Unicorns – a brief history - St Neots Museum (2023)

From ferocious beasts to friendly rainbow spouting mascots, it turns out that unicorns have been around in some form or other from the earliest of civilisations. As April 9th marks National Unicorn Day, we thought we’d take the chance to briefly trace some of their natural history…

Uncertain beginnings

The first dubious nod to unicorn mythology comes from the Indus Valley Civilisation, which, together with ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, formed one of the three powerhouse civilisations of the ancient Near East c. 3000 – 1300 BCE. Imagery on seals belonging to elite members of society depict a horse like animal (shown in profile) with a single horn protruding from its skull. Granted, this early link to unicorns IS a tenuous one, and it’s much more likely that these are instead representations of aurochs – a type of large wild cattle that formerly inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa.

A case of mistaken identity

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Indus Civilisation seal of a possible unicorn at the Indian Museum Kolkata.

The first written evidence we have for unicorns appears in ancient Greece, not (as you might expect) in writings of mythology but in ‘natural history’ writings, once again on the ancient Near East. The earliest accounts come from the writer Ctesias in the 4th century BCE. In his book Indika (On India) he includes one of the first references of a unicorn, describing them as a type of wild ass: “fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half in length, and coloured white, red and black” – fancy! In the same writings, he also includes descriptions of the oryx (a type of antelope with similar colourings described above) so it’s likely that the two were one and the same.

In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder writes of a fierce animal he calls the ‘monokeros’ (or ‘single horn’, a word with etymological links to ‘unicorn’) which “has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length”. Not the usual imagery we’d associated with these majestic beasts, and no prizes for guessing the animal he was actually describing! Later, in the 13th century, Marco Polo would add to this unflattering description of a unicorn by adding that “they spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime” – hardly rainbows and sparkles!

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Aurochs in a cave painting, Lascaux, France

Obviously, in each of the above cases we’re witnessing a great deal of mistaken identity, but, pieced together from all of these accounts, the myth of a single horned beast, known as the unicorn, was born.

Masters of evasion

Along with their physical description, Pliny is also amongst the first writers to describe the unicorns’ character traits, stating that they were amongst the fiercest animals in India and impossible to be captured alive – this would become a running theme to their mythology, particularly in the medieval period.

Writing in the 6th century CE, Cosmas Indicopleustes (a travelling merchant from Alexandria), gives a wonderful account of the unicorn’s notorious ability to avoid capture. He tells us that all the unicorn’s power resides in its horn, and when placed in danger, a unicorn would happily throw itself from a cliff to escape, landing expertly on the point of its horn unharmed… Disappointingly, he’s silent on how it then unplugged itself from the ground. Shame.

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Unicorns in Christianity

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Unicorn from a 13th century church floor, Ravenna, Italy

It’s said that a mistranslation of the bible’s old Hebrew text, even led to the unicorn being mentioned in some versions of the bible. A supposed error when translating the Hebrew term ‘Re’em’ (ox) as ‘monokeros’ effectively changed the word ‘ox’ to ‘unicorn’.

In the 2nd century CE, a Greek Christian text known as the Physiologus (widely seen to be the predecessor of the popular medieval ‘bestiaries’, or ‘books of beasts’) further made popular the allegory that unicorns were strong, fierce, animals, adding that their horn could purify poisoned waters. The book also strengthened another popular belief that had developed, which was that unicorns could only be subdued with the cooperation of a virgin maiden, as unicorns were said to become loving and docile in their presence. This, along with their purifying characteristics, subsequently led to Christ himself being associated with the unicorn, and medieval artwork often depicted a unicorn as a metaphor for Christ.

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The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino. Image from Alinari Archives/CORBIS

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Symbols of chivalry

In medieval Europe, the unicorn became a symbol closely associated with chivalry, with heroic lovers and their lady companions often compared to the doting relationship between the unicorn and a virgin. During the Renaissance, in a move away from the Christian allegory, the unicorn became a secular symbol of chastity and loyalty.

From the 15th century, unicorns also started to become popular in heraldry, frequently depicted as a horse with a goat’s hooves and beard, and a delicate spiral horn. They’re often also shown as collared with a broken chain, perhaps as a nod to their immense power and ultimately untameable nature. In Celtic mythology, the unicorn is a symbol of purity, innocence and power, and so became an obvious choice for Scotland’s royal coats of arms.

Healing qualities

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Scotland’s Royal Coat of Arms

The purifying qualities associated with the unicorn’s horn was such a popular legend that cups reputedly made of unicorn horn were highly valued by medieval nobility as a protection against poisoning. In reality, these cups were most likely made from rhinoceros’ horn or narwhal tusk!

AND unicorn horn as a means for protection didn’t end there… In the 17th century, London newspapers often contained advertisements for miracle elixirs made of “true Unicorn Horn”. These were said to relieve a full-on list of diseases from ulcers and scurvy, to melancholy and fainting spells.

From reality to mythology

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‘The Lady at the Unicorn’ tapestry, from a series made in France circa. 1500 – this one representing ‘sight’

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Sadly, by the 18th century, belief in unicorns began to wane, as more of the world was explored and traces of these majestic animals were unfounded. It wasn’t until the Victorian era when the now famous ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries (made around 1500, and widely considered to be amongst the greatest pieces of medieval art) were rediscovered, and romanticised by Victorian artists. From this point onwards, the unicorn as a glamorised mythical beast grew in popularity, leading us right up to the present day where the unicorn trend is booming! From unicorn coffees and bagels, to emojis and a whole plethora of accessories, the unicorn ‘brand’ is now inescapable.

It’s certainly come a long way from its ferocious origins!


What is the story behind the unicorn? ›

The unicorn myth originated shortly after unidentified horn-like objects, from six to ten feet long, began to appear in ancient European marketplaces. Physicians quickly ascribed outlandish healing properties to these horns, pulverizing them for the treatment of various diseases.

What is the symbolism of unicorn? ›

Unicorn Symbolism and Meaning

The unicorn is a symbol of purity and grace. This majestic creature represents all that is good in the world and reminds us that we should strive to be our best selves. Those with the unicorn as their spirit animal are gentle souls who deeply understand the world around them.

Where was the first unicorn seen? ›

The first written evidence we have for unicorns appears in ancient Greece, not (as you might expect) in writings of mythology but in 'natural history' writings, once again on the ancient Near East. The earliest accounts come from the writer Ctesias in the 4th century BCE.

Why is it called the unicorn? ›

Borrowed into English by the early 1200s from French, unicorn comes from the Latin unicornis, “having one horn.” This root joins uni-, meaning “one,” and cornu, “horn.” (The Latin is a loan translation of the Greek monokeros, its equivalent of “one horn” and passing into English as monoceros.)

What is the moral of the unicorn? ›

The story ends with, "Moral: Don't count your boobies before they're hatched", a play on the popular adage, "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched". Thus, the moral advises not to expect one's hopes to be a certainty.

Are unicorns male or female? ›

In ancient myths, the unicorn is portrayed as male, whereas in the modern times, it is depicted as a female creature.

What is a unicorn in the Bible? ›

A re'em, also reëm (Hebrew: רְאֵם), is an animal mentioned nine times in the Hebrew Bible. It has been translated as "unicorn" in the King James Version, and in some Christian Bible translations as "oryx" (which was accepted as the referent in Modern Hebrew), "wild ox", "wild bull", "buffalo" or "rhinoceros".

Did unicorns ever exist on Earth? ›

Thanks to a newly discovered skull fossil found in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan, we now know that the unicorn — or "Elasmotherium sibiricum" — roamed the planet roughly 29,000 years ago and looked more like a rhinoceros than a horse.

When did unicorns go extinct? ›

The unicorn might not be very old at all, and might have still been kicking until 39,000 years ago. This places its extinction “firmly within the late Quaternary extinction event”, between 50,000 and four thousand years ago, in which nearly half of Eurasian mammalian megafauna died out.

What is the story of The Lady and the unicorn? ›

Nicolas des Innocents, a handsome, lascivious artist, is summoned to the Paris home of Jean Le Viste, a nobleman who wants Nicolas to design a series of battle tapestries for his house. Jean's wife, Geneviève, persuades Nicolas to talk her husband into a softer subject: the taming of a unicorn by a noblewoman.

What is the message of The Lady and the unicorn? ›

The tapestry's intended meaning is obscure, but has been interpreted as representing love or understanding. Each of the six tapestries depicts a noble lady with the unicorn on her left and a lion on her right; some include a monkey in the scene.

What do unicorns represent in the Bible? ›

In Christian thought, the unicorn represents the incarnation of Christ, a symbol of purity and grace that could be captured only by a virgin.


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