The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shepard
Why, yes, I did read an entire book about unicorns, and, no the book was not written for five-year old girls. This book is my non-fiction book for the month of June and, yes, it is actually a non-fiction book. The book is all about the lore surrounding the unicorn and how it developed.
This book was written a while back, but I don’t think any new information on unicorns has resurfaced in that amount of time. People think unicorns are rather nifty, but no one ever really stops to thinks about what aspects a unicorn has or what things a unicorn is supposed to do. Most of us have simply watched The Last Unicorn and that comprises our total knowledge of the world of unicornity. No, I didn’t make that work up actually, Odell did. It’s in this book.
While reading this book I learned that the lore of unicorns has been around for a while. We’re talking probably close to a thousand years. Why did anyone think a unicorn existed in the first place? Well, there are several possible sources. Those sources are the rhinoceros, the narwhal, and various goat and antelope-like creatures that look like they only have one horn from a distance or they have lost a horn during battle, granted, it’s always possible a genetic mutation could cause a horned animal to be born with only one horn. People saw these animals from a distance and made up something fanciful to go with it.
From there, unicorn lore and even medicine developed at a seemingly wild rate. Yes, unicorn medicine; you read that correctly. For a long time, a long, long time, unicorn horn, or alicorn as the proper terminology is, was used for all sorts of purposes, particularly in relation to poisons. People believed that alicorn could detect the presence of poison in food and treat a myriad of illnesses. At one point in history kings, popes and other people with more money than the rest of us would pay large sums of money for alicorn. They wanted the whole horn of course, not just some powder. The poor of the cities often used powdered alicorn and the rich often used the whole horn.
You may ask what this black-market horn was actually if not a real unicorn horn. Well, Odell hypothesizes that it might have been a narwhal tusk, it might have been antlers from other animals, and it could have even been a rhinoceros horn. Rhino horns are actually believed to have medicinal properties by many people.
Strange stories developed about the unicorn. Most of them say that a unicorn could not be captured alive. It would always die. It could be lured by a virgin and then killed from behind. In time, the unicorn came to represent Christ because of its supposed purity and its association with a virgin. So, if you ever see a painting that is somewhat religious in nature, but there is a unicorn in it, you’ll now know why.
One of the things about the unicorn is that people held onto believing in it at a rather stubborn rate. This was all because the word unicorn is actually mentioned in the Bible. If you know anything about the Bible you should know that it’s been translated, a lot, and over time, people have mistranslated portions of the Bible and have monkeyed with its original contents. So this unicorn business probably cannot be verified to be any real creature.
The unicorn lore gets more interesting. Supposedly, unicorns hate lions. They hate them! In fact there is at least one Grimm’s fairy tale where a lion and a unicorn fight, we’ve read it already, and the lion and the unicorn fight is also mentioned in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carrol. Many crests and shields will actually show a lion and a unicorn fighting. The unicorn is also considered a night animal and is closely associated with the moon. If you see a unicorn, there is a good chance you will also see a crescent moon somewhere in the depiction. In fact, if you’ve watched the movie, The Last Unicorn, you will notice that the unicorn has a crescent moon on her forehead when she is a woman. Folkloric connections abound!
In the end, the idea of unicorns being real fell out of favor when no one could prove the supposed eyewitness accounts of having seen one, no bones could be found, and science eventually became an authority on the world and the creatures therein. So that’s why your doctor doesn’t prescribe powdered unicorn horn to you when you’re sick.
What I liked
I think Odell was just a bit nerdy for creating an entire book about the folklore and history of the unicorn, but it really turned out to be interesting. I would have never guessed that the belief in the unicorn spurred an entire black-market that lasted for well over two-hundred years. I do realized I am also painted as being a bit nerdy by reading an entire book on unicorns.
I liked all the folklore contained in this book. It actually explained quite a few of the associations I’ve seen in literature concerning the unicorn. I read an article one time that did state that Christ would occasionally be depicted as a unicorn, but I never really learned why. I finally learned why when I read this book.
What I didn’t like
Odell is very scholarly, so scholarly in fact that if a source is quoted in this book and it’s in a foreign language, Odell doesn’t bother to translate it. That’s right, all the Spanish is Spanish. All the Latin is Latin. All the French is French. All the Greek is Greek. Now, if you can understand these languages, that’s fine. I can understand Spanish, a bit of French, and some Latin, so I got by ok with most of the references, but the ones written in the Greek alphabet, were Greek to me, literally. I don’t read Greek. If the Greek references had been written in the Roman alphabet, I might have understood some of it, but it was written in actual Greek.
Maybe Odell assumed that anyone reading this book would be so scholarly that they would, of course, know how to read Greek. I don’t know how to read Greek Odell, I’m sorry. I think I’m pretty smart too, but I only know how to read one alphabet.
I think that’s somewhat off-putting. People are going to want to know what it is you’re quoting. For all I know all the Greek passages were about farts.
I wonder where J.K. Rowling got her reference about drinking the blood of a unicorn? She got the purity part right, but I never read anything in this book about sustaining a half-life with the blood of a unicorn. Good luck trying to catch it professor Quirrel, on second thought, Professor Quirrel was probably a virgin and unicorns are supposedly drawn to virgins.
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History, Non-Fiction, Reference, Shepard-Odell, social commentary, True strange Happenings