Numquam Cadet


Numquam Cadet
It Will Never Fall

A unicorn is sitting in the crown of a tree which bears the name of Mary. The unicorn stands for Christ who is—like the unicorn—a miracle and mystery of nature, and lets himself be tamed only by a Virgin. The inscription, it will never fall, points to the permanent unity between Christ and his mother. The tree, symbol of Mary, may suggest perseverance and motherly love; more specifically it points out that Mary through her intimacy with Christ and the holiness she derives from Him, makes Christ visible and attracts people's attention to Him and not to herself.

The story is told about hunters who wished to capture a unicorn.  A hunting party is assembled at the castle of the local lord.   This group includes scouts, dogs, houndsmen, hunters and servants.  They set off into the woods and the hunt is on.  But the unicorn is too fast, too wild and strong for the hunters to be able to catch it.  So they try a different method.  A virgin maiden is led into an enclosed garden near the castle.  She sits down in the shade of an oak tree.  When the unicorn sees the virgin, it is immediately attracted to her and, seeking to escape the hunters, lies down peacefully next to her with its head on her lap.  The hunting party is then able to carefully approach the unicorn, capture it and take it to the castle.

What does this story mean and how did it come into existence?  To understand the story better, some background regarding its sources is helpful. 

History does not record the precise origin of the unicorn.  Most likely, it was inspired by animals such as the wild bull or the rhinoceros in Persia, India or even Tibet in pre-Christian times.  Travelers from India to Europe brought with them stories of a fabulous animal with the body of a horse and the feet of an ox.  On its head the animal had a single horn, about a foot and a half in length, which is red, white and black.  The Greek writer Ctesias recorded such a description of the unicorn around the year 398 B.C.  Later, probably in the second century A.D., a book about animals called the Physiologus, by an unknown Greek writer, appeared which included the unicorn along with a description of how it could be tamed by a virgin.   This book is an important source and was very influential during the early centuries of Christianity and in the Middle Ages.  Of special note is that for the Greeks, the unicorn was not a part of their mythology, but a real animal.       

The Holy Scriptures provide a second source for the unicorn story.  In the Hebrew Old Testament, an animal called the re’em is referred to in seven places.  The animal is always associated with strength.   In the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament prepared about 70 B.C., re’em is translated with the word monoceros, which means “unicorn.”  The fourth century Latin Vulgate translation uses the word unicornis.  Centuries later, the translators of the King James Bible recognized the meaning of re’em and translated it into English as “unicorn.”  All these sources testify to a tradition during the Middle Ages of understanding the unicorn as a real-life animal which appeared in the Bible.

During the Middle Ages, these two sources from Greek writings and from the Holy Scriptures were combined in Christian art and lore.  After all, each historical strain was viewed at the time as representing a living animal.  For example, the story of the Unicorn and the Virgin is portrayed in a well-known series of seven tapestry hangings called The Hunt of the Unicorn which dates from late Gothic times.  Likewise, medieval books called bestiaries included descriptions and illustrations of the unicorn together with the story of the virgin.  But in medieval art and literature, the story had now acquired a Christian interpretation.  The unicorn, since it was associated with strength, represented Christ.  Of course the virgin was the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The hunting party, which drove the unicorn to Mary, was associated with the archangel Gabriel, who brought Christ to Mary.  The story of the Unicorn and the Virgin thus became an allegory for the Annunciation.

Although this is the most common meaning associated with the story, other interpretations are possible.  Because it was believed that the horn of a unicorn could make poisonous waters safe, the story could be also be understood as a representation of Christ’s Passion.  In this case, the story might include the unicorn placing is horn in a poisoned stream and purifying the waters before its capture.  The poisoned stream represented sin, overcome by the power of Christ, and the capture of the unicorn represented Christ’s arrest, trial and crucifixion.  The virgin stood for Mary’s participation in the sufferings of her Son.  On the other hand, the story could also have a purely secular meaning associated with romantic love - a lover is attracted to his lady just as the unicorn is attracted to the virgin.

The analogy between the unicorn story and the biblical accounts of the Annunciation or the Passion is not a perfect one.  Nevertheless, the medieval interpretations of the story show how ancient tales were adapted to Christianity, even if such an adaptation might seem to us today to be a little strained or even quaint.  At the same time, the story is a witness to the deep piety, especially for the Blessed Mother, which existed at the popular level during the Middle Ages.  Today we know that there is no biblical unicorn, and modern translations, based on scholarly research, now translate re’em in other ways, such as wild bull.  Still, we do well to learn from and imitate the example of devotion to Mary which the story of the Unicorn and the Virgin illustrates in its unique way.

– Richard Lenar

Bibliography

Hathaway, Nancy.  The Unicorn.  New York:  Avenel Books, 1984.
Shepard, Odell.  The Lore of the Unicorn.  London: George Allen & Unwim Ltd, 1930.
Beer, Rüdiger Robert; Stern Charles M. (translator).  Unicorn:  Myth and Reality.  New York: Mason Charter, 1977

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This page, maintained by The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, Dayton, Ohio 45469-1390, and created by Ann Zlotnik , was last modified Monday, 11/26/2012 09:33:47 EST by Ann Zlotnik . Please send any comments to jroten1@udayton.edu.