The Hunt for the Wild Unicorn: Containment, Sacrifice, and Evolution ©

© Ladson Hinton Based on a paper presented at the National Conference of Jungian Analysts Santa Monica, California February 3, 2001


In 1966 my wife and I visited the Cluny Museum in Paris at the suggestion of a German graduate student—whom I have thanked many times over in my mind! The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the museum had a powerful impact on us.

Later I became acquainted with the tapestries at the Cloisters in New York—the Hunting Series. These reinforced my fascination with the enigma of the Unicorn. Over time, I became more entranced by the Hunting Series because it is vital and emotional, whereas the Cluny series is a more abstract reflection on the senses.

The mystery of the magical beast that never was captured my imagination. Later I connected this mystery with the animal paintings of the Paleolithic caves and the animal rituals of Native Americans, along with the animal as key to dreams and fairy tales (Hinton, 1991 & 1993). As the earliest human beings contemplated their place in the universe, and tried to comprehend their own presence in the world, they consistently focused on the Magical Animal.

This dimension of the life of the psyche has not changed with the decline of hunting cultures, for we continue to see an endless proliferation of animals in our own dreams and those of our analysands.

The tale of the Wild Unicorn expresses the strangeness of the Unknown when it impacts our familiar world, continuing the long fascination of the human race with the mystery of the Magical Animal. What is the meaning of this strange, powerful animal that emerges out of the Unknown? How can we contain it so that it feeds our souls with its aliveness, and does not destroy us?

There is a strong connection of this mystery to psychoanalytic work. The Age of Reason, the increasing pressures of collective life, and technology have led to an alienation that Jungian and other analytic approaches have sought to heal. We, and most of our patients, suffer at times from feelings of psychic deadness. We are often Hamlets who do not know what to do or how to be.1 In contrast, animals know how to be what they are. The Unicorn tapestries derive from a time—perhaps the last time in the Western world—when the gods and goddesses were felt to be alive, and everyday existence was imbued with meaning. With immediacy and aliveness, the Unicorn embodies a primal vitality stemming from the Unknown. It expresses something we have lost, and need to recover to heal others and ourselves.

The vicissitudes of the Hunt for the Wild Unicorn illustrate, in their way, elements basic to the analytic process—most especially containment, sacrifice and evolution. By participating in the drama of the Unicorn, the Hunt and capture, we enter into the ancient human mystery of the Magical Animal that appears out of the Unknown.2

1It is interesting to see that the recent interpretations of Shakespeare interpret him as a transitional author between the Medieval and modern, rather than as a Renaissance figure per se. In fact, the Renaissance is being re-thought as a late manifestation of the Medieval, rather than merely the beginning of the modern era. Thus Hamlet’s tragedy is that of a man caught between eras—post-modern in a sense!

2In the story of Acteon and The Hounds, the identification with the Magical Animal is complete. That is, Acteon becomes one with the Hunted. This could be seen as a sort of apotheosis of the mystery of the Hunt. Acteon is the experienced initiate of the Hunt. For more on this, see The Soul’s Logical Life by Wolfgang Giegerich.

I will speak here of “the Unknown,” meaning something like the Kantian “thing- in-itself” that can never be known. Paradoxically, it is also the ground of our aliveness. This concept is related to the Jungian Self (big S) or Uroboros, to what Bion called “O,” and what Grotstein has named “the Ineffable Subject.” Dwelling with the Unknown produces or provokes surging movements of affective life, thereby keeping experience free and open. This is a “cleansing” effect that rescues us from a deadly literalness, and enhances the capacity to use symbolic thought (Eigen, p.45ff.). Keats used the expression “Negative Capability,” by which he meant, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries,

[and] doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Symington, 1997, p. 169). Freed of the strictures of the literal, truth and insight may be unveiled, and inner space can expand.

Encountering the Unknown also provokes a constantly moving stream of emotions that often makes us over-full. This inner flow is always evolving from containment to containment; and, in the best case, toward differentiated inner and outer life. The philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear describes the psyche as functioning with an inherent tendency toward disruption (Lear, 2000, p.106 ff.). There is an “over-fullness” in the system that it cannot contain. As a result, life is lived under conditions of tension and, to quote Lear, “…Because we are always and everywhere living under pressure, we must live with the possibility of breakthrough in any psychological structure we have thus far achieved…There is always and everywhere the possibility of being overwhelmed.”3

On the one hand, our ongoing encounters with the Unknown may unveil small epiphanies such as the Unicorn tapestries, or may emerge in ordinary experiences such as a meal, a meeting with a friend, or an analytic session. On the other hand we flee from the terror of being overwhelmed, often becoming reactively stuck in concreteness, rigidity, and sometimes deadness. The overload of emotions may be “too much,” causing dissociation and fragmentation of the self (little s).
Encountering the Unknown deeply affects consciousness, and yet the Unknown remains wholly Other. The need to contain and transform our surplus of emotion is part of the necessity of the human condition. To evade the anxiety of Not-Knowing, we employ an endless bag of defensive postures such as paranoia, schizoid detachment, and manic denial. From infancy onward, we struggle to maintain emotional regulation, striving to contain and transform our over-fullness into something that is humanly connected and creative.4

3To look at this in a more cognitive way, one could say that our worldview is constantly being tested, and is chronically limited in its ability to contain our fullness. While this situation can be terrifying, the Unknown frees the individual from a concrete way of thinking and being, and keeps the worldview open and creative.
4The words of Li Tai Po express these ideas more poetically: “No one can embrace…The Moon on the Yellow River.”

However, even though we may be dominated and at times overwhelmed by our over-fullness, still we also seek, we Hunt new experiences at the expense of containment. Pribram has written of the brain as a stimulus-seeking organ. Jung’s description of individuation is certainly not a path of contentment and avoidance of stress! We have a hunger for aliveness, Truth, and meaning that over-rides our dread of the Unknown. The presence of the Unknown foments a disruptive over-fullness, and at the same time creates openness and opportunity.5

5Interestingly, there is one ideogram in Chinese that represents both danger and opportunity (Knight, 2001)

Seen in this context, the tale of the Wild Unicorn is a complex parable of our over-fullness: a story of the Unknown impacting on the Known. As a Hunt, it is a quest for something enigmatic and unpredictable. There is both fascination and danger in this enterprise. We seek contact with the Unknown because it brings aliveness and meaning. We dread it because the experiences it provokes may overwhelm us.

After the events of September 11th, comparisons of our own time with the time of the Tapestries have come to my mind. The over-fullness of much of the world psyche has come to our doorstep in terrifying fashion. We are so overwhelmed that it has been very difficult to even begin to get a handle on events so huge.

One thing that has been recurring to me is a contrast between Moby Dick and the Unicorn Tapestries. The nineteenth century was the height of the Age of Reason, and one could see Moby Dick as its shadow. To the possessed Ahab, the great whale, symbolizing the enigma of life and the Unknown, has become the enemy. The wounds inflicted by the whale feel deeply personal to him—narcissistic injuries. In his wounded, monomaniacal fury he wants to destroy it. The enigma of life has become a personal enemy rather than a part of the mysterious round of life and meaning. It must be eradicated. Such a dark, magnetic vision of destruction lurks in the contemporary psyche, a reaction to the confusing diversity of a globalizing world.

From within this perspective the world must be made pure. That is the core of the genocidal and terrorist mentality. A Marxist paradise, the Third Reich, an Arcadian Cambodia, or the purity of Heaven after a martyr’s death are similar visions of taintlessness. The adherents of these views identify with the pure and split off and project the impure. The idea is to eliminate the impure. Life being at root impure, the end result is the overt or covert nihilism that manifested in the genocide and terrorism of our times.

I invite you to contrast this modern attitude toward the white whale with the cultural attitude toward the Unicorn around 1500. As you will see, there is violence and destruction in the Unicorn Hunt, but it is contained. The Unknown is a moving thread in the midst of life. Being and becoming are, at root, one. By contrast, in these modern and post-modern times we have lost our containers, lost the possibility of enlivening ritual contact with the Unknown. Instead it feels out of control, a haunting demon.

Analysis is one small container for ritual contact with the Unknown, but we lack meaningful containment on the community level. We can only live with what we have and hope that new structures of meaning come into being over time. If we consciously bear our almost unbearable tensions, a new vision may emerge, like an unexpected dream. Otherwise, globalization and the modern Western state remain the white whales, assaulted by endless Ahabs filled with narcissistic rage. Seen psychologically, much of the world is in a massive crisis of over-fullness. The contemporary question is whether the mind/brain/soul/psyche can evolve to creatively encompass it. In the meantime, we can only sadly envy the rich symbolic containers of other times in history, such as the era of the Unicorn Tapestries.

The Unicorn was a creature of dread and Mystery. Only a virgin could finally entrap and contain it. Its pursuit and capture illustrates multiple dimensions of containment and breaking of containment. It is like the analytic process, during which the potent new life that we encounter forces us to break free of the concrete and expand our world.

Five hundred years old, the Unicorn tapestries were woven in Belgium, and were created for a wedding. The identity of the couple is not known, although their initials are visible in most of the scenes. The Late Middle Ages was a time of cultural transition when Christianity was losing its authority and pagan beliefs forcefully reasserted themselves. Alchemical ideas also emerged during this time.6 Gods and goddesses were portrayed in the world in everyday clothes, and there was an air of excited and almost dreamlike extravagance in the significant human activities. This was the time of the artists Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

6Alchemy has an air of abstraction and detachment that connects it to the modern scientific tradition. In contrast, the Unicorn tapestries fully display the emotional reality of the process of spiritual and psychological evolution.

To quote the historian, Huizinga (p. 1):

“When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child.”

The Unicorn tapestries were created in a feverish atmosphere when the old order was breaking down and the new was not yet. Typical of the strange extravagance of the times, the cost of such tapestries was great.

Later, the tapestries barely survived the French Revolution, having been taken and used for decades by peasants to cover haystacks and such things, before they were recovered by the Rochefoucauld family.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. obtained the tapestries in 1923. This