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.

An animal called the re’em (Hebrew:) 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.

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 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." It is noteworthy that this mode of escape is attributed, at the present day, to the Oryx, the Ibex, the musk ox and the Argali (Ovis Ammon).

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.

Alleged evidence

Among 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 Civilization

The first objects unearthed from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were small stone seals inscribed with elegant depictions of animals, including a unicorn-like figure in upper left, and marked with Indus script writing which still baffles scholars. These seals are dated back to 2500 B. C. Source: North Park University, Chicago, Illinois.(Image : A Harappa Seals.)

This seal is a close-up of the unicorn-like animal found in Mohenjo-daro, measures 29 mm (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.)

Elasmotherium or rhinoceros

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.

Single-horned goat

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.

The narwhal

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 (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

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.

The eland

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. 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 animals

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.”



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