Unicorns - Ancient Horned Menace or Sexual Metaphor?
Walk into any bar on any campus in the world, and you'll find a bunch of hooligans pretending to be students. Often drunk, loud, obnoxious, and generally not good company at all. However, if you by chance find yourself in the postgraduate and staff bar, then a completely different sight will greet your weary eyes. Make your way past the security, bluff your way into the bar and pull up a stool. What will you find? Very serious, very learned people with just one topic on their minds.
That's right, unicorns are a topic that is close to any professional academic's heart. Once they've relaxed a bit in a safe environment, it is a topic that is constantly raised. There are two broad sides to the debate. Unicorns were an ancient species that was hunted to extinction because of their horn (similarly to Rhinos in present times), or that the unicorn is a metaphor for bisexuality and 'sexual perfection'. Let's consider both of these theories before coming to any conclusions.
Unicorns as an ancient species
The first theory commonly held is that unicorns were an existing species, that were hunted to extinction because of the apparent healing properties of their horns. When we think of a unicorn, we often picture the pure white horse with a horn thrusting out of the centre of its head. However, the first reports of unicorns are of a much more terrifying beast.
In ancient Roman texts the unicorn was describe as a terrible beast, fully prepared to use its formidable weapon both in defence and offence. This was not the gentle horse, but instead a creature with fangs, hooves, and a goat-like head. By any means, the unicorn as described by the Romans was a frightful sight, a beast that used its long horn as a weapon against much larger animals. While there are no confirmed reports of the diet of a unicorn, it can be assumed that it was a carnivore based on the nature of its horn as well as the simple requirements to maintain functioning of its body. To put it simply, an ancient unicorn would not be able to survive on plants. It needed to eat meat. Lots of meat.
Of course, like many predators in ancient (and modern) times, the virility of the unicorn became famous. Carcases would be found through ancient European forests, with clear signs of stab marks. Trees were slashed at great heights, as unicorns marked their territory. The occasional unicorn corpse was discovered, torn to shreds in ritual contest. Unicorns, clearly, were an animal to be reckoned with. Such strong virility must be concentrated in some part of the animal. Obviously the most virile part of any unicorn was their long and spiralling horn. Once this meme started to spread, unicorn horn became an extremely valuable commodity, due to the perceived benefits of ground unicorn horn, and scarcity. Put simply, rich people would pay a great deal of money for unicorn horn, which was extremely hard to get. Many hunters gambled their lives to hunt unicorns, and lost.
However, any predator the size of a unicorn must control a large territory to maintain their feeding pattern. This puts a small upper limit on the number of unicorns that could exist in any one area at a time. Before agriculture, there were large stretches of forest across most of Europe, so the unicorn population was high. Once forests were cleared for farming, the population shrank under habitat pressures. Hunting of unicorns for their horns, although dangerous, was profitable enough that it did not take long for unicorns to become mostly extinct as a species. The only survivors would be those in inaccessible places, or individuals who were particularly aggressive and strong.
This theory has some evidence to support it. Ancient writings show a reasonably consistent account of unicorns, the variations in depiction can be attributed to adaptations to a particular environment and the difficulty of describing such a beast. There are clear parallels that can be drawn between trade in unicorn horn and Rhino horn.
Unicorns as a metaphor for sexual perfection
Given the supposed existence of unicorns in ancient Europe, and their predatory nature, it is somewhat surprising to see them portrayed as white-coated, innocent, and pure beings who will only approach a virgin. However, when considering the unicorn as a metaphor for sexual perfection, then these attributes make a great deal of sense.
In this context, sexual perfection is a description of a state of bisexuality where one is comfortable with the sexuality of both their masculine and feminine sides. It does not necessarily imply that one must join in same-sex relationships, but is more the essence of comfort with one's own sexuality and a balanced mind.
The parallels between a unicorn and sexual perfection are clear. The unicorn exists in a state of perfection itself, demonstrated by its purity and pristine white coat. The gentle prancing motion is an indication of a true acceptance of the unicorn's femininity. The horn, in this depiction much cleaner and shorter, is a phallic symbol representing the masculine side of the unicorn. The juxtaposition of masculinity and femininity would normally create conflict, however the unicorn shows us a clear path to what sexual perfection should be.
There is also the often-repeated myth of requiring a virgin to capture a unicorn. The big, masculine hunters are so full of virility that they cannot approach or tempt the unicorn, so they will call on the services of the local 'pure' virgin, traditionally a young maiden. The unicorn is so touched by this purity that it will approach calmly, allowing the hunters to capture it.
This represents the imbalance in the hunters (always male in these stories). They have strong masculine traits, as is appropriate for that time, but refuse to accept any traits of femininity that exist inside themselves. This lack of acceptance means that they cannot achieve sexual perfection, and are thus rejected by the unicorn. The virgin represents the complete opposite of sexual perfection, a lack of sexual identity. While the unicorn is attracted to the virgin, it is with the aim of turning their lack of sexual identity into sexual perfection. This is not a process of corrupting the virgin, but of allowing them to explore their own sexuality and progress to the perfection.
It is clear that the hunters, while strongly masculine, will inevitably fail in their self-imposed task of taming the unicorn, because they are unwilling to accept their femininity. Should one of the hunters reach sexual perfection, then the unicorn would join with them happily.
Putting it together
While each theory does a good job of describing the facts, they are both incomplete by themselves. After all, unicorns as a metaphor for sexual perfection would not exist if there was not the concept of a unicorn in the first instance. Conversely, if unicorns were simply an ancient beast hunted to extinction, then there would not be the depictions of unicorns as the white and noble creatures.
Instead, the most likely explanation is the simplest. Unicorns did roam through ancient European forests until they were hunted to extinction, their horns taken, with corpses left to rot on forest floors. Descriptions were passed through the centuries, until they became adapted as a metaphor for sexual perfection, an otherwise difficult concept.