Unicorns – a brief history

From ferocious beasts to friendly rainbow spouting mascots, it turns out that unicorns have been around in some form or other from the earliest of civilisations. As April 9th marks National Unicorn Day, we thought we’d take the chance to briefly trace some of their natural history…

Uncertain beginnings

The first dubious nod to unicorn mythology comes from the Indus Valley Civilisation, which, together with ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, formed one of the three powerhouse civilisations of the ancient Near East c. 3000 – 1300 BCE. Imagery on seals belonging to elite members of society depict a horse like animal (shown in profile) with a single horn protruding from its skull. Granted, this early link to unicorns IS a tenuous one, and it’s much more likely that these are instead representations of aurochs – a type of large wild cattle that formerly inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa.

A case of mistaken identity

Indus Civilisation seal of a possible unicorn at the Indian Museum Kolkata.

The first written evidence we have for unicorns appears in ancient Greece, not (as you might expect) in writings of mythology but in ‘natural history’ writings, once again on the ancient Near East. The earliest accounts come from the writer Ctesias in the 4th century BCE. In his book Indika (On India) he includes one of the first references of a unicorn, describing them as a type of wild ass: “fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half in length, and coloured white, red and black” – fancy! In the same writings, he also includes descriptions of the oryx (a type of antelope with similar colourings described above) so it’s likely that the two were one and the same.

In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder writes of a fierce animal he calls the ‘monokeros’ (or ‘single horn’, a word with etymological links to ‘unicorn’) 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”. Not the usual imagery we’d associated with these majestic beasts, and no prizes for guessing the animal he was actually describing! Later, in the 13th century, Marco Polo would add to this unflattering description of a unicorn by adding that “they spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime” – hardly rainbows and sparkles!

Aurochs in a cave painting, Lascaux, France

Obviously, in each of the above cases we’re witnessing a great deal of mistaken identity, but, pieced together from all of these accounts, the myth of a single horned beast, known as the unicorn, was born.

Masters of evasion

Along with their physical description, Pliny is also amongst the first writers to describe the unicorns’ character traits, stating that they were amongst the fiercest animals in India and impossible to be captured alive – this would become a running theme to their mythology, particularly in the medieval period.

Writing in the 6th century CE, Cosmas Indicopleustes (a travelling merchant from Alexandria), gives a wonderful account of the unicorn’s notorious ability to avoid capture. He tells us that all the unicorn’s power resides in its horn, and when placed in danger, a unicorn would happily throw itself from a cliff to escape, landing expertly on the point of its horn unharmed… Disappointingly, he’s silent on how it then unplugged itself from the ground. Shame.

Unicorns in Christianity

Unicorn from a 13th century church floor, Ravenna, Italy

It’s said that a mistranslation of the bible’s old Hebrew text, even led to the unicorn being mentioned in some versions of the bible. A supposed error when translating the Hebrew term ‘Re’em’ (ox) as ‘monokeros’ effectively changed the word ‘ox’ to ‘unicorn’.

In the 2nd century CE, a Greek Christian text known as the Physiologus (widely seen to be the predecessor of the popular medieval ‘bestiaries’, or ‘books of beasts’) further made popular the allegory that unicorns were strong, fierce, animals, adding that their horn could purify poisoned waters. The book also strengthened another popular belief that had developed, which was that unicorns could only be subdued with the cooperation of a virgin maiden, as unicorns were said to become loving and docile in their presence. This, along with their purifying characteristics, subsequently led to Christ himself being associated with the unicorn, and medieval artwork often depicted a unicorn as a metaphor for Christ.

The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino. Image from Alinari Archives/CORBIS

Symbols of chivalry

In medieval Europe, the unicorn became a symbol closely associated with chivalry, with heroic lovers and their lady companions often compared to the doting relationship between the unicorn and a virgin. During the Renaissance, in a move away from the Christian allegory, the unicorn became a secular symbol of chastity and loyalty.

From the 15th century, unicorns also started to become popular in heraldry, frequently depicted as a horse with a goat’s hooves and beard, and a delicate spiral horn. They’re often also shown as collared with a broken chain, perhaps as a nod to their immense power and ultimately untameable nature. In Celtic mythology, the unicorn is a symbol of purity, innocence and power, and so became an obvious choice for Scotland’s royal coats of arms.

Healing qualities

Scotland’s Royal Coat of Arms

The purifying qualities associated with the unicorn’s horn was such a popular legend that cups reputedly made of unicorn horn were highly valued by medieval nobility as a protection against poisoning. In reality, these cups were most likely made from rhinoceros’ horn or narwhal tusk!

AND unicorn horn as a means for protection didn’t end there… In the 17th century, London newspapers often contained advertisements for miracle elixirs made of “true Unicorn Horn”. These were said to relieve a full-on list of diseases from ulcers and scurvy, to melancholy and fainting spells.

From reality to mythology

‘The Lady at the Unicorn’ tapestry, from a series made in France circa. 1500 – this one representing ‘sight’

Sadly, by the 18th century, belief in unicorns began to wane, as more of the world was explored and traces of these majestic animals were unfounded. It wasn’t until the Victorian era when the now famous ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries (made around 1500, and widely considered to be amongst the greatest pieces of medieval art) were rediscovered, and romanticised by Victorian artists. From this point onwards, the unicorn as a glamorised mythical beast grew in popularity, leading us right up to the present day where the unicorn trend is booming! From unicorn coffees and bagels, to emojis and a whole plethora of accessories, the unicorn ‘brand’ is now inescapable.

It’s certainly come a long way from its ferocious origins!