Unicorns weren’t always mythical creatures.
The Greeks classified them among natural animals, with rhinos and other one-horned beasts. Vikings traded Narwhal tusks to Medieval Europeans, who believed they were unicorn horns and paid dearly to possess them and their magical powers. Marco Polo recorded his encounter with the Javan rhinoceros as the discovery of a unicorn.
No one knows exactly what the Narwhal’s tusk is for, though it is found only on males and therefore probably has a sexual function not unlike the extravagant feathers of the male peacock, or the electric guitar. Yet while narwhal tusks and peacock feathers work as sexual aids for narwhals and peacocks, legend has it that the rhino’s tusk is coveted by humans as a sexual talisman.
This is disputed, however, and there are other medicinal applications of rhinoceros tusks in Chinese traditional medicine, for fevers and convulsions. Either way, humankind’s uses for rhinoceros tusks are threatening the mega-mammal’s very existence, and it may soon vanish into the same ethereal space where its cousin, the unicorn, lives. Climate change may well send the narwhal there, too, to dwell with vanishing hitchhikers, organ-jackers, and people who make phone calls that come from inside the house.
In the Charlie the Unicorn cartoons, myths and legends pile up on one another into what is among the most popular videos of all time on Youtube, collectively scoring close to 50 million views for 3 episodes. In the first, Charlie is prodded by two smaller unicorns to come visit “Candy Mountain,” a place immortalized in the hobo fantasy song,
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
Along the way, they meet a Liopleurodon, a real-world creature of fossilized myth that is quite in dispute in contemporary America, who will help guide them to Candy Mountain. As they move on, Charlie prods them, “Alright guys, you do know that there’s no actual candy mountain, right?” They reply, “Shun the nonbeliever.”
When they reach the actual Candy Mountain, Charlie recognizes the error of his earlier belief, and walks into a cave in the mountainside, where he’s shut in and abandoned. He awakens in a meadow with a large scar over his lower abdomen. “They took my freakin’ kidney!”
In the second episode, our hero is lounging in the meadow on his nice carpet, watching a big screen TV. Suddenly, his tormenting pals appear to him from an imaginary coral reef awash in “poisonous fugu fish” (puffer fish), which according to ethnobotanist Wade Davis are the source of the poison that produces the near-death experience resulting in zombification in Haiti. It’s in a book Davis wrote, The Serpent and the Rainbow. Legendary horror director Wes Craven made the book into a movie with Bill Pullman playing the real-world Indiana Jones down in the Caribbean. Unicorns can lead you anywhere. Maybe they’ll make Charlie into a zombie. How many degrees can Charlie be from Kevin Bacon?
Again, they journey. Along the way, there’s a magical amulet and a Banana King, whose temple looks like an Egyptian pyramid with an insignia of the “hammer and banana” fashioned like the “hammer and sickle” of Communist symbolism. As Charlie is proclaimed the banana king, his friends abandon him and he falls from grace, literally. When he reaches his original meadow clearing, he finds that his things are gone – “Aw you gotta be – great – they robbed me!”
In the third episode, his friends appear from the future with an apocalyptic message: “The end is nigh.” As they ride a large duck down a mythical stream in the future, Charlie’s friends taunt him with calls of “ring, ring – hello” over and over again, reminding one of the phone calls urban legend. They confront shadowy narwhals that threaten to kill them. Then they are on the floor of an ocean in a Greek ruins, Atlantis anyone? Charlie’s friends abandon him and he succumbs to sleeping gas, only to awaken in a frigid landscape where he finally encounters the snowman, who has cut off Charlie’s horn and uses it as his snowman nose, and of course you know what they say about a snowman’s nose and its correlates. There’s a large scar on the snowman’s lower abdomen. “Aw look, it’s my kidney.” A jolly, happy soul, as the song goes, indeed.
The horse, which provides its body to the unicorn of myth, is quite closely related to rhinoceroses. They are both perissodactyls, otherwise known as “odd-toed ungulates.” Along with narwhals, swordfish also have pointy appendages sprouting from their heads, too.
Narwahl photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Narwhalsk.jpg.
Big Rock Candy Mountain, Harry McClintock, 1928. http://www.bluegrasslyrics.com/all_song.cfm-recordID=s29253.htm
Charlie the Unicorn: Jeff Steele, Filmcow.com. http://www.youtube.com/user/SecretAgentBob, http://www.filmcow.com/.
For a nice collection of issues related to Darwin and debates about evolution and creationism, see this page at the the New York Times.
7 responses to “The truth and unicorns, part 3”
What a multi-faceted essay you have presented here. I have very much enjoyed it. Thank you.
You had me at electrical guitar…and what do they say about a snowmans’ nose and it’s correlates?
Nice work John!
I wrote this reply to my friend mish, but then as I wrote it I thought of you…. so I am sharing…. Hope you don’t mind, or mish.
“It sounds like unicorns trouble you the way that clowns trouble others. How are you with clowns? They have no horns but can be vile creatures. Funny too. Depends on the observer. Worked for Verdi.
I must say that unicorns have been interesting me for a while. Presently, I am thinking of a post about a related topic, eunuchorns. Obviously a related, though also mythological, species. Interesting nonetheless, since they embody dual traits that seem irreconcilable in a eunuch or in a unicorn. That’s where the mythology of the Virgin capture comes in. I think there’s something there…. Now, where did I leave that peyote… “
hahaha! I am speechless…and trust me, that doesn’t happen very often…
Unicorns. Their imagery always rather intimidated me. On the one hand, they resemble Pegasus, one of the most beautiful creatures from mythology I can readily conjure… yet they forge from birth a weapon that interrupts a simple sublime beauty.
Cheers to tackling the puzzle of unicorns!
Thank you mish. It sounds like unicorns trouble you the way that clowns trouble others. How are you with clowns? They have no horns but can be vile creatures. Funny too. Depends on the observer. Worked for Verdi.
I must say that unicorns have been interesting me for a while. Presently, I am thinking of a post about a related topic, eunuchorns. Obviously a related, though also mythological, species. Interesting nonetheless, since they embody dual traits that seem irreconcilable in a eunuch or in a unicorn. That’s where the mythology of the Virgin capture comes in. I think there’s something there…. Now, where did I leave that peyote…
Clowns. Well, you know, for the most part I’m indifferent to them. Sure, I play around with the “can’t sleep clowns will eat me” paradigm but they honestly don’t do much for me in terms of fear. I’m rather fascinated with the ability to walk around hating life, perpetually scowling with harmful urges – with a painted smile on your face. I think it speaks more about how we are in the outside world than it does for fear of people wearing baggy clothes and face paint in primary colors, hahah…
Mythology of the Virgin, eunuchs, ok, you’re on a very curious path my friend. 😉 Peyote? Oh hell man, I sewed the buttons onto my shirt.