You can’t avoid the unicorns, if you go into any gift shop these days. They’re everywhere – key-rings, handbags, fairy-lights; you can even buy sequinned t-shirts that say ‘be more unicorn’ on the front. It’s funny how much appeal this mythical beast has.
In Scotland, where it’s the national animal, Stirling Castle has gone unicorn-mad. In the Queen’s Inner Hall, you’ll find seven hand-woven unicorn tapestries hanging on the walls. They’re based on the famous Hunt of the Unicorn series from the 1500s, which are now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Re-creating them in Stirling was quite a project, costing £2million and taking 13 years. The panels show a unicorn being hunted, tamed by a virgin, killed, then appearing alive again in captivity. This narrative is assumed to be an allegorical interpretation of the life of Christ, although no-one really knows what’s going on in this story.
In antiquity, unicorn horns (usually the tusks of narwhals of course) were held to be able to purify water and to reverse the effects of poison; and in mythology unicorns were used to detect innocence in young ladies. It’s unclear why Scotland ended up with the unicorn as its emblem, but heraldic experts think it’s because the unicorn is a proud beast who would rather die than be captured, just like the Scots, who still fight to remain sovereign and unconquered.
But why this enduring fascination with a beast that doesn’t even exist? Any Harry Potter fans out there will know the spell ‘Expecto Patronum!’ When Harry utters it, a ghostly stag forms, to protect him against the Dementors by summoning up his very happiest memories. I think the Unicorn functions like a patronas spell for us today. In Harry’s world, the Dementors prevail by magnifying despair and feeding on it, until all feels lost. The patronas cannot feel despair, so it’s impervious to their evil. And it conjures up hope, which fuels our desire to survive, and keeps us strong when we’re assailed by the doom, gloom and despondency of the 24 hour news cycle.
So let’s all be more unicorn. When we see them shimmering in a shop window, perhaps they’ll remind us that believing in a magical beast is as foolish as any sort of hope, and just as necessary. Their charm can be a charm for us, to keep us dreaming of a purer and more beautiful future.