The unicorn is a legendary creature that has been described since antiquity as a beast with a single large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead.
The unicorn was depicted in ancient seals of the Indus Valley Civilization and was mentioned by the ancient Greeks in accounts of natural history by various writers, including Ctesias, Strabo, Pliny the Younger, and Aelian.
The Bible also describes an animal, the re’em, which some versions translate as a unicorn.
In European folklore, the unicorn is often depicted as a white horse-like or goat-like animal with a longhorn and cloven hooves (sometimes a goat’s beard).
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could be captured only by a virgin.
In the encyclopedias, its horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness. In medieval and Renaissance times, the tusk of the narwhal was sometimes sold as unicorn horn.
A number of seals seemingly depicting unicorns have been found from the Indus Valley Civilization.
These have also been interpreted as representations of aurochs—a type of large wild cattle that formerly inhabited Europe, Asia, and North Africa—or derivatives of aurochs, because the animal is always shown in profile, indicating there may have supposed to have been another horn, which is not seen.
Unicorns are not found in Greek mythology, but rather in the accounts of natural history, for Greek writers of natural history were convinced of the reality of unicorns, which they believed lived in India, a distant and fabulous realm for them.
The earliest description is from Ctesias, who in his book Indika (“On India”) described them as wild asses, a fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half (700 mm, 28 inches) in length, and colored white, red and black.
Ctesias got his information while living in Persia. Unicorns on a relief sculpture found at the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis in Iran.
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 [900 mm, 35 inches] in length..
Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant of Alexandria who lived in the 6th century, made a voyage to India and subsequently wrote works on cosmography.
He gives a description of a unicorn based on four brass figures in the palace of the King of Ethiopia. He states, by a 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”.
A one-horned animal (which may be just a bull in profile) is found on some seals from the Indus Valley Civilization. Seals with such a design are thought to be a mark of high social rank.
Middle Ages and Renaissance
Medieval knowledge of the fabulous beast stemmed from biblical and ancient sources, and the creature was variously represented as a kind of wild ass, goat, or horse.
The predecessor of the medieval bestiary, compiled in Late Antiquity and known as Physiologus, popularized an elaborate allegory in which a unicorn, trapped by a maiden (representing the Virgin Mary), stood for the Incarnation.
As soon as the unicorn sees her, it lays its head on her lap and falls asleep. This became a basic emblematic tag that underlies medieval notions of the unicorn, justifying its appearance in every form of religious art.
Interpretations of the unicorn myth focus on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas some religious writers interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ.
The myths refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; subsequently, some writers translated this into an allegory for Christ’s relationship with the Virgin Mary.
The unicorn also figured in courtly terms: for some 13th-century French authors such as Thibaut of Champagne and Richard de Fournival, the lover is attracted to his lady as the unicorn is to the virgin.
With the rise of humanism, the unicorn also acquired more orthodox secular meanings, emblematic of chaste love and faithful marriage.
It plays this role in Petrarch’s Triumph of Chastity, and on the reverse of Piero Della Francesca’s portrait of Battista Strozzi, paired with that of her husband Federico da Montefeltro (painted c 1472-74), Bianca’s triumphal car is drawn by a pair of unicorns.
The Throne Chair of Denmark is made of “unicorn horns” – almost certainly narwhal tusks. The same material was used for ceremonial cups because the unicorn’s horn continued to be believed to neutralize poison, following classical authors.
The unicorn, tamable only by a virgin woman, was well established in medieval lore by the time Marco Polo described them as:
“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 by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.”
It is clear that Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros. In German, since the 16th century, Einhorn (“one-horn”) has become a descriptor of the various species of rhinoceros.
An animal called the re’em 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, 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.
The classical Jewish understanding of the Bible did not identify the Re’em animal as the unicorn. However, some rabbis in the Talmud debate the proposition that the Tahash animal (Exodus 25, 26, 35, 36 and 39; Numbers 4; and Ezekiel 16:10) was a domestic, single-horned kosher creature that existed in Moses’ time, or that it was similar to the keresh animal described in Morris Jastrow’s Talmudic dictionary as “a kind of antelope, unicorn“.
The qilin, a creature in Chinese mythology, is sometimes called “the Chinese unicorn“, and some ancient accounts describe a single horn as its defining feature.
However, it is more accurately described as a hybrid animal that looks less unicorn than chimera, with the body of a deer, the head of a lion, green scales and a long forwardly-curved horn.
The Japanese version (kirin) more closely resembles the Western unicorn, even though it is based on the Chinese qilin.
The Quẻ Ly of Vietnamese myth similarly sometimes mistranslated “unicorn” is a symbol of wealth and prosperity that made its first appearance during the Duong Dynasty, about 600 CE, to Emperor Duong Cao To, after a military victory which resulted in his conquest of Tây Nguyên.
In November 2012 the History Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences, as well as the Korea News Service, reported that the Kiringul had been found, which is associated with a kirin ridden by King Dongmyeong of Goguryeo.
Beginning in the Ming Dynasty, the qilin became associated with giraffes, after Zheng He’s voyage to East Africa brought a pair of the long-necked animals and introduced them to court in Nanjing as qilin.
The resemblance to the qilin was noted in the giraffe’s ossicones (bony protrusions from the skull resembling horns), graceful movements, and peaceful demeanor.
Shanhaijing (117) also mentioned Bo-horse, a chimera horse with oxtail, a single horn, white body, and its sound like the person calling.
The creature is lived at Honest-head Mountain. Guo Pu in his Jiangfu said that Bo-horse able to walk on water.
Another similar creature also mentioned in Shanhaijing (80) to live in Mount Winding-Centre as Bo, but with a black tail, tiger’s teeth and claws, and also devour leopards and tigers.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.