Unicorns come to the Hay (and to Providence)


Artist’s research sketch, 1999, from the John Hay exhibit

On Wednesday, the John Hay library hosted a unicorn colloquium (yes, really), with discussion from Brown professors from different departments “engaging in scholarly inquiry into the unicorn legend.” Audience members, including a few people who came wearing fabric plush horns on their heads, enjoyed “unicorn-themed treats” after the event, which marked the opening of the “The Unicorn Found Exhibit” at the John Hay Library.

This exhibit is part of a larger community “interactive art experience” happening through the summer in Providence, titled Unicorns In Residence: Providence, a mysterious series of unicorn-related events and installations that centers around a search for “The Missing Unicorn.”

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Yes, this is a real thing. The search for “The Missing Unicorn” will begin with posters popping up around the city mid-March, which will say that the unicorn was last seen in Providence’s Fargnoli Park. People can call a “Unicorn Hotline” to leave their sightings and tips. The Providence Children’s Museum will host the “Missing Unicorn Wall” and “PlayPhone,” from April 15 to May 15, with an audio component and glitter phone booth. Through the end of the month, the Providence Public Library will host “The Unicorn Stampede,” an art installation of life-size glitter unicorns floating on pink and purple clouds set to music. Galloping life-size unicorn images will appear throughout Providence at the end of the month on the sides of buildings and “other surprise locations.”

The opening colloquium, The Unicorn Found: Science, Literature, and the Arts, featured Brown professors from three departments: Johanna Hanick from the Classics department, Amy Remensnyder from the History department, and Felipe Rojas Silva, from the Archaeology and the Ancient World, Egyptology and Assyriology departments. The three panelists spoke about different aspects of the unicorn in its mythological, symbolic, and narrative significance, approaching the topic from their areas of expertise.

First, Professor Hanick looked at the presence of hybrid creatures and monsters in Greek mythology, focusing in particular on a theme of ‘absence.’ Hanick highlighted Ctesias, a Greek 5th century BC poet, as often cited as the first to have written about a one-horned, unicorn-like animal. Ctesias described:

“There are, in India, certain wild asses which are as large as horses and even larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark read, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn in the middle of the forehead that is one cubit in length. [The animals] fight with thrusts of horn; they kick, bite, and strike with wounding force… they cannot be taken alive. The flesh of this animal is so bitter that it is not edible; it is hunted for its horn and its ankle-bone.”

Professor Hanick emphasized that references to an animal that lived in ‘India,’ are some of the only places we can find unicorn-like creatures in Greek literature, as ‘India’ was  somewhere the Greeks saw as exotic and beyond their occupied world. This was because all the mythological monsters, like the Chimera and giant mammals, were written about as in the past, no longer existing in Greece at the time these poets were writing. Hanick suggested that myths of heroes slaying monsters, like Theseus and the Minotaur and Hercules and the Hydra, while also focused on the individual achievements of mortal heroes, as a whole amount to represent a purification of the world, a cleansing, from the “dark and terrifying beginnings” – a way to describe the absence of these creatures from the civilized Greek world.

Next, Professor Rojas described an incident in 2013 in Turkey’s Antalya airport in which a 9-year-old girl had her purple unicorn toy’s passport stamped at airport customs instead of hers, in effect giving the plush toy “legal personhood.” Professor Rojas, who teaches the FYS Fake! History of the Inauthentic, spoke from an archeological viewpoint about categorizing and determining fakes, and how fake objects and narratives can become seen as real. Rojas explained that ‘fake’ is not an absolute, and is more of a relational category, citing the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Greek kouros forgery as an example of this. The Getty museum in Malibu, California purchased the marble, late-archaic kouros statue for a cool 9 million dollars, but even today there remain doubts about its authenticity. The Getty kouros is very hard to place in a chronological sequence, and appears to occupy multiple spaces in the stylistic and technical development of Greek kouros, occupying instead a ‘distant space,’ much like the unicorn.

Professor Remensnyder closed the colloquium by discussing the role of unicorns and other medieval animals in the Middle Ages, in their symbolic and religious roles, and their lasting influences on modern Western culture. Remensnyder cited Harry Potter, with creatures like Buckbeak the Hippogriff, Fawkes the Phoenix, and the Forbidden Forest’s unicorns, as exemplifying this lasting influence; these animals serve in Harry Potter as both symbols of virtues as well as reminders of its fantastical world, a world in which natural laws do not apply. Remensnyder highlighted in contrast that in the Middle Ages, unicorns were considered to be very real, as animals with deep religious meaning. Medieval Christians strongly associated animals as symbols of the divine, recording their moral and religious significance in illustrated texts called beastiaries. Professor Remensynder also discussed the use of the symbolic weight of the unicorn in systems of religious and political power. It was believed that unicorns could only be tamed by a virgin, and in the 11th and 12th centuries, monks depicted themselves with unicorns in mosaics to indicate their virginity, and thus their right to high positions in heaven.

While the colloquium addressed many aspects of the mysterious unicorn, many questions remain, including: Why is there not a course on unicorns at Brown? Where is the Providence unicorn? And when will it be found?

“The Unicorn Found Exhibit” will be in the lobby and Willis Reading Room of the John Hay Library, with unicorn-related artifacts, objects, images, and texts from the Brown University Library, RISD Fleet Library, RISD Museum, Providence Athenaeum, the Providence Public Library, and the John Carter Brown Library. The exhibit will be on through July.

Unicorns in Residence: Providence is a collaboration between the Partnership for Providence Parks and the Department of Parks and Recreation (Leslie Knope are you behind this??), with community partners including the Brown University Libraries, Department of Art, Culture + Tourism, Providence Athenaeum, Providence Children’s Museum, Providence Community Libraries, Providence Public Library, RISD Library, and the RISD Museum.

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