The fact that I am posting two event reviews one after the other may give the impression that I live a busy fun packed life. In reality I was was a little bit tardy in getting the Nameless Arte blog out and it happened to cross over with the Unicorns talk and book signing.
On the 11th of November I took my daughters to Leeds City Museum to listen to a talk by author John Woodward and illustrator Anne Stokes on the subject of Unicorns. I doubt that Anne (link) needs much of an introduction; even if you don’t recognise the name you will have seen her art and licensed products all over the neo-Pagan world. John Woodward on the other hand is a children’s book author, focusing on science subjects and the natural world. Anne and John have previously worked together in producing Spellbound – A Book of Spells Woven from the Art of Anne Stokes but it was their latest book Unicorns which was being presented at the talk. Combining the wonderful art of Anne and the research and writing flare of John, Unicorns details the history, appearance, biology and symbology of the purest of beasts, and the talk too us through both elements of the book and gave us an insight into the mind and processes of the illustrator.
It was possibly a little adventurous to take the children, in hindsight. Although the event was billed as child friendly asking my youngest to sit through an hour of talk and then line up for a signature was possibly a little much. Whilst I had packed her enough activities to keep her occupied I apparently failed to provide enough food; one solid chocolate unicorn lolly from Kake and Bakes was simply not enough!
Still, the eldest enjoyed herself and as a budding artist she was very interested in hearing Anne’s portion of the talk. ED enjoys drawing, particularly live subjects, but the use of models beyond herself has never really featured. Now her limited web time is spent finding people to draw. She was also more than a little excited to see the depth of symbolism that Anne employs, from the composition of the image itself to the colours, flowers and animals included in a scene. We are wild garlic nuts in this house so ED sat to attention She she realised that not only were wild garlic flowers included in the image “Pure Heart” simply because they are pretty and white but also because they represent purity and purification.
The main focus of the talk was of course the mythical unicorn, and John lead us through an overview of the book’s content in a series of short explanations of the origin of the unicorn in both art and literature and how it unites so many cultures over a fast spread of time. Of course my favourite reference was to the earliest depiction of what is interpreted as a unicorn in the Lascaux caves located in the Dordogne region of France. The caves, found by a young boy searching for his lost dog, are amongst the best examples of upper Paleolithic art and show the range of animals and landscapes within our ancestors experienced. Amongst these animals is, supposedly, the earliest depiction of a unicorn.
I will admit I am a little confused, and perhaps this is a sign that I need to read the book. The Unicorn Panel, located in the Hall of the Bulls, depicts a number of horned animals. Google “Unicorn Lascaux cave” and two pictures will predominant be returned.
The first image shows an animal clearly sporting two horns, although many pages cite it as the unicorn. John, on the other hand, included the second image in his talk and to my eye there is one horn, with the animal in question looking downwards. Also, it more closely matches the horses that surround it in form and design than the animal in the first image and I think that I am more comfortable with this representing the mythical unicorn, even though it is far from shining white in comparison to the other animal.
One reason for this is that the white hue of the unicorn, as John explained, was a relatively late addition to mythological cannon. The beautiful, elegant light filled creature we all know appears from the 13th century onward and the change in colours and form were intended to align the symbolism of the animal with the concepts it was used to represent such as purity.
What I find fascinating is the breadth of historical figures who sought to connect themselves with the Unicorns mythology, particularly as a sign of legitimacy. From Genghis Khan to Alexander the Great, encounters with the Unicorns have connected many of the great men of history further highlighting that the unicorn myth is not limited to just western society but appears throughout the world.
The Unicorn has appeared in many places beside myth and legends, including the bible, which has ensured that it remained in the public eye once the Good Book was translated into the vernacular. The graceful horn would be used as a recognisable sign for the humble apothecary, with the magnificent horn being endowed with many magical and healing properties. In truth it is the test of the narwhal which is most often found as being sold in this guise and it is really only after the 13th century that the image of the single, gracefully thin spiral horn became synonymous with the Unicorns. Prior to that the horn had taken on many shapes, including branched, gnarled and multi coloured depending on who was depicting the mythical beast. Unicorn horn was considered very rare, and the narwhal horn that was sold in its name worth more than its own weight in gold. It is not surprising therefore that on Wall Street any start up business worth more than 1 billion is referred to as a “Unicorn”.
Of course no discussion about Unicorns can neglect the subject of innocence and the capture of the Unicorn. Some of the most stunning depictions of the medieval unicorn dwell on the subject, showing the personification of wild naivety meekly submitting to the presence of an equally innocent maid. The honest, purity, strength and valour of the Unicorn has made its way into heraldry; standing at the centre of our own national identity here in the UK.
The Unicorn is a creature of the liminal, similar in appearance to the horse that we are all familiar with but sufficiently different enough to be almost alien to our day to day experience. The encounters described and depicted in literature and art lend the unicorn an insubstantial air, emerging out of the forest one moment only to blend back into the mist and haze the next. These is a theme not only taken up by Anne in her artwork, blending colours seamlessly to give the effect of unity between the animal and the background, but also in the new age belief that the Unicorn is a creature through which we can communicate with other realms of existence.
But why has the Unicorn remained such a powerful presence in the modern mindset? Whilst there is no doubt that it’s presence in the bible has been a factor the beast has transcended not only religion but also cultures. In a sense, once they reached the mass populous their powerful themes of purity, honesty and innocence stand in stark contrast to the structures of power and control that exist. That there is a creature that stands above the tyrants and deceivers, with the wildness to punish them with hoof and horn, is more than a little appealing.
For this, and many other, reasons the Unicorn has been featured over and over again in literature. As literacy expanded, and the methods and means of communication become more and more universal, the Unicorn has kept pace alongside us; giving us hope in the heart face of apparently disastrous political landscape.