The unicorn is a legendary animal from European folklore that resembles a white horse with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead, and sometimes a goat's beard and cloven hooves. First mentioned by the ancient Greeks, it became the most important imaginary animal of the Middle Ages and Renaissance when it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin. In the encyclopedias its horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness. Until the 19th century, belief in unicorns was widespread among historians, alchemists, writers, poets, naturalists, physicians, and theologians. Of the Unicorn
Unicorns in antiquityEdit
Gilt statue of a unicorn on the Council House, BristolUnicorns 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 On the Nature of Animals (Περὶ Ζῴων Ἰδιότητος, 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 (Greek: μονόκερως) was sometimes called cartazonos (Greek: καρτάζωνος), which may be a form of the Arabic karkadann, meaning "rhinoceros".
Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant of Alexandria, who lived in the 6th century, and made a voyage to India, and subsequently wrote works on cosmography, gives a figure of the unicorn, not, as he says, from actual sight of it, but reproduced from four figures of it in brass contained 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."
The aurochsUnicorn mosaic on a 1213 church floor in RavennaAn animal called the re’em (Hebrew: 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 (Job xxxix. 9–12; Ps. xxii. 21, xxix. 6; Num. xxiii. 22, xxiv. 8; Deut. xxxiii. 17; comp. Ps. xcii. 11), 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) followed the Greek Septuagint (monokeros) and the Latin Vulgate (unicornis) and employed unicorn to translate re'em, providing a recognizable animal that was proverbial for its un-tamable nature. The American Standard Version translates this term "wild ox" in each case.
- "God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn."—Numbers 23:22
- "God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn."—Numbers 24:8
- "His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth."—Deuteronomy 33:17
- "Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?"—Job 39:9–12
- "Save me from the lion's mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns."—Psalms 22:21
- "He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn."—Psalms 29:6
- "But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil."—Psalms 92:10
- "And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness."—Isaiah 34:7
The classical Jewish understanding of bible did not identify the Re'em animal as the unicorn. Instead, the Tahash animal (Exodus 25, 26, 35, 36 and 39; Numbers 4; and Ezekiel 16:10) was thought to be a kosher unicorn with a coat of many colors that only existed in biblical times.
Though the qilin (Chinese: 麒麟), 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.
Middle Ages and RenaissanceEdit
Youths riding goats (a Dionysiac motif in antiquity) on 12th-century capitals from the abbey of Mozac in the Auvergne. The goats are indistinguishable from unicorns.Medal of Cecilia Gonzaga by Pisanello, 1447Wild Women with Unicorn, c. 1500–1510 (Basel Historical Museum)Medieval knowledge of the fabulous beast stemmed from biblical and ancient sources, and the creature was variously represented as a kind of wild ass, goat, or horse.
The predecessor of the medieval bestiary, compiled in Late Antiquity and known as Physiologus (Φυσιολόγος), 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. Interpretations of the unicorn myth focus on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas some religious writers interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. The myths refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; subsequently, some writers translated this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary.
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, and on the reverse of Piero della Francesca's portrait of Battista Strozzi, paired with that of her husband Federico da Montefeltro (painted c 1472-74), Bianca's triumphal car is drawn by a pair of unicorns.
The royal throne of Denmark was made of "unicorn horns" – almost certainly narwhal tusks. 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 "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. In German, since the 16th century, Einhorn ("one-horn") has become a descriptor of the various species of rhinoceros.
The horn itself and the substance it was made of was called alicorn, and it was believed that the horn holds magical and medicinal properties. The Danish physician Ole Worm determined in 1638 that the alleged alicorns were the tusks of narwhals.
False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to 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 really the tusks of narwhals. 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.
The hunt of the unicornEdit
Maiden with Unicorn, tapestry, 15th century (Musée de Cluny, Paris)The Unicorn Is Penned, Unicorn Tapestries, c. 1495–1505 (The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City)One traditional method of hunting unicorns involved entrapment by a virgin.
In one of his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote: 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. 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.
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 (See annotations of Timon of Athens, Act 4, scene 3, c. line 341: "wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury"
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 coats of arms of Scotland and the United Kingdom: two unicorns support the Scottish arms; a lion and a unicorn support the UK arms, representing the 1707 Union of England (whose traditional heraldic symbol is the lion) and Scotland. As a result of its heraldic use, two gold coins were issued in Scotland known as the unicorn and half-unicorn, both with a unicorn on the obverse. 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).
- Unicorn supporter of the arms of Scotland
- Arms of Saint-Lô, France
- Arms of Líšnice, Czech Republic
- Arms of Ramosch, Switzerland
- Royal coat of arms of Scotland. The two supporters are unicorns.
- Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, in the version for use outwith Scotland. The sinister supporter is a unicorn. The arms are a quartering of the arms of England, Scotland, and Ireland; the unicorn is taken from the Scottish arms (above). In Scotland, the positions are reversed and the unicorn bears a crown, as does the lion.
- Flag of Georgian Kingdom during the reign of King David IV of Georgia. It shows the red Cross and the Unicorn.
- Arms of Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany
- Arms of Giengen, Germany
- Arms of Eger, Hungary
- Airborne Units, Great Britain (actually a winged unicorn, with pegasus features)
Hunts for an actual animal as the basis of the unicorn myth, accepting the conception of writers in Antiquity that it really existed somewhere at the edge of the known earth, have added a further layer of mythologizing about the unicorn. These have taken various forms, interpreted in a scientific, rather than a wonder-filled manner, to accord with modern perceptions of reality.
Otto von Guericke's unicorn skeleton, exhibit near the Zoo, OsnabrückAmong numerous finds of prehistoric bones found at 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); as if to disprove this, Dr. W. Franklin Dove, a University of Maine professor, artificially fused the horn buds of a calf together, creating the external appearance of a one-horned bull.
Unicorn seals of the Indus Valley CivilizationEdit
Indus valley seals showing 'unicorns' (British Museum)The first objects unearthed from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, major sites of the Indus Valley Civilization, were small stone seals inscribed with elegant depictions of animals, including a unicorn-like figure, and marked with Indus script writing which still baffles scholars. These seals are dated back to 2500 B.C.
These figures have also been interpreted as aurochs, the extinct ancestor of domestic cattle, a type of large wild cattle which inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa, or derivatives of aurochs. It is suggested that as the animal is always shown in profile, only one of the two horns is seen.
Elasmotherium or rhinocerosEdit
The elasmotheriumOne 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.
The connection that is sometimes made with a single-horned goat derives from the vision of Daniel: And as I was considering, behold, a he-goat came from the west over the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground: and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes. (Daniel 8:5) 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.
Male narwhalThe 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 (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 oryxThe 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.
The elandIn 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. There is 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.
Genetic disorders of horned animalsEdit
A new possibility for the inspiration of the unicorn came in 2008 with the discovery of a roe deer in Italy with a single horn. Single-horned deer are not uncommon; however, the placement of the horn in the middle is very unusual. Fulvio Fraticelli, scientific director of Rome's zoo, has said "Generally, the horn is on one side (of the head) rather than being at the center. This looks like a complex case." Fraticelli also acknowledges that the placement of the horn could have been the result of some type of trauma in the life of the deer.
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.”