Tag Archives: origin
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.
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 illustrations that accompany textual references to the unicorn in the Bible and medieval bestiaries often showed the allegorical representation rather than the literal.
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.
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 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”.
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.
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.
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 approximately 400 languages of Aboriginal Australia can be grouped into 27 different families. To put that diversity in context, Europe has just four language families, Indo-European, Basque, Finno-Ugric and Semitic, with Indo-European encompassing such languages as English, Spanish, Russian and Hindi.
Australia’s largest language family is Pama-Nyungan. Before 1788 it covered 90% of the country and comprised about 300 languages. The territories on which Canberra (Ngunnawal), Perth (Noongar), Sydney (Daruk, Iyora), Brisbane (Turubal) and Melbourne (Woiwurrung) are built were all once owned by speakers of Pama-Nyungan languages.
All the languages from the Torres Strait to Bunbury, from the Pilbara to the Grampians, are descended from a single ancestor language that spread across the continent to all but the Kimberley and the Top End.
Where this language came from, how old it is, and how it spread, has been something of a puzzle. Our research, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests the family arose just under 6,000 years ago around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. Our findings suggest this language family spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate.
Aboriginal Australia is often described as “the world’s oldest living culture”, and public discussion often falsely assumes that this means unchanging. Our research adds further evidence to Australia pre-1788 being a dynamic place, where people moved and adapted to a changing land.
We used data from changes in several hundred words in different languages from the Pama-Nyungan family to build up a tree of languages, using a computer model adapted from those used originally to trace virus outbreaks.
Because our models make estimates of the time that it takes for words to change, as well as how words in Pama-Nyungan languages are related to one another, we can use those changes to estimate the age of the family.
We found clear support for the origin of Pama-Nyungan just under 6,000 years ago in an area around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. We found no support for the theories that Pama-Nyungan spread earlier.
The timing of this expansion is consistent with a theory that increasingly unstable conditions caused groups of people to fragment and spread. But correlation is not causation: just because two patterns appear related, it does not mean that one caused the other.
In this case, however, we have other evidence that access to ecological resources has shaped how people migrated. We found that, in our model, groups of people moved more slowly near the coast and major waterways, and faster across deserts. This implies that populations increase where food and water are plentiful, and then spread out and fissure when resources are harder to obtain.
You can see a simulated expansion here. The spread of Pama-Nyungan languages mirrored this spread of people.
What languages tell us
Languages today tell us a lot about our past. Because languages change regularly, we can use information in them to work out who groups were talking to in the past, where they lived, who they are related to, and where they’ve moved. We can do this even in the absence of a written record and of archaeological materials.
For places like Australia, the linguistic record, though incomplete, has more even coverage across the continent than the archaeological record does. At European settlement, there were about 300 Pama-Nyungan languages. Because there are at least some records of most of them we are able to work with these to uncover these complex patterns of change.
There are approximately 145 Aboriginal languages with speakers today, including languages from outside the Pama-Nyungan family. Many of these languages, such as Dieri, Ngalia and Mangala, are spoken by only a few people, many of whom are elderly.
Other languages, however, are actively used in their communities and are learned as first languages by young children. These include the Yolŋu languages of Arnhem Land and Arrernte in Central Australia. Yet others (such as Kaurna around Adelaide) are undergoing a renaissance, gaining speakers within their communities.
Finally, though not the focus of our study, there are also new languages, such as Kriol spoken across Northern Australia, Palawa Kani in Tasmania, and Gurindji Kriol. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders also know English, and most Indigenous Australians are multilingual.
Without records of all these languages, and without ongoing work to support speakers and communities, we aren’t able to do research like this, and Australia loses a vital link to its history. After all, European settlement of Australia is a tiny chunk of the time people have lived on this land.
Our lives run on Roman time. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and public holidays are regulated by Pope Gregory XIII’s Gregorian Calendar, which is itself a modification of Julius Caesar’s calendar introduced in 45 B.C. The names of our months are therefore derived from the Roman gods, leaders, festivals, and numbers. If you’ve ever wondered why our 12-month year ends with September, October, November, and December – names which mean the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months – you can blame the Romans.
The calendar of Romulus
The Roman year originally had ten months, a calendar which was ascribed to the legendary first king, Romulus. Tradition had it that Romulus named the first month, Martius, after his own father, Mars, the god of war. This month was followed by Aprilis, Maius, and Iunius, names derived from deities or aspects of Roman culture. Thereafter, however, the months were simply called the fifth month (Quintilis), sixth month (Sixtilis) and so on, all the way through to the tenth month, December.
The institution of two additional months, Ianuarius and Februarius, at the beginning of the year was attributed to Numa, the second king of Rome. Despite the fact that there were now 12 months in the Roman year, the numerical names of the later months were left unchanged.
Further reading: Explainer: the gods behind the days of the week
Gods and rituals
While January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, February comes from the word februum (purification) and februa, the rites or instruments used for purification. These formed part of preparations for the coming of Spring in the northern hemisphere.
The februa included spelt and salt for cleaning houses, leaves worn by priests, and strips of goat skin. These strips were put to good use in the festival of the Lupercalia, held each year on February 15. Young men, naked except for a goat-skin cape, dashed around Rome’s sacred boundary playfully whipping women with the strips. This ancient nudie run was designed to purify the city and promote fertility.
The origins of some months were debated even by the Romans themselves. One tradition had it that Romulus named April after the goddess Aphrodite, who was born from the sea’s foam (aphros in Ancient Greek). Aphrodite, known as Venus to the Romans, was the mother of Aeneas, who fled from Troy to Italy and founded the Roman race. The other version was that the month derived from Latin verb aperio, “I open”. As the poet Ovid wrote:
For they say that April was named from the open season, because spring then opens all things, and the sharp frost-bound cold departs, and earth unlocks her teeming soil …
There were similar debates about the origins of May and June. There was a story that Romulus named them after the two divisions of the Roman male citizen body, the maiores (elders) and iuniores (juniors). However, it was also believed that their names came from deities. The nymph Maia, who was assimilated with the earth, gave her name to May, while Juno, the goddess of war and women, was honoured by the month of June.
Further reading: Explainer: the seasonal calendars of Indigenous Australia
The numerical names of the months in the second half of the year remained unchanged until the end of the Roman Republic. In 44 B.C., Quintilis was rebranded as Iulius, to celebrate the month in which the dictator Julius Caesar was born.
This change survived Caesar’s assassination (and the outrage of the orator M. Tullius Cicero, who complained about it in his letters). In 8 B.C., Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, the emperor Augustus, had Sextilis renamed in his honour. This was not his birth month (which was September), but the month when he first became consul and subjugated Egypt.
This change left four months – September, October, November and December – for later emperors to appropriate, though none of their new names survive today. Domitian renamed September, the month he became emperor, to Germanicus, in honour of his victory over Germany, while October, his birthday month, he modestly retitled Domitianus, after himself.
However, Domitian’s arrogance paled in comparison with the megalomaniacal Commodus, who rebranded all the months with his own imperial titles, including Amazonius (January) and Herculeus (October).
If these titles had survived Commodus’s death, we would not have the problem of our year ending with months carrying the wrong numerical names. But we would be celebrating Christmas on the 25th of Exsuperatorius (“All-Surpassing Conqueror”).
Last November, I ran my first marathon, the “Athens Authentic”. I did it mainly because I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the world’s first marathon runner – the ancient Athenian messenger Pheidippides.
The story, as I knew it, went as follows. After their victory over a Persian invasion force at the border village of Marathon, the Athenians sent a messenger called Pheidippides to deliver the news to the city authorities. After running the 42 kilometres back to Athens, Pheidippides gasped “we’ve won!” (nenikēkamen) and promptly died of exhaustion.
It’s a great story, but was it true? The more I looked into it in the weeks leading up to the race, the less certain I was. Was I about to run 42km for a lie?
Different sources and different stories
Our best source for the events of 490 BC, the fifth-century historian Herodotus, doesn’t mention a messenger being sent from Marathon after the battle. He does say, though, that a runner called Pheidippides (or Philippides, in some manuscripts) was sent to Sparta to ask for help before the battle.
This trip is commemorated in the Spartathlon, a 246km event that I haven’t run – and never will.
Our next-oldest source is the fourth-century-BC intellectual Heraklides Pontikos. He apparently did mention a Marathon runner, but gave his name as Thersippos – at least according to the first-century-AD moralist Plutarch.
Plutarch himself is the earliest author to tell the story of a messenger from Marathon dying from exhaustion after proclaiming victory. But his messenger is called Eukles – and his dying word is nikōmen (we win).
The first time we hear this story with a messenger called Pheidippides (or Philippides) is in Lucian, and by that time we’re in the second century AD, around 600 years after the Battle of Marathon. The runner says nikōmen in that version too.
What to make of the different sources
Herodotus was closest in time to the events. And since he does tell the story of Pheidippides’ run to Sparta and back, he would surely have added in the story of the runner’s death if he had known about it.
But if Pheidippides didn’t run the first marathon, did someone else?
Our next candidate is Eukles, the name Plutarch tells us is given to the Marathon runner by the majority of historians. But here there’s an important detail: Eukles, according to Plutarch, ran from the battle “warm, with his weapons”.
If that’s right, Eukles would have run the first marathon after fighting for three hours or so in a desperate battle for his city’s survival. Not only that, but he would have done so bearing the traditional arms and armour of a Greek hoplite (heavy infantryman): spear, shield, helmet and (if he could afford it) breastplate. The whole panoply would have weighed ten or 20 kilograms, up to about one-third of the body weight of the average classical Greek.
Needless to say, this is something else I haven’t done.
Where does this leave Thersippos, the name given by Heraklides Pontikos?
It’s possible, as the Greek historian Christos Dionysopoulos has suggested, that there was a second runner, sent out the morning after the battle when the Athenians realised the Persians that they had pushed back onto their ships could simply use them to sail down the coast and attack Athens through its traditional harbour. That second runner may have been Thersippos.
But the strategic situation they were in was probably clear to the Athenians even as the battle ended. Someone would have to get to Athens before the Persians did, to reassure the populace that the Athenian army was still standing – and hence that there was no reason to surrender the city to the Persians.
They also needed to signal to any would-be defectors to the Persian side that it was the Athenians who were still calling the shots in Athens.
Eukles’ announcement of an Athenian victory – perhaps with his final breath – would have gone part of the way to achieving these goals.
But to really reassure people, and send a strong signal to potential “Medizers” (Persian sympathizers), the army would need to make an appearance in person. So, the Athenian hoplites, fresh from the most important battle of their lives, marched the 40km or so back to Athens, just in time to scare off the Persian fleet, which finally headed back to Persia.
Like Eukles, the Athenian hoplites would have had to bring along their weapons, both because these were valuable possessions and because they needed them to intimidate the Persians. Unlike Eukles, the Athenians probably didn’t run.
The British historian N.G.L. Hammond reckoned they could have walked the distance in six or seven hours – which is not that much longer than it took me to run it.
How long was it, really?
Speaking of the distance, what was it exactly?
I ran 42,195 metres, the standard length for a marathon, and I felt every metre afterwards. But if that was the distance that Eukles ran, why does the modern race make you run a 2km diversion around the burial monument of the Athenians?
The answer is because the modern marathon distance is only loosely based on the distance Eukles ran. The modern distance comes from the 1908 London Olympics, where competitors ran from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium, and then a bit further along the track to finish in front of the royal box.
The 1908 race was thus longer than the first Olympic marathon run in 1896. That course was 40km, the distance between the village of Marathon and the Panathenaic Stadium, where I finished my race.
The annual Athens “authentic” marathon didn’t begin until 1972. By that point 42,195 metres had long become the standard distance. That’s why I had the wonderful opportunity of running 2km extra around the tomb of the Athenians.
So, where did this all leave me as I trudged up the road from Marathon to Athens? (“Up”, by the way, is very much the right word.)
I wasn’t following in the footsteps of Pheidippides – thankfully, since his run to Sparta and back was much longer than the one I was doing. I might have been following in the footsteps of a man named Thersippos, but I was most likely retracing the steps of one called Eukles, albeit without carrying one-third of my body weight in armour.
But something else occurred to me as I eventually slowed to a walk for part of the course. I may have been doing so because I was tired, but I was also making my journey more similar to that of the Athenian hoplites in 490 BC. They walked briskly, after defeating an absolutist invasion force that was seeking to crush their nascent democracy.
Some 2,500 years later, I run-walked slowly over the same ground, unarmed and without a worry on my mind except the next research deadline. And that was good enough for me.