The Meaning of Unicorns

The-Lady-and-the-Unicorn-001Germaine Greer in the Guardian:

At Camp Quest, the five-day “atheist summer camp” for children that ended on Friday, campers were challenged to prove that unicorns do not exist. It is to be hoped that the children did not spend too much time on a logical impossibility. It is much easier to prove that God cannot exist because He is a contradiction in terms. However, both God and the unicorn exist as ideas, and ideas, whether muddled or not, are real. The imagination of a child who was utterly unfamiliar with either God or the unicorn would be cruelly impoverished.

A clever child might argue that the unicorn could exist because it is no more absurd than the narwhal whale. The twisted tusk of the narwhal is what was supposed to grow from the head of the horse known as the unicorn. The centrepiece of a 15th-century Flemish mille-fleurs tapestry in the Victoria and Albert Museum is a unicorn, with a horn exactly like that: a narwhal tusk projects from its forehead, and a heavy tail with flukes, like a whale’s, flourishes above its back. The background is studded with symmetrically placed flowering plants, plus the odd exotic game bird. I would give much to know what the tapestried picture means. Are all the featured creatures imaginary? Is the invented world of human fantasy here presented as superior to reality? Without knowing more about the idea of the unicorn, there is no way I can know what I am looking at.