A Brief Account of Life with Unicorns
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
From Starbucks’ colour changing Frappes, to fancy cakes and even shimmering marshmallow vodka, if it can be turned rainbow coloured and covered in glitter, nowadays there’s a unicorn themed version of it. While the fervour for unicorn themed products does seem to be slowing down slightly, they are still very much in demand. The items that typically fall into the trend are all associated with things ‘unicorn’ – rainbow colours, pastels, glitter and, most importantly, a twisted horn that typically looks a little like a turret shell. But much as we may consider these things intrinsically linked to our idea of what a unicorn is, this wasn’t always the case, and the unicorns of the past are unrecognisable from the cutesy, cartoon characters that we know today.
Many cultures have their own version of the unicorn myth, from the Japanese Kirin (a deer-like creature with a curved horn) to Kongo’s Ababda (a two horned creature with the tail of a boar). The European unicorn, formally known as the alicorn, has two common depictions. In one, it is indistinguishable from a white horse, barring the single horn that grows from its forehead. In the other, it is a fey, deer like creature, with a lion’s tail, a billy goat beard and that same, single horn. A common theme among these versions of the creature is its purity. The creature is said to be able to cure poisons, heal wounds, and intrinsically know good from evil.
However, the unicorn, was not always so gracious. Stories of the unicorn stretch back to the times of ancient Greece, where respected figures as Ctesias, Pliny the Elder, and even Aristotle claimed to have seen them – however, these accounts describe a far different creature. They claim that the creature originated from India, or in some accounts Africa, and had the tail of a boar, feet of an elephant, and a single black horn. This horn was apparently used to to fight elephants, goring them in the stomach.
Many scholars agree that this depiction most likely referred to the Indian Rhinoceros, and this theory is so prevalent that the Latin name for the creature is actually Rhinoceros Unicornis. It was almost certainly one of these creatures that Italian explorer Marco Polo encountered in the late 13th century, to his great disappointment. He claims to have encountered the unicorn on his travels through Asia, describing them as ugly brutes who wallowed in their own filth, only slightly smaller than elephants and with the head of a wild boar. While this ‘unicorn’ was still associated with curing illness (at least a concoction made from the horn was) it was not particularly associated with purity. This aspect of the belief did not come into play until much later, when the unicorn mythos met Christianity.
In the Christian inspired myths of the unicorn, the unicorn represents Christ, powerful and untameable by man. The only way to tame the unicorn was through a virgin – representative of the Virgin Mary – who would stroke him until he fell asleep. The unicorn would then be killed, by a man, and would then later resurrect in captivity. Alive and unharmed. This allegory was captured in a series of seven famous tapestries created in the middle ages, depicting ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn’. The creature in these tapestries is more like the unicorn that we know today, with a goat’s beard, white coat and delicate, deer-like figure. The creature was also depicted with a long, spiralling white horn – nothing like the horn of an Indian Rhino. Over time, the link to Christ faded, and all that remained of the myth was the cultural consensus that unicorns were tamed, or at the very least, attracted by, virgins.
The unicorn depicted in the mentioned tapestry was one that looked very different to the hulking beasts described by Aristotle and Marco Polo. Part of this may have been due to the desire to make a creature representative of Christ appear more ‘pure’ or part of it may have been that, for a people unlikely to have ever seen an elephant, or rhino in person it was easier to imagine a deer-like creature than it was to imagine something so unknown.
The unicorn was popularised during the middle ages due to the strong belief in a cure-all remedy created from the unicorn’s horn. The horn could be used to identify poisoned food, powdered and applied to dog bites, or diluted for a general miracle water. Forgery was rife, and a ‘genuine’ unicorn horn could be identified by presenting it to a spider or scorpion. If the evil creature perished, you were holding a true horn. In reality, of course, none of these horns came from unicorns – most will have been harvested from narwhales. Elegant and very sharp, the horn of a narwhale is long, thin and twisted. This may have been one aspect that contributed to the changing mythos of the unicorn, the elegant twisted horn of a narwhale fits more easily onto the image of a graceful deer, rather than that of a rhino.
In the 17th Century, interest in unicorns started to wane. Much of the world had been explored at this point and there was still no sign of the elusive unicorn. The creature was no longer thought to truly exist, and as a fictional creature it was perhaps less dramatic and awe inspiring than the myths of dragons and phoenixes and distant serpents. Despite the lack of belief in the unicorn they remained a popular feature of heraldry. The unicorn became associated with Scotland, while the lion became symbolic of England, the struggle between the two immortalised in the famous nursery rhyme ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. In heraldry, the unicorn is commonly depicted in chains, something which some ascribe to the subjugation of Scotland, by England. Others argue that the symbolism predates the 1707 Acts of Union, and instead represent the fact that only Scottish kings are able to chain a creature as wild and strong as the unicorn.
In 1933 the unicorn began to step back out of legend when a biologist called Dr Dove attempted to create one. He removed the two knots from the side of a young bull’s head and transplanted them to the centre of its forehead. The experiment was successful – a single, large horn grew from the centre of its forehead and an artificial unicorn was created. The size of its single horn made it the undisputed leader of its herd, although Dove noted that the bull was an abnormally docile creature, something attributed to the unnatural horn. His experiment was successfully recreated with sheep, leading to the suggestion that perhaps it was a mutated deer, or even one that had lost an antler that led to the creation of the unicorn myth.
In modern times, the unicorn shares little in relation to the ancient tales. They predominantly feature in children’s stories as the cute, sometimes flying, companions to fairy-tale princesses. They are a far cry for the wild beasts of yore said to be able to take down an elephant. They have even started to infringe on the territory of other myths. As of 2000 the rainbow, formerly the territory of the leprechaun, began to be associated with the unicorn. They are also quite often also depicted with great magic, or at the very least as magical creatures, instead of the natural beings they were originally assumed to be.
Despite this, elements of the myth remain popular today. Instead of young virgins, the unicorn is instead said to prefer the company of young girls – perhaps an effort to sanitise the original myth for a younger audience. The unicorn is still quite often depicted as a healer – in Peter S. Beagle’s ‘The Last Unicorn’, the unicorn is able to revive the fallen Lir with a single touch of her healing horn.
Although the fine details may have changed, the unicorn remains one of Europe’s oldest mythical creatures, stretching back to 27th Century BC. It may have mutated, as it grew, but nevertheless, stories of the unicorn endured and continue to capture the imagination of people today.