexuality. Science and medicine were used as a vehicle through which bigotry and fear could be maintained, as shown by the treatment of HIV-affected men throughout the 1980s.

However, werewolf stories show the idea has ancient origins. For as long as authors have been changing bad men into wolves, we have been looking for the biological link between man and action.The Conversation

Tanika Koosmen, PhD Candidate, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The Werewolf Through History


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the werewolf through history.

For more visit:
http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/05/werewolf-history/


Article: History of the Unicorn


The link below is to an article that looks at the history of the unicorn.

For more visit:
http://www.neatorama.com/2013/06/17/The-Natural-History-of-the-Unicorn/


Article: Ten Unsolved Mysteries


The following link is to an article concerning 10 unsolved mysteries, some of which are historical in nature.

For more visit:
http://brainz.org/10-greatest-unsolved-mysteries/


Article: The Myth of the 8 Hour Sleep


The following link is to an article about the historical method of sleeping – a quick and interesting read.

For more, visit:
http://www.neatorama.com/2012/02/22/the-myth-of-8-hour-sleep/


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