I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” or “They turn into a completely different person once you get to know them.” With that said, what do you think of when I say the word “unicorn?” Is it a cute, cartoon horse with a spiral horn? With sparkles flying about in the background? Can’t forget those. When people ask me about the plot to Treomynd, I steer well clear of mentioning unicorns, despite the fact that they are the reason why Treomynd exists. Why? Because I want people to take this book seriously, instead of tossing it to the side as some girly fantasy they don’t have time for.
What if I told you that the weak, cutesy unicorn we know today is actually a recent invention taken from a myth that was conceived thousands of years ago? Not many people know that the evolution of the unicorn is a complicated mess that will most likely never be sorted out.
This post will cover a brief history of the unicorn, and why I decided to call them “Guardians” in Treomynd rather than their original name. I also want to emphasize that this will be the only post that ever says “unicorn!” This is my first “On a Side Note…” style post, because I want you to understand the unicorn’s background, and why I want to change people’s perception of them. This blog is not just a story with a new chapter added every week. It’s my place to develop ideas, and give some background on things that strangers who decide to read this book won’t get to see.
Every girl goes through a fascination with horses at some point in her childhood, and I was no exception. However, my horse phase quickly turned into a unicorn phase when I stumbled across a series of Young Adult books about them. Before I knew it, I had fallen down the rabbit hole, and I read every kind of young adult book out there on unicorns. I became so entranced, that I remember my mom having a serious conversation with me to make sure that I didn’t actually believe in them. I told her I didn’t, but deep down I did. It was one of those classic “you wouldn’t understand” moments a child has with their parent that I wanted to avoid. As I grew up, I entered a unicorn-less reality, and realized that they only existed in the dreams of a young child.
Fast-forward a few years, and the English department of my high school required that every student write a big, detailed research paper at the beginning of every school year, and we always had to choose from a list of topics. My senior year, however, was so laid back that our teacher didn’t care to give us topics, and let us write about whatever we wanted. I thought long and hard about something that I genuinely wanted to know more about, and the topic of unicorns hit me like a thousand bricks. I was wrestling with ways that I could make the unicorns in Treomynd stand out compared to other books. Why not go back to the beginning? How did this myth come about in the first place? I came across a book called “The Natural History of Unicorns” by Chris Lavers, which was the ultimate gold mine on why the unicorn is what it is, and all the information you will read today comes from this book.
The oldest known record we have of a unicorn comes from a Greek physician named Ctesias (pronounced tease-ee-us) from Cnidus in 398 B.C.. Although Greek by blood, it is speculated that he was captured during the Greco-Persian War, and spent the majority of his life in what is now modern day Turkey, as well as two decades in Persia attending to kings and couriers. He was fascinated with research on far-away lands, and wrote large volumes on the flora and fauna of places that were considered to be dreamlands full of unknown creatures. Persians were particularly fascinated with one little-explored country: India. Ctesias compiled a document full of plants, animals, medicine, and other myths that supposedly originated from India. The document was called “Indica,” meaning “On India.” Funny thing is, Ctesias never visited the country. What he compiled was a series of testimonies that he heard from people who had been there, and any other written documentary he could find at libraries.
What resulted was a mish-mash of poorly documented animals that are well known today, as well as creatures that you would only encounter in your nightmares. For example, he writes about a big colorful bird perched in a merchant’s shop that could speak perfect Indian, or what we know today as the parrot. In addition, the physician writes about dog-faced people, fountains of liquid gold, tribes of one-legged men, the list goes on. Because of this, most scholars don’t take Ctesias seriously, and see “Indica” as the musings of a fantastic liar. But the first account of the unicorn can be found in this strange document, and the descriptions goes as such:
“There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The base of this horn, for some two hands’-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black.”
What exactly did Ctesias create? Did something like this actually exist? Scholars have been arguing over these questions for hundreds of years, but there seems to be some kind of resolution. What Ctesias likely described was a mixture between three different animals; the Indian rhinoceros, which had one horn in comparison to two horns on the rhinos we have today, an oryx, or an African antelope, and lastly, an Indian ass that was just as large or larger than horses. Whether he misheard something in a verbal account, missed something in a written translation, or was just feeling creative one day, we’ll never know for sure. So now you must be wondering, how on earth did the unicorn go from this:
The answer is simple; things can get lost in translation, and cultures tend to adopt their own versions of myths. Take Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist who wrote an encyclopedia called “Natural History” that was taken as reality for over 1600 years. Fact-checking is a somewhat recent invention, and Pliny’s encyclopedia was eventually exposed to be another mish-mash of any kind of natural account the man could get his hands on. He came across Ctesias’ account of the unicorn, and added his own embellishments:
“The unicorn is the fiercest animal…It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead. Its cry is a deep bellow.”
Ctesias says absolutely nothing about his unicorn having “a deep bellow,” among other things. He is most likely describing the Indian rhinoceros mentioned earlier, but again, we’ll never know for sure. What remains the same between these two accounts is the unicorn is described as some sort of fierce chimera with a single horn growing from its forehead.
What about unicorns in the Bible? The appearances of unicorns in this holy text is a perfect example of details being lost in translation. Unicorns are mentioned several times throughout the Old Testament as symbols of ferocity and bravery. But why would a fictitious animal be in the Bible? Because there was one word that translators couldn’t figure out. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, so when it came time for Medieval monks to translate it into Latin, they fumbled with the word “reem.” A reem is a type of stag or antelope with two black spiral horns growing just in front of its ears that is native to Africa and the Middle East. The bible also references other strong-willed animals with horns on their heads, such as the Indian rhino that is now extinct. Almost no one had heard of these animals in Medieval Europe, so translators decided to replace it with an animal that everyone would recognize. While some of the creatures had two horns, such as the reem, translators decided to overlook this detail and called their new animal unicornis in Latin, or as we know in English, unicorn. The meaning was simple; a unicorn is a four-legged animal with one horn growing from its head.
Translators were very clever in choosing this word, because the idea of the unicorn was sweeping through Medieval Europe like wildfire. Isidore Seville, yet another scholar wanting to make a false imprint on early zoology, decided to run with the frenzy and make his own account of the creature that is still used to this day. He wrote that the unicorn is a fierce creature that no man can hunt or kill, unless he is tamed by a virgin girl. Upon sight of the virgin, the unicorn will become docile and lay his head in her lap. He will be unable to move, and hunters can do what they will with him. In addition, his horn possessed healing properties that could supposedly cure any illness if it was hollowed out and used as a drinking vessel.
Unicorns began to pop up in every encyclopedia, and with church and state still very much together, every animal was somehow compared to a part of the Catholic Church. The unicorn was compared to Christ himself, because he was captured and put to death by the hunters. As a result, unicorns were often associated with symbols of purity and goodness. They were thought to roam about the forest, protecting every living thing dwelling there.
Since the unicorn was taken as an actual animal with coveted properties, the black market thrived with selling off fake horns that were actually the horns of narwhals, or the reem that translators had covered up so long ago.
People loved the unicorn so much, that several tapestries from the southern Netherlands were woven that detailed the process of a unicorn’s hunt and ultimate captivity, simply called “The Unicorn Tapestries.” Even today, they are regarded as the most
beautiful and complex works of art from the Medieval era. There are seven in total, and their size is colossal; with each one about 20 by 25 feet in measurement. The unicorn depicted in these tapestries show over a thousand years of evolution into a more familiar representation. Its entire body is white, with a flowing mane and tail and a long spiral horn. The very last tapestry is the featured image of this post up top, with the unicorn happily resting in its little enclosure. The image on the left is another tapestry, depicting the unicorn being attacked.
However, like anything else, time goes on, and fads die out. The unicorn was all but forgotten for hundreds of years after the Middle Ages. Then in the 1930’s, “The Unicorn Tapestries” were discovered and historians started to piece together unicorn lore. The world became entranced by the beautiful white creature once again and, just as before, began to adopt new elements. Modern pop culture started marketing the unicorn towards young girls, with massive success. The stories of hunting and ferocity were replaced with rainbows and happy skips through sparkly fields. Although I despise modern perception of the unicorn, I am grateful that young children believe in them for a little bit. There is something alluring about a creature that is so pure and good, and protective. Perhaps that’s why I fell in love with them as a kid; it was a way for me to hang on to my innocent days as a young girl a little while longer.
Now you must be wondering, why did I just ramble about the history of a mythical animal you probably don’t care about? Because, given the unicorn’s history and its current status as a selling point for young girls, I hope to make a new name for the unicorn, or at least change people’s understanding of them. That’s why I changed their name from “unicorn” to “Guardian,” because as soon as people hear the word “unicorn,” a foolish smile comes across their faces, and your credibility goes out the window. Trust me. I tried an experiment where I mentioned unicorns to a few new acquaintances in college, and it didn’t go well. So when it came time for me to develop and finalize ideas for Treomynd, I wanted to have that credibility.
My thought process when something like this: Think back to franchises that make a common idea their own. How did they do it? Look at the T.V. show “The Walking Dead.” It’s a hit drama that made the well-overused idea of the zombie apocalypse completely their own. How? In addition to the drama between the ever-changing characters, they don’t say the word “zombie” once. Instead, they’re called “walkers.” This to me is one of the main reasons why the show is so successful. Not only did they create a new version of the zombie apocalypse, they created a new world with simple, unique branding that gave me nightmares to the point of having to swear off watching the show after a few episodes. So what could I call unicorns? Well, what do zombies do? They walk around and try to eat people, hence “walkers.” So what do unicorns do? They guard the inhabitants of the forest with intense love and ferocity, hence “guardians.”
I hope I didn’t bore and confuse you too much with this post, but this is something that I have been secretly passionate about for so long. There is still so much to this story that I have to tell, and I want to thank those of you who have been following along thus far. I have some exciting posts coming soon, with features that haven’t been on the blog before. You as the reader will get a glimpse into the inspiration behind parts of Treomynd, and music has been a huge source of inspiration to me. I am especially excited to announce that some upcoming posts will have songs attached to them that you can listen to as you read. These songs inspired landscapes, characters, pivotal events, you name it.
In relation to pivotal events, I’ve said in the beginning that I don’t want to reveal too much, and I’ve been debating with myself about this idea lately. Things are about to take a different turn for Treomynd’s characters, and I wasn’t sure how to go about posts that detail climax-type moments. Originally, I was going to make filler posts that summarize what happened and nothing else, but now I’ve decided to just go with it and write out the full events. It gives me the chance to do what this blog is meant to do; develop my ideas, and I also want to thank my few loyal followers for sticking with me. Besides, there’s a strong possibility that my posts and the actual book will sound completely different, but the events will be the same nonetheless.
Thank you again for reading this story in my little corner of the internet, and I want to give all of you a big virtual hug. The story of the Island of Treomynd will pick back up next week as always. As I said before, changes are coming, and wherever there is light, darkness soon will follow.