A Brief History of Unicorns
Unicorns have been known to mankind for thousands of years. They were first depicted in prehistoric cave paintings, and their legend has carried on ever since. Different ancient cultures described unicorns as large and bulky beasts, much like rhinos or oxen. Popular culture interpretations of the unicorn stem from the legends brought into Europe by the descriptions of the Greek naturalist Ctesias. From there, varied descriptions of unicorns around the world combined over time into the spiral-horned white stallion we know today.
During the middle ages, the unicorn became closely associated with purity, honor, strength, and beauty. Nobles and aristocrats sought after unicorn horns for their astounding beneficial properties. They were capable of cleansing poison, curing disease, and purifying food and drink. These traits made the unicorns one of the most sought after animals until around the 1600’s. Hunts for unicorn horns were common and many merchants took part in unicorn horn trading throughout this period.
Unicorns found a revival in the mid-1900’s when their imagery and fantasy had a massive resurgence. During the 70’s and 80’s, unicorns became extremely stylish and cemented themselves into our culture as we know them today. They were brought to appeal to the masses with television, toys, art, games, movies, and books.
What Does Unicorn Mean?
One of the most basic questions we can ask about these mythical stallions is how their name came about. Unicorn in English comes from the Latin word “unicornis.” The name comes from two root words, “uni” meaning single and “cornu” meaning horn. Literally, the name unicorn simply means Single Horn. It is likely that this simplistic name was chosen because there were so many different cultures around the world referring to the creature in ancient times with different names. The simple term made it easier to understand references made to the creature from distant lands, even for those who didn’t know what a unicorn might look like.
Unicorns are fascinating and mysterious creatures which have intrigued mankind for millennia. The magic of unicorns has been a part of our history from cave paintings to television, the Bible to children’s stories, and ancient textbooks to modern art. These mystical creatures have meant something to every generation of humanity. That symbolism, though, changes depending on the time and place in which unicorns are referenced.
Purity and Innocence
The deepest symbolic meaning of unicorns has always been their close association with purity. In order to ever encounter a unicorn, it was believed for hundreds of years that one must be completely pure of mind, spirit, and body. As a result, unicorns would only show themselves to a virgin woman whose mind had been shielded from sexuality and violence. The association between the unicorn and purity has even been carried over in Biblical reference to the Virgin Mary.
Unicorns are representative of purity of nature as well. They are only to be found deep within untouched woods where their presence retains an almost supernaturally pure and peaceful domain. They are never found in proximity to developed lands, as humanity’s development tarnishes the otherwise pure and perfect landscape unicorns desire.
The intense association between unicorns and purity led nobles and aristocrats to believe in the awe-inspiring power of the unicorn horn. For nearly a thousand years unicorn horns were sought after for their wondrous properties. It was common knowledge that unicorn horns could cleanse any food or drink of poison or disease. Kings and nobles sought them out for protection against assassination while others used their power to purify water sources for their kingdom.
The unicorn also holds meaning as a divine and pure creature of good. Unicorns were known to ward off any and all sources of evil. The creatures were said to appear to those who were pure of heart and acted out of good will and intention. Some believed that unicorns would vanquish evil and purify the lands around them. As a result, the depiction unicorns often took to mean that a location was “good” or divine and a peaceful, friendly place.
Honor and Nobility
Unicorns are depicted as honorable creatures who uphold the truth and spurn liars and rogues. These characteristics are similar to those of many aspiring knights throughout the middle ages. During this period, it was common for a knight to emblazon his shield with the crest of a unicorn in order to express to all those who would look upon him that he was just as honorable as the unicorn.
Unicorns are also representative of freedom. They could come and go throughout the wilderness as they pleased. They could never be tamed, even by the strongest or most cunning riders. Unicorns are what it means to be a free spirit. In the same way, knights would take the unicorn to be a symbol of freedom to inspire those they would meet. To wear the crest of a unicorn was to oppose tyranny and oppression for the good of the people.
In addition to their honorable nature, unicorns have tremendous strength of body and spirit. Greek literature, taken as scientific fact at the time, recorded that unicorns were capable of easily defeating an elephant in combat. The strength to outmaneuver and overpower such a significant foe was another trait that was commonly sought after by the knights of the era.
More and more throughout time, unicorns have come to be symbolic of magical powers and the wonders of the world. As the old tales of unicorns become less apparent to our modern sensibilities, their powers have seemed ever more fantastical. Unicorns represent uniqueness and rarity, the unknown and the impossible. Unicorns have also come to represent magic and mystery to those who are inspired by them. Unicorns are often referred to as being magical themselves, being conduits of magical power filled with divine energy. Their amazing strength, purifying energies, ability to remain undetected and insight into the truths held within an individual’s soul are all truly magical abilities. These associations are sometimes represented in depictions of unicorns where they are capable of flight or have a sparkling aura surrounding them.
Unicorns are strongly tied to the night, especially with the moon and lunar cycles. The same symbolism is used for many ancient goddesses, such as Artemis, Bastet, Juno, or Hecate. Many depictions of unicorns would represent the creature appearing beneath moonlight. In the modern day, we learned that ancient cultures around the world often made the association between the moon and femininity due to the lunar cycle’s ties to women’s natural cycle.
Similarly, unicorns would only ever appear before women. No man could ever hope to encounter a unicorn. There were stories of unicorn hunters who would search after the majestic animals, but they would never do so without a woman in the group to lure their target out of hiding.
Unicorns have been symbols of purity, honor, strength, freedom, and beauty throughout history. However they are represented, unicorns have been a major influence upon society throughout the world. Unicorns are icons recognized by people ranging from kings, to ancient peasants, to kindergarteners reading fairy tales. There are countless cultural references in television, books, and clothing relating to unicorns. Unicorns embody the same beauty and grace that is beloved of humanity, regardless of time or culture. Whatever meaning you associate with the unicorn, it is truly special!