Close your eyes and imagine you’re in a beautiful forest. It’s late in the evening, and you’ve decided to take a calming walk through the trees. You see a shape moving through the trees ahead, rustling the leaves as it leans down to drink from a pond. The silvery moonlight bounces off its back, which you see is covered in shiny, white fur. Suddenly, the creature raises its head, and you gasp: there’s a horn right on top of its head, pointing directly up at the moon and glowing in the night. The creature gallops away before you can get any closer. You wander home in a daze, wondering if what you saw was real, or if you just dreamed it.
Whether you believe in them or not, or like them or not, our history with unicorns goes back a lot farther than you might imagine. In fact, scientists have found fossils that look something like unicorns. Elasmotherium sibiricum lived in Siberia and Kazakhstan up through the last ice age, and had a giant horn on top of its head. Before you get too excited, I should mention that this animal did not look like a white pony with a slender, twisted horn and rainbow mane (sorry). Instead, it looked more like a giant, furry rhinoceros. It was about the size of an elephant: 4 meters long, nearly 2 meters tall, and weighing in at about 4 tons. Scientists used to think this creature went extinct over 300 thousand years ago, but a recent fossil find was dated to be about 29 thousand years old. There were humans wandering around Earth at this time, so maybe they saw these giant creatures. And just maybe, they began telling each other stories about the magnificent horned beasts. We can’t really be certain, but maybe those stories were passed down, and led to our modern idea of unicorns.
But the unicorn would take on many different forms in stories before it came to look like a majestic white horse with a horn. Some of the very first artwork involving unicorns dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization. The Indus Valley Civilization flourished in what is now northwest India and Pakistan over 4,000 years ago. People in the Indus Valley Civilization made seals to stamp on things that belonged to them. These seals usually showed animals and also had mysterious writing on them. It was a bit like a signature. We still can’t read the writing, but many of the seals showed an animal that looked like an ox or an antelope with a single, curved horn in its head. Archeologists have also found small, clay figurines of these animals, with the horn coming up from between the eyes and curving forward.
Some scholars think the unicorn creature is based on a real, two-horned type of cattle called an auroch that lived in the area. Others think it was based on a species of antelope. But maybe it was based on a mysterious creature that these people heard about in stories passed down by their grandparents, from their grandparents, and so on, back from a time that no one remembered anymore.
Many other ancient peoples had legends about unicorn-type creatures. Long after the Indus Valley Civilization had disappeared and been forgotten, stories from ancient India talked about a unicorn-like creature. Other Hindu stories describe boars and elephants with one horn instead of two. The Bible also mentions unicorns several times, depicting them as very strong and clever, but wild creatures.
In China, ancient stories tell of a creature called the qilin. This animal had a coat of multi-colored scales, like a fish; the body and hooves of a deer; the tail of a lion; and of course, a horn. The horn was usually pronged, instead of a single straight spike, and sometimes the qilin was also shown with two horns. The qilin would appear to people right before a wise man or great ruler showed up, foretelling their arrival. Korean and Japanese folklore includes a similar creature, known as a qirin.
Ancient Greek authors also wrote accounts of unicorn-like animals. They probably got the idea from the ones in Indian stories. One author, Ctesias, heard about such a creature from India while he was living in Persia, which is now Iran. He tried to describe it, but he’d never seen it or even talked to someone who had seen it with their own eyes. It ended up sounding like a donkey mixed with a rhinoceros….which he also hadn’t seen. The creature he described had a white body, dark red head and a horn that was white on the bottom, black in the middle, and bright red at the top.
Many other ancient authors wrote about unicorns as well. They didn’t agree with each other or with modern notions of what unicorns look like. Most described unicorns as having very sharp horns–some say 4 feet! That’s about as tall as a 7 or 8-year-old child! Different writers described them as mashups of various animals. One said they had the body of a horse, legs of an elephant, tail of a pig, and a head of a deer. And of course, the 4-foot horn.
Unicorns were supposed to be very fierce and powerful. One author insisted that they let out “horrid roars.” They were said to be impossible to capture alive. But if you killed one while hunting, they were said to taste awful, so you shouldn’t eat them. (Though I doubt most kids these days would even think about it!)
Still, ancient authors thought they were worth hunting for another reason. They thought the horn had magical properties that would counteract any poison, and you could even cure diseases by drinking from a unicorn-horn cup. Some authors, including Julius Caesar, claimed that unicorns lived in the forests of Germany, a land that the Romans thought of as mysterious and dark, though they didn’t understand much about it.
It was during the Middle Ages that unicorns started to look like what we’d call a unicorn today: A horse, or sometimes a goat, usually white and with a long, sharp, twisted horn growing up from its head. One person took issue with the new, pretty-white-horse image of unicorns: the medieval explorer Marco Polo. He visited China and saw something he was sure was a unicorn. He tried to set the record straight when he got back to Europe, telling people that real unicorns were gray and almost the size of elephants, had elephant feet, and enjoyed wallowing in mud.
Can you guess what he really saw?
Yes, again, he’s confusing a rhinoceros with a unicorn. In the 1400s, rhinos lived in China, but they’re extinct there now.
Much of what we know about what people believed about unicorns in the middle ages comes from a book called the Physiologus. The Physiologus described many wild and mythical animals, including unicorns. It described how they looked, but also how they behaved, and it gave them moral traits, just like humans. We don’t know who wrote the Physiologus, but it was very popular for hundreds of years and translated into many different languages.
Unicorns were still said to be fierce, strong, clever, and wild. One story told of a unicorn chasing a lion. The only way the lion survived was by ducking behind a tree at the last moment, so the charging unicorn’s horn got stuck in the tree trunk. But the Physiologus added that unicorns also symbolized purity and grace, and even represented Jesus Christ. There was a story that when a unicorn drank water from a dirty pool, the water would be cleaned and other animals would be able to drink from it too. Just like in ancient Rome, people still thought that unicorn horns could cure you of sickness and counteract poison. People would sell rhinoceros or narwhal horns as “unicorn” horns to people looking to use it as a remedy. Of course, they didn’t work.
Unicorns are featured in a lot of medieval artwork. People wove elaborate sets of tapestries that told stories in pictures. A unicorn-themed tapestry might show a group of hunters trying to catch a unicorn on the first panel, which we know by now is not easy!
But, we learn in another panel, these hunters have a secret weapon: a young woman. In the middle ages, people thought that only a young maiden could tame a unicorn. The tapestry would show the maiden sitting with the calm unicorn, his head resting in her lap.
In some tapestry stories, the woman might lead the unicorn to the king as a gift. In others, the hunters killed or captured the unicorn, while the woman cried, sorry for the part she had played in tricking the beautiful, clever creature.
But often, in a final panel, the unicorn would be seen galloping away into the woods, as though it could never really be captured, even by trickery.
Now it’s not hard at all to capture a unicorn, or at least something unicorn-themed. Unicorns are on everything from bed sheets and stuffed animals, to cupcakes and party supplies. They turn up in books and movies, such as My Little Pony and Harry Potter. And sometimes we even call people “unicorns” when they have some unusual combination of traits that almost seem to give them superpowers.
What do you think? Where did the legend of the unicorn come from? Did we pass down stories of a strange, prehistoric creature that, over time, morphed into a graceful horse with a slender horn? Did someone see a rhinoceros from far off, or hear a story about one, and just get confused about what it was? Or do hunters and young maidens in the forest late at night sometimes see the outline of a wild horse against the full moon, with a single horn pointing up to the stars, and sense something magical?
Parpola, Asko (2011) ‘The Harappan unicorn in Eurasian and South Asian perspectives.’ Linguistics, Archeology, and the Human Past. Eds. Toshiki Osada & Hitoshi Endo. Indus Project, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature. Kyoto, Japan.