The Myth of Killing
By Ned Gannon
The Cloisters Museum in New York City houses much of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection. On a hill north of the Washington Bridge, the museum’s location secludes it from visitors with a more tourist mindset. The museum’s collection is renowned, housed in an impressive amalgamation of church fragments from Europe. The Unicorn Tapestries remain one of the museum’s highlights and one of its most popular attractions. Not long ago, I had occasion to re-visit the museum and view the tapestries in person again. I had been to the museum and seen the tapestries in person at least a dozen times before. But this time something was different.
Here were multiple depictions of a mythical animal, trapped, hunted and killed. What was the meaning of these scenes, painstakingly designed and elaborately woven over five hundred years ago? According the Metropolitan Museum, the unicorn, as depicted in the tapestries, has several purported meanings. The captive unicorn that looks complacent or even happy may represent a captured beloved. The museum has less to say about the meaning of other scenes, one in which the unicorn is clearly, unwillingly cornered. Educated guesses are offered about religious meanings, based upon inscriptions woven into the scabbard of one of the hunters, but there is no conclusion as to what the scene means. Unicorn horns were believed to possess magical properties, so much so that Narwhal tusks were harvested and sold as unicorn horns. (http://www.metmuseum.org/search-results?ft=Unicorn+Tapestries&x=0&y=0) In a tapestry depicting two scenes combined, the unicorn is slain and brought to the castle. It is inferred by art historians that this symbolized the death of Christ.
Political events in my resident state of Wisconsin, as well as the tapestries had me ruminating on hunting and its presence or presentation in the history of western culture. My grandfather on my mother’s side hunted birds. He ate what he hunted, though from what I understand he didn’t pluck it. I never knew him, but in the basement was a painting of some ducks taking flight from a marsh. I always felt as though the painting was frozen a moment before a shot rings out and one of them falls from the air. But I don’t know that my grandfather would have viewed the image this way. He never displayed any trophies. Another image that emerged from my memory bank was “The Hunt by Night” by Paolo Uccello. And this evoked the poem by Derek Mahon written about Uccello’s work.
Stick figures, lithe game,
Swift flights of bison in a cave
Where man the maker killed to live;
But neolithic bush became
The midnight woods
Of nursery walls,
The ancient fears mutated
To play, horses to rocking-horses
Tamed and framed to courtly uses,
Crazed no more by foetid
But rampant to
The pageantry they share
And echoes of the hunting horn
At once peremptory and forlorn.
The mild herbaceous air
The glade aglow
With pleasant mysteries,
Diuretic depots, pungent prey;
And midnight hints at break of day
Where, among sombre trees,
The slim dogs go
Wild with suspense
Leaping to left and right,
Their cries receding to a point
Masked by obscurities of paint–
As if our hunt by night,
So very tense,
So long pursued,
In what dark cave begun
And not yet done, were not the great
Adventure we suppose but some elaborate
Spectacle put on for fun
And not for food.
The painting has always been a favorite of mine, not because I love to hunt. On the contrary, I will admit a distaste for it, despite having spent my most formative years in some of the biggest hunting states in the country. Uccello’s deep, dark, stylized space draws me into a world that is poised on the edge of the unknown. When I try to empathize with hunting or hunters, it is the unknown, the solitary quiet of the outdoors to which I can relate—a solitude I felt alone, for the most part, for two weeks on Isle Royale National Park.
The urge to hunt is buried deep in the human consciousness beyond the walls of Lascaux and the black unknown of Uccello’s woods, maybe too deep to be uprooted by scientific urgency. A primal urgency arises with the adrenaline of a kill. A recent National Geographic shows big cat numbers dropping beyond repair, even while places like Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy see men laying their lives on the line to protect the animals living there. White rhinos were brought from a Czech Republic zoo in an effort to prevent them from going extinct in the wild. One annual hunting season in Idaho, 2011-2012, killed nearly half of the wolf population nearly setting recovery efforts back to the turn-of-the-century.
I distinguish this kind of killing from hunting for food. Hunting is often tied to gun rights in this country, interpreted from the second amendment with all of the fundamentalist fervor of a pulpit-pounding literalist preacher insisting on the creation of the world in one hundred and sixty-eight hours. I don’t intend to demonize hunters, and I understand the arguments for deer population control and other similar rationales. I understand it is a way of life as much as it is a philosophy on life. In my own state, hunters harvested 347,711 white-tailed deer in the 2011 season (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources).
But trophy hunting will likely, short of a reversal epiphany on my part, always seem distasteful because of the hubris involved. In her book, The Pine Island Paradox, Kathleen Dean Moore offers a perspective, “If people are going to imprison dolphins and transmogrify the gall bladders of bears into fortifying elixirs, if they are going to scrape the bottom of the ocean bare and grind the hindquarters of black-tailed deer into patties, if they are going to reduce owl nesting sites to toilet paper and convince themselves that this is not a problem, then they will need to believe that humans have minds but other animals do not. But this is a matter of convenience, not truth.”
In her book The Hunter, Julia Leigh describes with dark, visceral energy a hunter on the trail of an animal long thought extinct, the Tasmanian tiger. As he draws nearer to success in his hunt, his thoughts grow closer and closer to the conceit that he will be the only one to possess this kill. That he is alone in his level of success and achievement.
In two weeks, I covered sixty-five miles on Isle Royale and reclaimed the sound of my own footsteps on grass and ground. I recalled what solitude is—a solitude that Soren Kierkegaard said one must know in order to know God. I crossed wolf scat, heard loons, and spied a moose cow and calf. I understand the exhilaration of fresh air from the woods rushing into my lungs. But claiming to value life and then to take it for sport is something that doesn’t calculate in my head. Standing in awe in front of the Unicorn Tapestries, I found myself believing them to be true. Not that I believed unicorns existed, but I believed that if they did exist we would surely kill them for sport. And to prove our superiority.