The Wearing of Horns

Part Three – the Unicorn

In the previous posts, I looked at the exercise of increasing awareness by the imaginary putting on of horns – antlers, ram’s horns, and now the horn of the unicorn. These days, images of unicorns are mostly found in children’s toys — white or glittery plastic, rainbow-coloured and imbued with a kind of whimsical innocence, or alternatively in the new-age resurgence of anything vaguely ‘mystical.’ As a symbol it is becoming harder to recover from its commercial accretions, though it has been the heraldic emblem of Scotland for generations.

The unicorn has been a symbol of purity and virginity as far back as Ancient China and fifth century Greece. In the Greek bestiary the Physiologus the unicorn is characterised as a fierce wild beast that can be caught only if a virgin maiden is put before it to entice it. The unicorn leaps into the virgin’s lap, and she suckles it and leads it to the king’s palace. In past legend, the horn of a unicorn could be used to purify water, or to neutralise poison. In the Italian Renaissance, the unicorn was used as a glyph to represent Christ himself. The thinking behind this was that Christ, like the unicorn, was ‘captured’ by a virgin. The British version of the unicorn myth has found popularity in the medieval legend of the hunt for the unicorn, in which myths of the religious and secular are combined.

In the tapestries of The Hunt for the Unicorn (Above – Met Museum of Art), widely believed to be 15th Century Dutch, the wild unicorn must be captured by a virgin. The idea of taming the wild with some kind of symbol of purification is often found within these myths. Interestingly, in this series of tapestries the unicorn is captured and killed, but then is mysteriously alive again in the final tapestry, but controlled and held captive.

Other myths speak of the virgin taming the unicorn by placing its head in her lap. (see the Wild Woman tapestry at the top of this post). So there is something here about purity, about wildness and about taming and about coming back to life.

The unicorn horn is placed at the centre of the forehead, at the point of the ‘third eye.’ So what can we learn from imagining wearing the unicorns horn in an experiential way?

Domenichino – Virgin and Unicorn

For me, the idea of one-pointed attention immediately comes to mind. It is possible to purify the attention; to make it virginal. Also to regard the horn as a symbol of the extended attention. It is making visible something that is not actually visible in the way that only symbols can.

When paying attention to something I am apt to put my attention on the object I am looking at. Very rarely do I examine the attention itself; the invisible connection between the object and myself. Wearing the unicorn’s horn reminds me to do that; to feel the narrowing focus and try to sense not only the object but the connection.

Full perception takes me out of my idea of myself, out of my thoughts and emotions, and enables more clarity and accuracy of vision. For the root of illusion is in weak attention; that animal awareness (wildness) and experiencing my thoughts cannot co-exist because I haven’t trained them to do so, or haven’t enough energy to keep the connection. So it is ongoing work, like training a muscle to function. And there is always further to go!

Imagining the horn makes me conscious of where my attention is, and how quickly it moves from one thing to the next. Why not try on the unicorn horn for size, and see if you can find a way to settle in the virgin’s lap.