Into the Wild of Words

Now for a brief journey into the wilds of word exploration, on the trail of a unicorn. Along this path are two very talented women artists.

The unicorn’s name is Hillingar.

Hillingar; sculpture: Sarah Minkiewicz; photo: Susan B. Young

This fantastic beast is a sculpture you can hold in your hand, the work of the greatly gifted Sarah Minkiewicz.

Sarah creates amazing equine (and equine-related) art; I’ve been very fortunate to have been given a number of pieces from her Zazzle store.

This post is meant to be about word exploration, but I must spend a little time on the unicorn himself. Hillingar is an incredible creature, most definitely not just a horse with a horn, nor even a horse with horn, cloven hooves, and a lion’s tail. No, this beast is very much his own creature. He is sinewy, powerful, fiery, somehow almost dragonish. Kudos, Sarah!

I got to hold this magnificent animal because my dear friend, Susan Bensema Young, was one of the fortunate few who possesses one of this limited edition. Sue, herself a very gifted artist, is a miniaturist who builds exquisite model horse tack. On her blog she wrote about receiving and unwrapping Hillingar.There you can see more views of this remarkable unicorn. You can also find posts on many things, including how she builds her tack, and a link to her website full of her own beautiful work. I hope you’ll explore some of these.

To return to the path of words. It was Sue who told me that Hillingar’s name is Icelandic and means “a mirage, a fata morgana.” I pondered the mirage part. It fits in the sense this unicorn might leave you wondering if you can believe your own eyes. But on the other hand, this sculpture is so vibrant, so vivid, so present, it does not seem like anything diaphanous or ephemeral.

But fata morgana startled me. I thought the phrase meant “Morgan le Fay.” Here I turned to one of my trusty guidebooks for adventures in word-tracking. Not exactly a pocket fieldguide – it’s Webster’s Unabridged (Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary Unabridged, to be precise). Webster’s led me true: indeed, fata morgana is defined as a mirage. Webster’s further illuminates the mystery, especially online: ‘Fata Morgana is the Italian name for Morgan le Fay (meaning “Morgan the Fairy”), a sorceress of medieval legends… sister of the legendary King Arthur…Among her powers, say some versions of the legend, was the ability to change shape, and she has been blamed for causing complex mirages over bodies of water, especially in the Strait of Messina. Today we know that such optical illusions are really caused by atmospheric conditions, but we still sometimes use “fata morgana” as a synonym of “mirage.”’

Aha! Revelation. (And this is particularly fitting as Sue has meteorological connections). This led me to wonder, as I have before, why Morgan le Fay translates as Fata Morgana in Italian. Trusty Webster’s to the rescue! It traces fay (meaning ‘a fairy; an elf’) as the word winds its way back in time: through Middle English, back to Old French, and ultimately to Latin: “fata, a fairy, fatum, fate.”

Wow. So Morgan le Fay (or Morgan le Fey) is distantly related to the Three Fates, at least etymologically. (I had wondered). And as Sue says of Hillingar, “What an amazing creature. The word that comes to me is fey.” Which brings us around full circle. And it makes perfect sense to me, that this unicorn connects to a being of powerful magic.

Thank you to both Sarah and Sue for allowing me a glimpse of this fantastic beast!

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