Hunting the Unicorn: Dark fantasies from antiquity to the gothic

From the exotic beast of the ancient world to the rainbow-coloured fantasies of popular culture, interest in the unicorn has never been stronger. However, look behind the rainbow colours, and you find a much darker and more fascinating beast. Classical authors stressed the unicorn’s untameable and aggressive nature more than the beauty or value of its horn. Even after the unicorn became a religious metaphor, realized as the delicate creature of medieval art, it continued to carry overtones of hunting, sex, death, and danger. Today the chief source of medieval alicorn, the narwhal, is an endangered species that engages our concern for the environment, but its name means ‘corpse whale’, and when it was first identified as the ’sea unicorn’, it was depicted as a ship-destroying monster. Modern fantasy writing has given us many images of beautiful mystic unicorns, but this genre also recalls the original fierce and intimidating nature of this fantastic beast. A dark unicorn still lurks in the shadows of the forest, and it is waiting to greet us, but don’t get too close!


Dr Juliette Wood is a professional folklorist and Celtic scholar educated in the United States, but currently living in Britain. After gaining degrees in medieval philosophy and Arthurian literature, she studied folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, from which she holds both an M.A and a PhD. Her doctoral thesis examined similarities between the geography and cosmology of medieval travelogues and journeys to the other world in Celtic and Italian tales. She continued her studies in folklore and Celtic literature at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth and at Linacre College, Oxford where she received an M.Litt degree for research into the traditions of the Welsh poet Taliesin.

Dr Wood has also been a professional consultant to TV and media production companies, both UK based and international. In addition she has organised several major conferences such as the Scottish Medievalists Conference in Oxford (1993) and New Perspectives on Fairy lore (1997) in Cardiff. In addition to television and radio work on folklore topics, her major interest at the present time is the relation between medieval tradition and popular culture with special reference to ‘new age’ movements. She currently teaching courses at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University on a range of topis including the ‘Sources of Pagan Thought’; ‘Belief Systems in the Neolithic World’; ‘History of Western Magic’, ‘Arthurian Tradition’ ‘World Mythology’ and ‘Celtic literature and tradition’.


• Eternal Chalice: the Enduring Legend of the Holy Grail (I.B.Tauris, 2008)

The Celts Life Myth and Art (Duncan Baird Publishing London 1998),

The Celtic Book of Living and Dying Duncan Baird Publishing London (2000) (Duncan Baird) .

Introductions to new editions of Charles Squire’s Mythology of the British Isles and P.W.Joyce’s Old Celtic Romances (Wordsworth Editions and the Folklore Society)

The Little Book of Celtic Wisdom (Element 1996)

Legends of Chivalry: Medieval Myth in TimeLife Books Myth and Mankind Series (2000)

Publications include substantial articles in academic journals, such as Folklore, Studia Celtica, and Etudes Celtiques . Her current interests emcompass the narrative traditions in the Middle Ages, especially the folk narrative of Wales.

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