What’s the key to all those mythical beasts and mythical creatures that live on in our technological culture? I think it is an endless search for other. Human curiosity engages in mythological comparison and fantasy creatures. We look for answers or solutions to the man-made creations that we can’t seem to turn off - like nuclear energy (I’m thinking Japan here). The murky quagmire of advancement always seems to put us 2 steps behind, or at the least, looking back at mythology creatures that could engage our conscious patterns of possibilities. Other possibilities.

Mythical beasts and mythical creatures do differ. The beasts are 4 footed mammals, and the creatures are animal or human - inanimate or animate- lively or dull. Perhaps the most familiar of the mythical animals is the unicorn. Unicorn backpacks, unicorn coloring pages, unicorn figurines, unicorn images, unicorn tapestry, unicorn gifts ad nauseam inundate the retail industry. The biggest question about unicorns is, are they real? Well, of course they are, haven’t you seen any?

Ivory casket with scenes from the RomancesCredit: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unicorn Legend
There is a lot of poetic beauty with unicorn legend. One of the most beautiful images is that of unicorns and rainbows. Maybe that is because they are associated with virgins and sad endings - all rather colorful, fleeting, end of the rainbow possibilities.

The unicorn is portrayed slightly differently in color in different cultures (Chinese unicorns can be different formed, too), but the basics prevail. It is a lithe, 4 footed, powerful combination of an animal with a horse head, antelope legs, a lion’s tail, and a single, spiral horn on the center of it’s forehead. I think that may be a fabled third eye that humans have morphed from the one-horned animal.

Way back when, the unicorn horn was greatly sought after for it’s magical cures. Ground unicorn horn was widely believed to treat diarrhea in the 18th century. Medieval pharmacists believed in the powers of the unicorn, and the unicorn was the apothecaries’ symbol. To this day the magical properties of the unicorn horn is sought after as an aphrodisiac and a creative power. However, since unicorn sightings are now few and far between the evil hunters have substituted the rhinoceros for the unicorn since it has one horn. It is very sad, and many humans are being duped.

Regardless of the above mentioned duplicity I find it hard to picture a rhinoceros being enticed by a virgin maiden, or attracted to her scent, and laying his head in her lap resting. Then a hunter who set the virgin maiden trap kills him. That’s how unicorns are hunted. It is believed that only a young virgin maiden can tame a unicorn. Some evil hunters substitute a wild ox when the illusive unicorn can’t be found. The most current sightings are from Arabia. A unicorn was seen eating grasses and pomegranates. Interestingly, the lion is reported to be the unicorns enemy. Maybe the lion has some story about the unicorn tail?

The fame of the unicorn is biblical:

  • God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.' (Numbers 23:22)
  • 'His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns.' (Deuteronomy 33:17)
  • 'Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Can'st thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? (job 39:9-12)
  • 'Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.' (Psalms 22:21)
  • The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars; yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon. He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.' (Psalms 29:5-6)
  • 'But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn.' (Psalms 92:10)

I don’t know of the unicorn being a top religious symbol, but it does have heraldry history. The royal arms of Scotland and the UK had three unicorns. Two unicorns supported the Scottish arms, and a lion and a unicorn supported the UK arms. That is a mystery and especially that the lion is rumoured to be the unicorn enemy (besides evil hunters). Now the royal arms show a lion on one side and a chained unicorn on the other. I have barely touched upon all the unicorn myths or mysterious places where they have been found. Just know that they are alive and real in human consciousness.

The HarpiesRelief panel from the Harpy TombCredit: © The Trustees of the British Museum
A creature that eats anything dead or dying. A foul scavenger, a winged monster bird with the face of an old hag. What happened to these beautiful winged maidens from Greek mythological creatures origins? Actually they were the sisters of Iris (the goddess of the rainbow), and they are conceived as “strong winds.” They tormented King Phineus (a blind prophet), by snatching away his food and fouling whatever they didn’t get. Nowadays picnickers are warned to be aware of these robbers that swoop down and steal food. I guess one would have to have live food to avoid the robbers! Maybe that is the reason for the live food movement. Beware the Harpies, eat live food!

Scairy Cyclops
Yes, they are scairy because they are man-eating hairy giants with one eye in the center of their forehead. Actually, the eye is where the fabled third eye of humans would be if it wasn’t fabled. What is with that area?

Their name is also spelled Cyclopes in Greek mythology. They were 3 sons of Uranus and Ge, and assisted in the forging of thunder and lightning bolts for Zeus. Thus they were mighty, skillful, and powerful. They were aligned with Zeus because he had freed them from the underground, the depths of the earth where Uranus had imprisoned them. I’m not sure of the story of why they were imprisoned, but some of those higher-ups were mighty touchy, and maybe they just displeased their dad in some childish innocent manner. Who knows? The last sighting of a cyclops was in Crete. He is thought to be a descendant of Polyphemus, the famous cyclopes who devoured a few men from Odysseus’s crew before being tricked and losing his eyesight to Odysseus’s spear.

Yes, the other is still presenting evidence for the curious among us.

Images credit - © The Trustees of the British Museum