A mythological creature of extraordinary resilience.
A unicorn falls asleep on the lap of the Virgin Mary in Domenichino’s The Virgin and the Unicorn, painted in 1605, which hangs in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. In Christian thought, the unicorn represents the incarnation of Christ, a symbol of purity and grace that could be captured only by a virgin.
Yet the myth of the unicorn long predates Christianity, having roots, possibly, in the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilisation of what is now Pakistan, where it is depicted on seals (though some scholars have argued that these may just be a bull in profile).
The Greeks considered unicorns part of the natural world rather than of myth. Ctesias, in his work Indika (‘On India’), described an animal, possibly from Iran, looking like a wild ass with a horn. Pliny the Elder described a ‘monoceros’, combined of elements of a stag, elephant, boar and horse. Chinggis Khan is reputed to have met a unicorn bearing a prophecy.
In medieval Europe, the unicorn, in the form of a horse-like creature, became a staple of chivalric authors, such as Thibaut of Champagne. A lover and his lady are compared with the unicorn and the Virgin. During the Renaissance, as humanism spread, it became a secular symbol of chastity and fidelity.
The unicorn is strongly associated with Scotland. Since the Union in 1707, the royal arms have been borne by a lion, symbolising England, and a unicorn. More recently, ‘unicorn’ has been adopted as a term for privately owned start-up companies worth more than US$1 billion; a symbol of rarity. Unicorns have become ubiquitous in what has become known as ‘princess’ culture, targeted at young girls, while their association with rainbows has seen the unicorn embraced by LGBT activists. A versatile creature indeed.
Thoth and Khepri
Thoth and Khepri, on board a barque, defeat the serpent Apep in this detail from the Book of the Dead of Imenemsauf, written during the 21st and 22nd dynasties (1069-716 BC) and now in the Louvre.
Just seen at the bottom of this image, Apep, also known as Apophis, was the embodiment of chaos. He battled daily with Ra, the sun deity, seeking to devour him as he descended below the horizon – where Apep lived – into the underworld. Night would fall, but Apep, never managing to swallow Ra whole, would spit him out and the sun would rise again.
Khepri, the scarab-headed god second from the right, is the morning manifestation of Ra, associated in particular with creation: the eggs of the scarab beetle are laid in dung and so emerge fully formed, their incubation hidden from the world. Because scarab beetles roll dung, they also became associated with the movement of the sun across the sky.
Thoth, who stands at the prow of the barque, with the head of an ibis, was married to Ma’at. She was the god of order and so inextricably opposed to the serpent Apep, the ‘Lord of Chaos’. Thoth was the judge of the dead, who had overseen three epic battles between Good and Evil. He was also an engineer, associated with science and knowledge, and, as scribe of the gods, he was the creator of language.
In the television series Stargate SG-1, in which the Egyptian gods are a race of aliens, Apophis is defeated by Anubis, god of the dead, rather than Thoth and Khepri. Thoth is today best remembered from Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck and its accompanying commentary The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians (1944), as well as a fleeting mention in an episode of Midsomer Murders.