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“Sound Alarms”, Westminster: horny unicorn

“Sound Alarms” burglar alarm, City of Westminster • An odd subject for a burglar alarm, the unicorn is – like yesterday’s mermaid – a popular subject in young girls’ literature. This logo is more reminiscent of a 1980s computer magazine, with its warped sci-fi font suggesting the wow of a siren, and a pixellated unicorn that’s either the ultimate in retro-futurism, or a bit of low-res clip art. Like all the mythological alarms I have found, this bizarre mix of ancient and modern originates in antiquity. The early Greeks believed unicorns were real wild animals living in India, and matters were further confused because in Mesopotamia bulls were often depicted in profile, showing just one horn. There are unicorns mentioned in the Christian Bible, though the original Hebrew term is re’em, a powerful beast which scholars have suggested could be anything from an ox to a rhino. This biblical connection led to the pretty white European unicorn, a deeply allegorical beast which could only be soothed by laying its head, complete with immense phallic horn, in the lap of a young and sometimes bare-breasted virgin (there are some examples below). With obvious symbolism, their “horns” – usually narwhal horns, upon which the spiralling spike is based – were considered great aphrodisiacs; Queen Elizabeth I reputedly had one in her cabinet of curiosities. And though initially associated with the Virgin Mary and purity, unicorns soon became frankly raunchy, prancing across vastly expensive OTT tapestries amidst hunting parties and fertility symbols, ending up happy and blood-spotted after capture by a fair maiden, in the manner of a medieval boy band member. Which explains why unicorns remain a staple of pre-pubescent female fantasy, but does not shed any more light on this weird burglar alarm, or what a unicorn has to do with sound – unless it’s a play on the word “horn”. • Spotted: Vauxhall Bridge Road, City of Westminster, London, SW1, England, 2004 • Politics: In the Conservative constituency of Cities of London and Westminster

Some frisky unicorns. Top left: An underdressed lady soothes the beast in “Wild Woman with Unicorn”, c.1500, a cushion from Basel Historical Museum. Top right:The Unicorn Is Penned“, c.1500, a unicorn spotted with blood (or red juice) after capture by a maiden, from the epic Unicorn Tapestries in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bottom:Virgin and Unicorn“, 1605, teenage love as portrayed by Domenichino (aka Annibale Carracci) on a fresco in Rome’s Farnese Palace.

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