Due to the fact that knowledge of the mythic Chinese unicorn zhi moved westward along the Maritime Silk Route through the ports of southern India, some people in mediaeval Europe came to believe that the unicorn originated in India. The same thing had occurred much earlier in the case of the trade in gui, for into the heart of ancient Africa, along with the cinnamon, went the Chinese myth of the unicorn. As a result, others postulated an African origin for this mythic beast (Shepard, [1930] 1982, 90-93). Even as late as mediaeval times, people in the West still had only a vague idea of the geography of the world and often confused India with Ethiopia.

Ethiopia had been confused with India even by Virgil, and therefore, if for no other reason, it was so confused during the Middle Ages. The bewildering transfer of ‘Prester John’s [imaginary] Court’ from India to Ethiopia … helped on this confusion and the transfer had a definite influence, as it happened, upon the legend of the unicorn…. In the first letter supposed to have been addressed by him to one or other of the Potentates of Europe, Prester John is made to describe himself as an Indian monarch, and in this letter, furthermore, he mentions the unicorns to be found in his realm. Fifty years later, that is to say about A.D, 1200, we find him established as a king and priest in Ethiopia, and it was naturally assumed that he had taken his unicorns with him – all the more because later versions of his letter, dated from Ethiopia, continue to mention these animals as prominent in the local fauna. (Shepard, [1930] 1982, 90-91)

The fact that rhinos and rhinoceros products, including their horns, were native to both India and Africa no doubt added to this confusion (Warmington, [1928] 1974, 162-194).

The ramifications of this ancient Chinese connection with Africa, the trade in gui, together with stories of the myth of the unicorn zhi, proved to be quite astonishing. For, as a result, and in spite of the fact that no cinnamon ever grew in Africa, Somalia, instead of Guilin, became known in the West as the “Cinnamon Country.” The trade in gui via Africa must also have given rise to the strange notion current in mediaeval Europe that the mythic unicorn dwelt in Ethiopia, in the Mountains of the Moon. This is most intriguing, for this idea clearly echoes the ancient Chinese belief that the natural habitat of the mythic unicorn was the wild and distant Shen Shan (Mystical Mountains). In addition, in China, beginning in the Han Dynasty, the limits of the known world became associated with the gates of paradise.

Beyond the moving infinity of an ocean that drew the eye into the distance, beyond the mysterious labyrinth of mountains and gorges and their confusing echo, men felt that they could hear the whispering of another eternal world which soundlessly eluded the brutal clutches of civilization. Even before the cultural space began to expand, there were rumours of abodes of happiness and immortality allegedly situated in the extreme west and the extreme east of the empire. In the Kunlun Mountains on the borders of Tibet, the ‘Queen Mother of the West’ (Xiwangmu) was said to rule a fairyland, and far out at sea, off the eastern shores of China there was the land of the ‘isles of the blessed’ where the first emperor of Qin had sent his expedition. (Bauer, 1976, 90)

Like a mirror image of these ancient Chinese ideas, belief in mediaeval Europe centred around a vision of an imaginary paradise somewhere far to the East, and spices were considered to be the noble emissaries from this fabled world. According to Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1992), this idea of spices as a link to paradise, and the vision of paradise as a real place somewhere in the East, fascinated the mediaeval imagination. It is difficult for us to conceive of today, when they are so inexpensive and readily available, that spices imported from the Orient were among the most precious substances known in the Middle Ages. Western scholars disagree as to whether cinnamon (from China) or pepper (from India) was the most distinguished of the spices, but cinnamon was the most expensive because its source lay furthest away from the Mediterranean world (Miller 1969, 154). “In the high Middle ages ‘Orient’ meant Arabic civilization, which Europeans first encountered extensively through the Crusades … [and] like the spices, all the trappings of the new refinement and culture of 11th century Europe came from the ‘Orient’” (Schivelbusch, 1992, 8). Nevertheless, by this time, Arabic civilization had already been deeply influenced by the cultures of China and India.

In Europe, the aroma of spices and incense was believed to be a breath wafted from paradise over the human world (Schivelbusch, 1992, 6). Of course, this idea may simply have arisen out of the abysmal state of personal hygiene and sanitation in mediaeval Europe, where anything that could mask the pervading stench would have been welcome! Schivelbusch believes that the longing for faraway places, in other words, the longing for the paradise that they thought could be tasted in the spices, was a peculiarly mediaeval European trait. “Paradise, in a mingling of the Christian and the exotic, was a fantastic world beyond everyday local life, not quite of this world nor of the other, located somewhere in the Orient. Something of this notion survives in the censer-swinging of the Catholic mass” (Schivelbusch, 1992, 13).

Nonetheless, in a strange and rather wonderful way this mediaeval European belief echoes the ancient Chinese idea of the Search for the Elixir of Life which would grant immortality. The emphasis on incense as a way to paradise also seems to reflect the ancient Chinese belief in qi as the “breath of life,” symbolized by clouds of water vapour and incense. In fact, the search for paradise, a vision of a future blissful world society in which everyone would be equal, is a recurring theme in Chinese intellectual history (Bauer, 1976), and the Chinese myth of the unicorn zhi simply embodies this longing for a paradise of justice and equality.

If it is true, as Schivelbusch says, that the symbolic meaning and actual physical taste and scent of mediaeval spices were closely intertwined, then it is logical to assume a close relationship in the minds of Europeans between cinnamon and the unicorn. In China, the mythic unicorn was an immortal spirit animal which dwelt in the Western Paradise of the great goddess Xiwangmu. In the West, during the Mediaeval and Renaissance periods, a similar mystical association existed between the unicorn and the Christian Virgin which became the basis for the belief in the “Odor Castitas” or “Aroma of Chastity.” This was the fragrance, the so-called “scent of the virgin,” which so entranced the unicorn that it laid its head gently in her lap, and was thereby captured and killed (Shepard, [1930] 1982, 47- 69). Robert Graves believed that this Western idea of the unicorn and the virgin was based in the ancient cult of the Mother Goddess Diana whose feast was converted in the Middle Ages into that of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.

Since the Virgin was closely associated by the early [Christian] Church with Wisdom – with the Saint ‘Sophia,’ or Holy Wisdom, of the Cathedral Church at Constantinople – the choice of this feast for the passing of Wisdom into Immortality was a happy one…. So the meaning of the mediaeval allegory about the
milk-white unicorn which could be captured only with the assistance of a pure virgin is now easily read. The Unicorn is the Roe in the Thicket. It lodges under an apple-tree, the tree of immortality-through-wisdom. It can be captured only by a pure virgin – Wisdom herself. The purity of the virgin stands for spiritual integrity. The unicorn lays its head on her lap and weeps for joy. (Graves 1972, 255-56)

By the thirteenth century in the West the unicorn had become a metaphor for earthly love, and thus, in his Bestiaire d’Amour, Richard de Fournival (c. 1260 C.E.) writes:

I have been drawn to you by your sweet odour alone, as the Unicorn falls asleep under the influence of a maiden’s fragrance. For this is the nature of the Unicorn, that no other beast is so hard to capture, so that no one dares to go forth against him except a virgin girl. And as soon as he is made aware of her presence by the scent of her, he kneels humbly before her and humiliates himself as though to signify that he would serve her. Therefore wise huntsmen who know his nature set a virgin in his way; he falls asleep in her lap; and while he sleeps the hunters come up and kill him. ( de Fournival, as quoted in Megged, 1992, 30-31)

Needless to say, this idea, including any erotic aspects in particular, is totally un-Chinese. For one thing, the Chinese mythic goat-unicorn zhi was female, and for another, from a purely practical Chinese standpoint, the unicorn was a supernatural mythic beast, and thus it could not possibly be captured or killed.

That cinnamon was in fact the “Odor Castitas” is confirmed by paintings such as the famous example by Giorgione (ca. 1478-1511) entitled “An Allegory of Chastity” (colour plate 27).

Plate 27. Painting of An Allegory of Chastity by Giorgione. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Other images depict a unicorn in association with Saint Justina, or show a team of unicorns drawing a great wagon called the Chariot (or Triumph) of Chastity and bearing the goddess Minerva (fig. 58).

Figure 58. Drawing of The Chariot of Chastity. Artist unknown

Yet it is only if we are aware of the intimate connection between the Odor Castitas (the cinnamon scent of chastity), the lady (goddess/virgin/courtesan), and the unicorn, which existed in the minds of the Europeans, that such images become comprehensible. By the late nineteenth century the erotic aspects of this theme had become even more explicit. Nevertheless, in all of these Western images which link the unicorn with paradise and immortality in the form of a female saint (who represents justice) or a goddess (chastity, hence purity of body and mind), there are reverberations of ancient Chinese beliefs in the meaning and significance of the mythic unicorn zhi.

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