‘… Well, now that we have seen each other,’ said the Unicorn, ‘If you believe in me, I’ll believe in you.’
By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. In 1967 the Irish Rovers, a Canadian group audaciously featuring good natured boys from both the Orange and the Green, had a huge international hit. It was called “The Unicorn”, and it caught just the right whimsical note for its subject… and for this article. Go to any search engine and find it now. Then allow the music to do its insidious task… and in a minute, no matter how onerous your cares today, you’ll be smiling. What’s more that smile will grow to a grin when you learn that the unicorn lives…
The Arabian oryx.
Every fable, every legend, every great enduring story, no matter how fabulous or unlikely, has its roots in something real, tangible, actual. And the story of the unicorn, one of the longest running fables on this planet, is no exception. Once upon a time someone, though we shall probably never know exactly who, saw a thing… and imagined more; the tale growing in the telling, embroidered by all, a pleasure to hear, its enhancements eagerly awaited.
In this case, the thing seen was called the Arabian oryx, whose distinctive horns are widely believed to have given rise to the unicorn legend. I have good news about these benign creatures, so much a part of our imagination: they are now classified as “vulnerable”, not “extinct”. Accordingly we should give a cheer, for these days, as one species after another faces oblivion, we must take our good news where we can find it. And this is good news, indeed… for it means the oryx has been given the gift of time…
Extinct in the wild in the 1970s.
The last oryx in the wild was shot to death in the early 1970s… and that, it was thought, was that. But humans, the main predator of the oryx (wolves being a distant second) having wiped out the breed…. then, paradoxically, started strenuous efforts to revive the breed, using stock from zoos, animal parks and private collections. Its enduring legend as the unicorn made these people anxious to help. The objective was to breed enough so they could be successfully reintroduced to their habitat on the Arabian peninsula.
The oryx, glad for the help, responded as hoped to this special effort…and in due course began to return to its harsh wild conditions. It returned to Oman first, later to the deserts of Saudi Arabia.. . Israel, the United Arab Emirates… then, most recently, Jordan. About 1000 of these creatures now exist… and are doing what they need to do to survive…. and thrive, living in reality, not just in stories, no matter how enthralling.
But the stories of the oryx ARE enthralling… because people have an enduring need for the wonder of fables. And if you squint your eyes just so… you will not see a beast, no matter how attractive… you will see a fabulous one-horned creature with the power to engage our mind and lighten our load.
The Arabian oryx (also called the white oryx) is known locally as Al Maha and features widely in Arabic poetry and painting. It can smell water from miles away, has wide hooves that let it easily navigate shifting sand, and lives in small herds of eight to 10 animals.
Have you ever been in a desert at midday, where the heat shimmers and the mind plays tricks? In such a place, at such a time, it is easy to see what you have never known before. No mirage… but an actuality that belongs to you alone. In such a moment the fabulous unicorn presents itself for your inspection, bows its head the better to show its horn… then recedes into the shimmer… going, going, gone… now your quest for life. So the unicorn enchants and makes believers of us all… The legend begins.
Perhaps the earliest mention of the unicorn is by the famed Greek historian Herodotus in the third century BC. He called it a “horned ass”. A century later, spurred by the travels into Persia of the Greek historian and physician Ctesias, tales of the unicorn were widespread, losing nothing in the telling.
Ctesias, who admits he never saw one, quizzed local merchants and other travelers for whatever information they had. These folks, Persians and not above hoodwinking a Greek. fed Ctesias the details he longed for. Bit by bit he got a complete impression of the “wild ass of India”. It was the size of a horse, with a white body, a red head, bluish eyes, and a straight horn on its forehead, a cubit long.
It was the horn, all agreed, that riveted their attention… and while no Persiian seemed to know all its attributes… each one added another, turning the unicorn into a beast of awe, wonder, and power.
The horn, the all important horn, was magical, possessing key ingredients for mediaeval medicaments. It offered protection against poisons (no small thing in a world where a pinch of this, a smidgeon of that, could alter a royal succession or remove a pesky husband, or wife). Worn as jewelry, it protected the wearer from evil.
Burgeoning demand, miniscule supply.
There could never be enough of such potency… and, of course, charlatans, all believability, seduced the gullible and credulous, offering everything, delivering nothing. Other charlatans, all sanctimony and solemnity, arose with the means, so they insisted, of determining whether the horn was real… or not.
Place a scorpion under a dish with a piece of horn. If the scorpion dies in a matter of hours, the horn is real.
Feed arsenic to pigeons, followed by a dose of unicorn horn. If the pigeons live, the horn is genuine.
Draw a ring on the floor with the horn. If the horn is real, a spider will not be able to cross the ring.
Place the horn in cold water. If the water bubbles but remains cold, the horn came from a true and real unicorn.
You get the idea.
Its potency known… ways of certifying its authenticity at hand… the unceasing problem was how to find unicorns… and how to capture them. Here a magnificent series of tapestries made in Belgium in 1500 hold clues. Bought by John D. Rockefeller, the richest man on earth, in 1922, they are now on display at the Cloisters museum in New York.
There are 7 tapestries in this series which portrays, in fine detail and consummate craftsmanship, a unicorn hunt. The men, nobles all, are chasing the unicorn as if it were standard quarry. And, of course, the unicorn easily eludes them, laughing the while.
In the fifth tapestry, however, the unicorn is captured… by the power of a young maid, who represents the Virgin Mary. She needs do nothing but sit in complete tranquility. The unicorn, perhaps knowledgeable of its fate, advances unforced, puts its head in the virgin’s lap…and so becomes, in the seventh and most celebrated tapestry, a prisoner, chained to a tree within a round wooden fence; its destiny sealed.
In the words of Lewis Carroll (Through the Looking Glass. 1871) “… Well, now, that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.” I feel sure she did… and that the unicorn abides, at peace, his head forever in her lap. May the renewing oryx fare as well.
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About The Author
Dr. Jeffrey Lant is known worldwide. He started in the media business when he was 5 years old, a Kindergartner in Downers Grove, Illinois, publishing his first newspaper article. Since then Dr. Lant has earned four university degrees, including the PhD from Harvard. He has taught at over 40 colleges and universities and is quite possibly the first to offer satellite courses. He has written over 60 books, thousands of articles and been a welcome guest on hundreds of radio and television programs. He has founded several successful corporations and businesses including his latest at …writerssecrets.com
His memoirs “A Connoisseur’s Journey” has garnered nine literary prizes that ensure its classic status. Its subtitle is “Being the artful memoirs of a man of wit, discernment, pluck, and joy.” A good read by this man of so many letters. Such a man can offer you thousands of insights into the business of becoming a success. Connect with Dr. Lant at www.drjeffreylant.com
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