A unicorn (from Latin unus 'one' and cornu 'horn') is a mythological creature. Though the modern popular image of the unicorn is sometimes that of a horse differing only in the horn on its forehead, the traditional unicorn also has a billy-goat beard, a lion's tail, and cloven hooves—these distinguish it from a horse. Marianna Mayer has observed (The Unicorn and the Lake), "The unicorn is the only fabulous beast that does not seem to have been conceived out of human fears. In even the earliest references he is fierce yet good, selfless yet solitary, but always mysteriously beautiful. He could be captured only by unfair means, and his single horn was said to neutralize poison."
An animal called the Re’em (רְאֵם) is mentioned in several places in the Hebrew Bible, often as a metaphor representing strength. "The allusions to the re'em as a wild, un-tamable animal of great strength and agility, with mighty horn or horns (, , , , comp. ), best fit the aurochs (Bos primigenius). This view is supported by the Assyrian rimu, which is often used as a metaphor of strength, and is depicted as a powerful, fierce, wild mountain bull with large horns. This animal was often depicted in ancient Mesopotamian art in profile, with only one horn visible. The translators of the Authorized King James Version of the Bible (1611) employed unicorn to translate re'em, providing a recognizable animal that was proverbial for its un-tamable nature.
Unicorns are not found in Greek mythology, but rather in accounts of natural history, for Greek writers of natural history were convinced of the reality of the unicorn, which they located in India, a distant and fabulous realm for them. The earliest description is from Ctesias who described them as wild asses, fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half in length and colored white, red and black. Aristotle must be following Ctesias when he mentions two one-horned animals, the oryx (a kind of antelope) and the so-called "Indian ass". 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, as well as "a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has 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 De natura animalium, 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 cartazonon, which may be a form of the Arabic karkadann, meaning "rhinoceros".
Though the qilin a creature in Chinese mythology, is sometimes called "the Chinese unicorn", it is a hybrid animal that looks less unicorn than chimera, with the body of a deer, the head of a lion, green scales and a long forwardly-curved horn. The Japanese version (kirin) more closely resembles the Western unicorn, even though it is based on the Chinese qilin. The Quẻ Ly of Vietnamese myth, similarly sometimes mistranslated "unicorn" is a symbol of wealth and prosperity that made its first appearance during the Duong Dynasty, about 600 CE, to Emperor Duong Cao To, after a military victory which resulted in his conquest of Tây Nguyên.
The predecessor of the medieval bestiary, compiled in Late Antiquity and known as Physiologus, popularized an elaborate allegory in which a unicorn, trapped by a maiden (representing the Virgin Mary), stood for the Incarnation. As soon as the unicorn sees her, it lays its head on her lap and falls asleep. This became a basic emblematic tag that underlies medieval notions of the unicorn, justifying its appearance in every form of religious art. The two major interpretations of the unicorn symbol hinge on pagan and Catholic symbolism. The pagan interpretation focuses on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas some Catholic writings interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. The unicorn has long been identified as a symbol of Christ by Catholic writers, allowing the traditionally pagan symbolism of the unicorn to become acceptable within religious doctrine. The original myths refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin maiden; subsequently, some Catholic scholars translated this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary. Interestingly enough, the collective term for a grouping of unicorns is "a blessing of unicorns".
The unicorn also figured in courtly terms: for some 13th century French authors 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 also acquired more orthodox secular meanings, emblematic of chaste love and faithful marriage. It plays this role in Petrarch's Triumph of Chastity.
The royal throne of Denmark was made of "unicorn horns". The same material was used for ceremonial cups because the unicorn's horn continued to be believed to neutralize poison, following classical authors.
The unicorn, tamable only by a virgin woman, was well established in medieval lore by the time Marco Polo described them as:
It is clear that Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros. In German, since the 16th century, Einhorn ("one-horn") has become a descriptor of the various species of rhinoceros.
The ancient Norwegians were said to believe the narwhal to have affirmed the existence of the unicorn. The unicorn horn was believed to stem from the narwhal tooth, which grows outward and projects from its upper jaw.
In popular belief, examined wittily and at length in the seventeenth century by Sir Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, unicorn horns could neutralize poisons. Therefore, people who feared poisoning sometimes drank from goblets made of "unicorn horn". Alleged aphrodisiac qualities and other purported medicinal virtues also drove up the cost of "unicorn" products such as milk, hide, and offal. Unicorns were also said to be able to determine whether or not a woman was a virgin; in some tales, they could only be mounted by virgins.
One traditional method of hunting unicorns involved entrapment by a virgin.
In one of his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote:
The famous late Gothic series of seven tapestry hangings, The Hunt of the Unicorn are a high point in European tapestry manufacture, combining both secular and religious themes. The tapestries now hang in the Cloisters division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In the series, richly dressed noblemen, accompanied by huntsmen and hounds, pursue a unicorn against mille-fleur backgrounds or settings of buildings and gardens. They bring the animal to bay with the help of a maiden who traps it with her charms, appear to kill it, and bring it back to a castle; in the last and most famous panel, "The Unicorn in Captivity," the unicorn is shown alive again and happy, chained to a pomegranate tree surrounded by a fence, in a field of flowers. Scholars conjecture that the red stains on its flanks are not blood but rather the juice from pomegranates, which were a symbol of fertility. However, the true meaning of the mysterious resurrected Unicorn in the last panel is unclear. The series was woven about 1500 in the Low Countries, probably Brussels or Liège, for an unknown patron. A set of six engravings on the same theme, treated rather differently, were engraved by the French artist Jean Duvet in the 1540s.
Another famous set of six tapestries of Dame à la licorne ("Lady with the unicorn") in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, were also woven in the Southern Netherlands before 1500, and show the five senses (the gateways to temptation) and finally Love ("A mon seul desir" the legend reads), with unicorns featured in each piece.
In heraldry, a unicorn is depicted as a horse with a goat's cloven hooves and beard, a lion's tail, and a slender, spiral horn on its forehead. Whether because it was an emblem of the Incarnation or of the fearsome animal passions of raw nature, the unicorn was not widely used in early heraldry, but became popular from the 15th century. Though sometimes shown collared, which may perhaps be taken in some cases as an indication that it has been tamed or tempered, it is more usually shown collared with a broken chain attached, showing that it has broken free from its bondage and cannot be taken again.
It is probably best known from the royal coat of arms of Scotland and the United Kingdom: two unicorns support the Scottish arms; a lion and a unicorn support the UK arms. The arms of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in London has two golden unicorn supporters (although, as emblazoned on its homepage, they have horses', not lions', tails).
Among numerous finds of prehistoric bones found at Einhornhöhle (Unicorn Cave) in Germany's Harz Mountains, some were selected and reconstructed by the mayor of Magdeburg, Otto Von Guericke, as a unicorn in 1663 (illustration, right). Guericke's so-called unicorn had only two legs, and was constructed from fossil bones of a Woolly rhinoceros and a mammoth, with the horn of a narwhal. The skeleton was examined by Gottfried Leibniz, who had previously doubted the existence of the unicorn, but was convinced by it.
Baron Georges Cuvier maintained that as the unicorn was cloven-hoofed it must therefore have a cloven skull (making the growth of a single horn impossible); to disprove this, Dr. W. Franklin Dove, a University of Maine professor, artificially fused the horn buds of a calf together, creating a one-horned bull.
Since the rhinoceros is the only known extant land animal to possess a single horn, it has often been supposed that the unicorn legend originated from encounters between Europeans and rhinoceroses. The Woolly Rhinoceros would have been quite familiar to ice age people, or the legend may have been based on the rhinoceroses of Africa. Europeans and West Asians have visited Sub-Saharan Africa for as long as we have records.
This seal is a close-up of the unicorn-like animal found in Mohenjo-daro, measures 29mm (1.14 inches) on each side and is made of heated Steatite. "Steatite is an easily carved soft stone that becomes hard after firing. On the top are four pictographs of an as yet undeciphered Indus script, one of the first writing systems in history." Image source Dept. of Archaeology and Museums, Govt. of Pakistan.(Image : A Harappa Unicorn.)
One suggestion is that the unicorn is based on the extinct animal Elasmotherium, a huge Eurasian rhinoceros native to the steppes, south of the range of the woolly rhinoceros of Ice Age Europe. Elasmotherium looked little like a horse, but it had a large single horn in its forehead. It became extinct about the same time as the rest of the glacial age megafauna.
However, according to the Nordisk familjebok (Nordic Familybook) and science writer Willy Ley the animal may have survived long enough to be remembered in the legends of the Evenk people of Russia as a huge black bull with a single horn in the forehead.
In support of this claim, it has been noted that the 13th century traveller Marco Polo claimed to have seen a unicorn in Java, but his description makes it clear to the modern reader that he actually saw a Javan Rhinoceros. Perhaps additional supporting evidence can be found in the fact that a rhinoceros' horn reacts with alkaloids by turning a different color. A majority of the medieval poisons were made from alkaloids, which coincides with the myth that unicorn horns change color when a poison is placed within them.
In the domestic goat, a rare deformity of the generative tissues can cause the horns to be joined together; such an animal could be another possible inspiration for the legend. Antiquities researcher Timothy Zell also produced artificial unicorns dubbed "the Living Unicorn", remodelling the "horn buds" of goat kids in such a way that their horns grew together into a single one. Zell theorized that this process might have been used in the past to create court curiosities and natural herd leaders, because the goat was able to use this long straight horn effectively as a weapon and a tool. Medieval art often depicts unicorns as small, with cloven hooves and beards, sometimes resembling goats more than horses with horns. This process is possible only with animals that naturally have horns. For a time, a few of these unicorns travelled with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
The unicorn horns often found in cabinets of curiosities and other contexts in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, were very often examples of the distinctive straight spiral single tusk of the narwhal whale (Monodon monoceros), an Arctic cetacean, as Danish zoologist Ole Worm established in 1638. They were brought south as a very valuable trade, and sold as horns from the legendary unicorn; being of ivory, they passed the various tests intended to spot fake unicorn horns. As these 'horns' were considered to have magic powers, Vikings and other northern traders were able to sell them for many times their weight in gold. Elizabeth I of England kept a "unicorn horn" in her cabinet of curiosities, brought back by Arctic explorer Martin Frobisher on his return from Labrador in 1577. The usual depiction of the spiral unicorn horn in art, derives from these. The truth of the tusk's origin developed gradually during the Age of Exploration, as explorers and naturalists began to visit regions themselves. In 1555, Olaus Magnus published a drawing of a fish-like creature with a "horn" on its forehead.
The oryx is an antelope with two long, thin horns projecting from its forehead. Some have suggested that seen from the side and from a distance, the oryx looks something like a horse with a single horn (although the 'horn' projects backward, not forward as in the classic unicorn). Conceivably, travellers in Arabia could have derived the tale of the unicorn from these animals. However, classical authors seem to distinguish clearly between oryxes and unicorns. The Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, published in 1486, was the first printed illustrated travel-book, describing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and thence to Egypt by way of Mount Sinai. It featured many large woodcuts by Erhard Reuwich, who went on the trip, mostly detailed and accurate views of cities. The book also contained pictures of animals seen on the journey, including a crocodile, camel, and unicorn - presumably an oryx, which they could easily have seen on their route.
In Southern Africa the eland has somewhat mystical or spiritual connotations, perhaps at least partly because this very large antelope will defend itself against lions, and is able to kill these fearsome predators. Eland are very frequently depicted in the rock art of the region, which implies that they were viewed as having a strong connection to the other world, and in several languages the word for eland and for dance is the same; significant because shamans used dance as their means of drawing power from the other world. Eland fat was used when mixing the pigments for these pictographs, and in the preparation of many medicines.
This special regard for the eland may well have been picked up by early travellers. In the area of Cape Town one horned eland are known to occur naturally, perhaps as the result of a recessive gene, and were noted in the diary of an early governor of the Cape. There is also a purported unicorn horn in the castle of the chief of the Clan MacLeod in Scotland, which has been identified as that of an eland.
This unicorn found in Prato, Tuscany is one of the most concrete living evidence of the legendary unicorn: notice that roe deer have also cloven hooves, like traditional representations. Maybe there were in the past similar morphological anomalies like a single-horn deer or a different animal that has been seen from a certain distance.
According to Gilberto Tozzi, director of the Center of Natural Science in Prato, “this single-horn deer is conscious to its uniqueness and does not come out a lot, always hiding.”