What’s a Cartazon, Anyway?

Tales from the Hook / Monday, January 28th, 2019
A sweet little unicorn from a kit by Simply Crochet magazine.

It’s a unicorn. That’s the short answer. If you want to know more, keep reading for a mix of personal history and ancient cryptozoology. I’ll try not to be too verbose!

Back in 2002, I was looking for a new handle to use on the Internet. A virtual identity with which to brand myself, primarily via a new online journal I wanted to start. (The word “weblog” was around then, but I don’t think anyone was using “blog” just yet…at least not with positive connotations.) But also for membership in whatever online communities I might take part in, and eventually my primary email address.

I wanted something that said something about who I was, and I particularly wanted something that was associated with unicorns, a totem I have associated with since time immemorial (or at least since I was a pre-teen). I knew that plain ol’ “Unicorn” wasn’t going to be available in most places, unless I appended some mix of letters and/or numbers to differentiate it, and that seemed both unwieldy and unattractive. So I turned to history for alternatives.

People have been writing about unicorns for millennia, though not always with that name attached. In fact, the word “unicorn” didn’t enter the lexicon until sometime in the Middle Ages, along with the bestiary version of the creature we’re most familiar with today. The word itself is based on a Latin translation of the Greek word monoceros (“one horned”), which was used to translate the the Old Testament Hebrew re’em, which probably meant a wild ox, and not a unicorn like we think of them today.

Though the field of Comparative Unicorn Studies can be fascinating, I’m going to try and keep it brief and just say that multiple ancient authors described fabulous one-horned beasts in their writings on natural history. These descriptions were largely based on older texts, travelers’ tales and foreign artwork, not personal observation, so there was a lot of variation in what they wrote, and the nomenclature they used. Along with Monoceros, creatures called Karkadan, Shādhavār, Qílín, Kirin and more have appeared in natural histories, folklore and legend around the world.
My favorite is Cartazon, and not just for the elegant sound of the name. Used by the 3rd century Roman author Aelian, the Cartazon is reported as a living in the wilds of India. I love the poetry of the creature he describes:

They say that there are mountains in the interior regions of India which are inaccessible to men and therefore full of wild beasts. Among these is the unicorn, which they call the ‘cartazon’. This animal is as large as a full-grown horse, and it has a mane, tawny hair, feet like those of the elephant, and the tail of a goat. It is exceedingly swift of foot. Between its brows there stands a single black horn, not smooth but with certain natural rings, and tapering to a very sharp point.

Of all animals, this one has the most dissonant voice. With beasts of other species that approach it the ‘cartazon’ is gentle, but it fights with those of its own kind, and not only do the males fight naturally among themselves but they contend even against the females and push the contest to the death. The animal has great strength of body, and it is armed besides with an unconquerable horn.

It seeks out the most deserted places and wanders there alone. In the season of rut it grows gentle towards the chosen female and they pasture side by side, but when this time is over he becomes wild again and wanders alone. They say that the young ones are sometimes taken to the king to be exhibited in contests on days of festival, because of their strength, but no one remembers the capture of a single specimen of mature age.”

Aelian, as quoted by Odell Shepherd in The Lore of the Unicorn.

The title of my very first online diary was drawn from this description, Inward Regions, Dissonant Voices. (I still like it–I may have to start using it again as a subtitle on Artifacts.) Cartazon became my handle at LiveJournal when I moved there, then at DeviantArt, at Flickr, Twitter, Instagram…basically anywhere I need to create an identity for myself as I traveled along the digital currents of the Internet. Even though I have changed, and the platforms have changed, my handle remains unique.

And I like it that way!

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