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Rishyashringa and the unicorn

Gilles Schaufelberger and Guy Vincent

English translation by G. Schaufelberger

Curiously enough, the figure of Rishyashringa seems to be the source of the unicorn's medieval legend. Like him, it dwells in the woods, wild and shy, like him, it bears an only horn on the forehead, like him, it can be seized only through a woman (virgin if possible). The first writer to mention an unicorn is the Greek doctor Ctesias of Cnide [1] who stayed at the Persian kings' court from 405 to 397 B. C. and whose works have reached us through the various writers who quoted them, particulary the Byzantine patriarch Photius (IX c. a.C.). Here is what Ctesias wrote: "There are, in the Indies, wild donkeys, as big as horses, with a horn in the middle of the forehead". Eminent ancient authors will give credence to this animal's existence. Aristotle [2] - he names it "the Indian donkey", Elien [3], and, in the II c. a.C., an Alexandrian wonders' compilation, the Physiologus, which has enjoyed a true success and spread to the Christian West with its fantastic animals' procession: the medieval bestiaries drew directly their inspiration from it. In the Pierre de Beauvais' bestiary, it can be read: "There is an animal, called "monokeros" in Greek, which means "unicorn" in Latin. It has a horn in the middle of the head, and is so fierce that no man can seize it, if not in the way I will tell you: the hunters take a virgin maiden where the unicorn dwells and left her alone in the woods, sitting down on a seat. As soon as the unicorn sees the maiden, it comes and falls asleep upon her knees. In this way, the hunters can seize it, and take it to the kings' palaces." However, it sems that between Ctesias' unicorn and the medieval unicorn, the last one is nearer to Rishyashringa, and thus the problem remains whether certain passages of the Mahabharata were known in the West during the ancient times. R Wittkover [4] was of the opinion that the Greek tavellers has heard tales from Brahmans and that, in the word-to-word translation of certain expressions, lays the origin of those fabulous beings which were to haunt our Middle Ages: the Mahabharata's karnapravarana, for example, "those who cover themselves with their ears" will give birth to the legend of long-eared men. Other reasons lead us to think of a very partial knowledge, but on the other hand, the imaginary beings' profusion show that the Indian text is obviously ignored. This could have given birth to more than one funny invention. Nevertheless, the filiation between Rishyashringa and the unicorn seems very likely even if we don't know how and by whom it was made.

From G. Schaufelberger & Guy Vincent, Le Mahabharata, Presses de l'Université Laval, Québec, 2004, Vol I: The Pilgrim's Guide, pp. 346-347.

[1] Cf. R. Henry : Ctésias, la Perse, l'Inde, les Sommaires de Photius, Lebègue, Bruxelles, 1947, ch. 25 et 26.
[2] Aristotle, De partibus animalium, III, 2
[3] Elien, De natura animalium, IV , 52
[4] R. Wittkover, Allegory and the Migration of symbols, (L'Orient fabuleux), Thames et Hudson, Paris, trad. fr. 1990