The Unicorn Tapestries

“I must Create a System or be enslaved by another Man’s.”
William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion

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When I first saw the Unicorn Tapestries at The Cloisters in Washington Heights [NYC], I did not know how quite to take it all in. There are seven tapestries, one is only partial, produced in France in the 1500s and they depict the hunt of a unicorn. They are stunning, vibrant. Rich with detail.

What I love about the tapestries, in part, is that scholars do not completely know what the story is telling. They do not know who made them. They do not know why they were made. [Many theories and ideas, many guesses, and scholarly explanations.]

There is a story that moves between the tapestries – a hunt for a unicorn by noblemen and what happens to the unicorn. The symbology can be read as Christian, as chivalric. The symbology can be read as the taming of wildness by love, a bridegroom becoming captive to his love through marriage.

Each tapestry is woven with insanely intricate details. The story is not just one story, but many layered into the intricacy of the images. Stories of nature, of magic, of society. Stories of relationships. It has been studied for hundreds of years, never exhausting the possibilities.

[If you would like to see them, you can go here: The Unicorn Tapestries ]

In our exploration of personal mythology, of personal story, of our dreams weaving a tapestry that is unique to us, the Unicorn Tapestries have kept floating into my imagination. They are a mixture of mythology [the unicorn] and the everyday life of the time; a mixture of the mundane and the liminal; a story, too, of how we respond in the face of the mystery and the magical.

Our personal lives – inner and outer/sacred and mundane – are as intricate and mysterious as these tapestries. It is probably why we make such astonishing art and stories and why we are so fascinated by them.

Our lives are woven with the ordinary and the sacred [the sacred, of course, in all that is ordinary] and our dreams work to show us the intricacy and continue its creation. The creation of us.

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When Jung began to grow his theory of the collective unconscious [seeds culled from others, of course], science was not yet aware of the genetics of how things are passed through generation. The science, which we are still discovering, of how memory, experience, belief, feeling is passed from parents to child – the study of epigenetics.

His foundation of his idea of the collective unconscious does hold with this emerging science.

But Jung, for me, holds this foundation as the larger [maybe even largest] truth of who we are, the thing [with all its intricacies] that defines us more than even our own lives, our own unique consciousnesses. From this foundation comes his theory of archetypes, his theory of personality types, his rendering of how to be with what rises from the collective unconscious.

He says, that a person, “however high his conscious development, is still an archaic man at the deeper levels of his psyche.”. He would bring us back to the “archaic”, to the primal, in ways that suggest we must embrace and also “overcome.”

He stepped into his exploration [as we all do], with his own prejudices, his own expression of racism and misogyny [notice his use of “his consciousness” and “archaic man”], his own ambitions to be a discoverer of new things, to make a name for himself. Which, since all of this is part of the foundation of his reality, is also part of the foundation of his theories of the collective unconscious and archetypes.

But I keep coming back to the unique weave of each soul – of your soul, of my soul – and how the dreams weave a different story.

How the dreams weave what we inherit from our ancestors, our heritages, are part of us and yet not as main material of the tapestries that make us. Like the Unicorn Tapestries, we are full of the mythologies that our ancestors were filled with, yes. We are full of our ancestor’s experiences [trauma, yes, and also love, passion, courage, failure, wildness, tenderness, hardness: victim and victimizer], yes.

And, we are full, too, of our own experiences. Of our own lives and including our experiences of witnessing the ancestors we do have experience with, who may have told us their stories [parents/grandparents/great-grandparents/aunts and uncles].

For me, it is not the collective experience [the collective unconscious] that is the main weave of who we are, though it is part of us. The collective informs us. The collective is what we are in relationship with and to [accepting or rejecting or arguing with]. The collective can, too, crush our uniqueness with the weight of it.

But who we are is as unique as the unicorn in the tapestries. Unique, and in some way, untamable. Though we try, with our explanation and theories and even science.

The danger of putting more gravity in the collective unconscious than in the sacred consciousness that is in each of us, is that our individual soul gets lost. Our particular sacredness. Even though Jung spoke of “individuation”, it was the collective that he turned toward most and most deeply.

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We are all in relationship to and with what we have inherited from our ancestors, from our cultures. This is where, for me, I feel our dreams work. In the relationship – not as determining factor or something to overcome. But in the play with all that we receive and all that we are [and could be].

Which is why I so love the Blake quote I began this with – “I must Create a System or be enslaved by another Man’s.”

I do not know about “creating” a new system, but the gesture of becoming enslaved to another’s – becoming enslaved to the collective that we inherit – rings deeply true to me.

Our dreams work with what we receive, and they push us to be in continual relationship with it all.

I dream of trees, but my dreams of trees push me beyond the stories I have heard of tress – beyond stories of the tree of life, a tree with fruit not to be eaten, beyond stories of women being turned to trees to escape rape, beyond stories of a giving tree that is only here to be used up by us.

To bring me to my own inquiry of my experience of trees and their sacred place in the tapestry of me. To bring me in relationship with those stories and to move me beyond them.

This is, for me, such deep magic, such deep sacred weaving.

This, for me, is where I also most fear to tread. My own [always emerging] way of sacredness, my own relationship to what is the most important to me. The deepest mystery of me that is, indeed, woven in the larger tapestry of the world, and is mine to claim in ways I do not even yet understand.

It is safe [soothing, comforting], to place oneself in a storied tapestry that has been woven for generations, that has its own perimeters and storylines where we can find ourselves.

It is something else to step outside of all of it.