The history of unicorns and the case of one gone missing in New York City
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Typically, missing-animal posters encourage one to wonder: Have I ever seen that creature?
In the case of one ‘missing’ poster seen on the Upper West Side in New York earlier this month, the lost animal was not a puppy or someone’s cat. It was a unicorn.
Described as a female with a friendly disposition, the missing unicorn in question and the poster belonged to Camomile Hixon, a New York-based painter.
The missing unicorn, in fact, was part of a larger vision for New York City.
“I was travelling back and forth in the subways, and I just noticed the dejection. I’m a pop artist, and I thought –- if I could just make one person smile. I was thinking about ways to do that,’ she said.
“A unicorn is beyond race, beyond religion. I wanted something that could reach anyone at any age. I thought, if I could just make a handful of businessmen on Wall Street think about unicorns, I will be successful.”
So on Oct. 29, she and a team of friends hung 2,000 posters all around the city. By the next day, she’d received 350 phone calls.
She started a missing-unicorn hotline and a corresponding website www.missingunicorn.com. On the website those who had seen the poster could upload photos of unicorns if they had seen one, or upload their thoughts about unicorns to a chat section.
Perhaps the most telling part of the website, in terms of the public reaction, are the voice recordings -- transcribed from her voicemail onto the site.
The messages reveal those who are frustrated, excited, or want to joke around.
“How would you have a unicorn in New York City? Your apartment is that big for you to have a unicorn?” asks one skeptical caller.
New Yorkers have played along with Hixon, as have interested parties worldwide. She’s received 3,200 phone calls and heard from people in 46 states and 43 countries.
Someone even sent in a picture of George Clooney in bed with a unicorn.
“I would put up a poster and then wait out and hide and see the joy on people’s faces. I thought of it as a philanthropic gift to the city,” she said.
An interactive art project in the city of Manhattan had a larger purpose for Hixon: She wanted people to notice the gaps in their own lives.
“I wanted some childlike play. I wanted people to go on a quest to find what they were missing.”
Hixon was recently shut down by the City of New York for hanging the posters. Though no new posters have been hung since, on her website anyone can download a free missing-unicorn poster.
The history of the unicorn and man’s search for one dates back over 2,500 years.
According to Chris Lavers, author of “The Natural History of Unicorns” (Granta, 2009), for most of history, people believed that unicorns actually existed.
As early as 398 BCE, the unicorn made it into European literature, when Greek physician Ctesias travelled through Persia and wrote a book called “Indica,” in which he first described a unicorn.
Writers after him kept this idea alive. Among them were Aristotle, Pliny the Elder and Claudius Aelilanus, who detailed a one-horned horse that roamed the wilds of India.
The creatures were thought to have magical powers. Some believed the horn had healing capabilities; others believed the horn could absorb the emotions of other creatures if placed on their heads. For the unicorn itself, some said the horn held extra stores of solar energy that the beast could draw upon in times of need.
More curious, the unicorn, for many years, was hunted as a real animal.
The last great unicorn hunt took place in 1900 in Uganda and the Congo, when British colonial explorer Sir Henry “Harry” Hamilton Johnson went looking for the creatures. Instead he found okapi -- a mammal that resembles a small zebra and is closely related to the giraffe.
Unicorns also became imprinted on world culture. Images of the one-horned creatures can be seen in 15th century tapestries. Perhaps among the most famous is “The Lady and Unicorn,” a series of six wool and silk tapestries, considered one of the great works of the Middle Ages. Unicorns can be found imprinted on the coat-of-arms of various countries and depicted in antique metalwork.
Beyond high art, today we have Robot Unicorn Attack -- the AdultSwim free online video game (also an iPhone application) in which unicorns with rainbow manes dash from level to level to rack up points.
And there’s the wacky YouTube video sensation “Charlie the Unicorn” -- named one of YouTube’s 50 Best Videos by Time Magazine in 2010 -- in which a cartoon unicorn named Charlie is lured to Candy Mountain. The video has been viewed over 50 million times.
In over 2,000 years, global fascination has not waned.
Whether ancient text or amusing app, we can’t seem to get enough of the mythological creatures. Perhaps it’s because we want them to be real. Perhaps it’s because we want something to believe in. Whatever the reason, Hixon will not stop her search.
“It’s been a journey beyond my wildest dreams. I’d like to continue to spread this joy. I want to take it to other cities that would be more mellow about posting. If we can all think about unicorns in this world, then anything is possible.”
It’s not likely the rest of the world will stop the quest either.
-- Lori Kozlowski
Photos, from top: A missing-unicorn poster, as seen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Credit: Lori Kozlowski / Los Angeles Times); a New York City police officer poses on his horse with one of the ‘missing’ posters. (Credit: missingunicorn.com)