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What EXACTLY is a Unicorn?
Alumni Office

Until recently, as you entered the Middle and Upper School building, you could see a large and colorful mural of a unicorn. It’s now gone but its story is interesting and needs to be told. Our students had appropriated this enticing creature, revered for three thousand years for its otherworldly appeal. The project started when Upper School Director, Felim Bolster, stopped Mike Sissons, ASM Art Teacher, at the school gatehouse.

    “What can you do about the big blank wall in the entranceway?” said Bolster. “It gets on a person’s nerves.”

    “Let me think about it, Felim,” said Mike. “We need something that will involve the kids.”

Soon, stencil figures of a unicorn, a lion, a dragon, and a snake came to be.  Clouds, flowers, and bugs surrounded the creatures. Students from the Middle and Upper Schools worked shoulder to shoulder with colored markers in hand, busily filling in the white spaces within the stencil with glowing color. A twelfth-grade boy worked side-by-side with a sixth-grade girl, both totally immersed in the project. 

    “I wanted a mixture of myth, realism, and fantasy,” said Sissons. “I wanted all age groups to take part -- boys and girls from all the nationalities that make up the school -- our magical mix. Thank God the idea worked.”

    “Everyone likes a coloring book when they are young. This is a big coloring book mounted on the wall.  It gives kids their space, where they can relax. I call it “color breathing.” It’s like meditation, but it’s social at the same time.”

The unicorn figure was popular at ASM, sketched in profile with a proud horn projecting from its forehead – a time-honored icon, standing alone in its own magical space. Unicorns began as fierce and solitary creatures. They existed in the lore of China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. The Greek historian Ctesias (c.400 BCE) described an ass-like animal in India that was the size of a horse. It had a white body, a purple head, and blue eyes with a cubit-long horn colored red at the tip, black in the middle, and white at the base. It ran quickly and was hard to catch. A drink from a unicorn’s horn protected the drinker from the effects of poison, epilepsy, and stomach ailments. Or was Ctesias really talking about the Indian rhinoceros?

A complex allegory was created in Late Antiquity and handed down to the Middle Ages. It describes a unicorn trapped by a maiden (the Virgin Mary), symbolizing the Incarnation of Christ. As soon as the animal sees her, it lays its head on her lap and promptly falls asleep. The one-horned beast tamed by a virgin was translated into an allegory of Christ’s relationship with the Virgin Mary. Some religious writers see the Passion of Christ in the unicorn’s death.  

Want to hunt a unicorn? Leonardo da Vinci writes 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.”

Many have seen the series of seven tapestries from Cluny, France, called The Hunt of the Unicorn, displayed in the Cloisters division of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Richly attired noblemen chase a unicorn, accompanied by huntsmen and hounds. A maiden traps the beast with her charms. The noblemen seem to kill it and bring it back to a castle. In the last panel “The Unicorn in Captivity,” the animal is alive once more. He is happy, surrounded by a fence in a field of flowers, with red stains on his flanks. No one really knows the meaning of the resurrected unicorn.  

In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I of England reputedly owned the tusk of a narwhal whale for which she paid 10,000 pounds – the price of a castle at the time. Narwhal tusks were thought to be unicorn horns with magical and curative properties. Cups made of these tusks were said to neutralize poisons and so commanded high prices.  

During the Renaissance, however, people grew increasingly skeptical about the miraculous properties of unicorn horns. In the 16th century, the surgeon Ambroise Paré, court physician to four French kings, trounced the idea that a unicorn’s horn had any medicinal effect. At the beginning of the 17th century, a beautiful specimen appeared in a monumental fresco cycle executed by Annibale Carracci and his studio for the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. 

In the 19th century, things changed with the rediscovery of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which inspired artists such as the French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. In 1887, Moreau completed The Unicorns -- the canvas is a rich and enigmatic Symbolist triumph. In the 1950s, the French prodigy Jean Cocteau conceived and designed a ballet also inspired by the Cluny tapestries. 

Today, unicorns bombard us. At H&M, you can buy a T-shirt for the Unicorn Fan Club. Kellogg’s makes Unicorn Fruit Loops with “The Magic Has Landed” as a slogan. You may have sipped a Unicorn Frappuccino this year at Starbucks. A unicorn is a business term that defines a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion – a tribute to the rare, mythical animal in that successful ventures of this kind are a statistical rarity. How about a Decacorn for companies worth over $10 billion or a Hectocorn for a company valued over $100 billion?  

Even though our ASM mural has disappeared, we live surrounded by unicorns and we love them!