The Myths & Legends Behind Unicorns
For almost 2,000 years, the unicorn, a mythical creature renowned in European folklore, has captured the human imagination. People actually believed them to be real for most of that time, far into the Middle Ages. The origins of the unicorn mythology can be traced back to at least 400 BCE when the Greek historian Ctesias described a unicorn-like creature in his works about the Indian subcontinent. Unicorns were described in the writings of other notable historical writers such as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and even Julius Caesar, who stated that similar creatures could be found in Germany’s ancient and extensive Hercynian Forest.
The unicorn is described in early texts as vicious, quick, and impossible to catch, with a magical horn that can heal a variety of maladies. The unicorn grew in importance over time as a symbol of purity, strength, and medieval chivalry. It even took on theological aspects and was sometimes used as an allegory for Christ. Unicorn imagery and descriptions were prominent in Medieval Bestiary during the Middle Ages, as well as the unicorn became a common theme in medieval art.
The Unicorn Tapestries, which are currently on display at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, are perhaps the most prominent example. Nowadays, the unicorn can be discovered everywhere (and nowhere): it is a ubiquitous symbol that can be discovered in everything from movies to parlance for billion-dollar start-ups. Despite the fact that we no longer believe in the existence of unicorns, the unicorn mythology lives on.
Early Accounts Of The Single-Horned Creature
Ctesias, who lived in 400 BCE, is credited with writing the first written description of a unicorn. Ctesias was a Greek physician and historian who served in the Achaemenid Empire’s courts of Darius II and Artaxerxes II. He wrote Indica, the first Greek book on India, Tibet, and the Himalayas. He relied on information provided by travelers along the Silk Road because he had never visited the region.
Indica was widely read and quoted, as well as mocked for some of its more imaginative descriptions. Only fragments of it survive today, including those outlined by Photius in the 9th century CE. Ctesias’ multicolored creature was most likely a fancy depiction of the Indian rhinoceros. The rhinoceros’ horn was thought to have healing characteristics in India, and it was sometimes fashioned into drinking vessels with three bands of shades.
Nonetheless, the belief in the unicorn horn’s magical healing powers became deeply engrained in the unicorn mythology. Ctesias, who was well-known for his fascination with the fantastical, had characterized an enthralling creature unlike any other. His writings impacted future historians and were the foundation around which the unicorn myth was built.
Aristotle, writing less than a century later, criticized Ctesias’ work for what he saw as embellishments, but he did not disagree with Ctesias’ description of the single-horned beast. In The History of Animals, Aristotle indicated the existence of the “Indian ass,” which he described as having a single horn sprouting from the center of its head and is “single-hooved,” rather than “cloven-footed,” like most horned animals.
In the ancient and dense Hercynian Forest of Germany, Julius Caesar documented the presence of a stag with a single horn that is much “taller as well as straighter” than any previously seen. In the second century CE, Aelian, a Roman historian, described the unicorn in much the same way as Ctesias, mentioning that it could be discovered in India. Aelian, on the other hand, characterized their coats as reddish, not white. They were polite with other creatures but preferred to be alone, only mixing with other creatures of their kind throughout mating season.
He pointed out that they can’t be caught, at least not when fully grown, and that sipping from their horns would heal anyone. These accounts by well-known historical figures, who were regarded as reliable and acceptable at the time, contributed to the perpetuation of the unicorn mythology over the years. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century CE, was the one who eventually gave this single-horned creature the name we know it by today: the Monoceros, or unicorn.
Pliny believed it had the feet of an elephant and the tail of a swine, despite the fact that he described it as horse-like with a single horn. While physical descriptions of unicorns varied in these early writings, the animal’s demeanor remained unchanged. These early reports highlighted the characteristics that became associated with the legendary unicorn, including quickness, aggression, invincibility, healing abilities, as well as elusiveness.
Religious Symbolism Of The Unicorn
The unicorn gained religious overtones within the Christian church over the years as a sign of purity and compassion and was sometimes used as an allegory for Christ. During the 3rd century CE, Alexandrian authors translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek substituted the Greek word Monoceros for the Hebrew word re êm, which meant wild ox. The word “unicorn” exists in various English Bible translations, notably the King James Bible, as a result of this interpretation, frequently with overtones to power and ferocity.
The unicorn was a sign for Christ, and the unicorn’s horn was symbolic of the cross, according to Tertullian, a Carthaginian author who wrote around 190 CE. The horn, according to Saint Basil in the third century CE, symbolized “glory, might, and redemption.” The unicorn was well-established as a religious emblem by the Middle Ages, and it became a prominent subject in medieval art. The unicorn became connected with moral ideals throughout this time period, with a focus on knighthood, chivalry, as well as chastity, and beauty.
The Quest For The Ancient Unicorn
Few, if any, people today would reasonably say to have seen a unicorn, but that hasn’t prevented us from searching for one. Modern researchers have been tempted to look for traces of the mysterious unicorn in far more archaic images than medieval bestiaries. For instance, the so-called “unicorn” cave painting discovered in the Paleolithic Lascaux Cave’s Hall of the Bulls goes back to 17,000 BCE.
There’s also the “unicorn,” which can be found on various soapstone seals from the Indus Valley Civilization discovered at archaeological sites in Harappa, Pakistan. Perhaps these creatures originally referred to a species that resembled a unicorn, implying that the unicorn mythology had a considerably longer history than current evidence implies.
Many researchers, on the other hand, argue that such portrayals are nothing more than perspective drawings of two-horned animals. Furthermore, the Chinese Qilin has been linked to the unicorn of European medieval folklore, despite the fact that the Qilin is generally represented as having two horns and there are few similarities between the two species.
In any case, it’s not just the fabled unicorn’s single horn that fascinates people, but the traits that have come to be connected with this mysterious, ferocious, and mystical creature. The unicorn has captivated our attention for ages, but we have only ever come close to describing a unicorn via artwork and tales.