Beautiful white horses with an equally white horn in the middle of their foreheads. Creatures out of myth and legend. Benevolent, wise, pure. This is the modern idea of the unicorn, strengthened by many a fantasy film and novel. But what is the origin of the unicorn?

Seals from the Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300 BC) are, by some accounts, the earliest depiction of unicorns. This has been disputed, however, as some say they merely depict aurochs, a now extinct breed of wild cattle. The single horn could be explained simply by the fact that the animal is in profile. So it is undecided whether this depiction is accurate or not.

Among western literature, ancient Greek writings contain the earliest mention of unicorns, but not in tales, in writings on natural history. They believed unicorns were real creatures who lived in India. Ctesius, who wrote in 400BC, describes the unicorn has having a single horn of about 1 cubit long (around 44 centimetres), which was coloured red at the tip, black in the middle, and white at the base. It also had a white body, purple head, and blue eyes! Herodotus also talks about the unicorn, referring to it as a ‘horned ass’ and placing it in Libya. Pliny the Elder, in his ‘Natural History’, describes the ‘head of a stag, feet of an elephant, tail of a boar, and body of a horse’. Strabo placed the unicorns in the Caucasus, describing them as one-horned horses with stag-like heads.

Marco Polo travelled in Asia during the thirteenth century, and described the ‘unicorn’ with some disappointment:

and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big(as elephants). They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick. They do no mischief, however, with the horn, but with the tongue alone; for this is covered all over with long and strong prickles [and when savage with any one they crush him under their knees and then rasp him with their tongue]. The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud. ‘Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin; in fact, ’tis altogether different from what we fancied.

He is, of course, describing a rhinoceros. Many scholars consider that the rhinoceros is the real origin of the unicorn, with travellers’ tales exaggerating the reality into the more fantastical (and more attractive) unicorns. Polo’s report is of course quite funny looking back – I can almost hear him thinking ‘that’s not what it’s meant to look like!’

There are Asian legends about unicorns as well, and they are depicted somewhat differently. An early Chinese story involves the legendary sovereign and sage Fu Hsi, approximately 2900BC. He saw a unicorn wading through the river (the Chinese called them qilin or cheelin). It was described as having the shape of a deer, scales like a dragon, a horn coming from its forehead and signs and magic symbols on its back. Fu His wrote them down, and from them invented the Chinese written language. A Chinese unicorn reputedly had a voice like a thousand windchimes, a coat that radiated many colours, lived for a thousand years and could walk without disturbing the grass. It was considered a wise and kind creature and its appearance was a good omen. Some stories say that the philosopher Confucius was the last to see a unicorn. (It would be tempting to connect the Chinese stories involving the multi-coloured unicorn with the current pairing of unicorns and rainbows. However, it seems that is a modern pairing of no more than twenty years, which is a pity because it would be a good story.)

Recorded in a medieval biography of Chucai, an official in Mongol service, is a story that Genghis Khan had an encounter with a unicorn. The Unicorn bowed to him and spoke, saying he should ‘return early’. Chucai, who had the job of interpreting signs and portents, interpreted this as meaning Khan should not proceed with his invasion of India. They could have seen a rhinoceros, given the location. Chucai then embellished this story for his biography.  

The Greek bestiary ‘Physiologus’ seems to have been the earliest to speak of the unicorn in the way that became common in European folklore, that it was a symbol of purity and could only be captured by a virgin. The unicorn would come up to the virgin and lay its head in her lap, and fall asleep. Medieval writers made the unicorn a symbol of Christ, and the unicorn/virgin story was an allegory of the connection between Christ and the Virgin Mary.

The unicorn legends were often centred around its horn. The horn was supposed to have all sorts of magical powers. It could make bad water god to drink, it could cure illnesses, was an antidote to poison and so on. Consequently there was a huge market in the past for unicorn horn, somewhat difficult when there was no such thing. Enterprising merchants were not deterred by this however. Narwhal tusks were often sold as ‘unicorn’ horns. At the height of their popularity, a so-called unicorn horn could be worth ten times its weight in gold.

The unicorn was depicted in art during this period, most famously in two tapestry collections. The first is the Unicorn Tapestries, dated 1495-1505, and the second the Lady with the Unicorn Tapestries, circa 1500. The designers of these items are unknown. The unicorn also became popular in heraldry from the fifteenth century, turning up in coats of arms. It is often depicted with a goat’s cloven hooves, goats tail, and the horn is spiral in design. Depictions included the arms of John, King of Hungary, in the sixteenth century, the arms of Ramosch, in Switzerland, and the coat of arms of Nova Scotia.

Most famously, the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. It is depicted on the Royal arms of Queen Elizabeth II, though you will see differences in the arms used in Scotland or England.

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