Welcome to Loreländ!
A bestiary exploring the symbolism and biology of mythological creatures through paints, paper, and a time-traveling compass that allows its user to hop back-and-forth through the ages. Interested in the origin of the unicorn, I decided to turn my compass dial back a few million years to find the first fossil records of these wonderful beings who so curiously split from the horse family tree. And their evolution proved to be wonderfully strange and magical.
Here is a voice-note I made about these mysterious animals should you like some listening material to accompany the art and writing.
This journey has yet again shown how animals are incredibly wise beings, with a quiet knowing that transcends much of the drama pervading the modern world. I've found great solace in the company of the quiet things often forgotten in the woods! So with this reverence, I wander into the storied depths of Loreländ...
I traveled back around 53 million years or so ago to a blue-skied earth of dense forests. The air was saturated with the smell of moss as great trees of the primordial age cast their emerald hues all over the forest below.
Walking from my drop point from the future, I came to a small meadow of ferns where the sun came down in a dizzying golden shower.
As a side note, to recreate this wonderful experience I collaborated with a wonderful alchemist who specializes in capturing environmental scents.
We made a candle called "Unicorn Meadow" that releases the atmospheric aura of a deep woodland space in which one would find a unicorn prancing about.
A quiet shuffling sound came from the ferns, and looking closer I saw a shadow moving under them. Peering closer I saw it was a tiny creature the size of a cat...
With great excitement I pulled out my sketchbook to quickly draw the animal lest it run in fear. For this was the first unicorn! I halted about ten feet away so as to not spook it, but the little creature was fearless despite the novelty of my modern appearance. After some time it came over to me as I painted, which allowed me to study its tiny brown eyes framed by long lashes, delicate ears, and short horn that swirled from its head like a sea shell. The little unicorn reminded me of a newborn deer, as it stood as tall as my knee upon spindly legs on which it trotted around. Immediately upon meeting this being the magic, purity, and light that came to be associated with this creature's descendants became obvious.
I traveled forward in time after that enchanted meeting in the emerald forest, my heart filled with joy only known when in the presence of something truly wild. There were many variations of unicorns that came from the first, with bizarre anatomies and even curiouser talents. The horn became an important tool in the specie's survival fighting off saber-tooth tigers, dragons, and medieval knights alike. In all the battles I saw between the unicorn and dragon, the former won over half the time despite the characteristc ferocity of scaled fire-breathing drakes.
I was delighted by the many uses their horns served throughout varying time-periods and environments and have made a few notes of the adaptational advantages that developed over the years:
. The unicorn's ability to purify water seems to have been linked with a need at one point in time to filter contaminated ponds in their early lives as forest-dwelling creatures. They would do this through their horns, which acted a bit like straws.
This early trait then evolved into a tool the creatures used to swim undetected underwater! If there ever appears to be a stick moving perpendicular to the current, it’s likely a unicorn trotting along the river bed....
But what I have found to be the most magical feat of this genus of Equus is its music.
For the horn in modern unicorns has evolved into a flute-like instrument that plays as the creatures gallop across the plains. The largest herds of wild unicorns were last seen in the 1800s in the American West. When the groups galloped the melody that ensued has been compared to great storms of orchestral magnitude. Sadly much like the bison, they were hunted to near extinction.
Some accounts of lone unicorns have been reported in this modern era, but they are few and far between. These solitary creatures are shy and cautious, as they evolved as herd animals, yet due to loss of habitat have to live as lone-beasts wandering through undisturbed valleys and glens.
I have found that they sometimes allow a calm observer to watch them from afar, and may even whistle one a tune, as their greatest joy lies in the sharing of their song. If a person feels inclined, whistle along with a unicorn, or perhaps sing a rhyme in response to the animal!
For stories say songs sung to the unicorn’s tune come true...
Upon traveling the England in the 16th century, I met a maiden who played the harp and composed a lovely song about these creatures that went as follows:
Down in the verdant glenn, 🌲
Awaited maid with sword and pen.🖊️
Here she sat and hummed a tune, 🎶
An aria for silver moon… 💎
Then in the meadow green she wait,
Cloaked within the forest’s fate…
And as she lay in fading light, 🌙
Something white emerged from night. ⚔️
Crunching leaves beneath a foot, 🦌
The hesitance of daring looks…. 🌱
Now in the meadow green she smiles,
It’s beauty could be seen for miles…
And up from her book she gazed, 📖
To see a being in twilight haze… 👻
Oh what a wondrous chance, 🌈
To watch the unicorn’s last dance!
But in the meadow green she cried,
For even stars of light must die… ✨
And in the meadow green she lay,
Cloaked within the forest’s fate…
An Etymological History of "Unicorn"
The first word for unicorn can be traced to the indo-european seed. In this language, “oi-no” meant one or unique, and “Ker” translated to horn. From these two early building blocks one can see how the greeks got their word for unicorn, “monokeros”. For saying “oi-no” and “Ker” naturally echoes of “monoker”.
And thus by following these breadcrumbs of language, the evolution of many magical creatures can thus be traced. The path of the unicorn and its growth through changing lands and cultures can be followed. It is a ghostly being, cloaked in reverence, mystery, and beauty. So following its name form this ancient root, we have stories of these wonderful creatures…
The first written accounts of these creatures come from the Greeks, who put these animals now commonly considered mythical into books of science and natural history. For them the unicorn was as real as oxen and wolves.
The writer Ctesias in the 4th century BCE. In his book “On India” references of a unicorn, describing them as a type of wild donkey. Saying, “fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half in length, and coloured white, red and black”.
A few hundred years later in the first century AD, another Greek writer known as Pliny wrote of a creature called the monokeros” or ‘single horn’, a word with etymological links to ‘unicorn’.
In this account he said,
“(it)has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead,
two cubits in length”.
This is quite a vibrant description of the beast, and it marks the emergence of the first true ancestor of our modern-day unicorn.
Then in the 13th century Marco Polo was disappointed to see one stating,
“Their hair is like that of a buffalo, and their feet like those of an elephant. In the middle of the forehead they have a very large black horn…. Their head is like that of a wild boar, and is always carried bent to the ground. They delight in living in mire and in mud. It is a hideous beast to look at, and in no way like what we think and say in our countries, namely a beast that lets itself be taken in the lap of a virgin. Indeed, I assure you that it is quite the opposite of what we say it is."
I was not able to find such a creature on my travels, but I suspect that is because there were eastern unicorns called Qilin's which varied drastically from the deer-like unicorns found in Europe during this time. Perhaps Polo was confused, disoriented, or mis-identifying this creature.
Unicorns have been spotted in story, in language, in art, and in the records of explorers and scholars. I believe it is our job to keep these wonderful animals alive both in the forests of earth and of our imaginations. To tale tales of them, to paint them, to sing great songs of them. For it is in the land of story that dreams can grow, and provide us with the harvest we need in winters to come. Let's care for Loreländ with imagination and creation.
Here are two available field notes I've brought back
from my tours into Loreländ.
Should you like to listen to my podcast delving into the symbolism of the unicorn in the renaissance, it is streaming on all platforms here
Thanks for reading dear friends, I shall see you all for another rant soon. Mermaids swim this way....