The Unicorn is a legendary animal, one might say mythical but for the numerous historical accounts of its existence and description. Cave drawings in Lascaux, France depict a horse-like animal with a single straight horn that archeologists have playfully named "the unicorn." Aboriginal paintings found in South Africa and South America are said to be those of unicorns, since they look like no other animal. In 1977, a South American scientist was recorded as stating he believed unicorns to be one of South America's "lost" species, hunted out of existence in pre-history. Still, due to lack of fossil records and other hard-core evidence, most scientists believe the unicorn has never existed.
The modern-day unicorn is depicted as a white horse with a long spiraled golden or white horn coming from its forehead. This has not always been so. In medieval times, the unicorn was considered to be the size of a donkey or goat. It was white, but had the head of a deer, the body of a horse, the tail of a lion, the beard of a goat and cloven hooves. It was a symbol of purity and faithfulness and was thought to be untamable, very fast and strong. In folklore, unicorns could only be captured by virgins. If the maiden they approached was merely pretending to be a virgin, the unicorn would kill her.
The famous traveler, Marco Polo, agreed the unicorn was only tamable by maidens, but when he wrote about the unicorn he'd been shown, he described it like this: "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 wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at." It has since been realized Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros.
Marco Polo is not the only famous person to have "encountered" a unicorn. Alexander the Great boasted he had ridden a unicorn into battle, and Julius Caesar reported seeing a unicorn in the forests of Germany. A unicorn appeared to Confucius's mother, heralding the great Chinese philosopher's birth. It later appeared to Confucius, foretelling his death. A unicorn was supposed to live in the garden of Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor. He believed it meant his reign would be long and peaceful. In China the unicorn is seen as a good omen and will only appear to humans if it has important information. If the world is suffering difficult times, the unicorn will disappear. The Chinese unicorn is called Kilin and takes on many different forms. The most familiar has a deer's body, an ox's tail and a horse's hooves. The singular horn is short and its coat is red, yellow, blue, white and black. Sometimes the kilin is covered with green scales.
Herodotus wrote about the "horned ass" of Africa in the 3rd century BC and around the same time, Ctesias, who was a Greek physician and historian, traveled to Persia where he heard tales of "the wild ass of India." This creature was supposed to as be as large as a horse with a white body, red head, blue eyes and a long white, black and red horn. It was tales of the horn – the alicorn as it is known – that intrigued Ctesis. As a physician, the idea of an object that cured ills, prolonged life and protected a person from all poisons was remarkable. Aristotle heard of Ctesis's stories, and although he believed the unicorn to be a real animal, he did not believe its horn held any special powers.
Mystical powers have always been associated with the unicorn. From its amazing strength – Jewish legend says they can kill an elephant – to its ability to tell truth from falsehood – confronted by a liar, a unicorn will pierce a liar through the heart – the unicorn occupies a definitive place in human history and culture. For centuries, unicorn horns were sold for their medicinal properties. Although there were many ways to test the horn's authenticity, most horns were simply goat or cow horns, with a few coming from exotic creatures like the narwhale. To own a complete unicorn horn was to demonstrate your rank, wealth and power. Queen Elizabeth I possessed one and the throne of Denmark was supposed to be made of them.
Regardless of their highly questionable existence, unicorns continue to be popular. Their place in human culture is equivalent to that of dragons and faeries. They are depicted in our art and architecture and are frequently mentioned in songs, poetry, histories and stories. If they once existed, evidence now points to their extinction. If they never existed, than human imagination has truly created a marvelous creature.
Fun Unicorn Facts
- There are seven famous Gothic tapestries that depict the hunt and capture of a unicorn.
- The Unicorn has been a part of the Royal Seal of Scotland since the 1300s. When James became king of both Scotland and England, he redrew the Royal Coat of Arms to include both the Lion of England and the Scottish Unicorn.
- Legend states that Noah excluded unicorns from the ark, thereby making them extinct today.
- There are a number of references to unicorns in the King James version of the Bible. Comparisons with older and newer versions translate "Unicorn" into "Bull" or "Oryx."
All About Unicorns
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