On the unicorn watch

The story starts with this cartoon, sent to me by Don Steiny for pretty obvious reasons:


The cartoon is one of several offering, as an explanation for why unicorns went extinct, that Noah took two male unicorns onto the ark, so of course they couldn’t re-populate the species after the Flood. (In another version, the unicorns are explaining Noah’s mistake to him.) In another vein of cartoons, the extinction of unicorns is explained by their having missed the sailing of the ark, through a misunderstanding about the day or the time of day of the ark’s departure.

Side matters: one, the source of #1, which is obviously a professionally drawn cartoon; and two, the rise of a rainbow – butterfly – unicorn association in popular culture (a modern wrinkle in unicornology).

On the first matter, the cartoon has been reproduced on dozens (at least) of websites, but never (at least as far as I’ve been able to determine) with an attribution to the cartoonist. I assume that people are treating cartoons and similar images the way they treat jokes, nursery rhymes, and folk songs — as items passed from hand to hand as a kind of public property, whose ultimate origin is irrelevant to those who use them now. And indeed the joke idea in #1 has this status, but the realization of the idea in a particular drawing is the work of a specific person, who should be recognized.

The style of #1 is familiar to me, but, unfortunately, not familiar enough that I can identify the artist.

As a bonus, from the great hoard of unicorn cartoons, here’s a Bizarro number with Batunicorn:


On the second matter, let’s start with the background on unicorns. From Wikipedia:

The unicorn is a legendary animal from European folklore that resembles a white horse with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead, and sometimes a goat’s beard and cloven hooves. First mentioned by the ancient Greeks, it became the most important imaginary animal of the Middle Ages and Renaissance when it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin. In the encyclopedias its horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness.

The sex of unicorns could go either way. On the one hand, the creatures are evidently phallic, and they’re fierce, so that would make them male. On the other hand, they’re associated with virgins, purity, and grace, which would make them female — as in this Doonesbury cartoon from 7/10/11:


Or, of course, unicorns could be of either sex — and it’s not hard to find images of unicorns mating in the fashion of horses (unless these are to be understood as depicting unicorn-on-unicorn male-male anal sex):


Now, the rainbow connection, which Neal Whitman has looked at in some detail in a 2/26/13 piece on The Week:

Rainbows and unicorns: A linguistic history
It all seems to date back to a 19th-century French book

It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, you know. Or rainbows and unicorns. Or butterflies and unicorns. But when it comes to referring to impossibly perfect conditions where everyone’s happy and nothing goes wrong, we’re living in a golden age of RBUs.

A Google News search for just the past week brings up almost 500 hits for rainbows and unicorns or rainbows and butterflies. On this Google Ngram Viewer graph below, you can see that both expressions, as well as butterflies and rainbows, are on the rise, with rainbows and unicorns in particular shooting steadily up since 2003.

… Rainbows and butterflies came together first. The earliest attestation I’ve found is from an 1864 book by Jenny d’ Héricourt (translated from French) titled A Woman’s Philosophy of Woman, where on pages 191 and 192 we read:

…if [women] were free and happy they would be less eager for illusions and cajoleries and it would no longer be necessary in writing to them to place rainbows and butterflies’ wings under contribution.

… Pairings of rainbows with butterflies (not just butterflies’ wings) continue to appear on into the 20th century, often as the objects of chasing, before the steady rise in the graph that began in the 1970s. Since then, “rainbows and butterflies” has been the title of a 1983 song by Billy Swan, the title of two books of poetry, and part of the lyrics of Maroon 5’s 2005 song “She Will Be Loved.”

… In the 1980s, unicorns made their entry, at around the same time that Hasbro began marketing its My Little Pony line of toys, which included both a Rainbow Ponies and a Unicorn Ponies collection. However, I can’t claim that this event was the you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment for rainbows and unicorns; it may be that an increasing popularity of unicorns was responsible for both phenomena. A 2010 post on the Zandl Marketing Group’s blog puts the increasing popularity of rainbows and unicorns in the context of the mainstreaming of gay cultural symbols.

… Although unicorns arrived late to the party, they’ve hit it off so well with rainbows that for some, it’s not enough just to have the two words conjoined by and. In the past few years, unicorns that fart rainbows [or shit rainbow-colored poop] seem to have become their own meme. For an even tighter linkage, there’s Lady Rainicorn, a half-rainbow, half-unicorn character in Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time series.

… Some people prefer not to choose between unicorns and butterflies with their rainbows. The “Rainbows and Butterflies and Unicorns” Facebook page doesn’t. And in the 2008 movie Horton Hears a Who, a child character takes that earlier scatological unicorn-rainbow connection, reverses its direction, and brings in the butterflies, telling of an imaginary world where “there are unicorns who eat rainbows and poop butterflies!”

And that brings us to unicorns (clearly male) that piss rainbows, in a widely distributed image (whose source I haven’t been able to track down):


This is a long way from virgins luring unicorns into enclosures.

8 Responses to “On the unicorn watch”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    There is also a cartoon by, I believe, Charles Addams, that shows a pair of unicorns on a headland watching the Ark float by. I find it devastating.

  2. Cappy Says:

    And then there’s the slang use of the term “unicorn” to mean a bi woman who will date/fuck/marry a heterosexual couple. So called because so many hetero poly couples seem to be searching for their rare & elusive “unicorn.”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I was aware of that, but I try not to get sucked into posting about everything having to do with with some expression in order to post about something having to do with it.

  3. John Says:

    #5 seems to be missing the horn.

  4. Cappy Says:

    Gah. I meant to say “male-female couple” not heterosexual couple.

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