The Origin of Unicorns

The history of the unicorn is as old as human history itself. The mythical creature has been a part of folklore, legends, stories, and even ancient medicine since the dawn of civilization. The tales all began sometime during the bronze age, more than 5,000 years ago in the regions around Mesopotamia. Now, this region is a part of the modern-day Middle East and is often referred to as the cradle of civilization.

Ancient depictions of unicorns are now widely believed to be in reference to a variety of wild ox with unique horns. This particular variety of ox is called the aurochs. Other early depictions of the unicorn have been linked to different animals, including the oryx (a type of antelope), bulls, goats, horses, and the Indian rhinoceros.

Depictions of the unicorn spread throughout the Eastern and Western hemispheres as society progressed, with the creature being referred to in several major sources of ancient information. These sources of information included the Bible and the Physiologus. While almost everyone is familiar with the Bible, the Physiologus was an ancient Greek text describing dozens of animals in a sort of early scientific catalog.

These ancient texts cemented the unicorn’s place in the world. The unicorn would become more than just a mythical combination of various animals, gaining its own clearly defined identity which persists into the modern era. The white stallion with a single horn that we now know as the unicorn is the creature which was first described on paper by the ancient Greeks.

Unicorn History Around the World

Greece

The Greek doctor Ctesias was largely responsible for sparking the unicorn fascination in the west. Ctesias traveled around Persia and interacted with locals and Indian traders who told myths and legends of interesting local creatures. Through all the different and varied stories, Ctesias combined them into one animal. He was also responsible for bringing the magic of the unicorn horn to Europe. His account of the creature included stories of those who would grind down the horns of unicorns into powder and consume it as a healing elixir. 

Rome

The unicorn was also described by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who wrote a work similar to the Physiologus titled “Natural History”. In this account, Pliny described the unicorn as “the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead. Its cry is a deep bellow.” This account of the unicorn was considered scientifically accurate for almost around 1600 years. 

Medieval Europe

The compelling tales of the unicorn told by the ancient texts of Greece and Rome influenced the rest of Europe over the next thousand years. The unicorn was more than just a mythological creature during this period. Rather, it was just as real as elephants and giraffes to the population of Europe. Due to the reported healing properties of the unicorn’s horn and the tales of the strength and purity of the unicorn, it became an important symbol to Christianity. The church drew many parallels between the purity of unicorns and the Virgin Mary. It was believed that unicorns would only reveal themselves to pure, innocent virgin women. The unicorns were considered to be completely unobtainable and untameable except by the women they would seek out on their own. Upon finding one of these pure virgins, the noble unicorn would approach and kneel down to rest its silky head upon her lap.

As an influential Christian symbol, the unicorn found its way into works of art and the coat of arms for knights. Unicorns were renowned for their supernatural ability to discern the truth and their aura of purity. These were righteous qualities sought after by the knights and noble families of the period. Dukes and duchesses would adorn their coat of arms with the elaborate and beautiful iconography of unicorns. Meanwhile, knights bore emblazoned unicorns on their shields and crests as it symbolized nobility, strength, and honor.

During this time, traders saw a massive demand for unicorn products due to their ever-increasing popularity. Kings and nobles across Europe bought many products which were touted as being authentic unicorn horns. These horns, often coming from rhinos and narwhals in actuality, were believed to be powerful sources of purification. The nobles would use the magical powers of unicorn horns to ward off diseases (including the plague), purify fountains and water sources, and cleanse their meals of poisons. The sale of unicorn horns continued until as recently as the 1600’s.

China

The unicorn has a similar mythical representation known as the Qilin or Kirin throughout Asia, but especially in China. Qilin are creatures which share many varied and similar properties to the unicorn. Chinese mythology holds special regard for four creatures of nobility: the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Tortoise, and the Qilin. The word Qilin is translated from Chinese directly to mean unicorn. 

Qilin are depicted as four-legged creatures with horns, but these creatures may have two horns. They are sometimes depicted as having flowing beards (which the unicorn is sometimes depicted with as well), with the body of an ox or a deer and a pair of antlers or horns. They are commonly depicted as being golden in color but may be shown as any color or combination of colors. They are strongly associated with the elements of nature and are a force of righteousness, natural power, and pure good. Qilin were considered to be divine creatures, much like Western unicorns, and seeing one was considered a blessing. 

Qilin are still incredibly influential today in the modern practice of Feng Shui as well. The noble Qilin has an energizing aura which is known to maintain excellent health and extend the longevity of life. Qilin are found in many homes thanks to their ability to attract wealth and open doors to financial opportunities. Simply looking upon a Qilin is a good omen which brings greater joy and deeper wisdom. The magical creature is a symbol of fertility, known to bring couples success with conception. Qilin are also noteworthy for youth as they are influential in bringing success to children. 

Popular belief about the Qilin still exists today. In 2012, North Korea announced to the world that its archaeologists had discovered true evidence of unicorns. The archaeologists claimed to have discovered the lair of the mythical Kirin. The lair, called Kiringul, was stated to be the home of the legendary kirin which served as the mount of King Tongmyong around 100 BC. Surprisingly enough, the lair of the unicorn was just 200 meters away from a temple in the capital city Pyongyang.

Origin of the Word “Unicorn”

The creature now known as the unicorn comes from the Greek word for the mythological creature, “monokerōs.” This was translated into Latin sometime later, where it became “unicornis.”

The name comes from two Latin root words, “uni” meaning single and “cornu” meaning horn. Literally, the name unicorn simply means Single Horn. This description applied to a number of creatures which were written about in the Physiologus and the Bible, all of which came to be referred to as monokerōs or unicornis. Since there were no distinctions between animals, the various creatures took the same name and different characteristics of the rhinoceros and the aurochs were combined. This coincidental description helped to create the unicorn by blending the qualities of the different animals into one new creature. 

You might wonder why it is called unicorn and not unihorn. This is because the old English pronunciation of h is not the same as the modern way of speaking. The letter was pronounced much more closely to “ch”, as it would be pronounced in Loch Ness. Carrying the same sound into our modern language produces a word sounding like corn, not horn.