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
The translators of the Authorized King James Version of
the Bible (1611) followed the Greek Septuagint (monokeros) and
the Latin Vulgate
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".
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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.”