The Pleasure and Profit of the Unicorn

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 15 minutes

How on earth did the unearthly unicorn take on as many personas as singer-superstar Madonna? Some of its modern-day iterations span the same four decades as those of the songstress/dancer/actor/producer - all undoubtedly the result of canny marketing ploys by clever promotors.

Madonna has maintained her status as the prototypical icon of pop reinvention. The unicorn, too, has metamorphosed over time, from its mystical embodiment as a pure, magically-horned horse, to the sparkly rainbow creatures of Hasbro’s 1980s toy brand My Pretty Pony and follow-up inspiration: animated TV series My Little Pony (MLP) by Sunbow and Marvel.

Hasbro has succeeded in transporting the decidedly uncanny unicorn out of Greek natural history and into the realm of toys and multimedia - and made a pretty profit in doing so.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 15 minutes

How on earth did the unearthly unicorn take on as many personas as singer-superstar Madonna? Some of its modern-day iterations span the same four decades as those of the songstress/dancer/actor/producer – all undoubtedly the result of canny marketing ploys by clever promotors.

Madonna has maintained her status as the prototypical icon of pop reinvention. The unicorn, too, has metamorphosed over time, from its mystical embodiment as a pure, magically-horned horse, to the sparkly rainbow creatures of Hasbro’s 1980s toy brand My Pretty Pony and follow-up inspiration: animated TV series My Little Pony (MLP) by Sunbow and Marvel.

Hasbro has succeeded in transporting the decidedly uncanny unicorn out of Greek natural history and into the realm of toys and multimedia – and made a pretty profit in doing so. Kids and adults alike have been willingly lured into collecting any of the thousands of merchandise paraphernalia available worldwide. Tee-shirts, games, CD’s and DVD’s, nail polish, cereals, slippers, PJ’s, headbands, stationery, jewellery, books (my household has the lot), and other collectables – some reaching around £700 on eBay – are all up for grabs.

It all makes for big business, and retail sales of My Little Pony gross around US$1 billion annually. According to US data collection agency Net Worth Spot, unicorn MLP Twilight Sparkle alone generates as much as US$1 million per year based on her retail sales, YouTube clicks, sponsorships, and ‘speaking’ gigs.

Fans can subscribe to Lauren Faust’s incredible brainchild My Little Pony Friendship is Magic TV series and Wiki website. Aficionados, young and old (including adult men known as ‘Bronies’ – a portmanteau of bro and pony) can attend subculture fandom events like the UK PonyCon and US Bronycon. These celebrations are widely popular and allow fans to share the MLP love and dress up, cosplay, and behave like My Little Ponys themselves, in a most innocent way.

So we have franchises and the media to thank for extending the mythological life of the unicorn into a trendy cultural phenomenon. The MLP movement paired rainbows and unicorns together – a mutually rewarding relationship that superseded the far less commercialised earlier pairing of rainbows and butterflies. Joyfully joined since the 19thcentury, the earliest attestations of this partnership are sourced to an 1864 book by Jenny d’ Héricourt, A Woman’s Philosophy of Woman, and William S. Lord’s 1897 poem, ‘Jingle and Jangle’ published in The Rock-a-bye-Book:

“Sunshine and sugar and honey and bees
Rainbows and butterflies wings,
Bird songs and brook songs and wide-spreading trees,
Of joy little Jingle bell sings.

Chasing rainbows with a butterfly net became a popular albeit unfruitful pastime in itself for the next couple of centuries, until the ‘80s when the rainbow was caught and catapulted along with the unicorn into the open-armed embraces of the LGBTQ+ community.

American artist Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day in 1978. It became accepted as the single most recognisable symbol of the diversity of the gay community (in addition to the pink triangle). The colours of the rainbow now universally celebrate and represent the LGBTQ+ community in a movement towards hope, inclusivity, and liberation. The idiom: “It’s all unicorns and rainbows” (a definitive rejection of the original which commented on the hardships of life) may well express that hope for acceptance and a positive future.

As unicorns are mythical, ethereal creatures, some LGBTQ+ people also connect with them figuratively, in the sense that they, too “feel that they only half belong, that they are not quite of this world and their existence seems to blur the lines between societal norms of masculinity and femininity.” (Gay Star News, 2018)

With a plethora of rainbow-maned-and-tailed My Little Ponys already on board (albeit targeting a different demographic), it’s unsurprising that the rainbow-clad unicorn has become the queer cultural icon of our time. Its presence is on pretty much everything, from posters, memes, emojis, bags, pillowcases, T-shirts, and banners at Gay Pride worldwide.

Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are equally enamoured with what the unicorn represents to them personally: nostalgia for childhood.

When J.K Rowling released her first Harry Potter hit in 1997, it became a global phenomenon and an experience shared by millennials everywhere. The Harry Potter series spanned and, some might say defined, the growing-up years of a millennial. And unicorns were prominent right from book one: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. What millennial (or even Gen Z-er) isn’t moved when Harry, Draco Malfoy, and Fang discover a beautiful unicorn in the forest, sacrificed by Quirinus Quirrell for Lord Voldemort’s return to power?

Harry is rescued at the scene by the centaur, Firenze, who tells him:

“It is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn. Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something so pure and defenceless to save yourself, you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.” Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K Rowling, 1997.

Harry Potter Wiki Fandom describes the unicorn as a pure and elegant horse with a “single horn on head, a white coat, golden hooves, friendlier towards witches than wizards, and preferring of a woman’s touch; blood, hair and horn all have potent magical properties”.

That analogy of purity has evolved exponentially from the unicorn’s earliest records. In 3000 B.C., Mesopotamian artworks in ancient Kish, Iraq revealed a horn-bearing animal, while the earliest literary description of a single-horned (Greek monokerōs, Latin unicornis) animal was by the Greek historian Ctesias (c. 400 B.C.) He wrote about a creature “the size of a horse, with a white body, purple head, and blue eyes and on its forehead was a cubit-long horn coloured red at the pointed tip, black in the middle, and white at the base”.

It was believed to be a real animal; indeed, early Greek naturalists considered the unicorn to be so and listed it in natural history journals of the time. Scientists maintain that Ctesias and the many other historians and writers who threw in their two cent’s worth (such as Aristotle, Pliny, Ælian, and later, Marco Polo) were actually describing the Indian Rhinoceros or the aurochs (predecessor of the ox). A bit of a comedown from the fantastical animal that intrigued the imaginations of society at the time!

However, these mistaken identities led to the birth of a myth that would transform religious, pagan, and folk culture forever: the unicorn.

Virgin and unicorn

As a biblical animal, the unicorn was interpreted allegorically in the early Christian church. One of the earliest interpretations appears in the ancient Greek bestiary known as the Physiologus, which used scripture to explain the unicorn’s importance. It states that the unicorn is a strong, fierce animal, yet submissive to classical virgins and able to be captured only if a virgin maiden is placed before it. The unicorn will leap into the virgin’s lap to suckle before she either leads it to the king’s palace or – according to lore – hunters come to spear it to death.

Medieval writers and artists likened the unicorn to Christ who dwelt in the womb of the Virgin Mary and raised a horn of salvation for mankind. The King James Bible of 1611 also mentions the unicorn on several occasions; for example, “God brought them out of Egypt he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn (Num 23:22) and there is power, majesty, and exaltation in the unicorn of the Old Testament.”

In medieval Europe, the unicorn became a symbol closely associated with chivalry, with heroic lovers and their lady companions often compared to the doting relationship between the unicorn and a virgin. During the Renaissance, and in a move away from the Christian allegory, the unicorn became a secular symbol of 15th-century chastity and loyalty. It also became a popular choice for heraldry – perhaps as a nod to the unicorn’s immense power and ultimately untameable nature.

A little later, our all-learned friend Sir Thomas Browne does his best to debunk the unicorn’s existence in his 1646 Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors. He pokes fun at several shady references and triumphantly tops off his allegations of falsity by pointing out the unicorn’s dubious ability to graze while sporting a horn that projected from its head at such an angle.

The unicorn – or “unique horn” as Browne describes it – has been the subject of much pharmaceutical interest for that very thing: its one horn. The healing and purifying qualities associated with alicorn (the substance comprising unicorn’s horn) was such a popular legend that drinking cups were made from it – highly valued by medieval nobility. Protection against poisoning, diseases from ulcers and scurvy, and melancholy and fainting spells were all possible when the user of said cup imbibed from it. At a time when people were selling substances of touted medical effect supposedly made from unicorn horn, Browne is at pains to enlighten his readers about the false remedies of street-corner “quacksalvers”.

It’s a great pity that more of Browne’s followers didn’t heed his advice: “With what security a man may rely on this remedy, the mistresse of fooles hath already instructed some, and to wisdome (which is never too wise to learne) it is not too late to consider” because, in due course, a shortage of virgins meant the mythical creature became impossible to pin down. Very quickly, the tusk of the poor narwhal whale became targeted to supply whatever goodness people expected to receive from a unicorn’s horn, ably satisfying the Middle Ages’ fervour for sexual vigour and eternal youth.

From then on, nearly all descriptions of unicorn horns were consistent: long, white, and spiralled, just like that of the narwhal. Despite Browne’s entreaties, demand for unicorn horn continued to soar and costs skyrocketed: Elizabeth I, Queen of England in the 1500s, is said to have owned a narwhal tusk worth 10,000 pounds, the price of a castle. False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of rhinoceros, was sold in Europe for medicinal purposes until 1741.

Sadly (but luckily for the narwhal), by the 18th century, belief in unicorns began to wane. Then in 1841, Prosper Mérimée in Boussac castle rediscovered The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, exquisitely crafted in Flanders from wool and silk around 1500. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries and a series of seven others known as The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries (South Netherlands 1495–1505) succeeded in reinventing the unicorn as a glamourised mythical beast. From this point onwards, Victorian artists revered and romanticised the creature, and its future was sealed.

Right up to present day, the vibrantly colourful, positively hopeful unicorn is booming! In 2016, unicorn food made its appearance when food blogger Adeline Waugh unintentionally made rainbow-coloured unicorn toast. Her culinary creation soon led to unicorn food medleys worldwide – like Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino (which went viral in 2017), cakes, biscuits, cupcakes, and hot chocolate. Soon came unicorn skincare and beauty products, clothing, pool and party accessories, and myriad other commercial successes based on the unicorn’s extreme Instagramabilty and Influencer appeal.

It’s called the Unicorn Trend and it reflects our popular culture’s zeitgeist (“spirit of time”). Let’s celebrate the creature in the manner it deserves – as a culture of its own.

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