According to all the authorities, you had to have a virgin (female) to kill a unicorn. You would leave the maiden in unicorn territory. The wild, raging beast would be so attracted to her that he would lay his head in her lap, and the hunters could sneak up and kill him. He was too strong and too alert to be taken otherwise.
The story is somewhat suggestive of the first text ever written, as far as we know, about unicorns (which I quote here), in which it is recorded that the unicorn can only be killed when it is protecting its young.
That the unicorn could be caught with the help of a maiden is a very strange tale, one that had two conflicting interpretations during the Middle Ages, when such legends were given “moral” lessons. One is based on the most important woman in the Old Testament, Eve, and the other is based on the most important woman in the New Testament, Mary.
Eve and the Unicorn Hunt
Eve, the first woman according to the Bible (there are extra-biblical accounts of two women before her), gave the scholars (largely celibate clergymen) an excuse to have a very low opinion of women, in fact, outright mysogeny. Consider Tertullian, speaking to women: “The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree.” (Source.)
In the Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches, the basic text on identifying witches throughout the centuries of the witch hysteria, the authors have much to say about the evil of women and make the connection that most whom they condemn as witches are women. You can download the horrible text and learn much more about it here.
So, from this tradition, the hunt of the unicorn is a story of the deceit of women. Fall for a woman the legend warns, and you will end up like the unicorn, dead.
Mary and the Unicorn Hunt
But, just as it was taught that sin came into the world through Eve, so was it taught that Christ came into the world, literally, through his mother Mary.
The unicorn is associated with Christ, because just as Christ purifies believers of sin, so did the unicorn purify poisonous waters with his horn. The unicorn is contrasted with the serpent from the Garden of Eden, which poisoned waters, according to the extra-Biblical work, The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan (which you can read here): “where it [the serpent] drank, they [the other animals] drank also of the same ; now, after it had become venomous, by reason of God’s curse, all beasts fled from its abode, and would not drink of the water it drank” (Chapter 18).
So, the unicorn and the virgin could remind the viewers of their salvation by Christ and the special role that his mother had in that salvation.
In this article, I present an interpretation of the Bible that was widespread in Medieval Europe. I am not myself suggesting that either interpretation is appropriate for us today. I am a student, not a preacher.
You can find an index to all my stories of hunting unicorns, “The Joys of Chasing Unicorns,” here.
The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan – here
Modesty in Apparel Becoming to Women (Tertullian) – here
Woman, church and state: a historical account of the status of woman through the Christian ages: with reminiscences of the matriarchate (Matilda Joslyn Gage) – here
“Eve” (Wikipedia) – here
Gender and Holiness: Men, women and saints in late medieval Europe (edited by Samantha J. E. Riches
and Sarah Salih).