Monthly Archives: August 2009

Unicorn Art: The Unicorn Tapestries (Hunt of the Unicorn)

The Power of the Unicorn

Why hunt the Unicorn, you might ask? Such an unlikely creature: a symbol of purity and beauty across the ages. For this, and because the unicorn’s spiraling horn cures ailments, negates poison, and purifies water, we desire him.

When the unicorn appears, it is because the Reign has been good and has brought Peace; and for that peace to prosper it must be fecund and pass on that Peace. So lords now gather in their finest, best and latest to hunt him down: variously colorful hosiery; superbly crafted doublets with golden buttons; cocky feathers on cocky hats; and everywhere a festive air as they don practical shoes for the forest—the Hunt begins.

The Start of the Hunt

The Start of the Hunt

The Start of the Hunt

Baying and excited hounds are tightly held on leash, as they catch ahead a whiff of the exotic East—cloves, cumin and coriander—that signals the presence of the beast. But Unicornus is the swiftest of all creatures on legs so they fail to glean him, until one who has gone ahead signals—they stumble onto a strange scene—beside an unlikely fountain that feeds a stream; various other creatures: pheasants, deer and lions; have gathered there in peace, waiting, for it must be made pure before any may safely drink from it.

The Unicorn at the Fountain

The Unicorn at the Fountain

The Unicorn at the Fountain

The hunters also wait, then finally, a rustling from the foliage reveals a coat the color of purest and freshest snow, and dainty cloven hooves enter the clearing. The long white horn, poised atop a slight and gentle head, twists towards Heaven. A milk-white mane flows down an ivory neck as the beast lowers his head, until that horn touches the water, which turns suddenly as innocent as a soul at Baptism.

The Unicorn Leaps the Stream

The Unicorn Leaps the Stream

The Unicorn Leaps the Stream

The Hunters feel the moment ripe, hounds bark and are let loose, and all rush-in with spears and nets to capture him. Not for nothing is the Unicorn famously elusive, nimbly and swiftly leaping over the stream; each stabbing spear evaded, each net capturing only empty air. The Unicorn smiles knowingly at their clumsy efforts, until finally, and with a ferocity that belies his gentle appearance, his horn pierces and kills a hound in his path, as he escapes bounding into the safety of the forest.

The Unicorn Defends Itself

The Unicorn Defends Itself

The Unicorn Defends Itself

Disappointed, the lords gather together to concoct a plan, for the only way to capture the Unicorn is by guile—Innocence may only be captured by Innocence. Three maidens, all ladies of the court, are told they may be touched by something as rare and beautiful as themselves within the corruption of that court. Clapping their hands with delight at the thought of touching such a noble creature, the maidens don their finest gowns, and make their hair elaborate. And so they sit together laughing within the Rose garden, full of the red blossoms of charity and compassion mingled with the white blossoms of purity.

The Unicorn in the Garden

The Unicorn is Captured by the Maiden

The Unicorn is Captured by the Maiden

Magically, the unicorn has felt their presence there. They beam in delight at his approach, and the one in a dress the color of Love reaches out her hand—the beast comes forward and licks the sweat from it—and that horn, still stained with the blood of the hound, strokes her breast She gently strokes his mane and neck as he shivers in pleasure, and collapses onto her lap.

The Death of the Unicorn

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle

The rough lords and the rough hounds may have him now that he is docile. Spears now meet their mark as hounds hold fast his neck. The blood of innocence flows swiftly and the ground stained dark with it. The Unicorn dies quickly without knowing what has killed him—but knowing that purity had held him fast too long.

The Captive Unicorn

The Captive Unicorn

The Captive Unicorn

For three days and nights the unicorn lay dead. On the third day, he rose again, no longer a free denizen of the forest, his magical powers now captive in a garden within a fence, tethered to a pomegranate tree. The wound on his flank refuses to heal, (some say it is but juice dripping from the fruit, but we know better). And yet, this is for the best, because now the Reign may prosper and be fecund.

Image credits:
Unicorn Tapestries on Tile at William Morris Tile

The Unicorn Tapestries are currently at the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum in New York

Also see Unicorn art

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There Be Dragons: Big, Dangerous and Sometimes Misunderstood

Medieval Lindorm Dragon, 15th century, from the alchemical scrolls of Sir George Ripley

Medieval Lindorm Dragon, 15th century, from the alchemical scrolls of Sir George Ripley

Of all the creatures encountered within the boundaries of Myth and Faerie, dragons are at once the most feared and the most admired. It is understandable that our relationships with them have not always been for the best since we, as well as our livestock and our maidens, have had to deal with issues ranging from prosaic matters, such as the avoidance of being eaten, to cosmic dilemmas involving the divisions between Heaven and Hell. Moreover, it does not help that certain dragons (and they are all individuals) tend to be rather large and powerful:

Leviathan - Arthur Rackham

Leviathan - Arthur Rackham

His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. One is so near to another, that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered. By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth. In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him. The flakes of his flesh are joined together: they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.
(Job 41: 15-23)

Debate continues to rage whether or not Leviathan was a true dragon although those on the dragon camp (and most of those are dragons) smilingly point out that no crocodile breathes fire. Indeed, one wishes to believe it since it is difficult to argue against fire-breathing beings. There is also no doubting the nature of Jörmungandr, the offspring of Loki and Thor’s dragon adversary:

Thor Slaying the Midgard Dragon - Henry Fuseli

Thor Slaying the Midgard Dragon - Henry Fuseli

…Then Thor was angered, and took upon him his divine strength, braced his feet so strongly that he plunged through the ship with both feet, and dashed his feet against the bottom; then he drew the Serpent up to the gunwale. And it may be said that no one has seen very fearful sights who might not see that: how Thor flashed fiery glances at the Serpent, and the Serpent in turn stared up toward him from below and blew venom.
(Prose Edda – Brodeur Trans.)

Thor defeats the serpent and drops it into the abyss where it grew great enough to encircle the earth. I feel it fair to point out however, that although Thor was credited with the deed, other mythologies compete for the distinction. Both Zeus and St. Michael claim similar feats. Zeus in order to defeat the Titans seized Typhon “from whose shoulders grew a hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon” and struggled with him until “…the earth melted in the glow of the blazing fire. And in the bitterness of his anger Zeus cast him into wide Tartarus.” (Hesiod, Theogony ll. 820-868)

St. Michael’s acts were similarly dramatic, though not as descriptive:

St. Michael and his angels fight Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon. From the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript from the 15th century.

St. Michael and his angels fight Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon. From the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript from the 15th century.

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
(Revelations 12: 7-9)

But let us not descend into that primordial abyss. This is not only about gods but also about those more familiar dragons we have to deal with on a more mundane basis. Fortunately for us, all of the old cosmically-sized creatures survived the wrath of gods, while the gods themselves seem to have devolved the duties onto heroes resulting in a wealth of tales about both. The most famous hero of them all was Siegfried (or Sigurd) and how he killed Fafnir:

Siegfried slays Fafnir with his father's sword - Konrad Dielitz, 1880

Siegfried slays Fafnir with his father's sword - Konrad Dieliz, 1880

Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went; but Sigurd neither trembled nor was adrad at the roaring of him. So when, as the worm crept over the pits, Sigurd thrust his sword under his left shoulder, so that it sank in up to the hilts; then up leapt Sigurd from the pit and drew the sword back again unto him, and therewith was his arm all bloody, up to the very shoulder.

Now when that mighty worm was ware that he had his death-wound, then he lashed out head and tail, so that all things soever that were before him were broken to pieces.
(The Volsungsaga, William Morris trans.)

There’s no doubting that swords are very useful things when dealing with dragons, but it must be a special sword. Siegfried’s was called Gram and could cut through an anvil. In another story, The Two Brothers, the Grimm brothers reported how another sword was used to save a maiden from a dragon.

The Two Brothers - Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales: The seven-headed dragon came and breathed fire,  setting all the grass ablaze...

The Two Brothers - Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales: The seven-headed dragon came and breathed fire, setting all the grass ablaze...

The huntsman said nothing more to this, but next morning took his animals, and with them ascended the dragon’s hill. A little church stood at the top of it, and on the altar three full cups were standing, with the inscription, “Whosoever empties the cups will become the strongest man on earth, and will be able to wield the sword which is buried before the threshold of the door.” The huntsman did not drink, but went out and sought for the sword in the ground, but was unable to move it from its place. Then he went in and emptied the cups, and now he was strong enough to take up the sword, and his hand could quite easily wield it…
…Said the dragon, “Many knights have left their lives here, I shall soon have made an end of thee too,” and he breathed fire out of seven jaws. The fire was to have lighted the dry grass, and the huntsman was to have been suffocated in the heat and smoke, but the animals came running up and trampled out the fire. Then the dragon rushed upon the huntsman, but he swung his sword until it sang through the air, and struck off three of his heads.
(The Two Brothers, Children’s and Household Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm)

Multi-headed dragons are apparently fairly common (as far as dragons can be considered “common”) since these have been appearing since the Chimera of Greek mythology, so it is not surprising that our unnamed huntsman hero had rather more difficulty. Unfortunately, he was killed treacherously soon after by the king, even though the princess was more than willing to marry him. However, this is quite unusual since in most cases the slayer of the dragon survives to either marry the princess, as Perseus did with Andromeda, or go on to a distinguished career as St. George proved was possible.

In fairness to dragons, their relationships with maidens were not always predatory:

"And I should look like a fountain of gold."  - illustration by Warwick Goble to The Mermaid, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

"And I should look like a fountain of gold." - illustration by Warwick Goble to The Mermaid, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

And I should look like a fountain of gold
Springing alone
With a shrill inner sound,
Over the throne
In the midst of the hall;
Till that great sea-snake under the sea
From his coiled sleeps in the central deeps
Would slowly trail himself sevenfold
Round the hall where I sate, and look in at the gate
With his large calm eyes for the love of me.
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Mermaid)

But while that is a mermaid rather than a human, the theme of sympathetic dragons is not uncommon. In Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon” the serpent is now a mushroom eating innocent who must convince St. George (who had been called out of retirement) to stage a mock fight to satisfy the superstitious townsfolk holding on to cliche stories about how dangerous dragons are.

The Reluctant Dragon - Maxfield Parrish

The Reluctant Dragon - Maxfield Parrish

In general though, it is best to assume dragons are dangerous, but sometimes not as dangerous as those who control them:

 Medea (Tanglewood Tales, The Minotaur)- Edmund Dulac: "Medea shook her hands over the multitude below."

Medea (Tanglewood Tales, The Minotaur)- Edmund Dulac: "Medea shook her hands over the multitude below."

“But when her witch’s poison had consumed the new wife, and the sea on either side had seen the royal palace all in flames, her wicked sword was drenched in her son’s blood; and, winning thus a mother’s vile revenge, she fled from Jason’s sword. Her Dracon team, the Dracones Titaniaci, carried her away to Palladiae.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 7, tran. Melville)

Since Medea was a witch, we can forgive the dragons for being accomplices to her murder of Jason’s wife Glauce. It’s not always their fault that dragons are misunderstood, not minding the occasional mayhem they might cause, as we can see from Sulamith Wulfing’s depictions of dragons precariously embracing, beautiful human maidens in apparent safety, though the sexual overtones of the idea are quite obvious.

The Big Friend - Sulamith Wulfing

The Big Friend - Sulamith Wulfing

Sulamith Wulfing - The Dragon

Sulamith Wulfing - The Dragon

Overall though, if you are a young man and encounter a dragon in the woods, it would be helpful to have a magical sword with you – just in case.

John Bauer - The Dragon: "He gave the dragon a mighty blow."

John Bauer - The Dragon: "He gave the dragon a mighty blow."

Image Credits: Dragon Art Prints and Posters: Dragons, Lindorms, Wyverns

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Fairy Tales and Fashion: The Princess Wore Prada

Cinderella's Slippers, Aubrey Beardsley

Cinderella's Slippers by Aubrey Beardsley

It’s high time we took on the important matter of fashion in fairy tales. What these various princes and princessses, evil queens, stepmothers, stepsisters, huntsmen and orphaned children (not to mention transformed amphibians), wore in the course of stories is too often glossed over by historians. When we read the stories with a mind towards faerie-couture, we are disappointed in most cases, except for one – Charles Perrault. More specifically, we shall consider just how important fashion was considered in one particular story of his: Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre, or as we know it better in English: Cinderella or The Glass Slipper.

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Having served in various official duties in the government of Louis XIV, Perrault often drew inspiration from actual events and persons of the court, and he certainly would have been familiar with the ever-changing fashion trends of that brilliant court. More interestingly, the manners of Cinderella’s stepmother showed an interest in the social aspirations of the bourgeoisie. It seems to be an eternal truth that conforming to fashion made it possible for those with ambition to gain access to the high and powerful:

It happened that the king’s son gave a ball, and invited all persons of fashion to it. Our young misses were also invited, for they cut a very grand figure among those of quality.

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And as a fairy story about high fashion, Perrault treats us to descriptions of the stepsisters’ plans for the ball:

“For my part,” said the eldest, “I will wear my red velvet suit with French trimming.”

“And I,” said the youngest, “shall have my usual petticoat; but then, to make amends for that, I will put on my gold-flowered cloak, and my diamond stomacher, which is far from being the most ordinary one in the world.”

We also hear about a strategy familiar among today’s young ladies with aspirations to stylishness:

They were so excited that they hadn’t eaten a thing for almost two days. Then they broke more than a dozen laces trying to have themselves laced up tightly enough to give them a fine slender shape.

Perrault the moralist was certainly citing such a trend among the fashionable of all ages, something Cinderella herself did not have to resort to since:

However, Cinderella, notwithstanding her coarse apparel, was a hundred times more beautiful than her sisters, although they were always dressed very richly.

Cinderella by Arthur Rackham.

Cinderella by Arthur Rackham.

Luckily, unlike her sisters who had to depend on what they had already possesed in their wardrobes, our heroine had more expert assistance:

Her godmother then touched her with her wand, and, at the same instant, her clothes turned into cloth of gold and silver, all beset with jewels. This done, she gave her a pair of glass slippers, the prettiest in the whole world.

Cinderella - by Edmund Dulac

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

A bit of magic always helps when desiring to capture a prince’s attention I suppose, but Perrault, as always, was trying to make a point:

Young women, in the winning of a heart, graciousness is more important than a beautiful hairdo. It is a true gift of the fairies. Without it nothing is possible; with it, one can do anything.

To which he added:

…it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense… However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.

Present day fashion designers might think it odd being referred to as modern day fairy godmothers, but as long as we are expressing timeless truths, let’s close by quoting famous Vogue editor Diana Vreeland:

I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity.

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Image Credits:
Cinderella Art Prints
Images of Fashion from the Court of Louis XIV

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