A conjuring trick gone horribly wrong unleashed a mythical beast
Prague legends include many mystical animals, including a unicorn. While the story is a bit vague, this majestic creature is more than welcome next to the city’s mermaid, werewolf, talking horse, house sprites, demonic rabbit, possessed dogs and cats, and ghostly goat and turkey.
The unicorn was the result of a magic trick performed by two once-famous but now completely forgotten spiritualists. The only mention of them one is likely to find these days is in relation to their ill-fated work in conjuring up a unicorn.
Most magicians at the time put on an air of mysticism, but acknowledged that their illusions were due to sleight of hand and prestidigitation.
Jeroným Bouše, however, claimed his apparitions were real, and his fame spread across Europe, and his tricks, if indeed they were tricks and not real magic, could not be replicated by his rivals. He worked closely with the Prague medium and fortune teller Alžběta Rákosníková, channeling her energy to make more and more impressive animals and spirit apparitions.
The act that was to cap his career took place in a salon room near Biskupská Street and Na Poříčí, but the exact address is not known.
After the lights were dimmed, and smoke and incense filled the room, the Great Bouše called into parallel realms and the spirit world to bring forth a live unicorn, the likes of which had not been seen in Europe since the times of fables.
Madame Alžběta Rákosníková sat at his side, with her eyes closed, concentrating on the vision. The small invited audience was asked to concentrate as well.
After much sweating and mental straining, hoof steps could be heard. A minute or two later, a full-sized white unicorn with a perfectly tapered horn appeared. But the unicorn was wild, as it had not been caught by the proper method, which includes taming it with a virgin. There were many things one could call Madame Alžběta Rákosníková, but virgin was not one of them.
The unicorn railed at the thought of being trapped in a room, far from its mystical forest paradise. It ran its horn straight through Madame Rákosníková and stomped on the Great Bouše. The rest of the crowd fled in terror, screaming in the streets.
With the door open, the unicorn ran out and stopped for a while at the yard at the Church of St. Peter at Na Poříčí, the closest open field. There it grazed for a while, but snarled at anyone who dared approach. People, fearing for their safety, left to get the suitable authorities. When they returned it was gone.
It has been seen near the church a few times since then, but very sporadically and not at all recently.
Both Madame Rákosníková and the Great Bouše died of their wounds. And with them, the secret of conjuring a unicorn died as well.
Aside from this lone tale, nothing is known of either Madame Alžběta Rákosníková or the Great Jeroným Bouše, which tends to put this charming story into the category of more likely entirely fiction than partly fact.
The tale, though, helps to bridge the era of alchemy into the more modern age of spiritualism. The existence of unicorns was taken as fact in the middle ages and Renaissance, and examples of unicorn horns can be found in several history museums. They are often rhino or narwhal horns, and they were thought to have vast healing powers. Antique pharmacy collections often contain a ceramic or glass jar labeled to hold unicorn horns.
Many sagas and chivalrous tales recount efforts to lure unicorns, usually involving using a virgin for bait as unicorns are a symbol of purity.
Prague was not only a center of alchemy in the times of Charles IV and Rudolf II, but also a center for spiritualism in the 19th and 20th centuries, with many members of the artistic crowd including Ema Destinnová attending seances. Mysticism was popular right through World War II, with both fortunetellers like Madame de Thebes and other practitioners of esoteric arts like Pierre de Lasenic.
Prague has several houses named after unicorns, with three on Old Town Square, including The House at the Unicorn, also called the House at the Stone Lamb, famed for its doorway filled with alchemical symbols. Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka met there. Nearby, the House at the Golden Unicorn, also called House at the White Horse, has an icon of the Virgin Mary on its facade but no unicorn. Composer Bedřich Smetana had a music school there. To add to the confusion, across the square there is the House at the White Unicorn, now an art gallery.
On the other side of the river in Kampa you can find the House at the White and Golden Unicorn, where both Mozart and Beethoven stayed briefly, but not at the same time. A hotel used to be there called At the Golden Unicorn, but over the years the name evolved, perhaps to differentiate it.
More recently, a modern sculpture of a unicorn was installed at Kasárna Karlín, a former barracks that has become a counterculture arts center.