European sacred tradition produces narratives of Arthurian courts blending Christian and pagan mythology. By superimposing new interpretations onto older symbols, Christians had enormous success converting Europe to their monotheistic system. By reconfiguring familiar remnants, Christianity became a prime example of what mythology is and does. When new ideas blend into symbols of older traditions, a new, rich third is created. In the beginning of the twenty first century, Arthurian myth is still with us. Though we can discover both Christian and pre-Christian meanings in its symbols, modern comprehension reveals our own gap: what do these symbols mean to us? Joseph Campbell wrote about our modern lack of recognizing metaphor in religious understanding. He said, “For it is simply a fact – as I believe we have all now got to concede – that mythologies and their deities are productions and projections of the psyche. What gods are there, what gods have there ever been, that were not from man’s imagination?” (Myths 253). Literalism has altered symbols man produced as metaphors. The Unicorn is one symbol from man’s imagination often used within the Arthurian tradition. Though cited as a real beast by Cosmas Indicopleustes around the year 550 (Freeman 36), the unicorn’s changing metaphorical symbolism can be readily tracked. Using the exquisitely woven and preserved Unicorn Tapestries, pre-Christian, as well as religious, symbolic meanings of the unicorn can be illuminated. In the spirit of Campbell, however, as Christian literalism leaves us disenchanted in a modern Wasteland, are there unicorn metaphors that can make old myth relevant to us in appropriately new ways? The seminal fantasy author Peter S. Beagle used the unicorn as the symbolic center of his classic novel, The Last Unicorn. He also recently published a seven poem cycle, one poem based directly on each of the Unicorn Tapestries. Beagle’s work creates new metaphorical meaning for the mythical unicorn whose relevance waned in an onslaught of literalism.
The Tapestries, dating from the Middle Ages, depict a unicorn hunt in seven separate works. There is debate over exactly who crafted them, and for whom they were actually created. However, symbolic interpretations of the unicorn, the hunt in general, and the human and natural elements beautifully sewn into the works are generally established. In his detailed study of almost every element to be found on each tapestry, John Williamson sums up this interpretation as, “the classical gods gradually evolved from their original aspect to become metaphors of Christian ideas” (27). The Unicorn Tapestries contain symbols evoking pre-Christian vegetation myth. This predominant narrative is the seasonal variation of the agricultural year, with its myths of the Oak King and the Holly King (Williamson). The same symbols can also be interpreted as metaphors for the Christian figures of Jesus Christ and Mary. This narrative as depicted has various interpretations, but Williamson makes a detailed case for the tapestries depicting the birth and ultimate crucifixion of Christ, as well as a depiction of the Incarnation. Adolfo Cavallo suggests the symbolized narrative actually evokes Adam and Eve as their original sin becomes redeemed by the death of Christ (51). This interpretation might account for the woven “A & E” found sewn into the works. However, for this analysis, the focus on Christ being depicted as the unicorn is the most important detail.
The first of the Tapestries depicts “The Start of the Hunt”. Williamson describes the underlying pagan theme of this scene as “the symbolic awakening of the earth in early spring” (96), while also metaphorically depicting the birth of Christ. Seasonal rebirth was the foundation of human agricultural life. Rebirth is also the main message of Christ. There is debate today over whether the message refers to a literal rebirth after death, or if Christ was calling his followers to awaken to their inner lives in a new relationship. There can be no debate Christianity partly developed as a religious narrative superimposed on the seasonal myths that came before it. The first tapestry begins a narrative of the Oak King, who started his reign at the Winter Solstice, the same season of the birth of Christ on Christmas Day.
The second tapestry depicts “The Unicorn at the Fountain”. As Williamson details, the plants shown in this work depict “spring – the actual blossoming of vegetation” as well as underlying “images which suggest the return to earth of vegetation deities like Christ” (98). The new Oak King is taking control of his reign and the earth is abundant, just as Christ’s life symbolizes the abundance of good will humanity can achieve by acting on his words. The unicorn depicted purifies the poisoned water of a fountain, from which animals will now be able to drink safely. In addition, according to Williamson, there are symbols pointing to Easter and the month of March, to the “events that surround the Crucifixion” (120). Just as the Oak King must be killed yearly for vegetation to renew itself, so Christ is killed for his followers to be reborn after their death.
The third tapestry is “The Unicorn Crossing the Stream”. As springtime changes to summer, the year steadily approaches the Summer Solstice, after which days again begin to grow shorter. Williamson focuses on the crossing of the stream as a “homeopathic rite that ensures rain for the season” (140) of summer. There is anticipation in this tapestry, as the hunters drive the unicorn over water. However, Williamson is less clear about symbolic relevance to Christ here, saying simply this tapestry “identifies with the events centered upon resurrection” (122). Just as there is anticipation for the coming of necessary rains, I would offer a possibility of the crossing of the stream depicting a Fluvial Necrotype (Smith). The ordeal of the crucifixion is a figurative descent into the Underworld, which is followed in some Christian traditions by an actual three day visit by Christ to the Underworld of Hell. The unicorn, as Christ, crosses the stream, symbolizing his acceptance of fate and the descent that will go with it.
The fourth tapestry, “The Unicorn Defends Himself”, depicts vegetation associated with the arrival of Midsummer, “a time when the marriage of the Oak King with the representation of the earth mother traditionally took place” (Williamson 141). On the Summer Solstice, when the Oak King is at his peak, it is a short-lived peak. A decline toward winter begins the next day. Williamson suggests “the holly tree dominates the floral iconography for the first time” (145) as a clear indication of the continued seasonal depiction. The unicorn begins to take on the lunar aspect of the Holly King, whose strength grows even as the solar Oak King’s power wanes. In the Christian interpretation, Christ has now accepted his role by descending into an underworld. He knows he is the sacrifice that will save humanity, just as the Oak King accepts his own death as the necessity for agriculture’s rebirth. This scene also parallels the story of Jesus’ betrayal in the garden. Just as Jesus’ disciples featured in events leading to his death instead of trying to help him avoid it, no hunter is actually piercing the unicorn; they are just driving him on to his eventual fate. That fate is sealed in the next tapestry.
The fifth, “The Unicorn is Tamed by the Maiden”, remains with us in a fragmented state. Only two strips exist and at least two additional strips are missing. However, there is enough material still present to ensure this pivotal work provides relevant information. Williamson suggests the missing lady who tames the unicorn “is identified with love, death, and rebirth – aspects of both the apple tree and, ultimately, the Triple Goddess” (162). The vegetation in this work depicts mid-August, a time when the Holly King was powerless as the unicorn who has given in to the lady. Showing the complexity of these symbols, the lady with the unicorn is also suggested as a symbol of the Oak King uniting with the earth mother, when, “after a blissful union, he is led away and is killed” (Williamson 174). The Christian interpretation of the unicorn’s submission has various meanings. One is the final recognition by Christ of his “voluntary sacrifice and his acceptance of betrayal” (Williamson 162). However, this scene also suggests a symbolic reading of the Incarnation. Christ willfully enters into Mary in order to be born as man so he may eventually die to save humanity (Cavallo 47). The end result, of course, is the same.
The sixth tapestry, “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle”, depicts the actual spearing of the unicorn and its body subsequently being brought to the royal couple who presumably ordered the hunt. Now that we actually have the death of the unicorn, the season depicted is winter. The Holly King has died, which foretells the coming rebirth of the Oak King. Williamson places this tapestry in the “season of the winter solstice, the end of the agricultural year, and the death of the lunar unicorn” (198). The Christian symbolism is of the actual Crucifixion, wherein Christ dies, shown by the actual spearing of the unicorn. Williamson suggests the royal court, in front of which the unicorn is paraded, depicts the descent of Christ into the underworld before he is resurrected (176). Williamson adds the intriguing interpretative possibility of the royal couple symbolizing Persephone and Hades, before which all the dead, apparently even Christ, must be brought (184 – 185).
The seventh and final tapestry depicts “The Unicorn in Captivity”, in which a reborn and prancing unicorn is contained within an enclosure, under a dripping pomegranate tree. The pomegranate symbolism adds credibility to the possibility the royal couple were Persephone and Hades, since pomegranate was the fruit binding Persephone to the Underworld. Williamson suggests this final work is not part of the hunt, “but rather the apotheosis of the hunt, in which the resurrected unicorn symbolizes the rebirth of Christian and pre-Christian vegetation gods” (199). Thus, the varied plants sewn into this seventh tapestry “promote fertility and encourage copulation” (226). The vegetation gods have been reborn in the yearly cycle after winter’s barren months, and Jesus Christ has risen out of the Underworld to a new life. Both events ensure humanity’s survival.
An additional interpretation of the seventh tapestry is suggested by Williamson, giving possible credence to Cavallo’s suggestion that Adam and Eve (A&E) are woven in throughout the hunt. The pomegranate tree symbolizes the feminine and the unicorn symbolizes the masculine. The enclosure that contains them both may be the New Garden of Eden. Humanity, reborn through Christ’s sacrifice, is now free to live without sin once again (Williamson 224-226). There is an underlying suggestion of the identification of the key to life, which transcends any descent to an underworld or being caught in any wasteland. “To provide fruitfulness within the holy precinct, the union of the sexes was essential” (226). Birth and rebirth are the keys to life, but they only occur through the presence of both the feminine and the masculine. Though Adam and Eve may have begun a vicious cycle, they also represent the only possible way to escape what they began.
What do these death and rebirth symbols of pre-Christian vegetation gods and Jesus Christ have to say to us today? As Campbell suggested, Christianity is generally understood on a literal basis today. Earlier mythology, telling stories of the agricultural gods, is generally accepted only as stories for entertainment. With both sets of narratives, there are those who will take time to unravel historical and psychological significance in the myths, but they are not the general public. Do the Unicorn Tapestries, any unicorn, or any myth retain relevance in the modern world?
Cavallo adds an interesting idea, germane to the question of the modern interpretation of such works. He suggests the first, fifth and seventh tapestries may not belong in the sequence of the other four (29 – 75), which we have seen Williamson string together in a unified narrative. Cavallo believes they were probably done by the same weavers, for the same clients, but not for a linear set. This question remains for art historians, as do those of the weaver’s identity and the tapestry’s original owners. However, this relatively recent idea comes after the researched and detailed narrative Williamson created to include all seven tapestries. If Cavallo is correct, then Williamson has already created a new narrative for the modern world. However, it is suffused with history, still based on symbols and myths alive when the works were created. Are there further new interpretations of these works?
Taking another cue from Joseph Campbell, we must look to artists for new paths. The first that must be briefly considered is T.S. Eliot and his poem “The Waste Land”. Eliot wrote and defined the Waste Land, a barren earth of failed relationships, in the year 1922. World War I began the devastation of modern sensibilities. Eliot used Arthurian source ideas to write of a world in need of renewal, whether from war or the personal brutalities we inflict on each other. His answer for escaping the Waste Land was “’Datta, dayadhvam, damyata’ (Give, sympathize, control)’” (53). If this is the way to renew the Waste Land, then taking, cynicism and chaos must be what creates the Waste Land. Arthurian myth postulates a return of the King to renew the world. Are there modern interpretations of the narrative of the Unicorn Tapestries, wherein we may find renewal for the Waste Land we are living in? Can mythic symbols which historically evoked the Oak King, the Holly King and Jesus Christ find their own rebirth for us today?
The second artist to consider is Peter S. Beagle, a seminal fantasy literature author whose career became serious with his novel, The Last Unicorn. A major coincidence recently took place when a brief classroom discussion regarding the Unicorn Tapestries was ignited the following morning by the discovery of a poem cycle by Beagle titled “The Unicorn Tapestries” (185-192). He chose to write from the point of view of a boy in tapestry six, depicted looking at his dog, unable to look at the dead unicorn slung over the horse’s back. The language of Beagle’s poetry speaks of the unicorn as a symbol of something within, yet beyond, the real world, which the boy senses by himself:
He was not white as ivory,
or snow, or milk, as men declare,
but white as moonlight on the sea –
oh, white as daisies! white as air! (186)
The boy’s father is the nobleman who has called for the unicorn hunt, and the respect he asks to be due the unicorn as a beast of natural wonder is shown in this verse:
He said, “We may not give him chase
till he is roused and starts to run.
Stand you a moment in his grace
and ask his pardon, every one.”
Then I was glad to be his son. (187)
The unicorn is defined by his “grace” by the father, but the son has already defined him by natural attributes of a wonderful existence, “white as air!” The father’s hunt continues anyway, but fails because there is only one way to capture a unicorn. The boy describes the maiden and the unicorn as he approaches toward her. She “smiled like a sleeping snake” (190), but the unicorn still goes to her, because he is a being who gives: “Perhaps he did know, / and did not care” (189). He then describes the actual killing of the unicorn after he has given himself up: “the wholeness broken by the grunting men, / the beauty spilling, / his eyes brilliant with hurt” (190). Here is the Waste Land defined: taking a life, a cynical outlook even as beauty spills and the chaos of a slaughtering scene. The boy can only look thankfully at his dog. Upon seeing the unicorn reborn, the boy describes his feelings:
All in the morning, feeling his breath
play in my hair as he stamped and blew,
just for a moment I knew what he knew,
shining and shining and shining –
that nothing could hold him, not even death;
that no collars, no chains, no fences, as strong as they seem,
can hold a dream. (192)
Here we have the unicorn as a symbol of a dream, perhaps a literal Jungian nighttime dream, but definitely a goal and hope of a person awake and purposeful. Jung’s individuation process encompasses both, a striving to shine and unwillingness to be stopped before achieving what a person needs. The chaos of restraints, death and the greed of others, instead of being allowed to give of your gifts freely, are aspects of today’s Waste Land. The unicorn gives all he can willingly, his life to the lady, in order to shine and inspire the boy in the light of rebirth.
Beagle has used the unicorn as a symbol of rebirth, just as the Unicorn Tapestries previously were interpreted depicting seasonal rebirth of the yearly cycle and rebirth of Jesus Christ in order to save the world. In modern global society, however, the individual rebirth of a child, awakening to the beauty of giving over taking, seems a more relevant interpretation. Daily agricultural labor is no longer seen by a majority of Americans, many of whom believe food comes from the supermarket. Vegetation gods hold little resonance for us. Jesus Christ has become a historical figure, proving most powerful for those who take his metaphorical words literally. The fact that we have lost much of our traditionally rich symbolism signifies not a will to lose it, but simply that we have lost touch with metaphor. Eliot used the Arthurian tradition to describe the modern world, perfectly describing the Waste Land, but coded his solution in the myths of an even older Hindu tradition. Beagle’s simplicity and relevance reworks the unicorn as a symbol. A beast of wonder, the unicorn evokes the environmental Waste Land we have created in our world, evidenced by rapidly diminishing numbers of wild animal species. There is an advancement of the mythical process here, as this becomes a symbol we relate to. We can then understand the unicorn gives freely. He doesn’t take. This was the original message of Jesus Christ, but it has become lost in the Waste Land of those who use him to take what they say is theirs. They have lost the understanding of the need to give – and give freely – in order to have rebirth.
Depth Psychology adds to this interpretation, but too often in the process of individuating, we take what is “ours”. Even when reclaiming what is within us, the common metaphor is to take from our unconscious what we need to be whole. If it is for what we perceive to be our own good, we often forget the unconscious is actually supposed to give us what we need. A careless or blind focus on our self may lead to appropriating cultural and religious solutions from other traditions. However, simply taking historical and psychological narratives of others will not completely enable us to escape our own modern Waste Land.
Joseph Campbell writes, “…myth is a picture language…this language is the native speech of dream…it has been studied, clarified and enriched by the poets, prophets, and visionaries of untold millenniums” (Flight 22). In fantasy literature, written by poets in this native speech of dream, old symbols are reworked to speak to the modern world. By understanding the wonder of the fantastic, we are able to recognize the shine within ourselves, so different from ordinary experience. Hopefully, we understand that when reclaiming our enchantment, we need to give the same to the world. Our own rebirth should be a rebirth of giving, a lesson the unicorn knows only too well.
Beagle, Peter S. We Never Talk About My Brother. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2009.
Campbell, Joseph. Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002.
Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin Compass, 1972.
Cavallo, Adolfo Salvatore. The Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land and Other Poems. San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1962.
Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976.
Smith, Dr. Evans-Lansing. “Class Lecture Notes – European Sacred Traditions.” Pacifica Graduate Institute. Carpinteria, CA. 18 May 2009.
Williamson, John. The Oak King, The Holly King, and the Unicorn. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.