Unicorn (Latin: ūnicornis; "one-horned") is a mythological animal resembling a white horse with a single horn growing out of its forehead. In some accounts they also have features belonging to other hoofed animals such as deer and goats, e.g. the picture on the right shows a unicorn with a goat's beard. They have been depicted in art and heraldry since 3000 BC in places as far apart as Mesopotamia, China, India, and southern Europe, and they are in fact the national animal of Scotland.
The ancient Greeks also knew of unicorns by way of descriptions of the animal by Ctesias who had traveled to the Persian Court and collected tales of India from travelers. His description of the unicorn (Greek: μονόκερως; "monokeros") from 416 B.C. is the oldest known written account:
- "There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads are dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about eighteen inches in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs."
Unicorns are mentioned in the King James Bible nine times and have, since at least 200 AD, been a common feature of Christian art and symbolism, often in heraldry where they are more often than not portrayed as supporters en rampant to the shield on the arms of individual families or royalty. It is typically used to symbolize virtue of mind and strength of body, but has also been used as an emblem of Christ as the horn of our Salvation.
In his Natural History the Roman Pliny the Elder mentions a number of animals native to India, one of which he described as "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." In 1389 AD the German priest John of Hesse, while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, witnessed a unicorn water-conning near Mount Sinai. In 1567 AD Vincent Le Blanc saw a unicorn at Mecca. In 1800 AD ancient primitive depictions of unicorns were found in a cave in Namaqualand, South Africa and in 1820 Major Latter of the British Army saw unicorns in Tibet. The accounts given in the Bible mention the re'um, which has been translated as "unicorn" in the King James Version, talk of the power of the animal, i.e. "God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows."
Unicorns and reality
The fossil record so far has not exposed the remains of a horse or horse-like animal bearing a single horn upon its forehead, so descriptive tales by the ancients up until modern history are probably sightings of real horned animals seen in profile, the best known example being the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), a rare animal found in the wild only on the Arabian peninsula, but which ranged over a much larger area in ancient times. The horns of the oryx are perfectly-straight, and when seen in profile it appears to have a single horn upon its forehead. Deer and goats have also been claimed to be the unicorn, provided that the antlers and horns have grown into a single structure. A single horned deer was born in Italy, while domesticated goats with a single horn have occasionally appeared in the United States, often connected with circuses. Gilberto Tozzi, director of the Center of Natural Sciences in Prato, stated the following regarding the single horned deer: "This shows that even in past times, there could have been animals with this anomaly.” Even the narwhal (Monodon monoceros) has been named as a candidate; their distinctive spiral shaped tusks having often been mistaken for, or advanced as, unicorn horns in the past.
In 1984 the U.S. patent office granted patent number 4,429,685 to Timothy G. Zell for his development of a surgical procedure to create a "unicorn" from a horned animal. The basis for the patent was "Lancelot the living unicorn" - in actuality a domestic goat - bred by Zell and his wife Morning Glory Zell.
In the Bible the word re'um (Hebrew: ראים) translates not into unicorn, but into "ox" or "wild bull"; the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the large extinct cattle of Eurasia, has been named as a candidate for that animal. Indeed, several references to the unicorn indicate a certain physical strength beyond that of the image of a horse:
- Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?
- Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?
- Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? (Job 39:9-11, KJV)
Two versions of the Bible - the American Standard and Revised versions - correctly change the word "unicorn" to follow the original Hebrew reference to a wild ox or bull. The Latin Vulgate, an older translation by centuries, translates the word into a completely different animal:
- numquid volet rinoceros servire tibi aut morabitur ad praesepe tuum
- numquid alligabis rinocerota ad arandum loro tuo aut confringet glebas vallium post te
- numquid fiduciam habebis in magna fortitudine eius et derelinques ei labores tuos (Job 39:9-11, Vulgate)
This would mean the accounts of Ctesias and Pliny would appear to have been based on the description of the Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), a large animal which once ranged beyond the Indian subcontinent into Pakistan, and bearing a single horn on its nose which inspired its scientific name. However, its horn is neither in the middle of its forehead, nor is it "two cubits" (about 3 feet) in length, as Pliny stated in his Natural History. Such a description would fall to an extinct relative of the Indian rhinoceros, Elasmotherium sibiricum, an animal estimated to have stood 8 feet at the shoulders and weigh 4.4 tons. A contemporary of the mammoth on the Eurasian steppes, it is suspected to have lived until the early historical period; paleolithic art from Rouffignac Cave, France may indicate it was familiar to early Europeans.
Sir Austin Henry Layard in his work Nineveh and its Remains (1849) describes a rhinoceros on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (c. 854-824 B.C.), found during his excavations there; the image of this animal is strikingly more like Elasmotherium than the Indian rhino.
- Fictitious & Symbolic Creatures in Art with special reference to their use in British Heraldry, by John Vinycomb, 1907
- Numbers 24:8
- Patent 4,429,685
- Why Does the Bible Mention Unicorns?