Originally published as Alchemy, Innocence and Transformation – The Horn of the Unicorn by Sorita d’Este in SILKMILK, Jan 2010.
Of course, it is significant that the Emerald Tablet was said to be the work of the greatest of alchemists, Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes was also credited with instructions on the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone and its properties in the work entitled Aureus: The Golden Tractate of Hermes Trismegistus. Concerning the Physical Secret of the Philosophers Stone:
“This, O Son, is the concealed stone of many colours, which is born
and brought forth in one colour; know this and conceal it. By this, the Almighty
favouring, the greatest diseases are escaped, and every sorrow, distress, and
evil and hurtful thing is made to depart; for it leads from darkness into light,
from this desert wilderness to a secure habitation, and from poverty and
straits to a free and ample fortune.”
The unicorn’s horn was also associated with the white stone, which represented the purified feminine forces. The feminine white stone and the masculine red stone may be seen as the two dissociated forces, which are united back together in the Philosopher’s Stone. These two colours represent the polarity of opposites in many systems – they are the sun and moon, the twin pillars of the temple, the unicorn and the lion, the list goes on. In alchemy, the white stone is the result of the process which corresponds to inner change. The alchemist worked on the reification of the feminine within, which would correspond to the feminine Neshamah or higher soul in Qabalah. The white stone symbolised spiritual purity, and this was reflected in the whiteness of the unicorn. It is not the white of calcination when the stone was turned to ash earlier in its evolution, nor yet the whiteness that follows the blackness of putrefaction. This is the whiteness of the robe of Diana, the pure lunar force which nurtures plants and engenders life. To the alchemist, this feminine purity was the only force which could tame the wildness of the unicorn.
The Philosopher’s Stone was also known as the Philosopher’s Elixir or Medicine, because its power-operated on several levels, not simply the physical power of projection (transmutation of metals), but also the purification of the self, making the body completely healthy and bringing longevity, if not immortality. The purification and unification of the soul was another aim of the Great Work, of creating the Philosopher’s Stone.
Like the Philosopher’s Stone, the unicorn is also particularly associated with purity. His horn had purifying qualities, and he could only be approached by a pure (virgin) maiden. It is easy to see why the unicorn and his horn should become such powerful symbols in
alchemy and the magic of the Renaissance, also turning up in works like the Rosicrucian Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.
The lunar imagery of the unicorn can also be observed in its polarity with solar animals, as can be seen in the common image of the solar lion (red stone) and the lunar unicorn (white stone), or the solar stag and the unicorn, as seen in the sixteenth century
Book of Lambspring, which declared that “The unicorn will be the spirit at all times.”
In Renaissance Italy this connection between the unicorn and the virgin goddesses was emphasised in art and literature, to emphasise chastity and purity. In 1470, Duke Borso d’Este had a series of planetary god murals painted in which he had two unicorns pulling the
chariot of the virgin goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athene. Subsequently, in 1499 the goddess Diana was depicted in a chariot pulled by six unicorns in a woodcut in the book The Dream of Polophilo.
That sourcebook of interesting material, the Bible, is full of references to unicorns (although more modern versions are phasing the unicorn out, probably a bit too pagan and magical, even though they were seen as symbolising Jesus in the Middle Ages), from Deuteronomy to Numbers, Isaiah to Job. Thus Psalms 92:10 observes,
“But my horn shalt
thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn.”
Unicorns were one of the eleven types of ‘monster’ created by the primal goddess Tiamat to fight the hero-god Marduk in the first epic celestial battle. Unfortunately for her, she lost and had her body chopped up to make the universe. The children of Tiamat were
described as deities, so the original unicorns have a high pedigree, which continued into the Zoroastrian image of the unicorn. There he was described as being as big as a mountain, and wiping out evil creatures and bringing purity wherever it went. The Zoroastrian unicorn
also has a golden horn, which is probably the root of this colouring. There however he was portrayed as impregnating the waters and causing mass births of young in animals wherever he went, so virginity was definitely not his domain.