Legends
Home Up My Collection Legends

"...I can o'ersway him; for he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betray'd with trees,
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils and men with flatterers;

Julius Caesar
--William Shakespeare


Unicorns
The Complete Story of Unicorns through the Ages
 
The Mystery of the
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The Unicorn is one of the most mysterious of all animals. It has been glorified in folk tales, songs, poems, and stories for centuries; and it remains one of the great "unsolved mysteries" of the world. Despite the widely held belief in its existence, it has not been seen in centuries ; and the popular Eastern image from Chinese folklore is very different from the familiar Western image of a white horse-like creature. The only consistent fact is that a Unicorn has a single horn in the middle of its forehead.

For true believers, the fact that it no longer exists only adds to the mystique; placing it in the same realm as the dinosaurs, the mammoth, and possibly such unknown creatures as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Others believe the Unicorn still exists in remote regions and can be discovered only by those of exceptional virtue and honesty.

In the meantime, we can marvel at its beauty and pay tribute to its unique place in the culture and history of the world.

The Eastern Unicorn

The Unicorn has existed in Chinese mythology for thousands of years. It appears in many different forms, but the most familiar is a beast with the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, the hooves of a horse, and a single short horn growing out of the middle of its forehead. The hair on its back is five-colored to represent the five sacred Chinese colors: red, yellow, blue, white, and black. The hair on its belly is yellow. In some accounts, it has green scales like a dragon.

The Chinese Unicorn is known as Kilin (pronounced chee-lin), which is a combination of both Ki, the male Unicorn, and Lin, the female Unicorn. It is careful not to tread on even the tiniest living thing and will eat only plant life that is no longer living. It lives for 1,000 years.

The Kilin is said to spring from the earth and is revered as one of the four superior animals of good omen (together with the phoenix, the dragon, and the tortoise) that foretell future events and represent the basic elements of life:

The First Unicorns

In Chinese mythology, the Unicorn was an animal of good omen that came to humans only on important missions. Its appearance was interpreted as a sign of good times, and the fact that it has not been seen in many centuries suggests that we are living in "bad" times. It will appear once again when the time is right and when goodness reigns.

One of the first Unicorns is said to have appeared almost 5,000 years ago to give Emperor Fu Hsi the secrets of  written language. Then, almost 4,700 years ago in 2697 B.C., another Unicorn made an appearance in the garden of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di). This auspicious omen was seen by the emperor as a sign that his reign would be long and peaceful. Two Unicorns also lived during the reign of Emperor Yao, the fourth of the Five Emperors who shaped the world 4,000 years ago.

Birth and Death of Confucius Foretold by Unicorns

The Chinese also believed that the Unicorn could foretell the birth of great men like the philosopher Confucius. In 551 B.C., Confucius' pregnant mother met a Unicorn in the woods. It gave her a small piece of jade and placed its head in her lap. She realized the importance of the event and knew it was a good omen from the gods.

An inscription on the piece of jade told of the great wisdom her son would possess; and, sure enough, Confucius became the most respected of all Chinese philosophers. Even today, 2,500 years later, his prophetic words are still honored and revered. In his old age, Confucius reportedly saw the Unicorn for himself and knew that it meant he would soon die.

Other Eastern Unicorns

In addition to China, other Asian countries also have Unicorn traditions. In Japan, it is known as Kirin and has a shaggy mane and the body of a bull. Unlike the Chinese Unicorn, it was a beast to he feared, especially by criminals. In fact, it was able to detect guilt; and judges were known to call upon the Unicorn to determine the guilty parties in legal disputes. After fixing its eerie stare on the guilty party, it would then pierce him through the heart with its horn.

An Arabian Unicorn known as karkadann was supposedly endowed with magical qualities. Its horn was a good-luck charm against the scorpion, and eating its meat got rid of demons. Based on the description from ancient texts, experts now believe that the karkadann was actually an oryx, a large antelope that appears to have only one horn when seen from the side.

Famous Unicorn Sightings

Person Associated with the Sighting

Place of Sighting

Approximate Date

Adam Garden of Eden Beginning of time
Emperor Fu Hsi China 5,000 years ago
Emperor Huang Di Emperor's garden in China 2697 B.C
Emperor Yao China About 2,000 B.C
Confucius China 551-479 B.C
Ctesias India 4th century B.C
Alexander the Great Asia 3rd century B.C.
Julius Caesar Germany I st century B.C.
Prester John Asia Mid- I I 00s
Genghis Khan India Early 1200s

   

The Western Unicornalicorn.gif (5429 bytes)

Perhaps the earliest mention of the Unicorn is by Herodotus, who in the 3rd century BC wrote of the 'horned ass' of Africa. By the 4th century B.C., the Unicorn had become a very popular animal in the Western world.  Another early surviving mention of the Unicorn comes from a century later, in the writings of the Greek historian and physician Ctesias who traveled to Persia and brought back fantastic stories from merchants who passed through India. Although he did not see one for himself, he  describes  a creature he calls the 'wild ass of India'  as being equal in size to a horse, with a white body, a red head, bluish eyes and a straight horn on the forehead, a cubit long.  He describes the lower part of the horn as being white, the middle black, and the tip red.   As a physician, he was especially interested in the horn, which he heard was protection against deadly poisons.  Drinking cups made from the horn were believed to possess the power of neutralizing poison when poured into them.  Ctesias represents the unicorn as being extraordinarily swift of foot, untamable and almost impossible to capture. 

Soon after Ctesias' stories became known, the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle deduced that the Unicorn was probably a real animal, but he did not believe the stories of magical powers attributed to the horn. The respected historian Pliny the Elder {who was born early in the reign of Tiberius and died in AD 79 described the Unicorn in his Cyclopaedia "Historia Naturalis".}also came to the conclusion that a Unicorn existed in India. Pliny's Unicorn is a ferocious beast with the body of a horse, the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a wild boar, and a single black horn two cubits long, standing out of its forehead.   Both men reasoned that the accounts were plausible and that the animal could exist. In fact, there was no more reason to doubt the existence of a Unicorn than that of an elephant or giraffe. Just because they had never personally seen one did not mean it did not exist.

Other early Unicorn stories involve two of the greatest leaders of ancient times. In the 3rd century B.C., the Macedonian general Alexander the Great boasted that in one of his conquests, he rode a Unicorn into battle. In the century before the birth of Christ, Roman Emperor Julius Caesar reported seeing a Unicorn in the deep forests of southwestern Germany.

A few years before the birth of Christ, a well-respected Greek, Apollonius of Tyana, claimed to have seen a Unicorn in India. However, it was not until a few centuries later that the Unicorn really became part of the Western culture  mainly because of its associations with the Bible and with Christ.

How to Catch a Unicorn

During the middle ages a fable was told that although the Unicorn was impossible to hunt down, it was so impressed by the presence of a lovely virgin that it would run up to her and submissively lay its head in her lap.  Marco Polo's editor Colonel Yule affirms athat the Unicorn was supposed to be attracted noty by the lay's beauty or chastity, but by the perfumes of her dress.   Still legends that spread throughout Europe stated that it was impossible to catch a Unicorn by force. The only way to capture one was for a maiden to wait alone where Unicorns were known to be found. When he saw the maiden, the Unicorn would run up and lay its head in her lap - at which point it could be easily taken by the hunters hiding nearby.

Unicorn in the Sky

The first mention of the constellation Monoceros, the Unicorn, was by Jakob Bartsch around 1624. The stars of the Unicorn were described in detail in the catalog of Hevelius in 1690. The Milky Way runs through the center of this constellation. There are 146 stars in Monoceros that are visible to the naked eye.

Unicorns In the Bible

"My horn shall be exalted like the horn of the Unicorn."
The Book of Psalms

"He hath as it were the strength of a unicorn"
The Book of Numbers

"Will the Unicorn be willing to serve thee?"
Job

According to the book of Genesis, God gave Adam the task of naming everything he saw. In some translations of the Bible, the Unicorn was the first animal named; thereby, elevating it above all other beasts in the universe. When Adam and Eve left paradise, the Unicorn went with them and came to represent purity and chastity. Thus, the Unicorn's purity in the Western legends stems from its Biblical beginnings.

The Bible also offers an explanation about why the Unicorn has not been seen for so long. During the flood that engulfed the world for 40 days and 40 nights, Noah took two of each animal to safety ; but Unicorns were not among them. A Jewish folk tale mentions they were originally on board but demanded so much space and attention that Noah banished them. They either drowned or managed to swim during the flood and still survive somewhere in the world or, as some believe, evolved into the narwhale.

In addition, there are seven clear references to the Unicorn in the Old Testament; although, there is now doubt about the original translations that may have erroneously named another animal as a Unicorn.

The Jewish Talmud also makes many similar references to the Unicorn. In Jewish folklore it is the fiercest of all animals and is able to kill an elephant with a single thrust from its horn.

Throughout history, the church has interpreted the Unicom in a number of different ways. In medieval times, it became a symbol of Christ himself, and its horn was symbolic of the unity of Christ and God. Some medieval paintings show the Trinity with Christ represented by a Unicom. On the other hand, the Unicom also appears as a symbol of evil in the book of Isaiah. Overall, however, the Unicom has come to be regarded as a pure and virtuous animal.

Regardless of the place of the Unicom in Biblical theory, it is evident that there was a strong belief in the animal's existence in Biblical times, as well as in the following centuries. After all, it appears so often in the Old Testament that it can hardly be overlooked in the Christian world. The fact that it appears in the Bible meant that no devout Christian could doubt its authenticity.

Unicorn Saves India from Genghis Khan's Hordes

In medieval times, Asia was a place of great mystery; and the stories of Unicorns only made it more wondrous. For example, Prester John ruled over a vast Asian empire in the mid- 1100's; and he was reputed to have a number of tame Unicorns. To Europeans, this was a sign of his wealth and power.

The legend of the Unicorn gained a new chapter a century later when Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan conquered much of Asia to build a great empire. However, the intervention of a Unicorn made him abruptly turn back on the brink of adding India to his empire.

As Genghis Khan and his army prepared to invade for what would probably have been an easy victory, a Unicorn approached and knelt before him. Genghis Khan was taken aback, but realizing this was a sign from heaven not to attack, he turned his army away. One of the most ruthless and fearless warriors in history had been "tamed" by a simple Unicorn, and India was saved from invasion.

Historically, this was the last significant and reliable Unicorn sighting. In the late 1200s, though, Italian trader Marco Polo became famous for his accounts of travel in China and Southeast Asia. He even reported seeing a large Unicorn, almost as big as an elephant. His detailed description was almost certainly a rhinoceros, but the retelling of his tales and the illustrations that accompanied them usually made the Unicorn fit in with the traditional Western horse-like creature.

Unicorns in Modern Times

The desire to discover a Unicorn exists to this day, and many attempts have been made in the 20th century to "create" Unicorns. In the 1930s, Dr. W. Franklin Dove of Maine manipulated a calf's horn buds to make a bull with a single horn growing out of the middle of its head. Although this experiment did not offer an explanation about the existence of Unicorns, it did show that it is possible for animals to grow single ohms.

Fifty years later, the same procedure was used on white goats to produce Lancelot, the "Living Unicorn" that became a great attraction at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. This "Unicorn" resembled the small Unicorns often depicted in medieval paintings and tapestries.  These animals were small enough to sit on the laps of young maidens.

The Royal Unicorn

Since the reign of King Robert III in the late 1300s, the Unicorn has been a part of the official seal of Scotland. Robert III turned to the purity and strength of the Unicorn for inspiration in rebuilding his nation; and the Unicorn was soon incorporated into the royal seal.

When James VI of Scotland became King James I of both England and Scotland on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, he drew up a new royal coat-of- arms that included both the traditional English lion as well as the Scottish Unicorn.

According to folklore, however, the lion and the unicorn hate each other - a tradition going back to the ancient Babylonians in 3,500 B.C. The fight between the two results from the Unicorn representing Spring and the lion representing Summer. Each year the two fight for supremacy; and each year the lion eventually wins.

In the case of Scotland and England, the fight continued, and a popular English nursery rhyme of the period sums up the animosity. It also recalls old wars between England and Scotland that England invariably won:

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The lion beat the unicorn
All round about the town.

The lion and the Unicorn remain a part of the British coat-of-arms to this day, supporting the royal shield. The Canadian coat-of-arms is modeled on the British version, so it also features a lion and a Unicorn supporting a central shield.

The Power of the Unicorn

Because of the Unicom's purity, its horn (known as alicom) was considered magical and became a popular ingredient in medieval medicines. Its mere presence was considered a strong protection against poison in food, and when worn in jewelry, it protected the wearer from evil.

Alicorn was often worth more than its weight in gold, so kings, emperors, and popes were among the few people able to pay the high prices demanded. They were eager to acquire the precious horn to "guarantee" long and healthy lives. With such a lucrative trade, false alicorn was rampant, made from bull horn, goat horn, or in some cases from the horns of exotic animals or from ordinary dog bones.

Complete Unicom horns were very rare. For example, a complete Unicom horn owned by Queen Elizabeth I of England was valued at the time at 10,000 - the equivalent of about 3,000 ounces of gold and enough money to buy a large country estate complete with a castle. Rather than coming from unicorns, these complete horns often turned out to be the long spirally twisted tusks of the male narwhal, a large marine animal.

Kings often placed alicorn on the table to protect themselves against poisonous food and drink, and until the revolution toppled the monarchy in 1789, the eating utensils used by French kings were made of Unicom horn to counteract any poison in the food.

How to Test Real Unicorn Horn

Medieval pharmacists believed in the power of the Unicorn as a medicine, and the Unicorn even became the apothecaries' symbol. According to St. Hildegard, who passionately believed in the power of the Unicorn to heal illness, the Unicorn's strength came from the fact that once a year, it returned to drink the waters and eat the vegetation of paradise.

Ground Unicorn horn was said to cure fever, plague, epilepsy, rabies, gout, and a host of other ailments. Unicorn liver was a cure for leprosy. Shoes made of Unicorn leather assured healthy feet and legs, and a belt of Unicorn leather worn around the body warded off plague and fever. Belief in the power of the Unicorn was widely held in England until the mid- I 700s.

In order to distinguish "real" alicorn from false alicorn, elaborate tests were devised. Among them are the following:

  • Place scorpions under a dish with apiece of horn. If the scorpions die in a matter of hours, the horn is real.
  • Feed arsenic to pigeons, followed by a dose of Unicorn horn. If the pigeons live, the horn is genuine.
  • Draw a ring on the floor with the horn. If the horn is real, a spider will not be able to cross the ring.
  • Place the horn in cold water. If the water bubbles but remains cold, the horn came from a Unicorn.
 
The Hunt of the Unicorn
The Most Famous Unicorn Image

About the year 1500, a magnificent series of large tapestries was made in Belgium to trace the history of a hunt for the Unicorn. They were bought by John D. Rockefeller in 1922 and are now on display at the Cloisters museum in New York.

The series of seven tapestries follows the hunt from beginning to end. The Unicorn is discovered and chased by the party of noblemen, but they are unable to capture it. In the fifth tapestry, a young maiden tames and captures the Unicorn - relying on the age-old custom that a Unicorn could only be captured by a virgin.

In the last tapestry, the Unicorn is chained to a tree within a round wooden fence. This final scene is the most famous Unicorn image and has become the universally accepted picture of a Western Unicorn.

"...Well, now that we have seen each other," said the Unicorn, "If you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you."
-- Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

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