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What are Unicorns?
Since antiquity, the Unicorn (plural Unicorns) has been described as a creature with a single huge, pointed, spiralling horn emerging from its forehead. The unicorn appears in early Mesopotamian artworks and was also mentioned in Indian and Chinese tales. The historian Ctesias (about 400 BCE) described the Indian wild ass as being the size of a horse, with a white body, purple head, and blue eyes, and a cubit-long horn coloured red at the pointed tip, black in the middle, and white at the base. Those who drank from its horn were said to be immune to stomach problems, epilepsy, and poison.
When we think about mythical creatures, the unicorn is often a favourite that springs to mind. The image of a magnificent horse-like creature with a single horn atop its head has become a widely recognized figure and we have seen it used in both traditional heraldry as well as in modern pieces of artwork.
The unicorn has since become the epitome of fantasy and shares the same stage as dragons, elves, and fairies, but where does this mythical creature come from and how has it come to be such a celebrated figure?
The Origin of the Unicorn
It seems to first appear in Mesopotamian artwork (I refer to in myths across ancient China and India). Perhaps one of the earliest descriptions and subversive real-life observations comes from the Greek historian Ctesias in 400 BC who described the unicorn as having a white body with a purple head and its eyes were blue. He described it as being the size of a horse but that it had a horn on its forehead that was both red and black but white at the bottom.
Ctesias believed that the unicorn originated and inhabited the distant land of India—a land that would have seemed almost alien to the ancient Greeks. India may have seemed like a magical place to one such as Ctesias and likely the sort of place where creatures like a unicorn would have been found.
It’s possible that this notion of his stemmed from a time when he was said to have been living in Persia, given that ancient sculptures of unicorns have since been found from the same region.
Modern historians now discount Ctesias as observations of the unicorn though, and now believe he was likely seeing something more along the lines of a Rhinoceros.
Interestingly, this is the same for the Italian explorer Marco Polo, who claimed to have seen unicorns and described them as scarcely smaller than elephants.
He also remarked that unicorns were not the elegant, marvellous creatures that were depicted in art, but that they had feet like an elephant and the head of a wild boar. He also added that they spent most of their time in mud and slime and were ugly brutes to look at.
Many now agree that Marco Polo was indeed staring at a pack of rhinoceros.
Unicorn Appearance in the Bible
Some argue that the Unicorn even appears in the Bible known as the Re’em—an animal that is mentioned at various points throughout. However, in some translations, it also appears as a wild ox, and in either case, its presence is not essential to the stories it is mentioned in.
The Unicorn though has since become symbolic through traditional religious art where some believe that the unicorn itself is a metaphor for the Virgin Mary or that the Unicorn is a reincarnation of her. Others associate the purity of the unicorn with that of Jesus Christ.
Were Unicorns Real?
Unicorns were still considered to be real in the Middle Ages; though, no one had definitive proof of the creature. Its habitat was thought to be deep in the woods, and that it was an incredibly shy creature that did not make itself known intentionally.
To see a unicorn was to stumble upon it and so those who went searching after one usually ended up disappointed.
Can you see a Unicorn?
Unicorns would become symbols of purity and grace, and by this logic, some believe that the creature could only be seen by those of the same level of purity. This would mean that only those who were of high spiritual nature and entirely innocent, or often female virgins, would be able to encounter a unicorn, which would explain why hardly anyone saw them because they were all sinners.
Powers of the Unicorn
Interestingly, there exist accounts from the Middle Ages of Narwhal tusks being sold as unicorn horns by those who claim to have hunted the mythical creature and recovered its horn. The horn itself was highly sought after by many across Europe, but also in other cultures around the globe too.
The idea was at the horn of the unicorn contained mythical powers and that this horn was made from a magical material. It was also said that they could heal various ailments and diseases. Additionally, it was also thought to be able to purify water and remove poisons.
It was thought that some worlds would even use this material of the unicorn horn in ceremonial cups, to ensure that they could drink safely and not succumb to the effects of any poison.
The throne chair of Denmark (as above) was also thought to have been made from this same material, but it’s unlikely that anyone truly had the material of a unicorn’s horn and that instead, they owned Narwhal horns.
At the time, Europeans were likely ignorant of Narwhals, and most would never have seen such a horn before. For traders, passing them off as unicorn horns would have been a remarkably easy thing to do.
If those purchasing the horn would think themselves blessed at having a piece of the magical beast and maybe even subscribe to the theory that drinking from a unicorn’s horn could cure poisoning and aid with health.
Meanwhile, those selling the horn would make a pretty penny—in essence, you might say that ‘the hustle was real’ even in the Middle Ages.
As mentioned in previous descriptions of the unicorn by the ancients, unicorn horns could be long, short, or appear in various colours. Ctesias described them as being both red and black with white at the bottom, but after the Narwhal horns were introduced, it would set the standard of what a unicorn horn looked like and would shape how we would come to depict it later.
Others at the time though did not fall for such things, and while they still believed in unicorns, they didn’t believe the mythical creature could be caught by mortals and so dubbed the horns as fake. This would come from the idea that unicorns couldn’t be caught and that they would sooner throw themselves from mountains than allow themselves to be captured.
Other ideas see unicorns used their horn as a sort of magic cushion that absorbed the impact is sustained as it bounced down the side of said mountains until it reached the bottom, unharmed.
Unicorns and Virgin Women or Women in Distress
A more traditional idea of unicorns exists that while unicorns are defensive creatures who flee at the sight of man, they lower their guard and become susceptible to the sight of virgin women or women in distress.
Leonardo da Vinci once wrote that unicorns forget their ferocity and wildness and lay aside all fear of mankind and approach the damsel. He continues that the unicorn will lay head in her lap and may even sleep there.
Tales about these encounters exist in traditional artwork and tapestries but more insidious versions of these tales exist including women faking their distress to attract the unicorn only for hunters to emerge and capture the creature in this elaborate ruse.
Depiction of the Unicorn in England and Scotland
Unicorns also often show up in heraldry where the unicorn is depicted as a horse with cloven hooves, the lion’s tail, and a spiral horn.
What’s interesting is that the Unicorn may often be depicted as being chained by the neck, implying that it was sought after and prone to being captured. However, other depictions see the chain being broken, implying that while the Unicorn can be captured, it cannot be held onto and will always escape.
In Scotland, the Unicorn would become a renowned symbol most likely because the unicorn was the natural enemy of the lion. The English had already adopted the lion as their symbol, and so the use of unicorns would have been a statement of defiance by the Scots in a time when they were fighting to retain their sovereignty.
But by 1707, we would see the union between England and Scotland, and the royal arms of the United Kingdom were established—a symbol depicting both a lion for the English and a unicorn for the Scottish.
Interestingly, the two countries do not share the same symbol. Their respective symbols differ slightly, where the Scottish symbol flips the positioning of the lion to a unicorn and grants each animal a crown.
In the English version, only the lion wears the crown. Furthermore, the lion in the centre of the piece is coloured red, and both countries flags are detailed on the Scottish version of the symbol.
Unicorns in China — The Qilin/Gilin
Meanwhile, in ancient China, there existed many accounts of a creature known as the Qilin (Gilin). The Qilin is often considered to be the Chinese equivalent of the Unicorn, though, it appears to be more of an amalgamation of a deer and a lion with green scales and a single longhorn.
Like the unicorn, the Qilin is said to be graceful creatures; so graceful that they are thought to walk on water or clouds to avoid crushing blades of grass beneath their hooves and harming the ground.
The Qilin are indicators of whether someone is good or evil. Supposedly, they can look upon any one person and determine whether they are morally just.
Unlike unicorns though, the Qilin was never hunted for their horns and the horns do not seem to embody any magical essence.
Unicorns in Africa — The Abada
In African oral traditions, namely the Congo, there are said to be a unicorn-like creature known as the Abada. It is understood to be the size of a donkey and as the tail of a ball. However, it is said to have two horns—both of which like the unicorn, maintain supernatural properties that allow them to be used in curing illnesses and curing poison.
As mentioned in the case of Rhinoceros, unicorns may simply have been a misidentification by earlier civilizations. Some believed that the supposed unicorns were just antelopes that had lost one of their horns of the beam born of defects or simply having lost it in the wild. But it is far more likely that Rhinoceros are to be blamed for the creation of a unicorn, most likely the Indian Rhinoceros.
The ancient Greeks and Romans who travelled to India would often bring back tales of strange and foreign beasts that they had seen there and so it is not so hard to believe that a lot of these tales became exaggerated or lost in translation.
For me, I find it compelling that there existed a time where many believe that this mystical creature was lurking in the forest and that its horn was sought-after.
Nowadays, we often see unicorns characterized as gentle, marvellous creatures, that dance along with rainbows. We see this character representing the purest of innocence and often find them in children’s toys, cartoons, movies, video games, and as a side effect of insalubrious substance abuse.
Art Sources: Wikipedia 1, Wikipedia 2, Mahmoud Salah, Rudy Siswanto.