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The Unicorn Myth

The Unicorn Myth


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The unicorn, a mythical creature popularized in European folklore, has captivated the human imagination for over 2,000 years. For most of that time, well into the Middle Ages, people also believed them to be real. The roots of the unicorn myth date back at least as far as 400 BCE, when the Greek historian Ctesias first documented a unicorn-like animal in his writings on the region of India. Descriptions of the unicorn can be traced throughout the following centuries in the writings of other prominent historical figures, such as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and even Julius Caesar, who claimed that similar animals could be found in the ancient and vast Hercynian Forest of Germany.

These early accounts describe the unicorn as ferocious, swift, and impossible to capture, with a magical horn capable of healing numerous ailments. Over time, the unicorn acquired additional significance as a symbol of purity, protection, and medieval chivalry. It even developed religious connotations, sometimes employed as an allegory for Christ. During the Middle Ages, unicorn imagery and descriptions were commonly included in medieval bestiaries, and the unicorn became a popular motif in medieval art. Perhaps the most famous example is “The Unicorn Tapestries,” currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Cloisters in New York City. Today, the unicorn can still be found everywhere (and nowhere): it remains a ubiquitous symbol that pervades popular culture from children's movies to Silicon Valley slang for start-ups valued at over one billion dollars. Though we may no longer believe in the existence of unicorns, the unicorn myth remains very much alive and well.

Early Descriptions of a One-Horned Beast

Ctesias' definition Influenced future historians & became the foundation upon which the myth of the unicorn was built.

The earliest written description of a unicorn is attributed to Ctesias in 400 BCE. A Greek physician and historian who served in the court of both Darius II (r. 424-404 BCE) and Artaxerxes II (r. 404-358 BCE) of the Achaemenid Empire, Ctesias wrote Indica, the first book in Greek on the regions of India, Tibet, and the Himalayas. Having never been to that region himself, however, he relied on information brought to him by travelers along the Silk Road. Indica was both widely read and quoted; it was also ridiculed for some of its more fanciful descriptions. It survives today only in the work of others, including fragments summarized by Photius in the 9th century CE. The first mention of a unicorn-like animal appears in the 25th fragment:

There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses and even larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn in the middle of the forehead that is one cubit [about a foot and a half] in length; the base of this horn is pure white…the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson, and the middle portion is black. Those who drink from these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, either to convulsions or to the falling sickness. Indeed they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers… (Freeman, 14)

This colorful animal that Ctesias describes is most likely a fanciful rendition of the Indian rhinoceros. The rhinoceros horn was considered in India to have healing properties and was sometimes made into drinking vessels decorated with three bands of color. Even so, the belief in the magical healing powers of the unicorn horn was to become an integral component of the unicorn myth. Ctesias continues:

This animal is exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither horse nor any other, can overtake it…There is no other way to capture them in the hunt than this: when they conduct their young to pasture, if they are surrounded by many horsemen, they refuse to flee, thus forsaking their offspring. They fight with thrusts of horn; they kick, bite, and strike with wounding force both horses and hunters; but they perish under the blows of arrows and javelins, for they cannot be taken alive. The flesh of this animal is so bitter that it is not edible; it is hunted for its horn and its ankle-bone. (Freeman, 14)

Ctesias, who was known for having a personal interest in the fantastical, had described a captivating creature unlike any other. It is this definition that influenced future historians and became the foundation upon which the myth of the unicorn was built. Writing less than a century later, Aristotle criticized Ctesias's work for its perceived embellishments, but he did not dispute Ctesias's description of this single-horned beast. In The History of Animals, Aristotle confirms the existence of the “Indian ass,” an animal he describes as having a single horn protruding from the center of its head, and adds that unlike most horned animals, the Indian ass is “single-hooved,” as opposed to “cloven-footed.”

Julius Caesar, writing circa 50 BCE, records the existence of a stag with a single horn, much “taller and straighter” than any seen before, living in the ancient and dense Hercynian Forest of Germany. The Roman historian, Aelian, writing in the 2nd century CE, describes the unicorn much in the same way as Ctesias, noting that it can be found in India. Aelian, however, describes their coats as reddish in color, not white. Their horns are black, he says, and spiral up to a very sharp point. They are gentle with other animals but prefer solitude, and only mingle with others of their kind during mating season. He notes that they cannot be captured, at least not when they are full-grown, and that drinking from their horns will cure ailments.

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These accounts by prominent historical figures, deemed trustworthy and reputable in their time, helped to perpetuate the unicorn myth through the centuries. It was Pliny the Elder who, in the 1st century CE, finally gives this single-horned animal the name by which we know it today: the monocerous, or unicorn. Though he describes it as horse-like with a single horn, Pliny says that it has the feet of an elephant and the tail of a boar. The monocerous is extremely powerful and, of course, cannot be captured alive. Though physical descriptions of the unicorn continued to vary in these early writings, the character of the animal remained constant. These early accounts outlined the qualities that came to be associated with the mythological unicorn: speed, ferocity, invincibility, healing powers, and elusiveness.

The Unicorn as a Religious Symbol

Throughout the ensuing centuries, the unicorn acquired religious connotations within the Christian church as a symbol of purity and grace, sometimes used as an allegory for Christ. During the 3rd century CE, Alexandrian scholars translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek replaced the Hebrew word re êm, meaning wild ox, with the Greek word monoceros. Due to this translation, the word “unicorn” appears in some English translations of the Bible, including the King James Bible, often with references to strength and ferocity.

Tertullian, the Carthaginian author writing around 190 CE, believed the unicorn to be a symbol for Christ, and the horn of the unicorn a representation of the cross. Saint Basil asserted in the 3rd century CE that the horn represents "glory, power and salvation" and that Jesus must be called the Son of Unicorns since the unicorn is “irresistible in might and unsubjected to man” (Freeman, 17). By the Middle Ages, the unicorn was well-established as a religious symbol and became a common motif in medieval art. During this era, the unicorn also came to be associated with moral virtues, with particular emphasis on chivalry, heraldry, and also chastity and purity.

The Unicorn in Medieval & Early Renaissance Art

Bestiaries were illustrated books of the natural world containing descriptions of all sorts of animals, plants, & rocks, some real & others only imagined but believed to exist.

So great was the medieval fascination with unicorns that narwhal tusks were frequently passed off as unicorn horns, and sold for large sums of money by traders. The popularity of the unicorn was also aided by the proliferation of the medieval bestiary. Preceded by the Greek Physiologus, bestiaries were illustrated books of the natural world containing descriptions of all sorts of animals, plants, and rocks, some real and others only imagined but nonetheless believed by contemporary readers to exist in the natural world. The unicorn is most commonly found in bestiaries and other illuminated manuscripts of the 12th and 13th centuries CE and is often depicted beside a young woman. Deriving from its association with purity and chastity, the medieval unicorn was believed to have a fondness for young maidens. While Ctesias and other earlier writers described the unicorn as being virtually impossible to capture alive, it was later thought that young women, specifically virgins, were capable of taming unicorns and assisting in their capture. Some art historians have pointed out the phallic nature of the unicorn's horn when remarking on this particular association. This relationship can be seen in many of the images from surviving bestiaries.

The characteristics that had come to be associated with the unicorn by the late Middle Ages are evident in “The Unicorn Tapestries,” a series of seven tapestries housed at the Met Cloisters that depict a unicorn hunt. Thought to have been woven over a ten-year period from 1495 to 1505 CE, they were discovered in the possession of François VI de La Rochefoucauld in 1680 CE. Though each tapestry is sometimes called by different names, the Met currently refers to them as follows:

  • The Hunters Enter the Woods
  • The Unicorn Purifies Water
  • The Unicorn Crosses a Stream
  • The Unicorn Defends Himself
  • The Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden
  • The Hunters Return to the Castle
  • The Unicorn Rests in a Garden

In this tapestry series, we can see the unicorn's healing powers as it cleanses the drinking water for the other animals, its ferocity as it defends itself from the hunters, and its susceptibility to the powers of a young maiden. Though this specific tapestry survives only in fragments, we can still see that the unicorn is docile in the presence of the young maiden, oblivious to the hunter holding a horn who lurks in the woods, ready to alert his fellow hunters. There is some speculation as to whether the seventh tapestry, The Unicorn Rests in a Garden, was originally part of this series, but these tapestries as they currently hang demonstrate the unicorn's power of everlasting life, as we see the unicorn killed, but then later, alive and well.

A second set of unicorn tapestries, woven around 1500 CE for the La Viste family, are held at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Known collectively as The Lady and the Unicorn, the series consist of five tapestries, each depicting one of the five senses (touch, hearing, smell, sight, taste), and a mysterious sixth tapestry called "Mon Seul Desir," or “my only desire,” that some scholars hypothesize might depict love or free will. The unicorn had become a popular choice for family crests in Europe, particularly due to its ability to cure the effects of poison, a surprisingly common danger in the Middle Ages. In the tapestry symbolizing taste, we see the unicorn and a lion bearing the La Viste family coat of arms.

The Search for the Ancient Unicorn

Like in ancient times, there are few, if any, who would seriously claim to have seen a unicorn, but that has not stopped us from looking. There has been some temptation on the part of modern scholars to search for evidence of the enigmatic unicorn in far more ancient imagery than medieval bestiaries. The so-called “unicorn” cave painting found in the Hall of the Bulls at the Paleolithic Lascaux Cave dates back to 17,000 BCE, for example. There is also the “unicorn” that appears on many of the soapstone seals from the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 7000 - c. 600 BCE), recovered at archaeological sites in South Asia.

Perhaps these animals initially referred to a creature similar to the unicorn, which would mean that the roots of the unicorn myth date back much, much farther than evidence currently suggests. Many historians, however, dispute that such depictions are anything more than two-horned animals rendered in profile. Additionally, the Chinese qilin has sometimes been compared to the unicorn of European medieval folklore, although traditionally the qilin is depicted as having two horns, and it would be difficult to find many similarities between the two creatures. Either way, it is not simply having a single horn that makes the mythical unicorn so fascinating, but the characteristics that have come to be associated with this elusive, fearsome, and magical creature. The unicorn has captured our attention for centuries, but it is only through art and stories that we, in turn, have ever come close to capturing a unicorn.


'Unicorn': Nothing Is What It Seems

Poor Marco Polo. The 13th century Italian explorer had finally gotten a glimpse of a unicorn and he was sorely disappointed:

Their hair is like that of a buffalo, and their feet like those of an elephant. In the middle of the forehead they have a very large black horn…. Their head is like that of a wild boar, and is always carried bent to the ground. They delight in living in mire and in mud. It is a hideous beast to look at, and in no way like what we think and say in our countries, namely a beast that lets itself be taken in the lap of a virgin. Indeed, I assure you that it is quite the opposite of what we say it is.

The Unicorn Tapestries, Ctesias was the first person to write about the one-horned animal. She quotes from his book Indica, written around 400 BCE:

There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses and even larger. Their bodies are white, their heads are dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn in the middle of the forehead that is one cubit [about a foot and a half] in length the base of this horn is pure white … the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson, and the middle portion is black. … Other asses, tame or wild … do not have an ankle-bone… but these do have an ankle-bone … the most beautiful that I have ever seen…. This animal is exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it….

This early description gave the world the image of the horse-like body, the white color, and the single horn, an image that would later be transformed into the medieval unicorn. (And note the ankle bone. Swoon.) But it seems clear from several of Ctesias's statements that he actually had the Indian rhinoceros in mind (or perhaps someone's description of it—Ctesias himself never visited India). The Indian rhinoceros and one other Far-Eastern species are the only land mammals with one horn (the two species of African rhinoceros have two horns). Ctesias mentions the pharmaceutical value of the horn from the "Indian wild ass" rhinoceroses have suffered for centuries from the supposed value of their horns as aphrodisiacs and antidotes. He considered the wild ass very fleet and difficult to capture the Indian rhinoceros, despite its lumbering appearance, is swift, and its capture is both difficult and dangerous. But the Indian rhinoceros has a massive, ungainly body, stumpy legs, and a thick, folded hide that looks like plates of armor. With the exception of its single horn, it is profoundly unlike the lithe unicorn of medieval art, and one can understand why Marco Polo wasn't exactly dazzled.

How did this huge and distinctly undainty beast get turned into a beautiful white horse? The beautiful ankle bone may have played a part, but a linguistic fumble likely shares some of them blame. We start with the word rhinoceros, based on the Greek rhin-, "nose," and keras, "horn," an accurate enough name for the animal. All rhinoceros species do have horns (more precisely, masses of compressed hairlike material), more or less on the nose. And what about unicorn? That means "one horn," from the Latin uni-, "one," and cornu, "horn." While this is a descriptive name for the rhinoceros, unicorn was originally applied to something entirely different.

When scholars were translating the Bible's Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek in the third century B.C.E., they encountered a mysteriously named animal. The Hebrew word for this creature was re'em, and the beast was evidently large and powerful. In Job 39:9–11 the writer asks, as the 1611 King James Version puts it:

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 labor to him?

Modern scholars believe the re'em was the aurochs, or wild ox, which is now extinct. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible, published in 1952, translates the passage differently to reflect this belief:

Is the wild ox willing to serve you? Will he spend the night at your crib?

Can you bind him in the furrow with ropes, or will he harrow the valleys after you?

Will you depend on him because his strength is great, and will you leave to him your labor?

Although our modern view of the creature referred to here is quite different, ancient scholars had to come up with a Greek word for it, so, drawing on garbled descriptions of the rhinoceros, they settled on the Greek word monokeros, meaning "one horn." (Monokeros had already been used by some writers for the Indian rhinoceros.) The Latin version of the Bible turned this word into unicornus, which in English became unicorn.

To sum up: vague information on two different animals, the Indian rhinoceros and the aurochs, was conflated to produce another, imaginary animal, the unicorn. Then medieval writers, who tended to see the natural world as a single, unified allegory of Christian history and doctrine, turned this biblical animal into a symbol for Christ. And thus Marco Polo's disappointment was made inevitable.

You, we should mention, are not required to join Mr. Polo in that disappointment. There's no reason why you can't enjoy the same old unicorn t-shirts and unicorn stickers and unicorn makeup and unicorn card games and unicorn noodles you always have. And certainly the business world need not stop its metaphorical unicorning at the one we've already written about—by all means bring on the the "unicorn dinosaur" too. We'll deal with it if we have to. Words are not ruined by their histories.

One last question we'll address here: why is it unicorn and not unihorn? Besides the fact that it traces back to the Greek monokeros, the h at the beginning of the Old English word horn didn't sound like our h. It was a scraping of the tongue in the back of the mouth kind of sound (technically a voiceless velar fricative), like the Scottish ch at the end of loch. It sounded a lot more like corn than is apparent to a modern speaker, which we hope will be of some comfort to our readers.

And there you have it: the original unicorn was a rhinoceros our ancestors pronounced horn a lot like corn and the business world is trying to make unicorn dinosaur happen. Don't let any of it prevent you from squeeing over the next unicorn you see.


Stories From Visitors

Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page.

How the Unicorn Got Its Horn
The goddess Athena was particularly fond of 12 of her worshippers that looked after one of her temples deep in the forest at the foot of a huge, rocky &hellip

How the Unicorn Came To Earth
The Unicorn in not like other mythical creatures who are born of earth, the Unicorn comes from the home of the gods, Olympus. It was there in the heavens &hellip

Tiffani and the Unicorn
There once was a young farmer's daughter named Tiffani who was very kind and very pretty with long curly brown hair. One day she found a baby bird lost, &hellip

I've Met the Man Who Breeds Unicorns.
I will explain it to you now as I have come to understand it. There is a man named Oberon Zell whom not only breeds Unicorns, but he has the patent to &hellip

The Maiden's Hardened Heart
As every great tale starts, this one begins with a maiden (virgin). The maiden was the only child of a wealthy merchant and his wife. She was &hellip

Unicorns
Unicorns are a lost species that were hunted to extinction thousands of years ago. They were first created when Artemis, the goddess of animals, was tricked &hellip

The Story Of Atrenipaloloa
Once many years ago, there was a river of wine. Born from the enchanted wine was Terphonagao and Artumetlisopoa. They were the first Unicorns. They birthed &hellip

The Unicorn Of Heatherbridge Hill
"Once up on Heatherbridge Hill, I saw a Unicorn." said Jess's grandpa. "But there is no such things as unicorns!" protested Jess. Her grandpa told her &hellip

The Horse and the Antelope
It was a dark day, and the Inuktituk people were not impressed with the lack of antelope to feed their families. They did not have alot to begin with since &hellip

Unicorns of the Sea God
The fluidity in the movement and the soft, kind and emotional nature of unicorns that are as sensitive to feelings as a bubble is to touch - all stem from &hellip

The Black One
None were black. None of them expected this. 'Twas only spoken of in their legends. The Black Unicorn. She was born from Rage, a paint unicorn, and Lust, &hellip

The Creation of Unicorns
Many years ago an Italian man fell in love with a woman called Riatu. The man, named Adriano, fell into great dispair when Riatu married his brother Habicho. &hellip

The Coming Of The Unicorns
Unicorns came from a place where we not know of. They are amazing creature with power beyond imagined. The Unicorns came from the half-goats half-horses. &hellip

The legend of Zah'ro
Zah'ro was an evil and greedy man. He tied women up for days without food or water until they finally died. He went to bars and had bar fights regularly. &hellip

Legend of the One-Horns!
Long ago the battle of good and evil raged on. Evil was taking the upper hand. Humans began to act like animals and demons began taking over human souls! &hellip

Hera's Secret.
The creature in question, commonly known as the "unicorn" is known as a, usually, white horse with a majestic horn upon its forehead. They were never seen &hellip

The First Unicorn Emerges
I looked upon the magnificent beast before me, although I don't think beast was the right word. Beasts are nightmares born into reality, but this . &hellip


7 Strange facts about these mythical creatures

How much do you know about these mythical creatures? Discover all the exciting facts about the world of unicorns!

1. What does the horn symbolize?

This mystical horn represents both masculine and feminine energy: it's seen as manly due to its phallic shape and womanly because of the spirals that resemble seashells and evoke female sexuality.

2. Unicorn's mythical powers

Although historians haven't always agreed on the unicorn's appearance, there is a consensus regarding the mythical powers that these creatures possess.

Among others, unicorns had healing powers and could part seas, which made it a true symbol of magic and mystical inspiration for many literary and fantastic fiction. Pliny the Elder, Plato and Aristotle, among others, have dedicated extensive pages in their writings to unicorns.

3. What do unicorns eat?

Considering that they're peaceful animals, their diets are not centred around hurting other beings, or humans. It is believed that they eat fruit and cereal, especially if found on easily accessible overhanging branches. They quench their thirst with river water, in waterfalls and other places with running water.

4. Great medieval strength

During the Middle Ages, unicorns were portrayed as strong, mythical creatures that became dangerous once you tried to look for them and many painters and artists of the times were inspired by the one-horned animal. Among the painters that featured unicorns in their work, it's worth mentioning Raphael's "Young Woman with Unicorn."

This painting has a rather interesting history, considering that Raphael initially painted a dog (symbol of fidelity) which he later turned into a unicorn (reasons remain unknown). The unicorn, however, wasn't discovered until a 20th-century restoration which removed the wheel, cloak and palm frond that had been added by an unknown painter during the 17th century. The subject of the painting has since been identified as Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

5. Remains of a Korean unicorn

In 2012, the existence of unicorns came to light after centuries of being only mythical creatures. A North Korean news agency informed that archaeologists had found a unicorn lair and the remains of a unicorn ridden by the ancient Korean King Tongmyong.

Media outlets focused more on the unicorn and less on the agenda of Kim Jong-un's totalitarian regime, which had intended to claim that the city of Pyongyang was founded on the ruins of the most important city in Koren history, Gojoseon. There were in fact unicorns found in those caves, many of them painted on the walls.

6. Unicorns and the Bible

Similarly to many mythical creatures, like the giants, the Bible has references of unicorns although it could be a result of a mistranslation. Therefore, unicorns are mentioned in the Book of Jacob, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Numbers. Sometimes, instead of a unicorn, there were mentions of rhinoceroses, bulls, oxen, or bison, because the word used references a mighty animal.

This is the origin of the many stories revolving around the unicorn's strength: it was believed that a unicorn could defeat an elephant many times his size. The unicorn's elusive nature is also mentioned, and no matter how tight the ropes or clever the traps, it still managed to escape the hands of men.

Furthermore, unicorns are related to the concept of Christianity and depicted in a few paintings, the most noted one being Moretto da Brescia's " Saint Justina with the Unicorn, Venerated by a Patron."

7. Other one-horned animals

When we mention unicorns, we think of the classic white horse with one horn, but if we have a closer look at world history and culture we'll discover many mythical creatures that are described as having a spike in the middle of their heads. A notable mention would be the Asian qilin, a one-horned mythical creature.

Greek mythology references a creature known as Oricuerno, Alicornio, Unigaso or Pegacorn, which represents a winged unicorn (including winged hooves). Chilota mythology also features the camahueto, a sea creature that has the shape of a bull with a small horn on its forehead.


Heraldry

The unicorn is famously used as the national animal of Scotland. To this extent, it is used as a supporter in the arms of Scotland and the UK.

The coat of arms of Nova Scotia acknowledges its historical connection with Scotland. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Clearances of the Scottish Highlands forced many Gaelic Scots to resettle, abandoning their ancestral lands. Many fled to what is now Nova Scotia, resulting in a large Gaelic-speaking community.


Key Facts & Information

Historical Background

  • We owe our knowledge of unicorns to the Ancient Greeks.
  • They were the first to write about unicorns, not as part of their mythology, but of their historical accounts of nature.
  • Greek historian Ctesias was the first to write about the unicorn.
  • He described the creature as having blue eyes, a white body, a purple head with one one protruding in three colors. The horn was white at the base, black at the center, and red at the tip.
  • He wrote that unicorns were fast and very difficult to capture.
  • The Greeks believed that the creatures came from the Indus Valley civilization.
  • Unicorn symbols were used as seals on clay tablets in 3000 B.C.
  • They were also used as heraldic symbols in the Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations.
  • The first drawn image of a unicorn was discovered in France.
  • It is called the Lascaux unicorn because it was found in the Lascaux Caves.
  • However, it has been found out that the Lascaux unicorn actually had two horns illustrated, just close to each other.
  • Those are not the only cave drawings of unicorns found. Depictions had also been found in South African and South American caves.
  • Roman author and natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, described a unicorn as fierce, one-horned, and a “monoceros”.
  • During the 6th century, Greek merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes noted that the power of the unicorn is in its horn.
  • In the Middle Ages, books called bestiaries contained information about various animals’ biological descriptions and medicinal properties. Unicorns were part of those records.
  • In those times, unicorns were seen as symbols of innocence and purity.
  • In the Old Testament of the King James version of the Bible, the unicorn was mentioned nine times as a result of mistranslating the Hebrew word re’em, which should have been a wild ox.
  • In the 1400s, under King James III, two gold coins were known as the unicorn and the half-unicorn.
  • In the 17th century, Spanish archbishop Isidore of Seville said that virgins can tame and catch unicorns by baring their breasts to it. The unicorn will then lay its head on the virgin’s lap.

Unicorn Horn

  • Unicorn horns are known as alicorns.
  • The protruding tusk from a narwhal’s head looks like a unicorn horn. The tusk can grow up to 10 feet long.
  • Narwhal tusks were being sold as unicorn horns, which threatened narwhal populations.
  • The price of narwhal horns was so high that it amounted to 10 times the value of their weight in gold.
  • Merchants from Germany sold one to the pope for about what is now equivalent to 18,000 pounds.
  • In Denmark, a throne made of narwhal horns was created.
  • In England, Queen Elizabeth I spent what is now equivalent to $6 million to make a scepter out of narwhal horns.
  • During the mid-1700s, powdered unicorn horns were being sold in London pharmacies as a medicinal potion to cure aches, pains, and other illnesses.
  • In Harry Potter, a reference was made to unicorn blood as having healing powers.

Characteristics

  • Legend has it that unicorns are an antidote to poison. They can also purify unclean water.
  • Unicorns do not have wings.
  • Records from Europe depict them as pure white animals but now they’re more commonly known to be a beautiful mix of pastel colors such as blue, purple, and pink.
  • Jewish legends say that unicorns are strong enough to kill elephants.
  • It is believed that unicorns bring good fortune.
  • They can use their horn to pierce the heart of a liar.

Other Facts

  • The Siberian rhinoceros was once considered a one-horned Siberian unicorn. But it became extinct around 26,000 years ago.
  • Marco Polo mistook a rhinoceros for a unicorn and was very appalled by them.
  • Julius Caesar also claimed to have seen a unicorn in a forest in Germany.
  • Genghis Khan pulled his army back from conquering India because his deceased father sent a sign in the form of a unicorn that knelt down in front of him.
  • Pheasants are known to tame unicorns.
  • Labradors, on the other hand, scare unicorns.
  • It is possible to go unicorn hunting in Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. They issue a “Unicorn Hunting License” that is good for a lifetime. They’ve been issuing these permits since 1971. They advise people to bring pinking shears and a flask of cognac.
  • In the 1980s, surgery was done to transplant goats’ horns onto horses to make unicorns. A US patent was granted for that procedure.
  • The national animal of Scotland is a unicorn.
  • The last time a unicorn was claimed to be seen was in 2014 at the Moreton-in-Marsh Agricultural & Horse show in the United Kingdom.

Unicorn Worksheets

This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about unicorns across 24 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use Unicorn worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about a unicorn is a mythical creature that is usually depicted as a majestic white horse with a single horn protruding from its head. Many legends say it has healing powers. It is also believed to symbolize purity and innocence. It is not proven that this animal actually exists, but various cultures have accounts of its physicality and abilities.

Complete List Of Included Worksheets

  • Unicorn Facts
  • Know The Unicorn
  • Not Your Ordinary Horse
  • I Saw A Unicorn!
  • Legendary Time
  • Mythical Creature
  • “Unicorn Horn”
  • Unicorn Crossword
  • A Page in A Bestiary
  • My Heraldic Symbol
  • Unique the Unicorn

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Use With Any Curriculum

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The Unicorn, National Animal of Scotland

When one thinks about Scotland and all the cultural symbols, legends and rich heritage of the country, what comes to mind? Maybe the thistle, the famous tartan, the iconic bagpipes, or even the Loch Ness monster.

Whilst this is all correct, one mystical figure has been hiding in plain sight across the nation, a mythological creature which has been tied to Scotland as a national symbol for centuries – the unicorn.

The unicorn was and still is an important creature with great symbolism of purity and innocence, power and ferocity. Throughout the ages, records of unicorns have entered the story-telling fables of several cultures. Historic accounts even include some sightings of creatures with one horn, said to resemble such an animal.

Across ancient civilisations ranging from the Persians, the Egyptians, Indians and Greeks, such a creature was described and recorded, often with magical connotations. Even the Bible makes a record of an animal called the re’em which has been later associated with the unicorn.

Whilst the animal did not appear in the vast volumes of Greek mythological tales, it was cited by philosophers and writers who believed in the reality of such a creature, with figures such as the famous Greek geographer Strabo claiming such creatures lived in the Caucasus region, whilst other philosophers were convinced of their existence in India. Whatever the location, the sighting of such an animal was a rare and mystical event. Often associated with the moon and believed to have great healing powers, the unicorn quickly acquired different meanings in different cultures.

In the coming centuries, the medieval depiction of a unicorn became a much beloved symbol in Christian art and even today, the unicorn holds resonance as a fantastical delightful creature which has captured the imagination of generations of people.

Preston Mercat Cross, Prestonpans, East Lothian

Scotland’s deep connections with the unicorn stem from its Celtic culture. Celtic mythology believed unicorns to represent innocence and purity whilst also being associated with chivalry, pride and boldness.

The first recorded use of a unicorn symbol is in the twelfth century when it was adopted by William I on the Scottish Royal Coat of Arms.

By the fifteenth century, during the reign of King James III, coins depicting the unicorn had also appeared and would be in circulation for another century.

Furthermore, the Mercat Cross, erected across Scottish towns, cities and even villages, also incorporated the symbol of the unicorn, with some carving the mystical creature on the pillars. The Mercat Cross was a significant landmark for each location, serving at the nucleus of the community where ceremonies took place. The unicorn therefore represented the nation at the heart of these settlements. One such example to be found today includes the unicorn finial on the cross at the small fishing town at Prestonpans, east of Edinburgh.

Moreover, at this time some significant members of the nobility were given permission to use the unicorn in their Coat of Arms. Such special permission was granted to the Earl of Kinnoull and was seen as an honour to bear such a symbol.

This emblem thus became ubiquitous and would remain so even when the momentous union of the crowns occurred in 1603. King James VI of Scotland became King of England and Ireland on the 24th March and reigned until his death in 1625.

When he inherited the English and Irish thrones, the Royal Arms of England became merged with that of Scotland and the Royal Coat of Arms of Ireland was also added. Thus, the symbol of the majestic English lion was incorporated side by side with the Scottish unicorn.

Still today, different versions of the Royal Arms exist, with the Scottish version maintaining stronger Scottish symbolism with thistles and the unicorn remaining on the left side.

One particularly significant aspect in the heraldry of the unicorn is the gold chain which is used to restrain the unicorn. The chain wraps around the animal, perhaps depicting the enormous power of the mystical beast which is often described as untameable and powerful, or perhaps showing the control of the Scottish kings over such a bold creature.

The use of the unicorn alongside the lion is also very symbolic, not just in its representation of two nations brought together by a union of crowns but also as two animals which have legendary status as natural enemies, as recorded in the traditional nursery rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.

Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

And when he had beat him out,
He beat him in again
He beat him three times over,
His power to maintain.

This rhyme uses the lion and unicorn as the two protagonists and served as inspiration for others in the literary realm, including the famous writer Lewis Carroll who used the characters in “Through the Looking-Glass”. The unicorn and lion as symbols thus pervaded different forms of cultural expression, being used in art, literature and as representations of nations, cultures and history.

The Unicorn is Attacked, from the Unicorn Tapestries

One such example of the cultural significance of the unicorn is demonstrated in the “The Hunt of the Unicorn” legend, less formally known as the Unicorn Tapestries which are housed and displayed both at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and Stirling Castle.

Whilst the origins of the work are French, the tapestry depicts the unicorn chained, similarly to its representation on the Royal Coat of Arms. The historical artefact is steeped in religious symbolism and demonstrates just how vital the mystical creature was in several cultures, being used to represent something “higher”, perhaps even unattainable.

Unicorn of Scotland, Red Lion Rampant and Thistle: heraldic panel at Holyroodhouse

Today in Scotland, the unicorn has left an imprint on the country, whether it is found at the gatepost of Holyroodhouse or standing proudly in front of St Margaret’s Chapel at Edinburgh Castle. The unicorn is depicted across the country, carved in stone at St Andrews University and used as a figurehead for the HM Frigate Unicorn in Dundee.

The unicorn heraldry is emblematic of the Scottish heritage and a valuable artefact denoting the ancient beliefs and value of this magical creature.

Fun Fact: There is a National Unicorn Day which is celebrated on the 9th April.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.


The Unicorn as a Religious Symbol

Throughout the ensuing centuries, the unicorn acquired religious connotations within the Christian church as a symbol of purity and grace, sometimes used as an allegory for Christ. During the 3rd century CE, Alexandrian scholars translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek replaced the Hebrew word re êm, meaning wild ox, with the Greek word monoceros. Due to this translation, the word “unicorn” appears in some English translations of the Bible, including the King James Bible, often with references to strength and ferocity.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons

Tertullian, the Carthaginian author writing around 190 CE, believed the unicorn to be a symbol for Christ, and the horn of the unicorn a representation of the cross. Saint Basil asserted in the 3rd century CE that the horn represents “glory, power and salvation” and that Jesus must be called the Son of Unicorns since the unicorn is “irresistible in might and unsubjected to man” (Freeman, 17). By the Middle Ages, the unicorn was well-established as a religious symbol and became a common motif in medieval art. During this era, the unicorn also came to be associated with moral virtues, with particular emphasis on chivalry, heraldry, and also chastity and purity.


The True Unicorn : Myth or Reality

Myths and stories are more about people than about the creature they are talking about. Myths help us understand the important moments in our lives. They take us on difficult journeys.

Myths can connect us to people from any culture, at any time and in any place. The Myth Of The Unicorn is a myth that will probably live on. It is a beautiful story in a troubled world.

Imagine a great white horse. It has a long pointed horn sticking out of the middle of its head. He’s gentle, but powerful. This creature seems to be surrounded by magic. It is full of majesty, grace and beauty. It seems to shine with a silvery light. You probably already know the name of this imaginary creature. It is a unicorn.

Unicorns are magical one-horned creatures from myths and stories. People often imagine unicorns that look like the description above. Unicorns are imaginary. But they can be based on a real animal. Today, the spotlight is on unicorns.


Watch the video: Watch CBS The Unicorn Trailer (May 2022).