These properties recur in Ancient China where the unicorn was the badge of kingship and symbolized kingly qualities. When these were displayed the unicorn would appear, as it did during the reign of Chuen. Above all it was a creature of good omen. Nonetheless, the unicorn was an adjunct to royal law enforcement, striking down the guilty with its horn. It also did battle with the Sun and with eclipses, swallowing them.
The Unicorn Dance is one of rejoicing, highly popular in the Far East at the Mid-Autumn Festival. However, in it the unicorn seems only to be a variant on the dragon in its role of Lord of the Rains. The battle with the Sun, responsible for disastrous droughts, might explain this approximation. Like the dragon, the unicorn might be born of the constantly changing patterns of the clouds, the faithful harbingers of fecundating rain.
In his Le mythe de la dame a la licorne (Paris, 1963), Bertrand d’Astorg gives the symbol fresh life by connecting it with medieval concepts of courtly love, regarding the unicorn as a type of those famous women who decided not to consummate the love which they inspired and which they shared. Unicorns being endowed with the mysterious power of detecting impurity, even the tiniest flaw within a diamond, such persons, in the words of Yves Berger, ‘abstain from love through fidelity to love, and to preserve themselves from love’s inevitable decay.’ The poetry of renunciation confronts the poetry of possession, the survival of maidenhood with the manifestation of womanhood. The myth of the unicorn is that of the fascination which purity continues to exercise over the most corrupted hearts.
Simon perfectly summarizes the properties of the symbol when he writes:
Nonetheless, because of the symbol of its horn which separates pure from contaminated water, detects poisons and can only be safely handled by a virgin, the emblem of active purity, or because when hunted and uncaptured it can only be taken through being tricked by a maiden who puts it to sleep with the scent of virgin’s milk, the unicorn always conjures up the notion of a miraculous sublimation of carnality and of the supernatural strength which emanates from what is pure.
Many painted or carved works of art depict two unicorns confronting one another in what would seem to be a cruel struggle. One might see this as an image of the violent inner conflict between the two qualities which the unicorn symbolizes - preservation of virginity (the single horn raised to the skies) and fertility (the phallic significance of the horn). The image of the pair of unicorns in confrontation might well be an expression of the longing, contradictory at a merely physical level, for childbirth without loss of virginity. The conflict is not overcome, nor the unicorn fecundated and appeased, except upon the level of a spiritual relationship.
In the sixth and final piece of the famous series of tapestries in the Musee de Cluny, entitled ‘La dame a la licorne’, a young woman is depicted as having removed her jewellery and being about to enter a tent, symbol of Emptiness and of the presence of God. The device above the tent reads, A mon seul desir, meaning that the created being’s only longing is to commingle with that of the will which governs her. In so far as we are, during our lives, the playthings of the gods, our role only becomes free and active when we identify ourselves with the puppet-master who has made us and controls us. This is the point at which the self is dissolved into the Greater Self, within the cosmic tent beneath the Pole Star. The lady is Sophia-Shakti-Shekinah, that is, ‘She who is within the tent’. By her grace and wisdom, as much as by her purity, she tames the warring creatures of the Great Work, the lion which symbolizes sulphur and the unicorn which symbolizes mercury. The lady is often assimilated to the Philosopher’s Salt. She is very close to Hevajra’s coadjutor, whose name means ‘she who is selfless’. The unicorn’s up-pointing horn, which symbolizes spiritual fecundation and which traps the tide of universal energy, is congruent with the axial symbolism of the tent, elongated to a point by the pair of lances; with the headdresses of the lady and her attendant, topped with plumes; and with the trees which celebrate the mystic marriage of East and West, oak and holly being matched by orange and palm. The coat of arms on the tent - gules, three crescents argent on a bend azur - suggest that these tapestries may have been commissioned by the unfortunate son of Mehemet II, the Conqueror of Constantinople, during his imprisonment in France, since his dream was to marry the Cross to the Crescent. The oval island upon which the scene takes place is sculpted like a lotus, symbol of spiritual effloration, while the little monkey seated in front of the lady denotes the alchemist, ‘Nature’s ape’, watching his mistress, who may be assimilated to the materia prima.
The alchemical writings of Lombardi, Lambsprinck, Mylius and others are often illustrated with plates of the unicorn. This fabulous beast, originating in the East and associated with the ‘third eye’, with attainment of Nirvana and with a return to the centre and to the Monad, was ideally fated to denote for the Western hermeticist the path to Philosopher’s gold - the inner transmutation effected when the primordial hermaphrodite is recreated. In China, the unicorn was called Chi lin, meaning yin and yang.