The Tale of Beatrix Potter

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Self-portrait with Beatrix at Lingholm, Keswick, Rupert Potter with a decorative mount by Beatrix Potter, 1898

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London boasts the world’s largest collection of drawings, manuscripts, correspondence and photographs belonging to the highly successful children’s author Beatrix Potter. Best known for her creation of the much loved Peter Rabbit, Potter was also a natural scientist and conservationist and is credited with preserving much of the land that is now part of the Lake District National Park.

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28th July 1866 in Kensington, London. Her father, Rupert William Potter (1832-1914) was a barrister and her mother, Helen Leech (1839-1932) was the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant and shipbuilder. Her cousins on her mother’s side are reportedly related to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).

Beatrix and her brother Walter Bertram, who was born in 1872, spent much of their time playing in the countryside – Kensington was a semi-rural area at the time – and had many pets, including rabbits, mice, a hedgehog and some bats. Both of their parents were artistic and enjoyed exploring nature, particularly their father who was a keen photographer. Rupert Potter had been elected to the Photographic Society of London in 1869. Beatrix was one of her father’s favourite subjects to photograph and he also taught her how to use his heavy camera.

The Potter family became rather prosperous after inheriting money from the cotton trade. Rupert also invested in the stock market and was particularly wealthy by the 1890s. The family were able to afford governesses for their daughter that, whilst provided her with a good education, meant Beatrix was often kept away from her parents. Being educated at home also meant she did not have much social interaction with children her own age. As a result, she had a rather lonely childhood.

Beatrix relished the hours she spent with her brother in the countryside. The family annually visited Dalguise, a settlement in Perthshire, Scotland, which allowed the children the opportunity to roam freely. It was here that they acquired many of their pets, often secretly in paper bags until their schoolroom was full of a menagerie of animals.

Like their mother, who was a watercolourist, Beatrix and Bertram were interested in art as well as animals, often painting and drawing the animals they had smuggled into the house. When Bertram left for boarding school, Beatrix spent lonely days studying the paintings of John Constable (1776-1837), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) and J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) at the Royal Academy of Arts and drawing the exhibits at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).

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Still life drawing, 1879

Since she was eight, Beatrix had been filling sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants. Noting her love of drawing, her parents enrolled her at the National Art Training School in 1878, which she attended until 1883, where she learnt about still life and perspective. Despite the training, Beatrix preferred to draw the plants and specimens that she had developed a preference for as a child. Insects were of particular interest to Beatrix and she taught herself to be an amateur entomologist. Using her brother’s microscope, she studied various creatures in detail and learnt how to prepare slides of the specimens she collected.

Beatrix had an eye for detail and was determined to be able to draw living creatures as accurately as possible. Scientific accuracy was key to her style of drawing, which she produced with a fine, dry brush. Her many hours studying insects under the microscope are evident in some of her famous illustrated storybooks.

Flowers were a typical subject for girls to study, therefore, it is no surprise that many of Beatrix’s sketchbooks contain drawings of plants and flowers. Her grandmother gave her a copy of John E. Sowerby’s British Wild Flowers, and she spent hours carefully copying the illustrations. She painstakingly tried to accurately depict flowers so that they could easily be identified from her drawings. The “careful botanical studies of my youth” helped Beatrix create realistic fantasy worlds for anthropomorphic characters in later life. Geraniums are abundant in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other stories feature carnations, fuchsia, foxgloves, waterlilies, pansies, roses and snapdragons.

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Examples of fungi – Yellow Grisette (Amanita Crocea) and Scarlet Fly Cap (Amanita Muscaria, 1897

During her 20s, Beatrix also became interested in fungi, which she collected and drew as she did with insects and flowers. Her fascination, however, stretched further than making detailed drawings and led her to write a paper called On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae. Unfortunately, as a woman, Beatrix was unable to present the paper to official bodies and was rebuffed by William Turner Thuselton-Dyer (1843-1928), the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on account of her gender and amateur status. Fortunately, her uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833-1915), as vice-chancellor of the University of London was able to present Beatrix’s paper to the Linnean Society in 1897 on her behalf. The Linnean Society of London was dedicated to the study of natural history and evolution, and, in 1997, issued a posthumous apology to Beatrix for the sexism she experienced in attempting to submit her research.

As a way to earn money in the 1890s, Beatrix used her drawing talents to produce Christmas and greeting cards. Many of these designs involved mice and rabbits, which attracted the attention of the greetings card company, Hildesheimer and Faulkner, who commissioned several drawings from her to illustrate verses by the author and lyricist Frederic Weatherly (1848-1929). Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96), a friend of her father, also made observations about Beatrix’s artistic talents.

Whenever Beatrix holidayed in Scotland, she drew cards or illustrated letters to send to her friends. She had remained in contact with one of her former governesses, Annie Carter Moore, and often sent drawings and cards to her children, particularly Noel who was often unwell. Since she wrote to Noel regularly, she ran out of things to tell him and began writing stories instead, for instance, a tale about “four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter”.

In 1900, Beatrix revised her story of the four rabbits and sent it to several publishing houses. Unfortunately, it was rejected but her friend Hardwicke Rawnsley (1815-1920), an Anglican priest in Westmorland, had great faith in her work and resubmitted it to the publishers. Frederick Warne & Co, who had previously dismissed Beatrix’s work, agreed to publish the “bunny book”, as it was then known. Originally, Beatrix’s illustrations were black and white but the company persuaded her to add colour. Thus, on 2nd October 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, marking the beginning of a long relationship between Beatrix and the publishers.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by Beatrix’s pet rabbit Peter Piper, who she made up stories about to entertain the poorly Noel Moore. As time went on, she introduced other characters to the stories and her former governess proposed the suggestion that they would make great book characters. After revising the tale several times, the final story followed the mischievous Peter who sneaked into the garden of Mr McGregor to steal some of the gardener’s lettuces. Whilst Peter was snacking, Mr McGregor spotted him, so the young rabbit ran away but soon discovered he was hopelessly lost. Eventually, Peter found his way out of the garden and home to his mother, having learnt a valuable lesson.

When publication began in October 1902, 8,000 copies of the book were produced, however, by November, a further 12,000 were printed followed by another 8,200 in December. Beatrix Potter was astonished at the popularity of her story. “The public must be fond of rabbits!” It is now considered one of the most popular children’s stories of all time, having sold over 40 million copies worldwide.

The following year, Frederick Warne & Co published two more of Beatrix’s stories based on characters she had invented for Noel and his siblings. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, published in August 1903, tells the story of a naughty squirrel and his family who travelled to Owl Island to collect some nuts. Squirrel Nutkin taunted the resident Old Brown Owl with silly songs and riddles, however, Old Brown ignored him. Eventually, Old Brown was so fed up with the silly squirrel that he pounced upon Squirrel Nutkin who was lucky to survive, albeit with a little of his tail missing.

The Tailor of Gloucester, published in October 1903, involved a nasty cat called Simpkin who was sent out by the tailor to buy food and fabric. While the cat was away, the tailor discovered a family of mice that had been trapped under some teacups by Simkin. The tailor released them, much to the disgust of Simpkin on his return. Unfortunately, the tailor then fell ill and was unable to finish his work. Grateful for saving their lives, the mice returned during the night and finished the tailor’s work while he recovered in bed.

Beatrix Potter continued to publish two or three books a year up until the First World War. Although they were written less frequently, she continued to write after the war, amassing a total of 23 by 1930.

The year 1904 saw the publication of The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and The Tale of Two Bad Mice. The Tale of Benjamin Bunny is a sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit in which Peter returns to Mr McGregor’s garden with his cousin Benjamin to retrieve the clothes he left there when he made his hasty exit. The Tale of Two Bad Mice was inspired by the two mice Beatrix rescued from her cousin’s trap, who she named Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca. In the story, these naughty mice wrecked the interior of a little girl’s dollhouse. Feeling sorry for what they had done, Hunca Munca vowed to sweep the floor of the dollhouse every morning, whilst Tom Thumb put a sixpence in the doll’s stocking on Christmas Eve.

The much-loved Mrs Tiggy-Winkle appeared in 1905, as did The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. The Tail of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle was slightly different from Beatrix Potter’s previous books in that the main character was a human. Lucie, a young girl staying in the countryside, happened across a hedgehog dressed up as a washerwoman. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle did not speak but her eyes went “twinkle, twinkle” whilst she went about her housework. At the end of the story, some people think Lucie fell asleep and dreamt the whole thing, however, the narrator knows better. The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Panon the other hand, involves two anthropomorphic characters: a cat called Ribby and a dog called Duchess.

Jeremy Fisher is another well-known character, who appeared in 1906 along with Miss Moppet and a fierce bad rabbit. The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher is about a frog who lived in a “slippy-sloppy” house at the edge of a pond. Jeremy vowed that if he caught five minnows in the pond he would invite his friends for tea, however, fishing with a rod was much harder than he expected and he went home empty-handed. Nonetheless, he still invited his friends for tea: Sir Isaac Newton the newt and Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise.

The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit was written at the request of the publishers who wanted a truly bad rabbit, not like Peter who seemed too good despite his adventures. The unnamed bad rabbit attacked a good rabbit eating a carrot but was spotted by a hunter who mistook him for a bird. As a result, the fierce bad rabbit was shot at, causing him to lose his tail and whiskers. The Story of Miss Moppet is about another naughty character, a cat, who decided to tease a mouse, “which is not at all nice of Miss Moppet.” She tied the mouse in a handkerchief and threw it around, not realising that it had a hole through which the mouse could escape.

Miss Moppet may have been the sister of Tom Kitten and Mittens who appear in The Tale of Tom KittenTheir mother, Tabitha Twitchit, invited her friends to tea and instructed her children to make themselves presentable. Tom, however, had other ideas and proceeded to make mayhem. Tom Kitten was the only book published in 1907, however, two followed the next year.

the_tale_of_jemima_puddle-duck_coverThe Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck features two of Beatrix Potter’s well-known characters: Jemima, a domestic Aylesbury duck and Mr Tod, a fox. Jemima wanted somewhere safe to lay her eggs where the farmer’s wife would not take them and Mr Tod, dressed as a charming gentleman, suggested she use his shed. Of course, Mr Tod had an alternative motive and began to prepare a feast in which Jemima would be the main dish. Fortunately, other animals on the farm found out Mr Tod’s plans and rescued Jemima.

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding is a story that involves several characters. Tom Kitten was still up to his old tricks, pestering his mother Tabitha Twitchit and her Cousin Ribby. Samuel Whiskers and his wife Anna Maria, two rats that lived under the floorboards, decided to teach the kitten a lesson. After catching the young Tom, the rats attempted to bake Tom in a pudding. Fortunately, he was found before he could be eaten.

In 1909, Beatrix revisited her first story about Peter Rabbit and its sequel featuring Benjamin Bunny. Using elements from the original plot, Beatrix published The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, who were the children of Benjamin Bunny and his cousin Flopsy. The young bunnies, six in total, fell asleep while raiding a sack of vegetables and were captured by Mr McGregor. Fortunately, Thomasina Tittlemouse, a woodmouse, was able to free the bunnies before they could come to any harm.

Peter Rabbit and other popular characters also appear in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, a story about a village shop. Ginger, a yellow tomcat, and Pickles, a terrier, were kind animals who let their customers purchase goods on unlimited credit, however, they soon found themselves penniless as a result. Forced to close the shop, it took a kind-hearted villager, Sally Henny-penny, to help them reopen and convince the customers to pay with real money.

Thomasina Tittlemouse, who was the heroine of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, received a story of her own in 1910. The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse is a story about housekeeping, which reflects Beatrix Potter’s own sense of tidiness and hatred of insect infestations. Mrs Tittlemouse’s friends and the occasional arachnid were forever messing up her home but she was always determined to make it neat and tidy again.

In 1911, Beatrix Potter attempted to please her American fans by writing The Tale of Timmy Tiptoewhich featured a squirrel called Timmy and a chipmunk called Chippy Hackee. Unfortunately, Beatrix had never seen chipmunks, which are indigenous to North America, except for in books, therefore, her illustrations received a lot of criticism. Fortunately, she was able to redeem herself the following year with a story about a previous character, The Tale of Mr Tod

The Tale of Pigling Bland was the last book published before the outbreak of the First World War. Aunt Pettitoes, an old sow, was fed up with her eight troublemaking children and decided to make them leave home. Pigling Bland and his brother Alexander decided to try their luck in the market but, due to Alexander’s bad behaviour, they found themselves in a lot of trouble.

After a break of four years, Beatrix Potter was back on the publishing scene with Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes, which opened with a rhyme about a mouse named Appley Dapply. “Appley Dapply has little sharp eyes, And Appley Dapply is so fond of pies!” The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse followed in 1918, which was loosely based on Aesop’s fable The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Beatrix Potter disappeared from the publishing scene for a few more years, reappearing in 1922 with another book of rhymes. Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes began with a rhyme about the titular rabbit but also included popular songs, such as Three Blind Mice.

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The Owl and the Pussy Cat

In 1930, Frederick Warne & Co published Beatrix’s final tale, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. Despite it being her last story, it was one of the first Beatrix had written, having begun it in 1883. It was intended as a prequel to Edward Lear’s (1812-88) poem The Owl and the Pussycat, for which she later produced illustrations in 1897.

Beatrix was inspired by the “Piggy-wig” who lived in “the land where the Bong-Tree grows.” He had a “ring at the end of his nose”, which the Owl and the Pussycat used as their wedding ring. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson explained how, in Beatrix Potter’s imagination, the Piggy-wig came to be there. Little Pig Robinson was sent to the market by his aunts Miss Porcas and Miss Dorcas but was kidnapped by a sailor who planned to cook and feed the poor pig to his men. With the help of the ship’s cat, Little Pig Robinson managed to escape on a rowing boat and made his way to “the land where the Bong-Tree grows”, where he later met the Owl and the Pussycat.

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Hill Top Farm

Despite producing so many books, Beatrix Potter’s life was much more than writing and illustrating. In 1905, the son of the publishing company founder, Norman Dalziel Warne (1868-1905) proposed marriage, which she readily accepted despite the protestations of her family. Unfortunately, Norman passed away a month later from pernicious anaemia, leaving Beatrix devastated. To distract herself from grief, Beatrix focused on renovating Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey near Windermere, which she had bought with her income. Due to her duties in London – both to her parents and the publishing company – Beatrix could not live there permanently, so employed a tenant farmer, John Cannon.

During her visits to Hill Top Farm, Beatrix taught herself the techniques of fell farming and raising livestock, such as pigs, cows, chickens and sheep. Needing to protect the boundaries of her farm, Beatrix sought advice from the solicitors W.H. Heelis & Son, who advised her to purchase Castle Farm, a pasture adjacent to Hill Top Farm, which would provide her with a further 20 acres of land. By 1909, the purchase had been made and Beatrix had grown close to William Heelis, who later proposed marriage in 1912. Despite her family disapproving of the match because he was “only a country solicitor”, they married on 15th October 1913 in Kensington and moved into the newly renovated Castle Cottage on Castle Farm.

After marriage, Beatrix felt she could finally settle down and began to focus more on sheep farming than writing. In 1923, she purchased Troutbeck Park where she became an expert Herdwick sheep breeder. During this time, however, her eyesight began to deteriorate, which meant any stories she wrote had to be pieced together through illustrations she had done in the past. Beatrix and William remained childless throughout their thirty-year marriage but had many nieces who enjoyed her stories.

As well as farming, Beatrix Potter was a keen conservationist, inspired by her old friend Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley who had co-founded the National Trust (for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty). Beatrix made it her ambition to preserve the Lake District’s unique landscape, of which a quarter is now owned by the National Trust. She used her income to purchase and save properties and preserve farmland. Beatrix served as the de facto estate manager for the Trust for seven years until they could afford to purchase the land from her.

When Beatrix Potter passed away from complications due to pneumonia and heart disease on 22nd December 1943, she left nearly all her property to the National Trust. This included over 4000 acres of land, sixteen farms, many cottages and herds of cows and sheep. This has been, to date, the largest gift to the National Trust and enabled the Lake District to be preserved.

Beatrix also left many of her original illustrations and books to the National Trust, which are on display at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, Cumbria – the same building that used to house her husband’s law office. The largest public collection of her drawings and letters, however, can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Beatrix Potter’s books are instantly recognised by her distinctive illustrations, however, she never thought of herself as much of an artist. “I can’t invent: I only copy.” Many of the scenes in her tales were based on places she had visited, such as South Devon, which featured in The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. She conceived the storyline while staying in Devon with her family in 1883. The tale takes place in a “pretty little town of Stymouth”, which Beatrix invented by mixing together scenes from the South Devon towns of Sidmouth and Teignmouth and Lyme Regis in Dorset.

Mr McGregor’s garden in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny was inspired by Fawe Park on the edge of Lake Derwentwater where the Potter’s stayed in 1903. Beatrix spent the holiday drawing the kitchen garden, greenhouse and potting shed, which she imagined a rabbit (or a certain Bunny) would find appealing.

After the sudden death of her fiance in 1905, Beatrix briefly found solace in Gwaynynog, Wales, with her two pet rabbits: Josey and Mopsie. Here she spent time relaxing and drawing in the “prettiest kind of garden, where bright old fashioned flowers grow amongst the currant bushes”, which became the setting for The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.

The 17th-century farmhouse at Hill Top became the setting of The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan and The Tale of Tom Kitten. The kitchen, which contained old fashioned chairs and an oak dresser, provided the backdrop for scenes in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.

Beatrix Potter’s tales and characters live on through reprints and branded merchandise. New generations have been introduced to characters, such as Peter Rabbit, through animated films, the latest released in 2018. When she died, Beatrix had some unfinished stories, which have now been published. The Sly Old Cat was written in 1906 but not published until 1971. Two years later, the unfinished Tale of Tuppeny was completed with illustrations by Marie Angel. Finally, Beatrix’s The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, whose publication was disrupted due to the outbreak of World War One, was published in 2016 with illustrations by Sir Quentin Blake (b.1932).

2016JG9836_jpg_dsBeatrix Potter never thought she would become famous. She was surprised with the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and thought it was only popular because people liked rabbits and not because she was a talented illustrator and storyteller. Whilst Beatrix Potter is a worldwide name due to her many books, her involvement with the National Trust and the preservation of the Lake District is not as widely known. At the time of her death, women had only recently been given the right to vote and it would be some time before women were credited with their important achievements. As a result, Beatrix’s generous donation to the National Trust was only known in small circles until more recently.

Next time you see the naughty Peter Rabbit, take a moment to not only appreciate the illustration but to remember the woman who gave him life.

Unicorns: A True Story

Over the past five years or so, unicorns have gained sudden popularity in the Western world. It is almost impossible to go shopping without seeing one of the mythical creatures, whether it be on a t-shirt, a card, a toy, a cake or even chicken nuggets. In popular culture, unicorns are a pretty, make-believe character with which many children (and even adults) are fascinated. This commercial unicorn, however, has its roots in ancient mythology. For hundreds, if not thousands of years unicorns have been described in natural histories and folktales.

Unicorns are the stuff of legends and, as many people agree, probably never existed. Yet, who came up with the idea of the unicorn? How did a horse with a horn on its head become a thing? Ancient accounts of natural history include the unicorn, so perhaps they did exist, or at least something similar to our modern idea of the unicorn.

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The gentle and pensive maiden has the power to tame the unicorn, fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05

Whether real or not, unicorns are recognised from a single horn protruding from their forehead. The horn, known as an alicorn, is the source of their magical power, usually used for purification and healing. Typically, they resemble a white horse and have been used as a symbol of purity and grace. Despite their elegance, they are wild, woodland creatures and, according to some legends, only a virgin could tame them.

The earliest written description of a unicorn comes from a book written in the 5th century BC. Indica or Indika contains a mix of dubious stories and myths about the East, possibly India, compiled by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias the Cnidian. Ctesias was the physician to the king of the Achaemenid Empire, Artaxerxes II (c435-358 BC). As part of his role, Ctesias accompanied the king on various expeditions and battles and, therefore, became well acquainted with the neighbouring lands. This allowed the physician to pen treatises on rivers and lands, including Persia and India. Some of the information is based on first-hand experience, however, the rest was pieced together through various stories told by travellers.

Indica, which only remains in fragments, is generally considered to be pure fantasy. It contains many of the strange beliefs the Persians had about India, including that the country was full of riches and gold, artisans, philosophers, god-like people and, of course, unicorns.

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Unicorn IV (Ctesias)- Cecilia Caride

Ctesias’ unicorn is described as a white horse with a purple head and blue eyes. The horn projecting from the forehead was approximately 27 inches long and coloured white at the base, black in the middle and red at the point. As well as being the first person to describe a unicorn, Ctesias was the first to attribute magic to a unicorn’s horn.

“No creature, neither the horse or any other, could overtake it.”
– Ctesias

It is now thought Ctesias’ unicorn may have resulted from a mixture of animal descriptions, such as the Indian rhinoceros and an ass. Alternatively, there is the smallest of chances it may have been real, however, the other creatures described in Indica suggest otherwise, for example, people with one leg and feet so big they could be used as umbrellas, and manticores – red creatures with human faces, three rows of teeth, and scorpion tails. On the other hand, some of the information proved to be true, for instance, Indian elephants, monkeys, Indian customs, a large population and the Indus river.

Indica remained the main source of information about India for people in the Mediterranean until the 2nd century AD when the book was satirised by Lucian of Samosata (c125-c180). Lucian claimed Ctesias to be a liar and depicted him as being condemned to a special part of hell to pay for his sins.

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Although Ctesias may have provided the earliest written description of the unicorn, evidence that the creatures may have “existed” long before then has been discovered in South Asia. Several seals depicting what looks like a unicorn have been unearthed in the land once belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. They date back to the Bronze Age, which lasted from 3300 BC until 1200 BC.

These seals are thought to have belonged to people of high social rank, however, little else can be gleaned from them. There is also the argument the creature on the seal was not intended to be a unicorn but an auroch. Now extinct, aurochs were a species of large cattle that inhabited areas of Europe, Asia and Africa. Skeletons of the creatures reveal they had two horns, one on either side of their head. Always drawn in profile, the creatures on the seals could have been an auroch with one horn hidden from view by the other.

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Despite the theories that the seals were not unicorns and Ctesias was a fraud, many other ancient texts mention the unicorn. De natura animalium (On the Nature of Animals) was a collection of seventeen books about natural history compiled by Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, 175-235 AD). Aelian was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric (persuasion, grammar and logic) who was also fluent in the Greek language. The majority of the anecdotes in the collection were taken from other sources, including Ctesias. Aelian stated India produced one-horned horses known as the monoceros. Another name for the monoceros was cartazonos, however, this may be the Greek form of the Arabic word karkadann, which means “rhinoceros.”

Aelian also quotes Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who wrote the encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History). Pliny wrote about about “a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits [900 mm, 35 inches] in length.” He also claimed the oryx antelope and Indian ox were one-horned creatures, as did Aristotle (384-322 BC) centuries beforehand. The Greek philosopher Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) also mentioned one-horned horses with stag-like heads.

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In the 16th century, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-65) produced a Latin translation of Aelian’s work titled Historia Animalium. Although he attempted to sort fact from fiction, Gessner still included the unicorn, which he had only heard about from medieval bestiaries. Gessner made it clear that he doubted some of the information, however, included it anyway since he believed it could teach moral lessons and divine truths. He went into as much detail into mythological creatures as he did about real animals. Mythological creatures that featured in the book included unicorns, mermaids, sea bishops and ichthyocentaur – creatures with the upper body of a human, the front legs of a horse and the tail of a fish.

As early as the 6th century, theories were expressed as to why unicorns were rarely seen. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th-century Greek merchant from Alexandria of Egypt reported, “it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.” Cosmos also wrote a series of books about scientific geography known collectively as Christian Topography. Cosmas aimed to convince people of his theory that the earth was modelled on the tabernacle described to Moses by God in the Book of Exodus. His view was the earth was flat and the heavens formed the shape of a box with a curved lid.

Cosmas was not the only Christian writer to describe the legendary unicorn. Many authors of bestiaries (books about beasts), including the aforementioned Conrad Gessner, relied on the Christian text Physiologus, which was compiled in Greece during the 2nd Century AD. Although the unknown author introduces each creature by saying “the naturalist says” or something similar, each chapter is told more like a story than a statement of fact. Many of these stories relate in some way to the Bible, particularly the resurrection of Christ, for example, the phoenix, which burns itself to death but rises from the ashes three days later.

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Physiologus devotes entire chapters to individual creatures, some real and some mythological, beginning with the lion and ending with the eel. Other creatures include hedgehogs, ostriches, panthers, elephants, doves, serpents, pelicans, phoenixes and, rather strangely, Amos the Prophet. The unicorn is found in chapter 36 and is the source of the legend that only a maiden can tame the unicorn. This allegory refers to the Virgin Mary upon whose lap the unicorn laid its head and slept.

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Virgin Mary holding the unicorn (c. 1480), detail of the Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych

Many religious artworks concerning the Inception of the Virgin Mary are inspired by the story in Physiologus. In some interpretations, the unicorn represents Christ and his relationship with the Virgin, his mother. Secular writers have developed this story into myths about chaste love and faithful marriage. Even the polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) explored the tale of the unicorn, stating in one of his notebooks, “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”

The Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) also alluded to the myths about unicorns, however, he also called them ugly, brutes, and reported they “spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime.” It appears he may have mistaken a rhinoceros for a unicorn.

The secular take on the myth of the unicorn and the virgin, as noted by Da Vinci, led to the story The Hunt of the Unicorn. The tale involves a group of hunters who are struggling to capture a unicorn until a young maiden offers her assistance. Since virgins can tame unicorns, the creature came and rested its head upon her lap, allowing the hunters to capture it.

The Hunt of the Unicorn was first recorded on a series of tapestries in Paris at the turn of the 16th century. It is speculated they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1541) to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII (1462-1515). Each tapestry, seven in total, tells a different part of the story:

  1. The Start of the Hunt
  2. The Unicorn at the Fountain
  3. The Unicorn Attacked
  4. The Unicorn Defending Himself
  5. The Unicorn Is Captured by the Virgin
  6. The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle
  7. The Unicorn in Captivity

Despite being based on a pagan story, scholars have identified Christian symbolism in the tapestries. The unicorn is Christ and its death is the crucifixion. As you will notice from the order of the seven tapestries, the unicorn’s death is not the final stage. In scene seven, despite remaining in captivity, the unicorn has returned to life, similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Another tapestry involving a unicorn is La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), which was produced in Flanders in the 16th century. Five of the six tapestries depict one of the five senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch; with À mon seul désir being the title of the sixth. The latter translates as “my only desire” and has left many wondering its true meaning. A possible interpretation is the desire for love or understanding.

La Dame à la licorne does not tell a sequential story like The Hunt of the Unicorn, instead, it presents a meditation on earthly pleasures demonstrated through the five senses. Touch is demonstrated by the lady holding a banner in one hand and touching the unicorn’s horn with the other. Sweets represent taste, flowers for smell, a portative organ for hearing, and a mirror for sight.

The sixth tapestry shows the woman placing her pendant in a box. Some suggest this is an acknowledgement of the passions aroused by the other senses and free will. Others have put forward the idea that it represents a sixth sense: understanding. There is also the argument that there is no way of telling if the woman is putting the pendant in the box or retrieving it. It has been noticed, however, that this is the only tapestry in which the woman smiles.

La Dame à la licorne does not only feature a unicorn but also a lion. Both these creatures are used in heraldry to symbolise a country. The most famous use of these animals are for Scotland (unicorn) and England (lion). One legend claimed the unicorn was the natural enemy of the lion and would rather die than be captured. This represented Scotland’s desire to remain sovereign and unconquered. Of course, this all changed with the 1707 union of Scotland and England.

It is not certain where the idea that lions and unicorns were enemies originated, however, the legend is recorded in a nursery rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

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This rhyme featured in Lewis Carroll‘s (1832-98) 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A unicorn and a lion are seen fighting over the crown belonging to the White King. For comedic effect, Carroll alters the traditional characteristics of the animals, making the lion slow and stupid and the unicorn monstrous. When producing illustrations for the book, Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) made caricatures of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88) as the unicorn and William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) as the lion in reference to their frequent parliamentary battles.

There are two common jokes about why unicorns may no longer exist. The first is the unicorns did not get on Noah’s ark in time (see video at the end of this article) and the second that they did get on the ark, but they were both males. Incidentally, unicorns are traditionally believed to be male and none of the myths, legends or bestiaries shed light on how they reproduce. The only claim about their nature is they are solitary creatures and can live for hundreds of years.

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Unicorn mosaic on a 1213 church floor in Ravenna, Italy

So, unicorns may not have been on Noah’s Ark, however, they are mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible mentions an animal called the re’em, an untamable animal of great strength and agility, with a horn. Unfortunately, it is generally believed the description was based upon the seals belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which are now thought to be aurochs. Nonetheless, the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611, translates the word re’em as “unicorn”.

There are eight references to unicorns in the Old Testament. They are as follows:

  • “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 23:22
  • “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 24:8
  • “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 33:17
  • “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?” – Job 39:9–12
  • “Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.” – Psalms 22:21
  • “He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalms 29:6
  • “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalms 92:10
  • “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7

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Real or not, what makes a unicorn so interesting is the horn protruding from its forehead. The existence of unicorns was supposedly disproved in 1825 by Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a French naturalist and zoologist, the father of palaeontology. Cuvier declared it was impossible for any animal with a split hoof, such as a horse, to have a horn on top of its head. Before this claim, unicorn horns were a much sought but rare commodity.

Ancient writers such as Ctesias and Aelian recorded that a unicorn’s horn, made from a substance called alicorn, could be made into a vessel that when drunk from would protect against diseases and poisons. Other parts of the body of a unicorn were also considered to have medicinal properties. The 12th century Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote a recipe for an ointment to cure leprosy. The ingredients included egg yolk and foie de licorne, also known as unicorn liver.

In Physiologus, the unicorn is said to be able to purify water with its horn. The book tells the story of a lake poisoned by a snake. None of the animals dared to go near the water to drink, however, when the unicorn appeared, it went straight to the water. With its horn, it made the sign of the cross in the water (remember Physiologus was a Christian text) and the poison was rendered harmless.

Over time, the horn of the unicorn was assigned many medicinal properties. These included cures for rubella, measles, fever, pain and plague (perhaps it could cure COVID-19). Apothecaries across Europe boasted they could sell unicorn horns and elixirs made from ground alicorn. Also for sale were belts made from unicorn leather to protect the wearer from harm.

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Royalty was often given alicorns as gifts. Elizabeth I was said to own a unicorn horn and the Throne Chair of Denmark was said to be made from many horns. Commissioned by King Frederick III (1609-70) in 1662, the throne was made by Bendix Grodtschilling (1620-90) to resemble the Biblical Throne of King Solomon described in 1 Kings 10. The throne was used at coronations until 1849 when the Danish monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy. The unicorn horns, however, have since been proved to be narwhal tusks.

As early as 1638, alleged alicorns were being identified as narwhal tusks. Danish physician Ole Worm (1588-1654) was the first to start making this connection with the medium-sized toothed whales that live in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia.

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Ole Worm’s beliefs were studied at length by Sir Thomas Brown (1605-1682) in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, more commonly known as Vulgar Truths. Brown was a polymath and author of a variety of subjects, including science, religion, medicine and the natural world. Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, to give its full name, challenges the common errors and superstitions of the 17th century. Although Brown tried to be scientifically accurate, he included subtle elements of humour. Of the alleged alicorns, Brown said:

“False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to detect poisons, and many physicians would make “cures” and sell them. Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory. Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages and were often really the tusks of narwhals.”

Despite, arguments against the existence of unicorns, they have “existed” throughout many cultures and periods. The European unicorn is traditionally believed to have the body of a horse with a pearly white coat and a long, white spiralled horn. In Asia, on the other hand, unicorns are depicted as a scaly, colourful deer-like creature with a flesh coloured horn.

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An Asian legend claims the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan (AD 1162- 1227) was prevented from invading India by a unicorn. The creature is said to have gazed into the leader’s eyes, which Genghis Khan took to be a sign from heaven and ordered his army to retreat.

The Chinese unicorn, also known as the qilin looks less like traditional descriptions of the magical creatures and more like a chimaera. Although it had a single horn, some sources say it had the body of a deer, the head of a lion, and green scales. Other sources claim it had the head of a dragon. According to legend, the qilin first appeared in 2697 BC during the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor. The Chinese unicorn’s rare appearances were believed to foretell the birth or death of a wise ruler. Rumour says the qilin appeared to the pregnant mother of Confucius (551- 479 BC) in the 6th century BC and once more shortly before his death. Confucius is also said to be the last person to have seen the unicorn.

“A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.”
– Tibetan proverb

Most of the original myths about unicorns have been forgotten and yet, unicorns have never been more popular than they are today. Social media has spread the unicorn fad across the world, with tips about throwing unicorn parties, making unicorn art and so much more.

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Every July, the Festa dell’Unicorno (Unicorn Festival) is held in the Italian town of Vinci (where Leonardo was born). Dressed as fairies, elves or characters from fantasy films, visitors can attend three days of magical shows, concerts, competitions and a medieval market.

The unicorn has been rising in popularity since 2015, helped along with companies, such as Starbucks with their unicorn frappuccino, Kellogg’s Unicorn Fruitloops and Unicorn Snot glitter gel. They also feature in recent films, TV shows and books. It has become a symbol of benevolence and happiness, shunning the harsh realities of today.

Although the unicorn craze belongs to the 21st century, unicorns have featured in famous literature of the past. Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned unicorns in his plays Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Timon of Athens. The most famous work of fiction involving the magical creatures is, of course, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (b.1939). First published in 1968, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been translated into 20 languages. The story follows a unicorn, who believes she is the last of her kind, on a quest to discover what happened to the rest of her species.

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Detail from James Thurber’s original illustration

Another story is The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber (1894-1961). The short, humorous tale is about a man who sees a unicorn in the garden but when he tells his wife, she does not believe him. The more the man insists, the more adamant his wife becomes that unicorns do not exist. In the end, the wife has become so obsessed with proving her husband wrong that she is mistaken for the “loony” one.

This, of course, was only a humorous story but would anyone believe you today if you saw a unicorn in your garden? Are unicorns real? Whilst science puts forward evidence to suggest they are not, mystery still abounds, making the answer inconclusive. The stories and legends told throughout time suggest that it is highly unlikely to spot or capture a unicorn, therefore, if they do exist, we may never know.

Whether or not you believe in unicorns, they are fascinating creatures to research. There are so many different beliefs, myths and legends that it is impossible to fully comprehend the legendary creature. Nonetheless, their presence in popular culture is adding a bit of sparkle to the world. So, to paraphrase the Festa dell’Unicorno, enjoy your life, have fun, anything goes, so long as you do not betray the “spirit of the unicorn.”

“The unicorn is noble,
He knows his gentle birth,
He knows that God has chosen him
Above all beasts of earth.”
– German Folk Song