The Virgin Mary was the hottest sex symbol of the Middle Ages. Due to an obsession with spiritual perfection and an extensively repressed sexuality, medieval folks naturally used one avenue as an outlet for the other.
A favorite medieval tale that appeared over and over again in art depicted a young maiden luring a unicorn out of the forest, who was so smitten by her purity that the beast lost all strength and ferociousness and laid his head on her lap, to be subsequently captured by hunters who wished to kill the unicorn and use its horn for its medicinal qualities. What a trap, but not very sporting, I’d say.
The story was interpreted in the Middle Ages as an allegory for the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is the unicorn, coming from Heaven, pure and strong, and entering the Virgin Mary’s womb to be born as man, and then killed by sinful men who only think of their own gain. If God is a great phallic power, then humankind can only lure God into their lives by an attitude of passive feminine purity. Hunting the unicorn is nothing more than a flirtatious game we play with God for whatever ominpotent favors we can obtain. Is it any different now? (Be good and Santa will bring you something.)
The unicorn, a fabulous beast of legend, was adored in medieval Europe largely because it represented both sexual strength and sexual purity at the same time, allaying quite a bit of chronic neurosis. Described as a horse or goat-like animal (both horses and goats have a long association with sexual prowess) with a single horn (a phallic symbol), the unicorn was variously described as immensely strong, pure, single-minded, virtuous, and capable of miraculous healing.
The “unicorn horns” displayed in this picture are actually narwhal tusks. They were used as candlesticks during processions to the Virgin Mary in Utrecht, the religious center of the Netherlands, around the 11th century.
On a deeper level, the unicorn represents what Mircea Eliade called the “coincidence of opposites.” Our most profound spiritual experiences occur when we transcend notions of duality – when “good” and “evil” merge into a greater totality, the Tao. The unicorn represents this well because its single horn appears to be made from the twisting of two different strands. Therefore, to be “spiritual” and “sexual” are no longer two opposite impulses, but merge into a higher ideal. Medieval Christian mystics often wrote poetry about their encounters with God that were erotic.
The Healing Power of the Horn
Psychologically, the folk of the Middle Ages must have figured out that people are healthier when they aren’t struggling with inner conflicts and have found a way to reconcile them. The horn of the unicorn was believed to have strong medicinal properties, and could heal a multitude of diseases, as well as render any kind of poison harmless. For this reason, powdered unicorn horn was taken as a medicine. Drinking vessels were often made from unicorn horn to neutralize any poison that may have been placed in a beverage (poisoning one’s enemies this way was common practice in those days). Medieval apothecaries (pharmacists) used the symbol of the unicorn frequently as a symbol of the profession of pharmacy. The picture at the top of this post shows a wooden unicorn head with a real “unicorn horn” attached, that was hung outside an apothecary to attract customers. Likewise, the symbol of the unicorn was often placed on medicinal boxes and jars.
The Unicorn Throne
One of the more interesting uses of “unicorn horn,” which was nearly always narwhal tusk, was for the Unicorn Throne of Denmark. Christian IV, the 16th century monarch of Denmark who united into Denmark and Norway into one Scandinavian kingdom (ah, here is unity arising from duality, yet again), was a strange-looking, eccentric fellow who was nonetheless well-loved by his people. Christian IV built Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen, Denmark, and it is there that the royal throne, made of “unicorn horn” still sits. Perhaps the monarch wished to impress his people with the virtuous and strong reputation of the unicorn, or perhaps the horn was there to provide health and long life to the king.