The loveliest of all (was the unicorn)

Unicorns at the Redpath Museum? People of all ages are invited to Unicorn Day at the museum on Sunday, April 7.
Emily Bamforth (left) and Eliza Rosenberg pose with a few items that have been mistakenly identified as unicorn artifacts at some point or another, including the narwhale tusk (background) and the horn of the wooly rhino (small figurine in the foreground). / Photo Adam Scotti.

Unicorn Day at the Redpath Museum on April 7

By Neale McDevitt

For a creature that does not exist, unicorns are pretty ubiquitous members of our modern culture. They appear in film (such as Legend, an early Tom Cruise vehicle) and works of fiction (in the Harry Potter series drinking unicorn blood can make one immortal). Unicorns are featured in our songs (from the Irish Rovers’ Unicorn Song to Lady Gaga’s Highway Unicorn) and on our coats of arms (Canada, United Kingdom, for example).

“Throughout history the unicorn has served as a symbol of just about anything – from the Trinity and the Incarnation to virginity and vice and innocence and the imagination,” says Eliza Rosenberg, a Phd candidate in Religious Studies. “We can project onto this unicorn different qualities and it can evolve according to what we want to see.”

On Sunday, April 7, Rosenberg and Emily Bamforth, a Phd candidate in Biology and at the Redpath Museum, will try to demystify this mysterious creature as they host Unicorn Day at the Redpath Museum. Open to children and adults alike, the event will feature discussions on the origins of the unicorn myth and the various false unicorn artifacts that have popped up throughout history. It will also include a scavenger hunt in which participants have to scour the Redpath Museum to find objects that were once mistakenly taken for unicorn horns.

“The most famous [false unicorn artifact] is the long, spiral tusk of the narwhale – which are, not surprisingly, called the unicorn of the sea,” says Bamforth, who points out that many of the unicorn artifacts found in European ‘cabinets of curiosities’ are really just horn-shaped rocks or minerals or coiled nautilus.

“Another thing that was mistaken for a unicorn horn was the horn of the wooly rhino,” says Bamforth. “The wooly rhino was like the modern rhino but much larger and when people came upon their horns in the fossil records they thought it came from a unicorn.”

It is hard to pinpoint the origin of the unicorn, says Rosenberg, as one-horned creatures appear in the mythologies of numerous ancient cultures including China, India and Persia. A one-horned, hooved creature known as the re’em also appears in the Hebrew bible, the Old Testament, there are several references to a creature called a re’em. “In the fifth century there were legends of this creature purifying water that had been poisoned by snakes by making the sign of the cross over the water with its horn,” says Rosenberg.

Part of its cross-cultural popularity is that, for a mythological creature, it is fairly recognizable. “It’s a bit like a goat and a lot like a horse so it’s not that far out of our realm of experience,” says Rosenberg. “It’s certainly less strange than the platypus.”

Bamforth points out that there are natural mutations in some horned ungulates that at times will produce an animal with a single horn. But man can also create unicorn-type creatures, she says, pointing to the work of Franklin Dove, a biologist who, in the 1930s, conducted a series of experiments in which he removed immature horn buds from the heads of young animals and implanted the horn buds to a different location on the skull. Dove succeeded in creating unicorn goats and cows that had a single horn growing straight out of their skull.

But a one-horned cow is a sad substitute for the legendary unicorn. On Sunday, how will they respond if a young child asks in all earnestness if unicorns really exist? “The question isn’t so much do they exist it’s more where they exist,” says Rosenberg. “Maybe we don’t have them in the natural world but the imagination is a pretty wonderful place and, it so happens, a very good habitat for unicorns.”

Unicorn Day; Sunday, April 7; 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.; Redpath Museum. Price: $7 per child, maximum $15 per family. Parents free. Reserve in advance. Call 514-398-4094.

For more information go here.


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Kathy Akey
11 years ago

Eliza, I loved the picture of you as well as the article. I like the fact that you declare unicorns to be ubiquitous.
Hope to see you one of these days. You are always welcome here. Love, Kathy