From the May AD 2001
Our Lady of the Rosary
Question: On Palm Sunday one of the prayers asked deliverance from the
"horns of the Unicorns." Are there really unicorns? Are unicorns
always a symbol of evil?
The passage you heard was Psalm xxi, verse 22, the Psalm that our
Lord recited on the Cross, containing the passage "My God, My God, why hast
Thou forsaken me?" Unicorns are, of course, fictional animals, but have
acquired a place in Christian art and literature.
The Hebrew version of verse 22 uses the word "re'em," corresponding
to a wild ox or aurochs. In some translations the same word is rendered
variously as "unicorn," "rhinoceros," or "wild
In the context of Psalm xxi, the animal in question is a dangerous one. And,
in our time, we think of the unicorn as a symbol of the "New Age
Movement," a dangerous modern flirtation with pantheism and occult
foolishness. Nonetheless, the unicorn is sometimes used in Christian art as a
symbol of our Lord's Incarnation. This follows from the mythical beast's
inclination to sit only in the lap of a virgin, which reminds us of the birth of
our Lord to the Blessed Virgin.
Various animals, some fictional and some not, are used in Christian
literature for symbolic purposes. In addition to the unicorn, a very early
Christian work known as the "Physiologus" gives the phoenix rising
from its own ashes as symbol of Christ's resurrection, a lion whose cubs are
born dead but brought to live by the breath of the lion, and the pelican who
pierces her breast to revive her young from the dead. Medieval art and sculpture
often included fictional animals like the unicorn, the basilisk, the dragon, and
the griffin. Medieval "bestiaries" were books that cataloged animals,
fictional ones right along with the real.2
Those with Internet access may be interested in having a look at an on-line
bestiary at www.gloriana.nu/bestiary.html, from which the following
excerpt is borrowed:
No fabulous animal received more attention than the unicorn. His origins are
in antiquity as well, but as a topic of zoology rather than legend. He came in
many forms, and I can recall seeing a medieval manuscript that actually
described three different species. But let us focus on the medieval unicorn, as
best suited to our context.
The beautiful unicorn combines the physical characteristics of both horse and
goat. His horn is unique, not only in his having only one (and in the centre of
his brow), but in that it is shaped as a spiral. The learned were aware that,
were the horn to be sliced in half, there would be naturally carved images to be
The unicorn's horn was greatly valued, because it had the power of detecting
and removing poisons. Place a piece of the horn in poisoned water, and it would
bubble at the injustice. The medicinal values of the horn were vast, and a bit
sprinkled upon suspect food would counteract the effects of any poisons therein.
The exquisite Unicorn Tapestries, which are on display at The Cloisters, a
branch of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, well depict the unicorn as a
Christian symbol, with strong elements of death and resurrection. At the outset,
we see him dipping his horn into the waters, thereby purifying them for use by
the various animals that surround the pool. Intentionally or not, the artist
placed a hart directly next to the pool, bringing to mind the words of the
psalmist, "Like as the hart longs for the running streams, so my soul
thirsts for you, O my God."
It was well known that only a virgin's sweet scent could attract the unicorn,
and there was a popular identification of the virgin with the Blessed Virgin
Mary. Personally, I always have found that problematic. Considering that the
virgin is used as "bait" for the hunters who seek to kill the unicorn,
the mental picture of the Blessed Virgin's tricking her Son is repellent. But it
would require a very active imagination to identify Mary with the
"virgin" who appears in these tapestries. Her alluring, frankly
flirtatious look makes us wonder if the unicorn is duped in more ways than one.
Then, we see the hunters encircle and stab the unicorn, and an association
with those who planned Christ's death can be interpreted. But the strongest
symbol is the final tapestry, where the unicorn, resurrected and with an
expression of majesty, reigns in the shade of the pomegranates. I always have
wondered why the unicorn, in captivity, symbolises Our Lord, but this reasoning
These glorious tapestries are by no means a singular, purely artistic
interpretation. Identification of the pure, noble unicorn with Christ was very
common in the Middle Ages, and perhaps that is why the creature's popularity was
1. Catholic Encyclopedia (C.E.), s.v. "Animals in the Bible"
2. C.E., s.v. "Animals in Christian Art," "Bestiaries,"