Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Poetry and the Mythic Horse by Anne Born

Since Adam named the animals they have been part of human life. The legend of the Flood is remarkable for its emphasis on the importance of animals to man; Noah might have been expected to fill the ark with humans, so he was the first conservationist. In fact his 'action' demonstrates earlier man's spiritual awareness of the necessity to respect all forms of life, lost to a great extent in our century. Since the 'Flood', after human consciousness and reasoning continued to develop, animals have been exploited often to extinction. Domesticated for various uses: food, farmwork, psychological support, the horse has been more respected that cattle. Man was attracted to it by its usefulness and beauty, its general amiability and courage. Obviously before technology it was also prized as a means of transport: for individuals, armies, various kinds of work, as a draught animal and for sport. Horse power had many implications: strength and speed, yes, but also prestige. The blood horse - breeding it was a serious item for wealthy 18th century landowners whose thoroughbreds appeared with their owners in portraits set against the background of the country estate - was an important possession along with acres, herds, fine houses and beautiful art and furniture.


The horse was promoted early on to prance on sculpture plinths carrying princes and generals, bred to dance in Vienna, to race and to jump. It could be pampered and overfed, kept in deep straw in roomy looseboxes. Or made a long-suffering slave in back streets drawing heavy loads, and down mines.

The animal has attributes which easily led to its becoming mythologized. Its nature is generally kind, but it can be fiery and even savage, there can be mavericks as in any species. Three mythic horses are particularly interesting and poetic: Pegasus, the winged horse, the Centaur, half horse, half man, and the Unicorn, the highly symbolic and magical horse with one horn. As we shall see, this creature has inspired some fine 20th century poems, as well as mention in literature through the ages.

Bellerophon, the son of Glaucus and grandson of Sisyphus, caught the winged horse Pegasus by throwing a golden bridle said to have been given him by Athene, over his head as he drank from one of his wells (Pegasus was the Moon-horse who could make rain, and was part of the sacred horse cult. He created the Hippocrene well for the Muses of Mount Helicon by stamping his moon-shaped hoof). Once on his back, Bellerophon flew high above his enemies and defeated them by bombarding them from above.

Pegasus was never a wicked creature despite having sprung from the blood of Medusa when Perseus cut off her head. He was seen as an embodiment of the power that raises a poet's imagination above the earth, and was elevated to be one of the constellations in the northern sky.

But the Centaurs were altogether different. The idea of them probably arose from the sight of warriors at one with their mounts. The main myth shows them as savage. Their father, Ixion, was a bad character who was punished by Zeus for approaching Hera. Zeus sent Ixion a cloud, Nephele, in the form of Hera. Ixion became father of the Centaurs by Nephele. Benjamin Disraeli wrote a burlesque, 'Ixion in Heaven', in 1833, and Robert Browning wrote a poem, 'Ixion', in Jocoseria in 1883. Under their leader, Cheiron, the Centaurs of Thessaly, whose inhabitants first tamed horses, fought a fierce battle with the Lapithae, whom they had offended. It took place after a great wedding feast, when the Centaurs and others had been seated in a great cave as an extension of the main party. They were not used to wine, and grew so drunk that when the bride came to greet them one of them seized her by the hair and tried to carry her off, while his fellows followed his example with other women. The Centaurs were driven out of the country, but continued a feud against the Lapithae for a long time. The savagery of the Centaurs reflected 'the horsemen from the mainland' who cruelly conquered the peaceful Minoan Cretans. So the horse came to participate in man's brutality.

To the best of my knowledge the Unicorn does not appear in Greek mythology, but it is of very ancient origin, found in Chinese, Indian and Sumerian records, travelling via Babylon to Persia, Greece and Rome. Aristotle accepted the description of the one-horned ass by the Greek traveller Ctesias, and mentions it in his Historia Animalium: thence it was taken up by Pliny and other early natural scientists, and so entered Europe. There are several mentions of it in the Bible, for instance, in 'The Book of Job' and the 'Psalms', and the Church Fathers gave varying accounts of it. The early versions could be wild and savage, but medieval Christianity tamed the Unicorn.

From the start the horn signified vitality, now the animal took on something of the function of a Gabriel; and was portrayed in countless pictures, illustrations to manuscripts and on altar frontals, in a kind of Annunciation scene in which the Unicorn lies in the Maiden's lap with its horn pointing towards her. But this is not an original idea. In the earliest accounts, including the Indian and Chinese ones, the only way in which a Unicorn could be captured was by placing a pure Maiden in its way in the forest where it lived. She would entice the Unicorn with her gentleness, and then the huntsmen could them come up and overpower it and take it to the king. In the Christian version the animal is not merely an Announcer. It is still hunted, it is the innocent victim mourned by the Virgin Mary, it is Christ. From now on, the Unicorn is depicted as a beautiful white creature; an elaborate symbolism builds up around it, so that in illustrations numerous symbolical objects and creatures appear, such as were beloved by the ecclesiastical scholars.

Some of the most beautiful examples of these ideas are realized in late 14th century French tapestries. 'The Lady with the Unicorn' in the Musee Cluny, and the Verteuil tapestries. In the former series the beautiful white animal is depicted with the Lady in a number of densely symbolical designs. The five senses provide the moral background. The Unicorn is present in all the pictures, as a protector who warns the Lady against the less creditable senses. On her other side is his old rival, the lion. Perhaps the best-known of the series is the first picture, 'Sight'. The seated Lady holds up a mirror in which the Unicorn sees himself as he sits with his forefeet on her lap. Rainer Maria Rilke greatly loved these tapestries, and wrote of 'Sight' in one of his Sonnets to Orpheus:


Oh, this animal never was,

Though they knew nothing of it, still

they loved it for its grace, its gait, the full

curve of its neck and clear quiet gaze.


It never had been. But out of their love

a pure animal rose. They left in space.

And in that light and set-apart place

it raised its head with ease and did not have

to be. They nourished it, not with corn,

but only with the potential to be,

and this gave it such a wealth of power

that from its brow a horn grew up. One horn.

In whiteness it approached a Virgin, to be

there in the silver-mirror and in her.


Rilke wrote of this picture in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: "... but there still remains a banquet, to which no one is invited. Expectation plays no part. Everything is there. Everything for ever. The lion looks round almost threateningly: no one may come. As yet we have never seen her tired; is she tired? Or has she merely sat down because she is holding something heavy? A pyx, one might suppose. But she inclines her other arm towards the unicorn, and the creature fawningly rears itself and climbs and supports itself on her lap. It is a mirror she is holding. Look: she is showing the unicorn her image".

In the Verteuil series the story follows the course of the Sacred Hunt in which the Unicorn is pursued, killed and taken to the king. At the end, the Unicorn is resurrected in a Hortus Conclusus, the enclosed garden of Paradise.

Gradually the spiritual significance of the Unicorn declined and it became a beast used in heraldry, notably on Schiller's coat-of-arms, and the English royal one, with its old enemy, the lion; all English children know the rhyme "The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown / The Lion chased the Unicorn all round the town". What all English children, and adults, may not know is that this refers to James VI of Scotland, I of England, who took over the crown on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. He already had Unicorns on his coat of arms, and brought it with him to join the English Lion. The 'magical properties' of the Unicorn's horn led to the alchemists using it in medicine. What was actually used was narwhal horn.

Solveig von Schoultz is a distinguished Finland-Swedish poet whose work penetrates outward appearances to take up metaphysical truths. Here is her Unicorn poem:


The Lady with the Unicorn

The lady's footstool, a little island

dark as the Middle Ages, strewn with flowers

small violets, sign of humility

anemones for sorrow

and the sweet lilies of annunciation.


Between the palm, protector of faith

and the oak with the acorn of life

she is in the midst of folksong

The sky is red as blood

and in the heavenly meadow

small joyful hares are at play

a fox slinks through the long grasses

the wily skunk runs.


On guard, with a blue-white standard

stands the ancestral heraldic lion.


In pale brown brocade, pearls in her hair

a heron's feather over her lofty brow

the lady holds up a golden mirror

while she pensively strokes

the stranger's back.


He the most timorous creature

he who is hunted in vain

he is known the scent of chastity

he lies with the lady

his body that of a horse

beard of a goat

he rests on his hind legs, hooves heavy

on the lady's knee, her mantle falls open

his fiery sapphire blue eyes

look into the mirror

his horn

is upright

the brave spiralling horn.


Why is the lady sad? Does she know

that only here, in a maiden's lap

can such a quarry be taken?


The Danish poet Pia Tafdrup moves away from the tapestries to use her own image of the Unicorn, beautifully keeping its symbolic virtue. This is her poem.



It is the song of the monks I hear

The sun comes and goes

cast in among columns and vaultings

vanishing through arches of stone.

Ruins of Europe

shadow cells for sarcophagus and tombstone.


It is the corpse I see

The lasting tyranny of sight.

A young man who has thrown himself

from the roof

both legs bent awkwardly back.

His arms wings

that did not carry.


It is the song of the monks I hear

the blood I see flowing.

The wind seizes the flowers and herbs of the garden

shakes thyme shakes mint and tarragon.

Flocks of doves fly up over the chapel

up above the tower

further out over the river.

It is a body through the air.

Shock of cold

The blood I see running

into a gutter.


A grey wind from the park is thrown around

among arcades and walls

lifts the white down

on my bare arms

sweeps up

through the sunwet hair of my nape.

Freezing crash on the pavement.


It is people I see rushing up

their fear that comes running and fills the street

the living who press their hands

to the breast of the dead.

The blood trickles towards the drain

and reaches

the stars in the town sewers.


It is the blood of the dead that washes cold

through my head

The blood I hear blend

with the sewer water

echoes of the monk's song

I hear flowing

behind thick walls.


The rain washes the pavement clean

and in the monastery garden

the Unicorn grazes undisturbed

Silence begins with an animal.


One delicate line picks up the spirituality of the Unicorn down all the centuries through which it has journeyed. And shows why animals are important to us.

My own poem, a sestina, lightly based on the Unicorn's Christian symbolism, tries to indicate its universal significance - an embodiment of vitality, grace, loss and joy:


Good News


In the dark of a forest the unicorn

stamps his foot waiting for news

of some event deep in his memory;

something he heard about a queen,

how she had borne a wonderful child

and held him in the arms of her joy and loss.


A strange foreknowledge of loss

that doesn't seem foreign to the unicorn

even if he's never seen the child,

even if he has no need of news,

living with trees far from the queen

and everything in the world of memory.


Yet something in his leaves of memory

is not in any way linked to a loss

and so he wants to hear from the queen,

hear her say 'come on then, my old unicorn,

tell me your stories and your news,

come then and admire my tiny child.'


Though he is almost afraid of the child

whose small hand could jog a memory,

send an echo through his head of news

better than good but signalling loss

hidden in forest shadows from the unicorn

and aimed at the lulling heart of the queen.


So he gallops away from the voice of the queen

and the royal blue place of her and the child

up the rocks of the mountain unicorns

away from the challenge of memory

because he cannot bear to accept the loss

that lies behind the comfort of good news.


Isn't there always a time for the news

that could be grim for unicorn or queen

bringing the world a confirmation of loss

even at the moment of birth for the child,

even along the trails of memory

that can confuse the surest-footed unicorn?


But gentled by the news of a child

and led by the queen into memory

there is no loss of free rein for the unicorn.




Originals of Poems Quoted

(translation by the author)



Sonette an Orpheus: Zweiter Teil



O dieses ist das Tier, das es nicht gibt.

Sie wusstens nicht und haben jeden Falls

sein wandeln, seine Haltung, sienen Hals,

bis in des stillen Blickes Licht-geliebt.


Zwar war es nicht. Doch weil sie's liebten, ward

ein reines Tier. Sie liessen immer Raum.

Und in dem Raume, klar und ausgespart,

erhob es leicht sein Haupt and braucht kaum

zu sein. Sie nahrten es mit keinem Korn,

nur immer mit der Moeglichkeit, es sei.

Und die gab solche Staerke an das Tier,


dass es aus sich ein Stirnhorn trieb. Ein Horn.

Zu einer Jungfrau kam er weiss herbei -

und war im Silber-Spiegel und in ihr.



Rainer Maria Rilke



Damen Med Enhorningen

(Musee Cluny)


Damens fotapall, en liten o

mork av mediltid, bestrodd med blommor

sma violer som betyder odmjukhet

anemoner som betyder sorg

och bebadejsens ljuva konvaljer


Mellan plamne, trons bbeskydd

och eken med livets ollon


sitter hon mitt i folkvisan

Rymden ar rod som blod

och pa den himmelska angen

lecker sma lustfyllda harar

smyger en rav bland strana

loper den lomska skunken.


Pa vakt, med ett blavitt baner

star attens heraldiska lejon.


I blekbrun borkad, med parlstickat har

hagerfjader over den hoga pannan

haller damen en gyllene spegel

medan hon tankfullt smeker

framlingens rygg.

Han skyggaste vasen

han som forgaves jagas

han har kant kyskhetens vittring


han ligger hos damen

kroppen ar hastens

skagget ar getens

han vilar pa bakbenen, hovarna tynger

i damens kan, hennes mantel slar upp

hans edligt safirbla ogon

blickar i spegeln


haller han lyftat

det djarva spiralvridna hornet.


Varfor ar damen sorgsen? Vet hon

att bara har, i en jungfrus skote

kan sadant villebrad fallas?



Solveig von Schoultz

from Ett Satt at Rakna Tiden, Helsinki 1989







Det er munkenes sang jeg horer.

Solen kommer og gar

kastes ind mellem sojler og hvaelvinger

forsvinder gennem buer af sten.

Ruiner af Europa

skyggecelle for sarkofag og gravsten.


Det er liget jeg ser

synets vedvarende tyranni.

En ung mand der har kastet sig ud

fra taget

begge ben bojet akavet tilbage.

Armene vinger

der ikke bar.



Det er munkenes sang jeg horer

blodet jeg ser flyde.

Vinden tager i klosterhavens blomster og urter

rusker timian rusker mynte og estragon.

Flokke af duer flyver op over kapellet

op over tarnet

fortsaetter ud over floden.


Det er en krop gennem luften.

Slag af kulde.

Blodet jeg ser drive

mod en rendesten


En gra vind fra parken kastes rundt

mellem arkader og mure

lofter de hvide dun

pa mine nogme arme

fejer op

i mine solvade nakkehar.

Frysende smaeld mod fortovet.


Det er mennesker jeg ser ile til

deres angst der kommer lobende og fylder gaden

de levende der presser deres haender

mod brystet af den dode.

Blodet siver mod risten

og nar

stjernerve i bysens kloakker.


Det er den dodes blod der skyller koldt

gennem mit hoved.

Blodet jeg horer blande sig

med vandet i kloakken

ekkoer af munkenes sang

jeg horer flyde

bag tykke mure.

Regnen vasker fortovert rent

og i klostergarden

graesser enhjorningen uforstyrret.

Stilhed begynder med et dyr.


From Pia Tafdrup, Sekundernes Bro, Copenhagen 1988






Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 1955.

Lise Gotfredsen, Enhjorningen (The Unicorn) Copenhagen 1992, Eng. trans. Anne Born, Harvill, London 1994.

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