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This article is about the mythical creature. For other uses, see Unicorn (disambiguation).

"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. He could be captured only by unfair means, and his single horn was said to neutralize poison."
—Marianna Mayer, The Unicorn and the Lake

The unicorn is a legendary creature shaped like a horse, but slender and with a single — usually spiral — horn growing out of its forehead. Though the popular image of the unicorn is that of a white horse differing only in the horn, the traditional unicorn has a billy-goat beard, a lion's tail, and cloven hoofs, which distinguish him from a horse.

In medieval lore, the alicorn is the spiraled horn of the Unicorn and is said to be able to heal and neutralize poisons. This is derived from Ctesias's reports on the unicorn in India, where it was used by the rulers of that place for anti-toxin purposes so as to avoid assassination.

The qilin (麒麟, Chinese), a creature in Chinese myth, is sometimes called "the Chinese unicorn", but it is not directly related to the classical Western unicorn, having the body of a deer, the head of a lion, green scales and a long forth-curved horn. Currently, the word "kirin", in Japan, written with the same Chinese ideograms, is used to designate the giraffes.


Unicorns in prehistory

A cave painting in Lascaux, France, is said by some to depict a horse-like animal with a horn emerging from its forehead, although it can also be interpreted as a two-horned animal. There have been uncomfirmed reports of aborginal paintings of unicorns at Lago Posadas (Cerro de los Indios) and at Namaqualand in southern Africa. [1]

Unicorns in antiquity

According to an interpretation of seals carved with an animal which resembles a bull (and which may in fact be a way of depicting bulls in profile), it has been claimed that the unicorn was a common symbol during the Indus Valley civilization, appearing on many seals. It may have symbolized a powerful group.

An animal called the re'em is mentioned in several places in the Bible, often as a metaphor representing strength; in the King James translation (and some other translations), this word is translated as "unicorn", producing phrases such as "His strength is as the strength of a unicorn". It is thought by many biblical scholars that this word actually refers to an aurochs, and that the translation as "unicorn" came about because this animal was often depicted with only one horn visible in ancient Mesopotamian art.

The unicorn does not appear in early Greek mythology, but in Greek natural history, for Greek writers on natural history were convinced of the reality of the unicorn, which they located in India, a distant and fabulous realm for them. The Encyclopædia Britannica collects classical references to unicorns: the earliest description is from Ctesias, who described in Indica white wild asses, fleet of foot, having on the forehead a horn a cubit and a half in length, colored white, red and black; from the horn were made drinking cups which were a preventive of poisoning. Aristotle must be following Ctesias when he mentions two one-horned animals, the oryx, a kind of antelope, and the so-called "Indian ass" (in Historia anim. ii. I and De part. anim. iii. 2). In Roman times Pliny's Natural History (viii: 30 and xl: 106) mentions the oryx and an Indian ox (the rhinoceros, perhaps) as one-horned beasts, as well as the Indian ass, "a very ferocious beast, similar in the rest of its body to a horse, with the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, a deep, bellowing voice, and a single black horn, two cubits in length, standing out in the middle of its forehead." Pliny adds that "it cannot be taken alive." Aelian (De natura. anim. iii. 41; iv. 52), quoting Ctesias, adds that India produces also a one-horned horse, and says (xvi. 20) that the "monoceros" was sometimes called carcazonon, which may be a form of the Arabic "carcadn", meaning "rhinoceros". Strabo (book xv) says that in India there were one-horned horses with stag-like heads.

Medieval unicorns

The unicorn, tamable only by a virgin woman, was well established in medieval bestiary 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 boars...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 Polo was describing a rhinoceros.

In German, since the 16th century, the name unicorn ("einhorn") has become attached to the various rhinoceros.

Most people currently maintain, based in part on the claims of Danish zoologist Ole Wurm , [2] that narwhal tusks provided the main source of "unicorn" horns in medieval times; however, there was concern about false horns being passed off as the real thing, and various "tests" were developed supposedly enabling one to tell the difference between the fake and authentic horns.

In popular belief, unicorn horns could neutralize poisons. Therefore, people who feared poisoning sometimes drank from goblets made of "unicorn horn". Alleged aphrodisiac qualities and other purported medicinal virtues also drove up the cost of "unicorn" products such as milk, hide, and offal. Unicorns were also said to be able to determine whether or not a woman was a virgin; in some tales, they could only be mounted by virgins.

The unicorn also served as a common symbol of indomitable pride and purity and of Jesus.

One traditional method of hunting unicorns involved entrapment by a virgin. Another involved angering a unicorn, fleeing from it toward a tree when it charged, and diving out of the way just before the tree, causing the unicorn to strike the tree, rendering it dead, unconscious, or stuck, held by its horn in the wood.


In heraldry, a unicorn is depicted as a horse with a goat's cloven hooves and beard, a lion's tail, and a slender, spiral horn on its forehead.

Because of its association with Christ, the unicorn was seemingly too sacred to be widely used early heraldry, but became popular from the fifteenth century.

It is probably best known from the royal arms of Scotland and the United Kingdom: two unicorns support the Scottish arms; a lion and a unicorn support the UK arms. The arms of the Society of Apothecaries in London has two golden unicorn supporters.

Sources of the myth

Although unicorns are mythical creatures, many scholars have wondered whether the myth might be distantly based on a real animal.

Alleged skeletal evidence

A unicorn skeleton was supposedly found at Einhornhöhle ("Unicorn Cave") in Germany's Harz Mountains in 1663. Claims that the so-called unicorn had only two legs (and was constructed from fossil bones of mammoths and other animals) are contradicted or explained by accounts that souvenir-seekers plundered the skeleton; these accounts further claim that, perhaps remarkably, the souvenir-hunters left the skull, with horn. The skeleton was examined by Leibniz, who had previously doubted the existence of the unicorn, but was convinced thereby.

Baron Georges Cuvier maintained that as the unicorn was cloven-hoofed it must therefore have a cloven skull (making impossible the growth of a single horn), but this was later disproven by Dr. W. Franklin Dove , who artificially fused the horn buds of a calf together, created a one-horned bull. [3]

P.T. Barnum once exhibited a unicorn skeleton that was exposed as a hoax.

The rhinoceros

Since the rhinoceros is the only land animal to possess a single horn, it has often been supposed that the unicorn myth originated from encounters between Europeans and rhinoceros.

One suggestion is that the unicorn myth is based on an extinct animal sometimes called the "Giant Unicorn" but known to scientists as Elasmotherium, a huge Eurasian rhinoceros native to the steppes, south of the range of the woolly rhinoceros of Ice Age Europe. Elasmotherium looked nothing like a horse, but it had a large single horn in its forehead. It seems to have become extinct about the same time as the rest of the glacial age megafauna, but it may have survived into historic times. Conceivably, the unicorn is a racial memory of an animal hunted by our distant ancestors.

Even if Elasmotherium is not the source, ordinary rhinoceri may have some relation to the unicorn. 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 (quoted above) makes it clear to the modern reader that he actually saw a Javanese Rhinoceros.

It is therefore possible that the entire unicorn myth derives from rhinoceros, but this does not explain why the unicorn is envisaged as a horse; furthermore, it should be noted that classical authors seem to have been able to distinguish clearly between rhinoceros and unicorns.

A mutant goat

In the domestic goat, a rare deformity of the generative tissues can cause the horns to be joined together; such an animal could be another inspiration for the legend. A farmer and a circus owner also produced fake unicorns, remodelling the "horn buttons" of goat kids, in such a way their horns grew deformed and joined in a grotesque seemingly single horn.

The narwhal

Relics ornamented with supposed unicorn horns can be found in museums in Vienna and elsewhere in central Europe. However, these horns are in fact the spiral tusks of an Arctic cetacean known as the narwhal (Monoceros monocero). Presumably they were brought to central Europe as a trade item by Vikings or other northern mariners and sold as genuine unicorn horns.

The oryx

The oryx
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.


Modern fantasy fiction tends to perpetuate the medieval notion of a unicorn as a beast with magical qualities or powers. A group of unicorns is sometimes referred to as a "Rainbow of Unicorns."

Unicorns notably appear in:

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Last updated: 08-17-2005 14:51:05
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