When creating the image above for my daughter, I felt inspired to write about unicorn history, folklore and legends. To do so I had to do a lot of research. I found that the myth of the unicorn is very old and that this wondrous creature have been described with many different appearances. The more I found the more I wanted to figure out, how the unicorn as we know it, ended up looking as it does.
The Antiquity Depiction
In the Indus Valley Civilization (a bronze age civilization in the Northwestern region of South Asia) a number of seals were found that depicted a creature that could be interpreted as a unicorn. However, some speculate that it could be a depiction of the Aurochs, a type of wild cattle that inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa. The confusion is that the creature is always shown in profile which makes it possible that the creature depicted on the seals could have two horns instead of one because the profile hides the other horn.
The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about unicorns in an encyclopedia called Historia Naturalis. He described them as a wild Indian beast called Monoceros. It had a stag’s head, elephant’s feet and a boar’s tail. The rest of the body was that of a horse. It has a 3 feet, 9 meters, long black horn protruding from the middle of its forehead and makes a deep lowing noise. According to Pliny the Elder, the Indians hunted this animal and it couldn’t be taken alive.
300 years later the Greek physician and historian Ctesias depicted the unicorn in his natural history book called Indika (Oh India). He described them as “wild asses, fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half (700 mm, 28 inches) in length, and colored white, red and black. Ctesias obtained the information while living in Persia. The Persians told him about a large single-horned beast that came from India.
A merchant of Alexandria who lived in the 6th century, named Cosmas Indicopleustes, wrote a work on cosmography after he made a voyage to India. His description of the unicorn is based on four brass figures that were in the palace of the King of Ethiopia. He states that all its powers lies in its horn and that “when it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it trows itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.”
The Middle Ages and the Renaissance
I my research of the unicorn I have come across several pages that states that the knowledge of the unicorn in the middle ages stems from biblical verses, but I have honestly had a hard time making heads or tails of it.
From what I can gather, there are stories about the possibility to trap a unicorn by using a virgin or maiden as bait, because the would come to her and lie its head in her lab and fall asleep. The virgin or maiden should represent Virgin Mary and the image should stand for incarnation. Apparently this story justified the appearance of the unicorn in every form of religious art.
Some interpretation focuses on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, while others interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. I all cases the myth refers to a creature with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin, that some has interpreted as an allegory for Christ’s relationship with Virgin Mary.
Apparently they have been described looking like wild asses, goats or horses.
Around the year 1300 Marco Polo described the unicorn as smaller than an elephant with hair like a buffalo and feet like an elephant, a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead and a head like a wild boar that spend their time wallowing in mud and slime. According to Marco Polo they are ugly brutes and not as we describe them. However, Marco Polo was clearly describing a rhino.
I have struggled to find anything else, related to the middle ages and the Renaissance and the myths of unicorns, without luck.
The horn of a unicorn is called Alicorn. The Alicorn is thought to have magical powers as well as medicinal purposes. It was thought that the Alicorn could cure several diseases and that it had the power to detect and neutralize poisons. As late as 1741, false Alicorn powder was made and sold as “cures” for a huge variety of diseases. The false Alicorn powder was made from narwhals tusk or horns of other animals.
In 1638 the Danish physician Ole Worn determined that the alleged Alicorn actually was that tusks of narwhals. That did however, not stop the legend that the Danish Throne chair, that were made in 1671, was made from Alicorn.
Modern day unicorns
I’m sure we all know that unicorns are a beautiful horse like creature with a horn in the middle of its forehead. It is usually portrayed as white, but there have been many depictions, where it have been given other colors too. Among the more popular are the white unicorn with rainbow mane and tail, not unlike the one I have drawn on the image at the top.
It is one of the purest creatures and it is very rare. It possesses the purest magic you can imagine and would never harm anyone.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle is a story about a unicorn who believes that she is the last unicorn in the world, and follows her quest to discover what have happened to the others. I have not read this story myself, but it is differently on my reading list.
In Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stones a unicorn was killed by Lord Voldemort to keep him alive in his weakened state. The blood is a thick silvery substance, and though it has the ability to keep a person alive, it will only be a half live, a cursed live.
Are unicorns real
I believe that all myths come from truth. However, when a story is told over and over again, it will change a little each time it is told. We can’t be sure that there have never been a creature like we describe the unicorn today just as we can’t be sure that there have.
If we look at the word unicorn, it comes from the Latin word unicornis which literally means one-horned and with that in mind, I would say that unicorns are real, given that there are animals today that only have one horn. A rose by any other name…