This article was first published 28th May, 2020 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Unicorn Lore: Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, by zteve t evans
The Mythical, Magical Unicorn
The rare and elusive, mythical, magical unicorn has been part of folklore and legend for centuries, evolving spectacularly into the modern age. Despite its reputed elusiveness and rarity you do not need to go far to find one these days. Unicorns appear in a range of products such as toys or works of art sold in high streets and feature in literature, films, television and much more. In the distant past it was a very different creature but it has grown into the very embodiment of purity, elegance, innocence and beauty that we are familiar with today.
Many of today’s perceptions of the unicorn evolved from the medieval and Renaissance eras where they appeared in works of art, tapestries, and coats-of-arms of the rich and powerful. Presented here is a brief look at a set of six late medieval tapestries known as La Dame à la licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn. Today reproductions of these designs appear in various places but notably adorning the walls of the Gryffindor Common Room in the Harry Potter films.
Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn
The tapestries are believed to have an original meaning and purpose that has been lost over time and their interpretation is uncertain today. Medieval people would have understood what each of the figures, motifs and symbols in each scene meant and how they were all part of an extended allegory that came together to create an overall meaning or message …
Illustration by Charles Gliddon – Believed to be Public Domain
Presented below is a retelling of a story from Goblin Tales of Lancashire called the Pillion Lady collected by James Bowker.
The Pillion Lady
It had been a beautiful summer day and after conducting a good day’s business in the local market Humphrey Dobson had spent a few hours drinking with his friends in his favorite tavern. Deciding he had drank his fill he mounted his easy tempered mare and set off on the road home.
It was a warm and balmy evening and the moon was throwing down her light making the road easy to follow. There was one place along the route that Humphrey was always wary about. This was where a road crossed over a stream which was said to be the scene of where a maiden was murdered many years ago. Nevertheless the moon was high and lighting the road sufficiently for Humphrey to see the stream and fortified by the beer he pushed on.
The bridge was shrouded in darkness caused by dense branches of overhanging trees that blotted out the moonlight. It was the dark bridge that gave Humphrey the shivers. He had heard many eerie stories of a headless woman reputed to haunt the bridge that appearing to terrified travellers. To bolster his spirits he began to sing an old song and stoutly urged his horse onwards.
“He rode and he rode till he came to the dooar,
And Nell came t’ oppen it, as she’d done afooar:
‘Come, get off thy horse,’ she to him did say,
‘An’ put it i’th’ stable, an’ give it some hay.”‘ (1)
Nevertheless, as he approached the bridge he could feel his heart beginning to quail and suddenly he spurred his horse forward to gallop cross the bridge. No sooner had his horse’s hooves struck the stone on the bridge when an eerie, unearthly laugh rang out from beneath the arch. The horse shuddered and snorted and galloped nervously forward but as it did so Humphrey’s blood turned to ice as he felt a deathly cold arm creep smoothly around his waist and at the same time experienced faint, cold, pressure against his back as if someone or something was close behind and leaning on him.
Shocked and startled by the experience his heart racing and breaking into a cold sweat he hardly daring to look around. His horse galloped wildly out of control itself sweating in fear, eyes wild and rolling. Humphrey fought to gain control of the terrified beast as its iron-clad hooves thundered upon the cobbled stones causing flashing sparks in the darkness.
Another eerie cackling laugh split the night but this time seemed so close to his ear that Humphrey looked quickly around and was shocked and terrified at what he saw. It was not the headless woman he had heard so many frightening tales about. The thing behind him with its arm wrapped tightly around him certainly was not headless but more grotesque and terrifying than that. The ghastly thing had a head, or rather a grinning skull that looked out of black hood so close to his face they were almost cheek to cheek, a pale light flickering from its empty eye sockets and its ample teeth white in the light of the moon.
Paralyzed by fear Humphrey was forced to ride cheek by jowl with the terrifying thing as the mare galloped wildly down the road. Every now and then his ghastly pillion passenger let out a hideously laugh its jaw snapping grotesquely close to his ear. As its arm tightened around him he slipped his own arm down to feel but was alarmed to discover that what encircled his waist was the cool hard skeleton of an arm.
Shocked and terrified to the core Humphrey continued on the wild ride clasped in the loving embrace of his skeletal companion. He lost all sense of time as frozen in fear he careered wild down the road on his frantic horse. Suddenly the horse came upon a sharp corner in the road and had to turn sharply to get round it as the ghastly figure behind let out another terrifying laugh. Humphrey was completely unready for such a sudden a manoeuvre and was thrown over the head of his terrified steed landing heavily upon the road.
There he lay unconscious through the night until the sun began to rise. He finally regained consciousness with the dawn chorus in the trees above in full song. Looking around he saw his horse quietly grazing just along the road. Climbing painfully to his feet, for he was battered, bruised and bleeding, he managed to mount the horse and ride carefully home.
On his return he was greeted by several farm lads who listened to his story with disbelief and not a little humor. They jibed him and jested at the idea of his ghastly skeletal passenger making great fun of him. Yet thereafter, not one of his tormentors, dared cross the bridge over the stream alone after dark, ever since the night Humphrey Dobson had a fright.
In Wales, legends of encounters with the Otherworld are never far away. One such legend is associated with Llyn y Fan Fach, a lake located on the northern side of the Black Mountain in Carmarthenshire. This legend is also known as The Lady of the Lake, but it is not related to the Arthurian character of the Lady of the Lake. In this legend, the Lady is found living in the lake by a farmer, who falls in love with and marries her. They live in happiness for a time until she is forced to return to her own world, taking all that she brought with her, but leaving a remarkable legacy on earth to benefit humankind.
Gwyn the Farmer
The story begins with Gwyn, who lived with his mother on a nearby farm. One of his tasks was to lead the cattle to pasture, and one of his favourite places was Llyn y Fan Fach. His mother would pack him a basket of barley bread and cheese, which he gratefully ate while gazing dreamily at the reflections in the lake as he sat on its shore.
The Lady of the Lake
One day, as he arrived with his cattle, he was surprised to see the figure of a fair lady sat on a rock on the opposite shore. She appeared to be brushing her long hair with a golden comb, using the calm, unruffled surface of the lake as a mirror. He had never seen a woman so beautiful, and he found he was unconsciously holding out the barley bread and cheese his mother had packed for him to her. Seeing Gwyn, the lady stopped combing her hair and moved gracefully over the water towards him to see what he was offering. Seeing the barley bread and cheese, she laughed, shook her head and said:
“O thou of the crimped bread, it is not easy to catch me!”
Then she dived under the water and was gone.
Gwyn went home, but could not get the lovely lady out of his mind. He told his mother what he had seen and of the strange thing she had said before she dived below the water. As the lady had shown no interest in the hard-baked barley bread, his mother suggested he take an unbaked loaf to tempt her. Before sunrise next morning, Gwyn set out for the lake with an unbaked loaf of barley bread and some cheese. Finding a comfortable spot by the water’s edge, he settled down to watch the lake in the hope of seeing the mysterious Lady of the Lake again.
As the sun rose and the mists evaporated, he eagerly scanned the lake. However, by midday he had seen no sign of her. By late afternoon, he had still not seen her and began to despair. As he turned for home, sunlight rippling on a part of the lake caught his attention and the lady appeared in all her loveliness. Speechless in wonder, he offered her the unbaked bread he held in his trembling hand. She looked at the offering and laughed, her eyes sparkling, and said: