Carols and Unicorns

Picture by Ben Cooper (used under the Creative Commons Licence)
My thoughts over the Christmas period this year were partly centred around something I read on twitter. In my twitter feed, a respected Christian teacher tweeted that he had been listening to the famous 'Carols from King's College Cambridge' on the radio on Christmas Eve and that he had heard mention of unicorns in one of the readings.

I had to check this out, so googled "unicorns at Carols at King's College" and managed to find a PDF of the actual order of service used. On page 5 there is indeed a passage that mentions a unicorn. The copyright line reads:

ANNUNCIATION TO MARY
RAINER MARIA RILKE
translated, MARY DOWS HERTER NORTON
from the Roads from Bethlehem
reprinted by kind permission of SPCK
 
It looks to be an imagined poetic re-telling of the encounter between Mary and the angel when she was told she would have God's child. This is an extract that mentions the unicorn:
 
"O if we knew how pure she was. Did not a hind, that, recumbent, once espied her in the wood, so lose itself in looking , that in it, quite without pairing, the unicorn begot itself, the creature of light, the pure creature-".
 
I take this part of the story to read as: Due to Mary's purity, when a hind saw her in the woods her purity changed the nature of the hind and it became a unicorn.
 
Now, I have nothing against creativity and the arts in helping to express our faith or to examine it and look at it from a different point of view. I think the arts have a very important place as part of our expression of worship to God as they provide many creative ways where we can grapple with some difficult ideas and concepts as well as being able to freely express who we are in the light of who He is. I have nothing against poets wanting to re-imagine a biblical event, however, care does need to be taken.
 
We must be careful not to blur the line between fantasy and reality. Especially in the world today where Christian beliefs are so often treated as a myth or a fable, when creatures of fantasy such as unicorns are mixed with truth (Mary being visited by an angel). This will only serve to confuse even further. For those around the country who don't know Jesus and who heard the radio broadcast, who are not in a position to be able to separate the fact from the fiction, the fantasty from the reality - mentioning Mary as someone who created unicorns as well as being the mother of Jesus - it is not a big leap, albeit an incorrect leap, to put unicorns and Jesus in the same mythical and magical category.  
 
Christmas is already surrounded by so much fantasy - ok people enjoy the 'magic' of Christmas and little kids love it. But we do need to be careful to draw that line between fantasy and reailty, to keep the real things real and to recognise and admit that the magical fantasy elements are just that - pretend!
 
  •  What are your views on unicorns? Did they once exist?
  • Should we completely do away with the 'magical' and fantasy elements surrounding Christimas?
What do you think? Your feedback and comments are most welcome.
 


Comments

  1. We live in a world where there is much confusion for the non-Christian as to what is the inspired Word of God as written in the Bible and what is myth and fantasy. As unicorns as not mentioned in the Bible it has been my understanding that they were mythological creatures and even if you allow yourself to believe that they existed in the old testament, not that there is any reference to them, there are stories in other faiths and cultures about them not making it on to the ark in the various flood stories. The idea of bring mythological creatures into any part of the Bible is unhelpful at best. The Bible, as originally given, is without error, and is the fully inspired and infallible Word of God and it is our mission to spread His Word as given and lead others to Christ.
    When Christians start adding mythology like this to the message they potentially create additional apologetics for the rest of us to deal with.

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  2. Interesting post Matt. I didn't see it on telly, but looking up that order of service, the Unicorn reference was a reading from the 20th Cent. poet Rainer Maria Rilke. According to his Wikipedia entry, "His haunting images focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief...". A bit more Googling shows a medieval association between the Virgin Mary and Unicorns generally, so that's where he's coming from. Another animal image from the middle ages is the pelican, which was held up as an example of self-sacrifice to the point of shedding its own blood. This belief gained currency because the pelican has a hook-shaped point on the end of its beak which people thought was used to pierce its own breast to feed its chicks on blood. But it turns out the pointy bit is used for preening, and the babies eat regurgitated fish.

    Yes, there's plenty of extraneous stuff, especially with Christmas, e.g. the date, the number of wise men and their names. Generally, wherever there's a gap in the Biblical account someone has filled it in. The solution here is to know what the Bible actually says, so you don't build your faith on what it doesn't say.

    Pre-scientific ideas like unicorns and pelicans have generally gone out of use. But we also have to remember that the Bible is from pre-scientific times. I doubt Mr Rilke actually believed in unicorns, but was consciously pushing against the scientific world-view to get to the ineffable. And good for him. The quest for archaeological accuracy has limited value, and we can get into all sorts of trouble trying to shoehorn the Bible into scientific "facts", whether with the age of the earth or the value of pi (I Kings 7:23).

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  3. Thanks Adrian and Jay. Such rapid responses too!

    Jay - a good bit of extra research, thanks. I have learnt something about medieval theology. I also take your point that Rilke was using this imagery as a way of 'pushing against the scientific world-view to get to the ineffable' but I feel it comes across as a hybrid mixture of images which still prove to be confusing rather than ineffable, wether as part of a medieval poem or as part of a twenty-first century carol service.

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  4. I think that it is important not to mix fantasy and myth with truth and this can be especially confusing for children who upon discovering that Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy aren't real are likely to see Jesus and the stories of the bible as fantasy as well. However I think the emphasis of this story is not on the unicorn as that is just used as imagery, instead the issue is the portrayal of Mary.

    Mary was no different to any of us, she was not somehow different or above anyone else of that time or this time. She was a normal woman who God had plans for and guess what, God has plans for all of us! I think the extraordinary thing about Mary is not that she was so pure she could create a unicorn by her mere presence, it was her devotion to God and her acceptance and willingness to live out the plans He had for her life. She did not argue or complain instead she says "I am the Lords servant. May it be to me as you have said" (Luke 1: 38). What amazing bravery, devotion and commitment. The lesson we should learn from Mary is not how wonderful, righteous, pure and holy she is, but how wonderful is God that he uses the lowly and humble to bring about his amazing plans.

    My fervant desire is that I will respond as Mary did when God calls me to be a part of his plan. Do not look up to Mary as if she is above everyone else because her job was to bring Jesus into the world, look up to her as an example of how we should devote our lives to serving God in both the big and small things of life.

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    1. Yes, for me Mary played an important part in the story of Jesus' life on earth. She took her place in God's plan for salvation. However, she should not be elevated to the position of a deity.

      Thanks for your thoughts and comments.

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  5. Job 39:9-12

    King James Version (KJV)

    9 Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?

    10 Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?

    11 Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?

    12 Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?, there are several metioned in the Bible (BibleGateway.com),alson the Romans mention them BC and AD,baby goats had their horns tide together to form one,and also we had the early Rhino's,so it is quite confusing,both the two post previous to mine are excellent,my thoughts are that these animals got exaggerated over the course of time.

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    1. Interesting Bob. Never thought the Bible mentioned unicorns. Although I think this is limited to one translation - it would be interesting to find out what the original Hebrew says?

      Thanks for your comments.

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    2. Hi Matt found a link to this song,
      http://blog.dchae.com/christmas-unicorn/

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  6. Spirituality has been attached to white elephants, rhinos [as opposed to the wyd, Dutch for wide-lipped as in white vs black rhino], lions, horses, and stags. Credo Mutwa, the Zulu sangorma, considers the white lions of the Timbavati the holy children of the Egyptian/Meroitic sun god Ra and considers Marah to be the mother of the sun god. In Tanzania today it is also associated with albinos whose body parts are prized items for in making mutis, magic potions. Unicorns fit into this spiritual grouping. Alexander the Great was made an avatar, the son of the Ram god Ammon after his visit to the shrine at Siwa oasis and took upon himself the name of Zeus-Ammon. In one of my most recent facebook posts I show a a British Museum pic of a 'Divine headdress' with solar disc and horns from the Egyptian Napatan Period, circa 700-300 BC and speculate on it being representative of Ammon-Ra or of his Hellenic successor, Zeus-Ammon. Thus both whiteness and ram horns were associated with the Divine. If unicorns were not real, and that possibility exists given the existence of single horned narwahls , then they might indeed be mythological just as the centaur most certainly was and products of the imaginations of simple and superstitious peoples. An important question is, however, whether evolution of a new species can occur in a single generation as Steven Jay Gould's evolution by punctuated equilibrium might imply and whether they might even be the product of what Sir Roger Penrose calls mentality. That is that reality is a function of three pillars mentality, physicality and the Platonic absolutes Morality, Truth, and Beauty and of these mentality is the initiating and driving bosonic force or energy. If white unicorns ever evolved by these means it is highly probable they would have been prized items for sacrificial offerings and the brewing of magic potions and could have gone the way of the Dodo very very quickly thereby providing a putative factual basis for the mythological legends surrounding them. If punctuated equilibrium applies to unicorns it could also apply to deities including Buddha who was also conceived by divine means and delivered from his mother's side. His mother's name was Maya, the name of the Meso-American peoples who created their very sophisticated culture and civilization. Like Credo Mutwa's Marah, Maya was a descendent of a solar dynasty possibly the same one responsible for the mosaic of Christ-Helios, Christ the Sun God, in the Julii mausoleum under Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican built in 250-275 AD.

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  7. Fascinating debate - my head is full of the tales of Narnia that I've re-read, and it appears entirely appropriate in there. As someone who seeks to live by the Bible, but is not theologically trained ... really interesting to see Bob, mention of unicorns in the Bible - only in a particular translation? If it gets people talking, good to see contentious stuff - but if it allows Jesus to be defined as 'myth' then it becomes problematic...

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    1. Couldn't agree more! Thanks drbexl.

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    2. As Matt says drbexl, totally agree...

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  8. Unicorns in Job? If you have to translate an obscure Hebrew word that probably means some kind of horned animal then in the early 1600s Unicorn was as good as any. Check out http://biblelexicon.org/job/39-1.htm for the Hebrew, and to see how it's rendered in more modern translations.

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  9. Fantasy is not just about a unicorn though. Fantasy inhibits the mind. Fantasy is lingering and situational lust. Lust enters through the eyes and whilst lust deals with memory, fantasy deals with imagination. Fantasy has been listed as one of the danger signs that leads to adultry. Between lust and faulty is the step of fantasy.

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  10. *between lust and adultery is the step of fantasy.

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  11. Hi Anonymous. Thanks for clearing up that bit that was a bit tricky to understdand in your second post.

    Fantasty is indeed based in the mind, as with so many things. Yes, our minds can be a battlefield - fighting against lust is one example of this - it too originates in the mind, then this gives birth to sin (such as adultery). There is a dangerous element of fantasy, however I would not go so far as to say fantasy nor indeed our imaginations are entirely sinful.

    Like so many things, it is how we use them that determines sinfulness or not. Look to Christian fantasy novels such as C.S.Lewis' "Narnia" books or more recently Wendy Alec's "Chronicle of Brothers" series. These are in the fantasy genre, yet seek to use imagery and imagination to explore spiritual truths and the spreading of the gospel.

    For me, as a Christian worship songwriter I rely on my imagination and imtellect as well as knowledge of the Bible and sermons I hear at church, and my own life experience and relationship with God to help inform my songwriting. Without imagination and creativity it would not happen.

    SO when fantasy is used incorrecly, this can indeed lead to lust and sin, but I would not go so far as to label all fantasty as sinful.

    Thanks for your comments - another interesting slant on the theme. Discussion is healthy.

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  12. Have you heard this? It's brilliant x
    http://music.sufjan.com/track/christmas-unicorn

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    1. Thanks Hanna Flint for the link to a song about Christmas Unicorns. If you want to hear it you need to copy and paste the link into your URL as blog comments disable links to combat spam comments.

      An interesting song - although I am still trying to understand it? He is making quite a lot of points in a short space of time.

      But thanks for the comment and link. Wouldn't have known someone had written a song about Christmas Unicorns otherwise!

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    2. Ah, dear old Sufjan Stevens! I don't think he's really making a point so much as throwing out a load of raucous images. And you've got to admire someone who rhymes Unicorn with Uniform! Sufjan Stevens also produced the records of Welcome Wagon, which are well worth a listen.

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