I was fascinated with unicorns and dragons as a teen, mostly unicorns. But not the overly-cute, round, pastel My Little Pony style of unicorns, no. The killer Classical and medieval unicorns were more to my taste. The ones that would skewer hunting dogs, trample hunters, made lions run in fear, could kill elephants, and liked virtuous young women. Those unicorns. Like the Karkadan of Islamic/Arabic myth, but the European forest version. I’ve never thought highly of the wimpy, delicate, harmless unicorn.
Unicorns, the one-horned, hoofed, European variety, came to serve as a symbol* of purity, chastity, healing, and in some allegories, of Jesus Himself. Pure white things were pure, especially things that stayed white. If toxins were the essence of the impure and corrupt, then it made sense that only perfect purity could drive out disease and poison. Thus the market for genuine, proven unicorn horn, especially once the Renaissance and Italian politics (and possibly papal politics in two cases) led to spates of poisonings of nobles, prelates, and monarchs. The unicorn could only be “tamed” by an equally pure woman, and would kill an imposter. According to popular theology, the Son of G-d could only be carried by a “virgin unspotted,” and thus the allegory of Jesus as the unicorn, with Mary as the maiden.
Unicorns were used in other places, such as the holding up the coat of arms of England. “The Lion and the Unicorn fought for the crown . . .” The Asian version, the kirin or ki-lin or qi’len, or . . . is used as the brand for a Japanese beer. Unicorns are not, and probably have never been, confined to spiritual symbolism.
Still, I tend to look at unicorns in pop-culture** in a rather different way from most people. To me, the underlying symbolism is still there in the background. Thus, when I read, and saw examples of, a roly-poly pop-culture unicorn being used for a form of sex-ed, my first reaction was to facepalm. You see, a gingerbread person wasn’t androgynous enough for the activists, but a purple unicorn fit the bill.
The more I thought about it, though, the more angry I became. Because it inverts the symbolism, and dollars to donuts, someone knew that, and did it with malice aforethought. “Shock the ‘danes” by taking a symbol of chastity and virginity, and turn it into a tool to teach gender theory to young children. The fact that it looks like a My Little Pony™-style figure standing on two hoofs doesn’t go without observation, either. It looks cute, sort of, which fits the target market.
Pretty much every legal system and religious system reserves special condemnation for people who deliberately target kids and innocents, especially those who take advantage of innocence. That’s how I feel about taking the unicorn and using it in this way. It makes me think fondly about unleashing a karkadan or medieval unicorn on the people behind the new logo. I’d stand well back, arms folded, a beatific smile on my face as mayhem and terror ensued. It’s not nice, or kind, or especially charitable, but some things ought not be messed with. Innocent kids and unicorns are two of those things.
I still have unicorns of various kinds around, books about unicorns, a study of unicorns in art, and similar things. I will not surrender the symbol.
*I wrote an English Lit paper in college on the plant and animal symbolism in King Lear, contrasting it with the symbolism in the “Unicorn in Captivity” from the tapestry series in the Met Museum’s Cloisters Collection. I may have had a wee bit too much fun with that assignment.
**Yes, I’ve read Michael Bishop’s Unicorn Mountain. That is such a strange urban fantasy book, and in some ways so very 1980s. The ad-agency’s use of the unicorn image bugged me as well, although Bishop did a decent job using it to skewer Madison Avenue’s excesses.