Dragons versus Unicorns: Who’d Win in a P.R. Battle?
There is no need to define or describe dragons and unicorns. Everyone knows about them, right? After all, they are two of the best-known and most popular folklore creatures. Both have been in stories and artwork for thousands of years. They are in the legends and / or mythology of almost every culture across the world, in folklore traditions that developed independent of one another. This is unusual and many scholars have posited theories on why it has happened. Are dragons based on dinosaurs? Did unicorns really exist only to have been hunted into extinction? Some scholars suggest these creatures are a part of our collective consciousness or a manifestation of our shared human fears and desires. This post won’t debate those theories. There is a more important question.
Dragons have a mixed reputation. They are sometimes presented as benevolent, even friendly. Often they are painted as greedy, dangerous, and malevolent. Unicorns, on the other hand, are universally (with one possible exception) consistently held to be not just good, but the epitome of all that is good, pure, and beautiful. What’s up with that? Do dragons just need a better press agent?
To answer that we need to really know about dragons and unicorns. We think we do but stop for a moment. In contemporary culture, dragons are fire-breathing monsters who burn down villages and terrify townsfolk. They also are cute, sweet little creatures who can be trained as pets. Unicorns, everyone knows, are graceful white horses with flowing manes and one long, spiraling horn. Or are they ponies with rainbow-colored manes and stubby horns? And do they have wings? The fact is the appearance and characteristics of dragons and unicorns over the centuries and across cultures varies.
In early depictions, dragons are reptile-like but don’t have wings. Over the centuries, they have been four-legged like modern dragons, two-legged like the European wyverns, and even legless. In some stories, dragons are giant worms!
Usually, dragons are wicked. They seek to cause chaos and destruction. They are avaricious as well, seeking gold, jewels, and other treasure. They horde their loot in their lairs which are generally dark, dangerous, often difficult-to-reach places. Dragons live in twisted caves, high aeries, or deep lakes. And woe to anyone who tries to steal their treasure or even accidentally stumbles into the dragon’s lair.
Still, dragons have a number of things going for them. In many cultures, they are deities. For example, in Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoat is a feathered serpent who is the god of creation. He also is the father of both the Morning Star and the Evening Star as well as the protector of the rain-maker, the wind-blower, the fire-bringer, and craftsmen. The Mayans have a parallel serpent god, Kukulkan.
Dragons are said to have been the inspiration for gargoyles (those scary monster heads that stick out from churches and castles, often spouting water from the building’s gutter). This idea originates from a French story about a dragon called La Gargouille who flooded Rouen, sank ships on the Seine, and regularly demanded human victims. One day, a traveler named Romanus agreed to slay the dragon if the townspeople, in return, built a church. They agreed. He managed to slay the dragon, cut off its head, and posted it on the wall of the city. From this, the argument goes, came the architectural feature known as the gargoyle. The positive side of this story for dragons is that gargoyles are said to protect against evil. So dragons can be good to have around.
Other perks of being a dragon include being long-lived and difficult to kill. They also are highly associated with knowledge and wisdom. (Living for a thousand years helps one acquire those things.)
Dragon’s blood is said to have a number of remarkable characteristics. For example, any sword or knife dipped in dragon’s blood will become a powerful weapon. Wounds inflicted by such weapons will not heal. That may be wonderful for the wielder of the sword, but not so much for the victim. Another magical aspect of dragon’s blood is it gives whoever drinks it the power to see the future. Of course, obtaining dragon’s blood is difficult, not to mention dangerous. A dragon’s scales are hard to penetrate and, naturally, dragons aren’t too happy about being stabbed.
Some stories in western culture feature dragons who are helpful and protective, but these stories are far outweighed by those which present dragons as villains. On the other hand, the eastern dragon is generally benevolent. The wingless dragon of eastern cultures is associated with weather, especially with bringing rain for the crops. So it is seen as a benefactor and, sometimes, as a protective god. The Chinese dragon brings good fortune and the Year of the Dragon is considered particularly auspicious.
Like dragons, unicorns can be found in cultures across the world. The eastern unicorn has the same reputation for gentleness as the western one but it looks rather different than the stereotypical image. The most famous Asian unicorn is the Chinese qilin. This unicorn has a deer-like body with an ox tail. Its head often is that of a lion. Its horn is long and curved (not spiraled). The qilin’s body is covered in green scales, similar to a dragon’s, and its back is covered with magic symbols. So gentle is this creature that it can walk on grass without disturbing a blade. The qilin is so kind that it often will walk on clouds so as not to hurt the grass. At a glance, the qilin can see into people’s souls and tell the good from the wicked. It is said to punish the wicked but is peaceful to all others.
Early descriptions of western unicorns vary, especially in regards to the horn, which could be short or long, white or multi-colored. Older stories of unicorns describe them as either having goat-like bodies or as horses with the cloven hooves of a goat. The tail might be that of a horse or a lion. In the middle ages, the image of the unicorn became more standardized, especially in regards to the horn. A number of magical properties were attributed to unicorn horns which created a lucrative market for hunters and traders. The tusks of narwahls frequently were sold as unicorn horns to royals and other wealthy customers, and this solidified the image of unicorn horns as long and spiraled.
Unicorn horns were highly prized in Medieval Europe. The horn was said to be able to cure illness, to detect and neutralize poisons, and even to provide the antidote for any poison. Because of this, kings and aristocrats had cups made from supposed unicorn horns in the belief that these would protect them from poisoning. The horns were used as decorations and status symbols as well.
However, catching a unicorn to get its horn was no easy feat. Unicorns are renowned for their speed and elusiveness. In fact, lore says it is impossible for a man to capture a unicorn. But a virgin maiden can. So hunters sent a young woman into the woods to sit under a tree and wait. The unicorn, according to lore, attracted by her purity, would approach her and lie down with its head in her lap. The unicorn would relax and fall asleep. Then the hunters would pounce and capture it. Since the maiden participated in this ruse, I’d say she may be a virgin but she’s not so pure of heart!
By the 15th century, unicorns became popular as heraldic symbols in Europe. Frequently, the unicorn is shown wearing a broken chain. This signifies the courageous spirit of one who cannot be restrained. The Royal Arms of Scotland has such an image.
Dragons and Unicorns in Celtic Culture
The unicorn is Scotland’s national symbol, and is present not only on its royal arms but on the Royal Arms of the UK too. Wales’ national symbol is the Red Dragon. (Read the story of Merlin and the Two Dragons here). Ireland has neither folklore character as its symbol (Ireland’s national symbol is the harp) but it does have a famous unicorn statue. Capall Mór, aka “The Unicorn,” is a four and a half meter tall sculpture by Tighe Donoghue / Ross. Standing along the N22 route from Kerry to Cork, the rearing unicorn is so popular that locals take their children for a drive along the route just to see the unicorn.
“The Stoor Worm,” a story from Scottish folklore, attributes the creation of both the Orkney and Shetland islands from teeth falling out of a dragon’s mouth. The story goes that the Stoor Worm demanded to be fed nine people on a regular basis in return for not eating everyone. The victims were chosen by lot. One day, the king’s only daughter was chosen. Desperate to save her, the king asked for a grace period. He quickly sent out word that anyone who killed the dragon would get a magic sword and the princess’ hand as reward. Many warriors came (the number varies in the telling anywhere from 12-36). But these big brave warriors all turned and ran as soon as they caught sight of the ferocious Stoor Worm. Finally, a young boy named Assipattle sailed his little boat into the dragon’s yawning mouth. He then went on an eventful journey through miles and miles of twisting tunnels until he reached the worm’s belly. Once there, he located the monster’s liver, slit it open, and shoved a burning piece of peat into it. In response to the pain, the Stoor Worm vomited and Assipattle rode the wave out of the beast’s mouth. Once safely ashore, he watched as smoke billowed from the dragon’s nose. The citizens of the kingdom joined him on the shore and watched the beast writhed in pain, his mouth open in agony. From his mouth fell teeth which became the Shetland Islands and the Orkneys. The Stoor Worm curled up and died, his body forming into a mass that is now Iceland. Poor dragons! They always seem to get the raw end of the deal.
Dragons and Unicorns in Popular Culture
These two folklore creatures are so ubiquitous it is impossible to list all the ways they are present in contemporary culture. Dragons have shown up in Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, BBC’s Merlin, and The Game of Thrones. Unicorns as well as dragons have been depicted in art, songs, countless movies, and video games. The Harry Potter series addresses the purity of unicorns and how killing anything so good will cause a person to live a cursed “half-life.” In Merlin, Arthur Pendragon brings a curse down on Camelot when he shoots a unicorn, then he must face a series of tests to prove the purity of his heart before the curse is lifted. Once he does, the unicorn comes alive again.
So do dragons need a better PR agent? Maybe it’s the unicorns who do. After all, it can’t be easy always having to live up to their purer-than-anybody-else image. Besides, can’t you be a paragon of virtue and still kick butt once in a while? And doesn’t it seem reasonable that there might be a rogue unicorn somewhere? Platte F. Clarke seems to be doing his part to help end the stereotyping. His fantasy novel, Bad Unicorn, is about a boy who finds out he has the potential to become a powerful wizard. Then he finds out he’s being hunted by a killer unicorn named Princess the Destroyer. The second book in the trilogy is Fluffy Dragon. My reaction? It’s about time! What do you think?
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Slan go foil!
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