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COPTIC UNICORN: ITS SYMBOLISM

April 24, 2013

Coptic unicorn

 Figure 1: The cheerful, hopping Coptic unicorn, from a Sahidic Coptic manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

 

The very prominent Coptologist, Alin Siciu, has recently shared with us a picture of a unicorn which he got in a detail from a Coptic manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. He dates the manuscript to the 9th century. The beautiful Coptic painting shows a cheerful, hopping unicorn, which one cannot look at without smiling and feeling good. Unicorns are, of course, mystical horse-like animals that are white and with a single, large, pointed, spiralling horn growing from their forehead. They are sometimes depicted with goat’s beard and cloven hooves.

The unicorn (μονοκερωτων) is mentioned in Greek mythology and was described by Aristotle and Strabo. The Greeks were convinced it existed in India. There are a few mentions of the unicorn in the Old Testament. A fabulous book called The Physiologus, which was written in Alexandria in the 2nd century, possibly by Clement of Alexandria, has described the unicorn with other mythical creatures, such as the phoenix, and used them as symbols for Christ: the phoenix which burns itself to death and rises on the third day from the ashes is the type of the Resurrection and the unicorn that only permits itself to be captured in the lap of a pure virgin is a type of the Incarnation. These symbols were taken by the Christian Church, particularly in the West, and used them in art: e.g., the Virgin Mary is often depicted holding the unicorn on her lap.

It happened as Alin Siciu was publishing the Coptic unicorn painting I was reading A Panegyric on Apollo, Archimandrite of the Monastery of Isaac by Steven Bishop of Heracleopolis Magna in its English translation by K. H. Kuhn.[1] This Panegyric,[2] which was written around AD 600, forms part of the Pierpont Morgan Codex, which date to the 9th and 10th centuries. It is composed of many manuscripts written in the Upper Egyptian (Sahidic) dialect and is now kept in New York. Apa Apollo was a Coptic saint who lived at the age of Justinian (527 – 565) – an age in which the Coptic Church was persecuted by the Byzantine Empire that wanted the Copts to comply with the Chelcedonian formula – what the Copts described as the “two natures and two persons doctrine”, which was to them anathema. Coptic churches and monasteries were usurped by the followers of the Imperial faith, and many Coptic monks found themselves forced to leave. Saint Apollo departed from Pbow, one of the largest coenobitic communities in Upper Egypt, and travelled a bit north where he came to a certain mountain where he established a monastery and church, gathering many of the refugee Coptic monks. The Panegyric says in this respect:

… and he [Apollo] then built his holy place like the unicorn. For the Holy Spirit likened this holy community to the unicorn, that is the single horned one, that has his horn straight up to heaven. Even if those that are brought forth from it are many, still all the holy brethren of the community have one single aim, that is the holy way of life, even if the good conduct for which each one strives is different.[3]

Here the ascetic community founded by Apa Apollo is likened to the unicorn. The symbolism rests on the unicorn’s horn that points “straight up to heaven”.  Psalms 77:69 mentions the unicorn in the context of building sanctuaries, “And he built his sanctuary as of unicorns, in the land which he founded for ever.”[4]  I believe the symbolic meaning of the unicorn in Coptic culture has been taken from the Psalmody rather than from The Physiologus. The Coptic sanctuary should have a purposeful, single aim, even as it allows differences in practice, and that purpose is “the holy way of life”.  The unicorn, with its single horn that points to heaven, is the symbol of Coptic ascetic communities – always focused at Christ and Heaven. Furthermore, it always seeks and lives “the holy way of life” in joy: hence the rare lovely, cheerful, dancing Coptic unicorn!


[1] Published in Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Vol. 395; Scriptores Coptici, Tomus 40 (Louvain, 1978).

[2] It forms part of Manscript 579, fols. 130v-148r.

[3] A Panegyric on Apollo; p. 15.

[4] The Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA). The OT of this Catholic edition was published in 1609-1610, and was taken from the Latin Vulgate which goes back to the 4th century.

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