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A popular fantasy creature

Coat of arms of Gachnang, Thurgau, Schweiz
Unicorns are popular in heraldry all over Europe. This one is from a Swiss municipality
The best use for a unicorn's horn is to adorn a unicorn. [Author Unknown]

Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. [Ctesias, Greek physician and historian at the Persian court, late 5th century BCE]

The unicorn legend is different from most superstitions in that it has lasted longer and has been shared by the most enlightened minds of all nations. [Andrea Bacci, botanist and physician]

A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn. [Tibetan Proverb]

A most interesting thing is how credulous good people are. The unicorn speaks of human ignorance and folly intertwined. It is a long history.

Take a small horse, donkey or a goat and glue a gilded horn in the forehead of it, and you get a unicorn, more or less - in the ways the unicorn has been portrayed in art for many, many centuries.

Before you dismiss the whole idea of the unicorn, also take into account the rhinoceros - a contender along with the horse, goat and donkey with fake horns. A rhino is one-horned - sort of - but woe to the virgin that gets an Indian rhino in her lap; it is the fifth largest land animal, 2,200 kg in average, and second in size only to the Asian elephant.

There are five extant species of the rhinoceros. Three of them are native to Southern Asia. The Indian and Javan rhinoceros have a single horn, while the other three species have two horns. The rhino "horn" is made of keratin, a tough protein that human fingernails and toenails are made too.

[Wikipedia, "Indian rhinoceros"]

From the Unicorn Legends

The unicorn is a fantasy animal with a large, pointed, spiralling horn projecting from its forehead. Spiralling narwhal teeth have been taken for and traded as unicorn horns. Spiralling teeth were among the treasures of the British monarchy too. The most famous of all British unicorn horns was the great "Horn of Windsor". This horn was picked up on an island in Frobisher's Strait, and

we are told that when it reached England it was "reserved as a jewell by the Queen's Majesty's commandment, in her wardrobe of robes." . . .

The cost of "true unicorn's horn" (verum cornu monocerotis) in its best period was a little over ten times its weight in gold when sold in small pieces or in powder, but whole alicorns [unicorn horns used as medical ingredients] sometimes brought twice as much as this. (Shepard, 1990, 113-14)

The unicorn horn used to be coveted and treasured in many courts in Europe. What triggered the fantasies about unicorns to make them, in the long run, focusing symbols (emblem) of human fancies? There was much learning about the unicorn in Medieval times: it was later shown that such learning was of little worth. But the sources of the unicorn conjectures or fancies or cited mistakes go much further back in time:

The unicorn - or a bull in profile - was depicted in ancient seals of the Indus Valley Civilization, and it was mentioned by the various writers of antiquity, including Pliny the Younger.

In European folklore, the unicorn is often depicted as a white horse-like or goat-like animal with a long horn and cloven hooves (sometimes a goat's beard). In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin. Its horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water drinkable and to heal illness. In medieval and Renaissance times, the horn of the narwhal was sometimes sold as unicorn horn.

Greek writers of natural history were convinced that the unicorn was real, and lived in India. There are many alternatives:

  • Ctesias in his book "On India", described them as wild donkeys, fleet of foot, having a horn 27 inches long, and colored white, red and black.
  • Aristotle mentions two one-horned animals, the oryx (a kind of antelope) and the so-called "Indian donkey".
  • Strabo says that in the Caucasus there were one-horned horses with stag-like heads.
  • Pliny the Elder mentions the oryx and an Indian ox (perhaps a rhinoceros) as one-horned beasts, and also "a very fierce animal called the monoceros which had the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length."
  • In On the Nature of Animals Aelian, quoting Ctesias, adds that India produces also a one-horned horse (iii. 41; iv. 52), and says (xvi. 20) that the monoceros was sometimes called cartazonos, which may be a form of the Arabic karkadann, meaning "rhinoceros".
  • Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant of Alexandria who lived in the 500s CE, has described a unicorn based on four brass figures in the palace of the King of Ethiopia. He states, from report, that "it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws 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."
  • A one-horned animal (or a bull in profile) is found on some seals from the Indus Valley Civilization.
  • Medieval knowledge of the fabulous beast stemmed from biblical and ancient sources, and the creature was variously represented as a kind of wild donkey, goat, or horse.
  • The unicorn also figured in courtly terms: for some French authors in the 1200s, such as Thibaut of Champagne and Richard de Fournival, the lover is attracted to his lady as the unicorn is to the virgin.
  • With the rise of humanism, the unicorn became an emblem of chaste love and faithful marriage.
  • The Throne Chair of Denmark is made of "unicorn horns" almost certainly narwhal tusks.

The unicorn, tamable only by a virgin woman, was well established in medieval lore by the time Marco Polo described them as "scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead ... They have a head like a wild boar's They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions." It is clear that Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros.

The horn itself and the substance it was made of was called alicorn, and it was believed that the horn had magical and medicinal properties. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and detect poisons, and many physicians would make "cures" and sell them. Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory. Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages and were often tusks of narwhals.

One traditional method of hunting unicorns involved entrapment by a virgin.

In one of his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci writes: "The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it."

Shakespeare scholars describe unicorns being captured by a hunter standing in front of a tree, the unicorn goaded into charging; the hunter would step aside the last moment and the unicorn would embed its horn deeply into the tree.

In heraldry, a unicorn is often depicted as a horse with a goat's cloven hooves and beard, a lion's tail, and a slender, spiral horn on its forehead.

The Unicorn is known from the royal coats of arms of Scotland, and the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom: two unicorns support the Scottish arms; a lion and a unicorn support the Coat of arms of the United Kingdom.

[WP, "Unicorn"]

Ernst and Johanna Lehner about this one-horned animal

The unicorn appears in one form or another in most Western and Oriental mythologies. The name comes from the Latin unu, one, and cornu, horn.

In the belief of the early Christian Church, it was the symbol of virginity and the emblem of the power of love.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ground unicorn horn was a popular ingredient in European medicine and was used against pestilence and poison. Unicorn horns were put on the tables of rulers and church dignitaries because it was believed that the horns would sweat at the presence of poisoned food: These horns, which sold for a king's ransom in Europe, were in reality the tusks of the narwhale.

In antiquity, Ktesias [Ctesias] and Herodotus reported there were unicorns in Libya and Ethiopia. Far Eastern folklore is especially rich in one-horned animals; unicorns are found in the mythologies of Tibet, Tartary, Malaya, and the Himalayan region. The most prominent of all Oriental unicorns is the Chin-Lin, or Dragon-Horse, the king of all animals, one of the four fabulous creatures of Chinese mythology, and the symbol of good luck, longevity, grandeur, felicity and wise administration.

(Ernst and Johanna Lehner 2004, 153, extracts)

Prester John's Unicorn and More

Dr Joe Nigg (1995) informs that the earliest description we have of the unicorn is by Ctesias, the Greek physician at the Persian court. "In his book on the wonders of India, the unicorn had a white body, a dark red head, and blue eyes. Its horn, the length of a forearm, was white, black in the middle, and bright red on the tip. Four hundred years later, Pliny's unicorn was a horse-like creature with the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a swine, and a black horn three feet long."

Then there was Julius Caesar: in his chronicle of the Gallic Wars, he wrote that in the Hercynian Forest near the Rhine lived a stag-like creature that had a single long horn growing out of its forehead.

In medieval times, the wild ox (wisent, European bison) came to be identified with the unicorn too. In secular romances and legend, the unicorn figured in tales of three famous warriors: King Arthur, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great.

"The conqueror Genghis Khan was ready to invade India when a unicorn appeared before one of his commanders and told him that his leader should return to his own land. Years of bloodshed behind him, Genghis Khan relented, allowing India to be saved by a unicorn."

In a story related in the Letter of Prester John, a lion provokes the unicorn into chasing it toward a tree. At the last second, the lion swerves; the unicorn's horn drives deeply into the wood of the tree trunk, and the lion slays its trapped enemy. Later, in the Grimm Brothers' "Brave Little Tailor," the tailor captures a unicorn in a similar way by leaping behind a tree when the creature charges him.

The unicorn has charmed readers in scores of children's stories and poems and in fantasy novels. But centuries ago, people thought unicorns were real - after travellers had told stories of the unicorn for centuries, until the creature was thought to be real. Thus, in the mid-1800s, the Abbe Huc wrote, "The unicorn really exists in Thibet."

The unicorn was commonly reported seen in Africa too. There are many testimonies, and Dr Niggs presents some Portuguese ones, and also that "recent discoveries of artificial unicornisation seem to indicate that some of the accounts could have been true." What is unicornisation, then? The doctor says it thus:

In 1933, a Maine doctor, W. Franklin Dove, artificially created a unicorn . . . Maintaining that horns grew into, not out of the skull, Dr. Dove transplanted the horn buds of a day-old calf from the sides to the front of its skull, touching above the bone division. The horn buds grew together into a single horn, just as the doctor predicted they would.


Unicorns, unicorn lore, Literature  

Godfrey, Linda S., ed. Mythical Creatures. New York: Chelsea House, 2009. ⍽▢⍽ About the unicorn and the flying horse Pegasus, among others.

Lehner, Ernst and Johanna. Big Book of Dragons, Monsters, and Other Mythical Creatures. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004.

Nigg, Joe. Wonder Beasts: Tales and Lore of the Phoenix, the Griffin, the Unicorn, and the Dragon. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries, 1995. p 25-26, 30-32.

Shepard, Odell. The Lore of the Unicorn: Myths and Legends. London: Allen and Unwin, 1930. Reprint ed. London: Senate Books, 1996. Also online.

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