‘All of the beasts obeyed Noah when he admitted them into the ark. All but
the unicorn. Confident of his strength he boasted ‘I shall swim!’. For fourty
days and fourty nights the rains poured down and the oceans boiled as in a pot
and all the heights were flooded. The birds of the air clung onto the ark and
when the ark pitched they were all engulfed. But the unicorn kept on swimming.
When, however, the birds emerged again they perched on his horn and he went
under– and that’s why there are no more unicorns now.’
— from a Ukranian folk tale
The unicorn has been a topic of wonder and speculation for centuries. The
writings of such men as Aristotle, Genghis Khan, Saint Thomas, and Saint Gregory
reflect the fact that these men considered the unicorn as a very real creature.
Webester’s Seventh defines a unicorn as ‘a mythical animal generally depicted
with the body and head of a horse, hind legs of a stag, tail of a lion, and a
single horn in the middle of its forehead’. The word ‘unicorn’ comes from the
Latin ‘Uni’, meaning one, and ‘Cornu, meaning horn.
The unicorn has been depicted in the folklore and legends of other cultures
besides ours. The Chinese believed that they had the body of a deer, with
horses’ hooves and an ox’s tail. Where in the west the horn was made of bone,
the Oriental unicorn’s horn was made of flesh. The coat of the unicorn was of
the five sacred colors of the Chinese; red, yellow, blue, white, and black.
The Chinese called the unicorn ‘K’i-lin’. To them, it was a symbol of
wisdom. Around 2800 BC, the Emperor Fu Hsi wrote of seeing a k’i-lin. He saw
markings on the coat of the animal, and and perceived those symbols as a written
language, thus giving credit to the k’i-lin for the establishment of the written
The sighting of a K’i-in was a considered a good omen, and often signified
the birth of a good ruler. Other times, it appeared to give a warning to men.
A scouting party for Genghis Khan reported seeing a Chio-tuan, a type of K’i-
lin, that warned the party to stop the war, and that ‘moderation will give
boundless pleasure’. Upon receiving the report, the Mongol stopped his battle
Unicorns were reported in India as well. The Greek Ctesias wrote of seeing a
‘wild ass’ there, which was as large as a horse. He said that the horn of the
unicorn was about a foot and a half long, and three colored, with the base being
white, the middle black, and the top red.
The best known legends surrounding the unicorn are in Western culture. The
common view of the unicorn as a horse with a horn is popular, and has been
depicted in our heritage for thousands of years. The unicorn is mentioned in
the Bible in several verses. The Palm Sunday tract in the Roman Catholic missal
reads, ‘Deliver me from the lion’s mouth, and my lowliness from the horns of
unicorns’. Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan in the fourth century, considered
the unicorn a symbol of Christ as he wrote, ‘Who then has one horn, unless it be
the only begotten son, the unique word of God, which has been next to God from
the very beginning?’ Saint Augustine considered the horn of the unicorn to be a
symbol of the unity of the faith of the Church.
The horn of the unicorn has been sought after for centuries. In the west, it
was thought to have magical properties, and could purify poisons. Therefore, it
was a very valuable commodity to have. Pope Paul III is said to have paid
12,000 pieces of gold for one, but James I of England got a much better deal for
his, only paying 10,000 pounds Sterling for one. The horn of the narwhal was a
common substitute for that of the unicorn for those unscrupulous businessmen.
Because of that problem, a common test to determine the validity of a unicorn
horn was to use its magical properties of purification. David De Pomis wrote,
‘There is very little of the true horn to be found, most of that which is sold
as such being either stag’s horn, or elephant’s tusk. A true test by which one
may know the genuine horn from the false: Place the horn in a vessel of any
sort of material you like, and with it three or four large and live scorpions,
keeping the vessel covered. If you find four hours later that the scorpions are
dead or almost lifeless, the horn is a good one, and there is not enough money
in the world to pay for it’.
The search for the unicorn, and proof of its existance, dates back almost as
far as the legends which surround it. Ctesias spoke of the unicorn in the court
of Darius II, the King of Persia in 416 BC. Chinese writings date back to 2800
BC. The men of the ancient world believed in the existance of the unicorn, so
the object of their searching was to find it, not to prove it existed. It
wasn’t until later in history that man began to doubt the unicorn’s physical
existance. In the ninth century, Margoulies wrote, ‘It is universally held that
the unicorn is a supernatural being and of auspicious omen; so say the odes, the
annals, the biographies of worthies, and other texts whose authority is
unimpeachable. Even village women and children know the unicorn is a lucky
sign. But this animal does not figure among the barnyard animals, it is not
always easy to come across, it does not lend itself to zoological
classification, nor is it like the horse or bull, the wolf or deer. In such
circumstances we may be face to face with a unicorn and not know for sure that
we are. We know a certain animal with a mane is a horse and that a certain
animal with horns is a bull. We do not know what the unicorn looks like’.
Even though the existance of the unicorn is questionable, its symbolism is
not. The beast, like all mythological creatures, has been a reflection of man’s
hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, and inner consciousness. Freud
considered mythological beasts as representations of ‘universal fears and
feelings’. Specifically, Jung thought that the purity of the unicorn was of
greater importance. Most mythological creatures represent man’s worst traits,
and are usually more evil than animals, or man. They kill for pleasure, and are
often involved in unspeakable atrocities. The unicorn is an exception to the
rule, being a symbol of purity, hope, love, and majesty.
The decline of the unicorn began with the Renaissance and the advent of
scientific thought. The beliefs that had held for thousands of years began to
crumble when man could not prove the existance of the unicorn. Systematically,
report after report of a unicorn was attributed to a more believable occurance
of a more mundane animal. Rhinos, goats, and horses were all considered
explanations of unicorns. As technology advanced, more exact tests and record
keeping were developed, which added to the mounting evidence against the
unicorn. Finally, the unicorn was added to the list of animals regarded as
‘mythical’, and would later only be found in children’s stories and other
What of the unicorn today? The unicorn is returning, if only symbolically.
It is that symbolism that people are seeking today, the idea of natural truth,
purity, and love that much of society has lost in the shadow of technology.
Odell Shepard wrote, ‘It is not that the men of the Middle Ages who believed in
unicorns were less intellegent than we; their intellegence was turned in a
different direction… we wrong ourselves when we insist that if they cannot
make good their flesh and blood actuality on our level we will have none of
them’. To find the unicorn, as the ancients did, we have to unlearn what we
have learned; we must go back to an earlier way of looking at the world. Only
then will we find the unicorn.
‘Well, now we have seen each other,’ said the unicorn, ‘if you’ll believe in
me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?’