The Ox-Born Bee

Excursions into art and science

Page 3 of 5


Specimen. The of

Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) taken last summer near the LA River, 12 July 2016. Just pinned today.

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Joseph Paregine’s Kingdom under Glass

Peragine Rhino

Atlanta-based artist Joseph Peragine belongs to a long list of artists that have found inspiration in the natural history dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. (I’m waiting for similar interest in the dioramas at the LANHM.) His series Kingdom under Glass (2010-2015) is currently on view at the Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta.


Peragine, AMNH: Wapiti. 2010.

In his artist statement, Peragine writes that “the dioramas are like advertisements, or pornography: beautiful, idealized landscapes featuring perfect animal specimens.” His paintings capture the ambivalence of the modern museum-goer who recognizes the conflict in the diorama between its stated mission (appreciation and conservation of wild nature) and its methods (killing, preserving, displaying in an artificial menagerie).

Both mission and method belong to an older conception of natural history, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that has persisted into the present, such that looking at dioramas today is like looking at a vestige of the creation of natural history.

Peragine’s art–stylized, lurid, often self-consciously crude, conscious of the act of viewing–captures the double bind of the visitor to the diorama hall who loves dioramas but whose love is underwritten by a problematic awareness of his embeddedness in structures of thoughts and feelings about nature that seem, today, quaint and remote from our present.

Polar Bear

Peragine, Lo Sepcola: Polar Bear. N.d.

“While most of my classmates gravitated towards the dinosaurs, I was drawn to the dioramas,” Peragine writes of his childhood fascination with dioramas. The perverse focus (or, lack of focus, in the case of Trail of Radiant Light, below) on the medium rather than the message betrays the characteristic ambivalence of the postmodern audience.

Peragine, Trail of Radiant Light. 2014.

AMNH Gemsbok

Gemsboks, American Museum of Natural History

The clarity of the original diorama (Gemsboks, left), made possible by a certain naivety with regard to human relationships with the natural world, gives way to a blurriness “informed by years of skepticism” in which “I saw [dioramas] as manipulative and exploitative” rather than conservationist.

Peragine, Lo Sepcola: Leopard. N.d.

I am reminded of another artist, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s rendition of these same dioramas for his series Dioramas (Damiani 2014). Sugimoto’s photographs of those same dioramas, taken in the 1970s and 80s, similarly play with the friction between present and past nature ideals, as well as between medium and message: the original three-dimensional artifacts set against two-dimensional paintings are flattened out by black-and-white photography that has the odd effect of making them seem “real”–a category that seems to have little stability.

Sugimoto oryx

Sugimoto, Gemsboks, 1980. Fraenkel Gallery.

Both artists’ work make explicit what museums regularly try to keep implicit–namely that the museum puts on display both object and a sensibility. And when the sensibility that first made possible a medium of display disappears, we are left with a storehouse of unusual objects without a mind capable of seeing them. Peragine and Sugimoto are in the business of bringing these objects back from the dead, cobbling together a new sensibility from the fragments of an older one. Perhaps it’s a testament to the power of that older vision of nature that these objects continue to fascinate.

Sugimoto Polar Bear

Polar Bear, 1976.

AMNH: Polar Bear, 2010-14


Inside the Minds of Animals

Here’s a short “lesson” on animal minds I wrote for TED-Ed. Definitely a challenge condensing this huge topic into 750 words, but a lot of fun working with the staff and animators at TED, from concept to final execution. Try to spot the octopus making a PB&J!

The Dream of the Unicorn, Part 2: How to Invent an Animal (II)


Give us kind keepers, heavens! What were these?


A living drollery. Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix’ throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.


I’ll believe both;
And what does else want credit, come to me,
And I’ll be sworn ’tis true: travellers ne’er did lie,
Though fools at home condemn ’em.

 –Shakespeare, The Tempest, 3.3

We have, I think, an idea—which I would call naïve empiricism—that we see or experience things in the world, and these things lead to understanding or knowledge. But in the case of the unicorn, the opposite is true. In the case of the unicorn, we invented something in order to go out into nature and find–well, not it exactly, but something perhaps more powerful than it, namely, a way of seeing we now call “science.” This strikes me as profoundly counterintuitive, and not at all the way we think “science” works.

Another famous example of scientific analogizing that helps put into perspective the idea that science might proceed from such acts of imagination to reality, via analogy, is the giraffe. The giraffe was “discovered” in much the same way that the unicorn was discovered: through secondhand accounts that were communicated across time and space that become analogies whose missing terms, whose unknowns, demanded to be found in nature.

Though 4th century BCE writer Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, or An Ethiopian Romance, is a work of fiction, it is based on actual accounts of Ethiopia in the way that Ctesias’s Indica is. Ctesias’s observations held about the same level of credibility as Heliodorus’s, and so the labels “fiction” or “travel writing” seem hair-splitting, especially in a time that may not have understood such generic divisions. In the Aethiopica Heliodorus recounts descriptions of exotic beasts being paraded before the court of the king of Ethiopia, among them

a beast of wonderful and rare nature as big as a camel. The colour of his skin was spotted as a leopard and though his hind quarters drooped lion-like, yet his shoulders, forefeet and breast rose high, far beyond the proportion of his other limbs. His neck was slender, and although the rest of his body was great, his throat was long and thin like a swan. His head was after a camel’s fashion and in size about twice as big as a Libyan ostrich, wherein he rolled his eyes terribly as though they were coloured beneath with red. In his gait he went like no beast either of the earth or water, but moved his legs on either side both at once, so that he moved his right legs and left legs not in order nor one after the other, but all his half body with either of them. He was so tame and gentle to move that he was guided by his keeper with a little cord, and obeyed his will as though it were a chain that could not be broken.

As soon as the beast was brought in it filled all the people with amazement and from the fashion of the principal parts of its body they gave it at once the name of camelopard. 1

There is considerable and specific evidence in this fictional account, as much or more than in Ctesias’s account of the wild ass. Beyond things like coloration and height, this account even provides a gait analysis, noting that, unlike camels or horses, the giraffe moves both left legs in unison before moving its right legs. And like Pliny’s analogical unicorn, which combined various animals to describe and predict the unknown known, this account of the giraffe is similarly composite. More than mere metaphors, descriptors like “after a camel’s fashion” and “spotted as a leopard” create the unknown term of analogy from the known.

If we were to represent this analogizing schematically, without any terms, it might look something like this:

Giraffe analogy 2, unknown

If we were to represent it schematically with the terms filled in, it might look like this:

Screen shot 2015-02-24 at 2.33.47 PM

To reinforce that the analogy is using known terms to describe unknown ones, I use photographs of the camel and leopard to indicate that these were confirmed creatures, not imaginary ones. But of course the cameleopard, at least at the time of Heliodorus’s analogies, remained a work of imagination, hence the illustration (from Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle [1749-88]).

The giraffe is instructive because it is, in effect, a unicorn—a wonder animal and byword of exotic nature from an exotic unknown place much sought after by early explorers and oft described—that turns out to have been perfectly real. And yet its discovery and description in accounts like that in Heliodorus’s fiction may have preceded any actual knowledge of it. Again, in other words, we invented this creature from dream fragments—second-hand accounts and travelers’ stories—and only later woke up to find it staring us in the face.

Giraffe face

If nothing else does, the giraffe proves the scientific value of the unicorn. Analogies with camels and leopards gave natural historians a way to refer to something that had been, until then, as unimaginable as a one-horned wild ass. And of course in one sense the analogy is not very sophisticated: a giraffe shares only superficial characters with leopards. Indeed Greek geographer and traveler Strabo put paid to the leopard analogy, but not until the first century CE:

they are in no respect like leopards; for the dappled marking of their skin is more like that of a fawnskin, which latter is flecked with spots, and their hinder parts are so much lower than their front parts that they appear to be seated on their tail-parts, which have the height of an ox, although their forelegs are no shorter than those of camels; and their necks rise high and straight up, their heads reaching much higher up than those of camels. (The Geography XVI.4.16)

Here, in addition to taking issue with the analogy, we see Strabo, like Pliny and other early natural historians, using better-known animals, like the ox, to take stock of unknown ones. So Strabo is merely rendering the analogy more precise by choosing an animal more closely related–a four-footed ruminant. But the “camel+leopard” description is at least half accurate: giraffes and camels belong to the same order at least, the artiodactyls or even-toed ungulates (all of which, incidentally, possess an astragalos, or talus bone, in the ankle–one of the key identifying features of Ctesias’s one-horned ass, and the feature that would have separated it from the rhinoceros: unicorns and giraffes share a more recent common ancestor than rhinos and giraffes!).

But the point is that Heliodorus’s fictional account of the giraffe arrived well in advance of any confirming (or indeed falsifying) evidence of an actual animal. French taxonomist Linnaeus would only describe it in his Systema Naturae in 1758, and Buffon in his encylopedic Histoire Naturelle, written between 1749-88. Still a rather mysterious animal even in the eighteenth century, Buffon has not laid eyes on one of these and still refers to Heliodorus’s and Strabo’s descriptions as possible evidence for it. As far as I can tell, the first giraffe doesn’t show up in Paris until 1827, at the Jardin des Plantes that also housed a zoological collection (both were eventually subsumed by the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle). 2 Before that, the nearest that European naturalists came to a giraffe was a 1764 “drawing…so badly executed that no use [could] be made of it.” 3 Perhaps this drawing looked something like this:

Gesner, Camelopards

Two sorts of Camelopardals. Edward Topsell, History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents. 1658.

Buffon’s natural history of the giraffe is all armchair, which is perhaps why he’s a little testy about the accuracy of his sources’ description. Unlike previous encyclopedists like Pliny, content merely to report what he’s heard, Buffon is especially upset that he can’t confirm, based on the descriptions of Strabo, Pliny, and even later natural historians like Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516-65), or the French explorer Pierre Belon (1517-64), whether or not “this animal sheds its horns like the deer,” which would tell him if it was more closely related to stags (which shed their horns) or camels (which do not) 4. He takes out his frustration on Swedish naturalist Fredrik Hasselquist who, “After having…heaped together a hundred useless and trifling characters…does not say a single word on the substance of the horns.”

Buffon represents a more modern science, not content to rely entirely on analogies to fashion a creature. A modern scientist working with pre-modern data, he’s upset because he’s trying to order his animals, but finds that no one has paid enough attention to the right features, distracted as they are by superficial characteristics like spots.

Perhaps Buffon understood that the cameleopard, even in his eighteenth century, was an invention posing as a discovery. But it was invention, in accounts like Heliodorus’s, that drove men like 3rd century BCE King of Egypt Ptolemy II and the Roman general Caesar into the wilds of unknown places to bring one back. The giraffe, you could say, was invented in our imagination from the fragments of other creatures described in travelers’ stories, just as the unicorn was. It was described before it was discovered. The only difference between a giraffe and a unicorn is that someone actually found a giraffe more or less fitting their description in nature. As Antonio says in The Tempest, “travellers ne’er did lie.”

Some might argue that this is the sticking point: a creature fitting that description actually turned up. And in that point might be the difference between modern science and whatever it is they were doing before modern science. But in my view, the actual creature is incidental to this question. The process of “discovering” the giraffe was identical to that of discovering the unicorn: both proceeded from ideas to realities. The only difference being that the composite cameleopard began as multiple animals and consolidated into one, the giraffe, while the unicorn spun out centrifugally into myriad animals.

We might think of unicorn as, not a byword for the unachievable—I’m reminded of the 1905 Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, which I cited in Part 1 of this series, and which defines unicorn as “two men and a woman (or vice versa) working together.” Rather, if the unicorn has a function in scientific understanding, it is as hypothesis, a good guess that something exists. Its actual existence is beside the point, and in some regard it is far less interesting than the idea that this thing must exist. Anyone naïve empiricist can find a thing with his own two eyes. But it takes a work of real ingenuity to discover a thing before you find it. In one sense, the analogies used to predict and describe these creatures are the real source of our knowledge of the world. The analogies allow us to discover what we should look for, to fill in the gaps between actualities before our eyes or our microscopes or our telescopes can see them. Once the thing is found, the rest is just sorting out details.

The power of analogy to create knowledge is precisely why a non-existent animal like a unicorn can “exist” as an important feature of science for 2500 years. Not because we were childish or naïve, but because our minds sought to comprehend the world before our tools could confirm it. In the case of the giraffe, we invented an unknown known so compelling, so fascinating, that we continued to comb through nature until we found it. It had to be there, like the Higgs-Boson particle.

Of course natural history is more than armchair ideating. It is also things. When we have lost sight of the “nature” in natural history, the result has been monsters of pure imagination. Later historians divided Ctesias’s wild ass into separate animals that took on lives of their own in subsequent Christian bestiaries: the unicorn, that creature fascinating for its one-ness, not only indexed multiple animals, but it gave birth to the “monoceros” by scribes who practiced their natural history without venturing beyond their damp European monasteries. In those same books, the cameleopard took on a life of its own, independent of any real-world correlates. It ended up a creature in the fever dreams of nature in Medieval bestiaries.

Cameleopard, bestiary

Camelus pardalis. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 50v

The series of analogues that bred an animal that only ever lived in books is preserved to this day as part of the animal’s scientific name, Giraffa camelopardalis. (“Giraffa” derives from the Arabic “zarafa,” which might mean “to hurry,” and in which case would describe something about the animal, but it might mean “lovely one,” and so, like many “scientific” names, might contain not just description but the history of an organism’s meaning and value: after all, aside from its spots, the characteristic most commonly remarked upon is the giraffe’s gentleness.)

We have kept such imaginary names, in a sense continuing to call our creatures not what they are but what they are not. Following the strange history of invention and discovery that these names preserve is more than to indulge in the “pleasure of useless out-of-the-way erudition,” as Jorge Luis Borges, the Spanish natural historian of the imagination, claims rather archly. It is a helpful reminder that there is something unknown about the known that we might not ever fully know. Borges reminds us in his Book of Imaginary Beings that “the zoology of dreams is far poorer than the zoology of the Maker” 5: maybe there will always be a gap between our knowledge and the thing itself. Analogies can only bring us so close. To get any closer, says Buffon, we would have to “make use of [our] own knowledge, and not to view objects through the spectacles of other men” 6 Whether we can ever close the gap is the subject of my next post!


  1. From The Æthiopica: An Aethiopian Romance, Trans. Thomas Underdowne (1587), revised and partly rewritten by F. A. Wright. George Routledge & Sons Ltd.: London; New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.; [with additional corrections in the online edition by S. Rhoads;] pp. 7-46.
  2. For a short history of this collection, see
  3. Buffon, George Louis-Clerc. Barr’s Buffon: Buffon’s Natural History. Vol. 8. 1749-88. London, 1807: 266.
  4. Buffon, 266-67.
  5. Borges (with Margarita Guerrero), The Book of Imaginary Beings. 1969. Trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Vintage, 2002. 14.
  6. Buffon, 266.

The Dream of the Unicorn, Part 2: How to Invent an Animal (I)

In my last post I wondered what it means to “discover” something that doesn’t actually exist, or to describe something before we have knowledge of it. How much of the unicorn was discovered, and how much was invented? The unicorn was, I think we can all agree, invented, but the point of this post is to consider further this question of the unicorn’s discovery. And to ask, what role does invention—imagination—play in science?

The unicorn is more than a myth, more than wonder word: it sheds light on scientific understanding, in particular on the way analogy works in scientific understanding. Analogy is sometimes called a “predictive metaphor.” 1 While both analogies and metaphors offer comparisons, the comparisons that analogies make are not purely idiosyncratic (“red is the sound of a trumpet” 2, or “effectrix of divine honey” for bee) but predictive (“hand is to glove as foot is to _______”). For this reason, metaphors do not claim any special relationship between the two terms being compared. Rather, the relationship is in–and reveals–the mind of the metaphorist. Analogies, on the other hand, claim a certain knowledge-value: they help our minds move from known terms to unknown ones.

Another way of saying this is that analogies are, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, a species of “heuristic”: they provide “aids to discovery” based on the properties of a known thing, which we can extend to the properties of an unknown thing. Heuristics and analogies are like rough-and-ready sketches that allow our minds to approach the unknown. It would be tempting to say that metaphor is to poetry as analogy is to science, but I think a more accurate analogy for analogy would be, analogy is to science as the hand-drawn map is to territory. In other words, we don’t require a satellite-generated topo-map to navigate territory—often a hastily scrawled crayon drawing on a napkin with a few points of interest will get us close enough to our destination. 3

Pliny the Elder’s 1st-century CE description of the unknown beast first described by Ctesias reveals something of the sketchy, predictive power of analogy. In Pliny’s account, the beast

has the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, and the tail of a boar, while the rest of its body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length. This animal, it is said, cannot be taken alive. 4

The sources of these analogies to stag, elephant, boar, and horse in Pliny’s account are unclear. We know that Ctesias did not make such references to other creatures in his account, except to compare its astragalos, or knuckle-bones, to those of an ox. However, between Ctesias in the 5th century BCE and Pliny in the first century CE, we find a possible source in Gaius Julius Caesar’s first-century BCE Commentaries on the Gallic War. Caesar apparently did a little natural history when not conquering the Gauls, and provided a description of animal in the Hercynian forests of Germany:

an ox of the shape of a stag, between whose ears a horn rises from the middle of the forehead, higher and straighter than those horns which are known to us. From the top of this, branches, like palms, stretch out a considerable distance. The shape of the female and of the male is the, same; the appearance and the size of the horns is the same. 5

Andre Arbus's (1903-1969) Actaeon takes the form of Caesar's Hercynian unicorn. From Le Cabinet de Loup (the Stag & Wolf Room) at La Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature), Paris, France. Author photograph.

Andre Arbus’s (1903-1969) Actaeon. From Le Cabinet du Cerf (the Stag Room) at La Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature), Paris, France. The author apologizes for his blurry photograph.

In the above image, taken from the Stag Room of the Museum of Hunting and Nature, André Arbus’s statue of Actaeon, the Greek hunter transformed into a stag by the goddess Artemis for the crime of gazing on her while she bathed, takes the form of Caesar’s Hercynian unicorn. Arbus helps us see what Caesar thought he saw in the forest, and what Caesar thought he saw in turn might explain where Pliny got “stag.”

Walter Hyde, in “The Curious Animals of the Hercynian Forest” (1918), attempted to save the “sober historian” Caesar from trafficking in fables of “one-horned deer” and other chimera, noting that “it is now fairly well agreed among Caesar scholars that the whole account of the forest and its wonders is merely an interpolation into the body of Caesar’s work by some unknown scribe.” 6 So we may justly surmise that Pliny was a bit credulous to include this fabulous animal in his Natural History based on this and, before this, Ctesias’s limited accounts.

But then, how did Pliny arrive at his other comparisons? Is he—are all of these observers, from Ctesias forward—merely trafficking in fables as a result of some centuries-long game of telephone? Despite his own suspicion of Caesar’s account, Hyde may give us some clues. He notes that “It is well known that Roman writers called unfamiliar wild animals of large size boves, ‘oxen.’ Thus the elephant was known as the Lucanian ox…. Seals were also called ‘marine oxen.’” This is important, and reveals the analogical significance of Caesar’s—and Pliny’s— account that Hyde doesn’t quite understand, and which he in fact attempts to erase with the help of “unknown scribes”: it shows how one animal can become a heuristic, a map, to another. The animal itself ceases to be a collection of specific details and becomes a rough sketch for thinking, which is then used to compare to other animals in search of underlying similarities. Caesar was simply using “ox” and “stag” to describe something that was ox-large and stag-like. The only “fabulous” dimension of the animal is its single horn—and this would not have seemed especially fabulous to Romans carrying around with them ideas, like Ctesias’s, of single-horned animals.

Caesar and Pliny are employing some analogical reasoning based on such prior eyewitness accounts, using the parts of known creatures to account for the elements of the description of this unknown creature. They are, in a sense, modeling the unicorn using terms known to them and their audience. The destination might be unclear, but the coordinates they are using to plot the route are well known. They have, in other words, discovered a unicorn through analogy—predicting the existence of an unknown thing based on the existence of known things.

To think of these accounts this way reveals their real knowledge-value as heuristical, not simply empirical. In Gregory Bateson’s terms, they may have discovered, not a thing, but a “pattern which connects.” Pliny, in casting about for coordinates, might have freed the unicorn from its binding specificity and rendered it a tool for inquiry.

Bateson called this kind of thinking “transference,” or the seeking of underlying relationships between things—a kind of pattern-seeking in contrast to simple collecting or defining. Transference involves contextualizing details so as to allow for such pattern-recognition. His example is the elephant’s trunk:

What is the elephant’s trunk?…. As you know, the answer is that the elephant’s trunk is its “nose.”… And I put the word “nose” in quotation marks because the trunk is being defined by an internal process of communication in growth. The trunk is a “nose” by a process of communication: it is the context of the trunk that identifies it as a nose. That which stands between two eyes and a north of a mouth is a “nose,” and that is that. It is the context that fixes the meaning, and it must surely be the receiving context that provides meaning for the genetic instructions. When I call that a “nose” and this a “hand” I am quoting—or misquoting—the developmental instructions in the growing organism, and quoting what the tissues which received the message thought the message intended.” 7

Bateson is exploring the process by which we arrive at knowledge, a process I think is at work in early accounts of the unicorn. At the most basic level, we can call the elephant’s trunk its “nose” because of its context in relation to the rest of its features (above this, between that). The definition of “nose” ought not to be a list of characters: this would produce a venn diagram at whose center would be an absence—the noses of many species share a lot of overlap, but no two noses will ever be the same. Maybe we could say something about the “noseness” that all noses share, but that’s pretty metaphysical. Rather, the meaning of “nose” is its relationship to other features, its context. “Nose” is an analogy that reveals connections, relationships, rather than a set of characters.

(Bateson is also suggesting that this is more than a language matter: that the way we acquire our knowledge of the nose bears a relationship to how the nose acquires its knowledge of itself from its genetic instruction. The nose knows, indeed.)

Richard Owen's vertebrate pattern

Richard Owen’s vertebrate pattern

The unicorn is like the nose—it does not exist except in the form of relationships, homologies or samenesses among things. Caesar and Pliny, with their primitive, ready-to-hand, folk categories (ox, stag, horn, etc.), scanned the world for relationships and patterns that connect. Sure such a map can be wrong, because based on the wrong kinds of coordinates (observable and superficial, versus underlying and fundamental, for instance), or the misidentification of coordinates (the single horn is most likely a double). But it is surely the right kind of wrong—a wrong that reveals the mind that connects, that sees patterns. It might not be a stretch to say that the same pattern recognition that went into identifying the unicorn went into the nineteenth-century English naturalist Richard Owen’s identification of the pattern of all vertebrate life in the spine of a fish. Beyond the pattern, everything else is just fill-in-the-blanks, “know-how,” says Bateson.

But we lose the mind in common between Pliny and Owen when we, like Hyde or even Sir Thomas Browne, apply to them only our ham-fisted divisions between the real and the unreal, between waking and dream-life. When Hyde invents “unknown scribes” to rescue Caesar from his naivety, he may only be revealing his own—his inability to think past details to the patterns that connect. If there is a key difference between Classical and Modern thinking when it comes to science, as Hyde or Browne want to suggest, it is in those early naturalists’ willingness to base their knowledge on something other than empirical observation—namely, on imaginary categories (inventions) to be later filled with things (discovered). Men like Ctesias or Pliny dreamed first, and they dreamt in analogies.

In the case of the unicorn, the dream proved both more powerful and more elusive than the reality. To our better-informed modern eyes, these accounts reveal that the unicorn is likely not a single imaginary beast, but a collection or composite of many actual ones—a bestiary, a compendia, of creatures distilled into a single account.

Subsequent natural historians have spent a lot of time trying without success to parse the unicorn into its various components. Eighteenth-century French naturalist Georges Cuvier tried in his own way to put an end to the unicorn as a heuristic, hitching it to a single animal: the rhinoceros (Latin for rhino (nose) + ceros (horn)). This would certainly explain the single-horned appearance, the deep lowing noise, and the fact that the animal would have been hard to take alive. It would also explain the speed of the animal, given that a rhino gains in speed the farther it run due to its bulk. Likewise the ox. Moreover, rhinos are solid-hoofed, like the elephant, not cloven-hoofed, like many other ungulates.

Other features, though, are not accounted for: the 1 1/2 – 2 cubit-length horn; the animal’s color (white); its relative shape (ass- or possibly stag-like). The stag, the ox, the oryx, and the ass would also seem to be likely contenders, but again, these explain some but not all of the characters of the unicorn. It might point to a gazelle-like creature, like the scimitar oryx (Oryx dammah) of north Africa.

Arabian oryx. Getty images. Photo by Joe & Clair Carnegie/Libyan Soup.

Arabian oryx. Getty images. Photo by Joe & Clair Carnegie/ Libyan Soup.

But an oryx, like a stag, has two horns–unless of course you’re looking at one in profile and from a great way off. Further, the oryx is cloven-hoofed, meaning that the “feet like an elephant” (or, solid-hoofed) descriptor would rule out this animal. As Aristotle wrote, “Most of the horned ones are cloven-hoofed, e.g., the ox, the deer, and the goat; we have no solid-hoofed animal with a pair of horns.” Cloven-hoofed creatures can’t grow horns in the middle of their forehead because their skulls are divided down the middle, not solid. Finally, the geography is all wrong: north Africa is a ways off from India, and neither of which are close to the forests of Germany.

This is but a partial list of likely candidates for the unicorn. Chris Lavers, in his The Natural History of Unicorns, puts together a comprehensive history of this composite creature that includes even more animals archived within Ctesias’s and Pliny’s descriptions. These include the Tibetan kiang, a fleet animal that can outrun a greyhound, the Tibetan chiru, a notoriously elusive type of goat with long black horns, and the yak, a fierce and unpredictable type of cow.

The “discovery” of the unicorn, we might say, predicted, or at least anticipated, our knowledge of these other creatures whose existence was, at the time, equally unimaginable. In a sense, the invention—the dream—of the unicorn anticipates the existence of things that would only later emerge as real. We could say the early naturalists helped draw a map that led, maybe not to the destination they sought, but to a lot of other places.

This much is certain: someone somewhere saw something(s) they’d never seen before, which they framed, described, using the fragments of things they had seen. In doing so, they invented a known unknown. Call it a map, or maybe the first field guide into nature. Their analogies produced that venn diagram of overlapping circles, and at the center we expected the ding an sich, the thing itself. But instead, we found a pattern that revealed, and modeled, the existence of other unknowns in other contexts—rhino, oryx, kiang, chiru, yak. But some–men like Browne, Cuvier, or Hyde–mistook the pattern for an absence, a yawning emptiness that they called, somewhat angrily, a fable, a dream. Perhaps  they were just really disappointed: they were promised a unicorn. Perhaps they weren’t as taken with the ark of creatures we found instead.

Hercynian UnicornIn find it, if not analogous, at least metaphorical of this disappointment that Actaeon, the hunter-turned-stag, is, in a bit of unfortunate turnabout, torn to pieces by the dogs that once were his hunting companions.

The unicorn fared little better. It would eventually be destroyed by the very tools of science that it helped to fashion. More on that later. But unlike poor Actaeon, the unicorn did manage to live on, at least for a while, because a pattern is more powerful than a data point. Its unknown destination gave the idea of the unicorn legs, literally and figuratively, and on these it traveled from North Africa to India to Germany, and from the ancient world to the modern. How long those legs were will be the subject of my next post.


  1. Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Cambridge, 2000. 
  2. I borrow this one from Thomas Nagel’s classic essay on the philosophy of mind, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review. 83:4 (1974). 435-50.
  3. And some say this kind of analogizing and model-making form the basis of how we think. See for example Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities (Basic, 2003) and Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fire and Fuel of Thinking (Basic, 2013).
  4. Pliny, Natural History. Trans. John F. Healy. Penguin, 2004. 281.
  5. Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic War. Trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn. New York: Harper, 1869. 27.
  6. Walter Woodburn Hyde, “The Curious Animals of the Hercynian Forest.” The Classical Journal 13. Jan. 1918.
  7. Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. 1979. Hampton Press, 2002. 14.
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