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Unicorns and other Magical Animals

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Unicorns and other Magical Animals

Mythology is rich in magical animals. Some were based on actual animals such as Pegasus the winged horse of Greek legend.  However a number of more exotic species are described as having parts from different animals, such as the fabled Leucrota. This was said to run faster than any other creature and had the back of a stag, the chest and legs of a lion and the head of a horse with a mouth that extended right across the face, with a single bone for its teeth, but which nevertheless spoke with a human voice.

Like many fabulous creatures its home was said to be India, a land believed even in mediaeval times to extend across much of the Far East. These strange creatures were described by the author Physiologus, apparently from Alexandria who may have been St Ambrose (340 CE - 397 CE) who was Bishop of Milan, writing under a classical name to gain historical credibility. Another source of information of these amazing creatures was Saint Isidore of Seville who lived between 560 Ėand 636 CE. He was Bishop of Seville and wrote the Etymologiae that included information on animals real and more exotic.

Indeed mediaeval chroniclers like their Classical predecessors, believed that before humans evolved there was a race of composite animals (that is beasts made up of different animal and bird characteristics.) These were destroyed by the deities once they perfected making true animal forms but a few escaped and lived for hundreds of years in remote places until they finally died out-or were killed by would-be heroes in search of glory.

Fabulous creatures of myth and legend

Centaur

The Ancient Greeks wrote of the half men half horse centaurs that were human to the waist and who were more highly evolved intellectually than Panís Satyrs who were half goats. Chiron was the wisest and most just of all the Centaurs. He was taught by Apollo the sun god of prophecy and the performing arts and by Apolloís twin sister Diana, the huntress and moon goddess.

Chiron became famous for his skills in hunting, medicine, music, and the art of prophecy and taught many Greek heroes including Hercules. He reared the infant Aesculapius who became god of medicine who in his time on earth had the power to restore the dead to life.

Sagittarius, the Archer (23 November-21 December), the constellation and zodiac star sign was named after a very active centaur Crotus, the son of Pan the woodland god who like his father loved the forests and hunting. However through the influence of his mother Eupheme, nurse to the Muses who were his playfellows, Crotus became a skilled artist and poet. He continuously shoots his arrow towards the Scorpio, the scorpion in the sky, killed by Hercules, in case it ever attacks again.

There were less benign variations of the true centaur.

A Bucentaur for example had the head and upper body of a man and the lower body, legs and tail of an ox.

A Centycore was a true composite, with horse's hooves, lion's legs, elephantine ears, a bear's muzzle and an antler with ten points, unicorn like on its forehead. Though it spoke like a human it was said to be totally vicious.

Gryphon/Griffon/Griffin

The Griffon, a popular figure in mediaeval heraldry, is said to have the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle, a back covered with feathers, a hooked beak and two huge talons or claws on its front two legs.

The Griffon had a nest made of pure gold in which it laid agate or jewelled eggs. Sometimes female griffons are depicted without wings.

Its name in Persian means lion eagle and so it combines the powers of the King of the Birds, the eagle and the King of the Animals the lion. In old Persia it was regarded as a guardian of the light and its statues guarded palaces and public buildings. The first griffon image dates from around 5000BCE from the former city of Susa in what is now Iran.

The Griffon is found in the mythology of many lands as a creature of the sun and often pulls the chariot of sun deities including the Greek Apollo and the wise goddess Athene. The griffon is also found painted or engraved on Egyptian tombs.

One of its main homelands was believed to be the ancient kingdom of Scythia that extended from the modern Ukraine to central Asia. Griffons dug for gold from mines to create their nests and also instinctively knew where treasure has been lost or hidden; in Scythia legend tells they protected local gem and gold resources from plunderers

In Christianity, being creatures of the heavens and earth, the griffon was adopted as a symbol for Christ and also became a symbol of faithful marriage since it was said a griffon would only have one partner and even after the death of one of them, the other would never seek another mate.

In heraldry the griffon became the totem animal of families whose founding member was both warlike and noble to reflect qualities of the eagle and the lion combined. On crests and shields of Kings and nobles the griffon was shown rearing up, standing on one hind leg with the other leg and its claws raised as though springing.

Able to carry an ox or its mortal enemy the horse off in its talons, the griffon is nevertheless considered to be a healer of blindness and its feathers could detect poison.

The griffon was described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in the century after Christ. He claims he was told of it by Roman travellers who had seen it.

Stone griffons may still be seen made on cathedrals or churches over entrances as protection.

Hippogryph or Hippogriff

Created by the mating of two traditional enemies the griffon and the horse, the Hippogryph was even in myth considered a rarity. However, exceptionally,  it could be tamed by a wizard enough to use as a steed. Thomas Bullfinch, the nineteenth century collector of classical myths and curiosities described the hippogriff as having the head, talons and feathered wings of an eagle and the rest of the body that of a horse.

Manticore

Another composite magical beast from India, the Manticore, the size of a horse, is described in Bestiaries as having a red flame coloured lionís body, the face of a man with grey eyes but with three rows of iron teeth, one inside the other and a tail like a scorpion, ending in spikes. It leaps great distances and makes a sound like a hiss or in other descriptions the playing of a flute or trumpet and eats humans.

Parander

A third creature, this time from Ethiopia (like India, another umbrella term this time for the regions south of the known Middle east area), is the Parander. It is pictured as the size of an ox but leaves footprints like an ibis bird (popular in Ancient Egypt as symbol of Thoth god of wisdom). With the colour and fur like a bear, the head of a stag and huge branching antlers, it chief characteristic is apparently the ability to change shape when frightened. It take the form of the nearest object whether a tree or a large stone and would maintain that form till the danger was past. 

The Sphinxes of the Egyptian and classical world

While creatures like the parander and manticore were rare, the Sphinx may be found in statue form throughout Egypt as protective statues.

In Ancient Egypt recumbent sphinxes acted as guards, protecting temples and forming the base of the Kingís throne.

The lionís body was used as the body of the Sphinx and in Egypt it usually had the face of a Pharaoh. For example the colossal Great Sphinx was carved around 2500BCE, the same time as the Great Pyramids were created in Giza near Cairo. The Great Sphinx has the face of King Khafre or Cheops whose pyramid it guards. (photo: Sphinx and the Pyramid of Chephren by m_a_essam)

The most famous predictive dream in Egyptian history was that of King Thutmoses IV who ruled from 1400-1390BC and this may offer clues to the magical powers seemingly possessed by the Great Sphinx.

Thutmoses had his dream while he was still a prince and not directly in line to be the next king of Egypt. A record of his dream can still be seen on a stela, a commemorative tablet, between the front paws of the Sphinx at Giza. The stela tells that during a hunting expedition near Giza, Thutmoses became tired and fell asleep, shaded by the Sphinx that was half buried in the sand. In his dream, the Sphinx appeared and complained that his statue had been neglected and was rapidly disappearing into the sand. The Sphinx promised the prince that he would become king if he restored the monument to its former glory.

Though he was not heir to the throne, Thutmoses agreed and, when he was later made king, kept his promise to restore the statue to its former glory and erected the stela to record the experience.

The Sphinx was also regarded as the solar guardian of the horizon and ensured Apep the Chaos serpent could not follow the Sun God into the sky after their night-time battle in the Underworld.

The Criosphinxes, guardians of Amunís temple at Karnak, formed an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes with lionsí  bodies, representing the Creator god. They would only let pass those who were pure of heart, as the Temple of Amun symbolized the heavens. Amun was often pictured with the horns of a ram or as a ram

The Greek sphinx was less benign and was famed for its great knowledge and ability to create riddles. It lived outside the city of Thebes and had the body of a lion and the upper part of a woman. It lay crouched on the top of a rock, and stopped all travellers who came that way, proposing to them a riddle, with the condition that those who could solve it should pass safely, but those who failed should be killed. The hero Oedipus was the only one to answer her riddle correctly and it is told the Sphinx was so mortified at the solving of her riddle that she cast herself down from the rock and perished.

Unicorn

A pure white horse with a spiral horn or spiral grooved in the centre of its forehead, the Unicorn was first described in 398BC by the Greek Cresias. He travelled throughout Persia and the Far East and told of a creature he encountered that seems remarkably similar to the fabled unicorn.

Cresias said that the dust from its horn had healing properties, a healing power that was also mentioned in stories from many other lands.

Powdered unicorn horn was also recommended in mediaeval literature as an aphrodisiac and to reverse effects of poison.

In China the unicorn was thought to see the evil in human hearts and to kill the wicked with a single thrust of its horn, hence its associations with holiness and purity.

The unicorn of myth could run faster than light and walk across grass without disturbing it.

Though the unicorn is fierce, and so fast no hunter can catch it. It will stop and approach a pure maiden and will sleep with its head against her breast or in her lap. The unicorn is another symbol of Christ and like the Griffon was used as a heraldic symbol and family emblem by powerful families in the Middle Ages.

The German mystic Hildegard von Bingen who lived between 1098-1179 CE and who wrote various treatises on nature, considered that a ground unicorn liver mashed with egg yolk could make a lotion to cure leprosy.

The beautiful Unicorn Tapestries, created around 1500 may still be viewed at the Cloisters, a branch of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In these seven tapestries, the unicorn is shown as a Christian symbol. They are tapestries were thought to have been designed in France and woven in Brussels. One theory as to the creator is that she was Anne, Queen of Brittany, who was also Queen of France.

                

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