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Why Is There a Unicorn on the British Pound Coin?

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Royal Mint

Ask anyone in the world what images you'd find on the average British coin and most people would give you the same response: the Queen's head. Other correct (though less obvious) answers might include a thistle, a portcullis, and a representation of the Roman goddess Britannia. But one answer you probably wouldn't expect to hear is "a unicorn". So how do you explain this?

Image: Royal Mint

Britain isn't widely considered the most whimsical nation in the world, so how did a unicorn—one of folklore's most whimsical creatures—end up on its currency?

The answer is a tale of political and cultural deference with origins so far in the past that at a certain point they can only be explained through mythology, legend and speculation. It's a bit like trying to build a Zelda chronology, only with much less helpful Wikipedia pages.

Before you check your pockets, we should point out that there isn't a unicorn on every pound coin—only those minted in 1983, 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008. These coins, still in circulation today, all use a reverse design which depicts the Royal Coat of Arms in full: a Royal Shield of Arms along with its motto (Dieu et mon droit) and two heraldic supporters: a lion on one side and a unicorn on the other. Like this:

Image: Royal Mint

So that's where you can find a unicorn. But that doesn't explain why it's there in the first place.

As with many things about modern Britain, you could blame the Victorians. The coat of arms found on pound coins was officially adopted by Queen Victoria in 1837 and, in respect to Britain's most beloved and (thus far) longest-reigning monarch, it has remained in use ever since.

But she'd probably not be amused if we held her solely responsible, because the unicorn was already part of the Royal Arms when she assumed them. Before her reign, only the shield of arms changed from one monarch to the next. The heraldic supporters remained the same.

In fact, the first version of the arms that incorporated a lion and unicorn flanking the shield was created over 200 years before Queen Victoria was even born.

In 1603, a quirk of birthright meant that King James VI of Scotland inherited the thrones of England/Wales and Ireland from his cousin twice-removed, Elizabeth I. He became the first monarch to rule the three British kingdoms simultaneously, and to reflect the "Union of Crowns", the arms of the new King James I (of England) incorporated a unicorn facing the lion, replacing the Tudor's Welsh red dragon.

Sodacan (Creative Commons licence)

(As a head-scratching aside, although the crowns were said to have been unified, they were—politically speaking—two separate crowns held by one person. It wasn't until an act of Parliament officially united the two countries in 1707 that the English arms came to represent all of Britain, and Scotland still has its own special version with the lion and unicorn positions reversed.)

Tracing the history back even further, it was James IV of Scotland who definitively introduced the unicorn into Scotland's arms in the late 1400s, but the official origins of the association are lost to history. The first recorded example of the unicorn in the Scottish monarch's heraldry actually comes from the latter half of the 1300s, when the arms of Robert II (or possibly Robert III) were incorporated into a gateway at Rothesay Castle, including a pair of unicorn supporters.

Image: Wikimedia (Creative Commons licence)

In any case, the reason there's a unicorn on the pound coin is because—for the last 700 years, at least—the unicorn has been used in heraldry to represent Scotland. It's a revelation that arguably raises more questions than it answers.

After all, the Scottish national character doesn't traditionally lend itself to that level of kitsch. But let's be fair to the unicorn: it only seems that way because you're looking at unicorns through modern eyes. Far from being the magical and flamboyant creatures they're currently seen as, for most of history the unicorn was believed to be an extremely aggressive and fierce animal, one more than worthy of representing a warrior nation like Scotland.

For proof, you need only note that the royal arms typically depict the unicorn as chained, with a crown around its neck. A free unicorn was considered incredibly dangerous, and while the chains are occasionally interpreted as representing the fealty and subservience of Scotland to England, they actually appeared prior to the Union of Crowns. What they actually represent is the strength of the Scottish monarchy, that it could tame a beast which, famously, would rather die than be captured (for how else would you explain the lack of domesticated unicorns?).

And if all that hasn't convinced you that it makes perfect sense to have a fictional animal adorn money, just think of it as something of a tradition. England's flag commemorates a Turkish saint who plainly couldn't have done the thing he's most famous for, Wales' flag depicts the non-existent animal he definitely could not have killed, and the greatest King of Britain—King Arthur—probably didn't exist at all. If anything, a better question is how anything sensible ended up on the coins at all.

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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?
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Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from “paraskavedekatriaphobia,” a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki. According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Street addresses sometimes skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. (One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.)

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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