“God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.”—The Bible (Numbers 23:22)
The noble unicorn, with cloven hooves and the beard of a goat, has leapt from the frescos of the ancient world and been re-branded as a pop culture meme, and unlikely symbol of the LGBT community. In its current incarnation, the elusive (not so elusive) unicorn is everywhere: on mugs, keyrings, t shirts, slippers, cushions, lamps, notebooks, stuffed toys, linen etc. Then there is the disconcerting trend of unicorn food, shimmering pastel green lattes and iridescent blue cupcakes (hopefully not containing actual unicorn by-products). And finally, the unicorn has started to appear, with a rainbow mane and tail made of balloons and glitter, heading up your local pride parade (after the dykes on bikes of course).
I love the image and mythology of unicorns. I can’t help it. I blame a childhood obsession with horses and an adult love of queer aesthetics. In the 90’s I had unicorn posters on my walls, romantic images of a lone white unicorn in a dark forest, soft mane flowing and a spark of light at the end of its spiraling horn. Fantasy nerds you know the ones I’m talking about, based on the images of the unicorn from antiquity, a wild woodland creature with magical healing powers in its horn. It was rare and elusive, evading capture. Except when it was caught.
There is a beautiful christian fable, immortalized in paintings and tapestries, in which a unicorn comes across a maiden, symbolizing the virgin Mary, deep in the woods. Going against its instinct to flee, the unicorn lays its head in her lap and falls asleep. Of course, this story is layered with meaning, and came to symbolize the descent of god from heaven into earthly form, namely Mary’s son Jesus. I mean there must be something going on with the very phallic imagery of the horn in the lap, but I digress. My preferred interpretation is despite men’s efforts to herd and capture the wild creature, the only one able tame the wild unicorn, by virtue of her kindness and gentle strength, is a young girl. This story evolved to portray men using a virgin as bait in order to trap and kill a unicorn. The connection between the unicorn and the feminine can still be seen today.
The modern unicorn comes in a range of sparkly pastel colours, in particular pink, purple and rainbow, is cartoon-like in appearance and marketed to young (and not so young) girls. They are often accompanied by a renewed interest in mermaids. There is probably a correlation between the prevalence of these magical, fantastical images and a desire to escape the desolate social and political landscape of late capitalism and the rise of the political right, but that’s another blog post for another time.
In the tv series Adventure Time the cartoon unicorn was given life as Lady Rainicorn, who has the head of a unicorn and a long, undulating rainbow body. A magical creature, she has the ability to turn objects different colors and travels by dancing on particals of light. Here, the unicorn and the rainbow are fused together in one character. Though it is made clear in the series Lady Rainicorn has a boyfriend (who is a dog, cool, that’s kind of subversive, also children’s television is weird) so is clearly not gay. There is a distinct queer aesthetic, a type of high camp, at work here, recognised by queers everywhere.
What exactly does the unicorn symbolize to the queer community?
Come back next week for part 2 to find out…