The origin of the unicorn is much harder to pin down than the creation of the Pegasus myth. Pegasus is a mainly Greek/Roman phenomenon whereas the unicorn can be found in the stories and legends of a far flung region of the Northern continents, from Japan in the Far East to most of Europe and even into northern Africa and India.
In the orient the unicorn, usually referred to as a Ki-lin or Chi-Lin, is considered a harbinger of good fortune and a prophet of great things to come. It is said that a Ki-Lin would appear at or near the time of the birth of great men and wise emperors. One legend relates the appearance of a Ki-Lin at the birth of Confucius and that it carried in it's mouth a piece of imperial jade with the prophecy of the baby's greatness written upon it. The Ki-Lin has been a foundation of Chinese mythology as early as 2700 BC and is thought to be the first manifestation of the unicorn myth. He was one of the “four auspicious animals” that included the dragon, the phoenix and the tortoise. He was believed to live to a thousand years old and therefore embodied great wisdom and knowledge. His voice was exceptionally beautiful and likened to the sound of harmonious bells. His gentleness was so extreme that he would lift his feet very high to avoid stepping on any living creature. He was very strong, a leader among the animals yet he lived alone and it was thought to be impossible to catch him. This unicorn did not resemble the European unicorn, he was more of a cross between a lion and dragon, with his single horn shorter and growing backwards instead of rapier like forward from the brow.
The first known western written account is attributed to a Greek historian named Ctesia circa 400 BC. He described an ass-like horned creature that was thought to inhabit India. His unicorn was an animal that had the head of a deer, the body of a horse, the tail of a lion, the feet of a goat, blue eyes and a horn that was white at the base, black in the middle and red at the tip and was about 1 ˝ foot in length. Interestingly enough, this creature was supposed to have purple head. This may have been a first attempt to link the animal with royalty as the colour purple has always been so hard to get and so expensive only royalty could afford to wear it. The unicorn was a very fast, powerful runner, even swifter than a horse. A recurring theme is that they are extremely hard to catch and were fierce fighters. Aristotle was fond of the unicorn myth and may have been responsible for it becoming popular in the Greco-Roman pantheon of mythical beings. A later historian, Megasthenes, also mentioned a unicorn that more resembled a rhinoceros.
At the time of these writings the world was not as well know as it is today. Many old maps had great areas that read only ”here be dragons” to show that is was not explored. To the Romans and Greeks, stories of fabled animals such as elephants and giraffes were the stuff of fantasy. Many pictures of these animals found on pottery and in frescoes were more the product of the imagination of the artist, hearing verbal descriptions by travelers, than of reality. The unicorn could possibly be a misinterpretation of the appearance of a rhinoceros or even the Oryx of the Arabian Desert. When an Oryx stands sideways his horns are so perfectly aligned as to appear as one.
Another theory is that the unicorn was invented to explain the appearance of a narwhal tooth. The narwhal is a small whale of the most northern seas. The male grows a single long tusk that can be up to 10 feet long and it twists in a spiral. The horn is actually quite beautiful and it is easy to imagine that the people of the north would trade these to travelers for great amounts of goods and may have made up stories to enhance their worth to gullible tourists. Much the same happens today to tourists in exotic places. The Vikings of Norway were known to trade in narwhal horn and kept the secret of where they came from for over 300 years, from the Middle Ages through to the 17th century. During these time the horn of the unicorn became extremely valuable and sought after as is was thought to cure any disease or ailment as well as neutralizing all poisons and purifying water. It was also thought that since the unicorn was a symbol of purity, and only a virgin could touch him, that the horn would prove the virginity of a noble bride. In France the custom was to carry a horn, or a cup made with unicorn horn, around the table and to touch all the food and drink to test it for poison. This ceremony continued at the court of the King until as late as 1789. There are written accounts of great amounts of money spent on powdered horn, as well as for pieces said to be unicorn horn. So prized was the fabled horn of the unicorn that Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century paid 10,000 pounds for one, equivalent to the cost of an entire castle. It is still in the royal treasury today. The royal scepter in England is made from the rare tusk. In Japan, two crossed narwhal teeth adorn the entrance to the Korninkaku Palace. In Denmark multiple teeth comprise the frame of the Danish throne.
The unicorn appears in the Old Testament as something to both fear and revere. Many writers have speculated that the unicorn inhabited the Garden of Eden, but it is not specifically named. There is a theory that the unicorn perished in the great flood. Although this would be rather tricky for theologists during the Renaissance when the popularity of the unicorn was at its height. How could he have perished in the flood and yet be considered a symbol of Christ and a real beast at the same time? Another theory is that he was able to swim behind the ark and so survived that catastrophe to become the icon seen in the many tapestries of Europe. For many people, the mere mention of the unicorn in the Bible was proof of its existence. As well, Sir John Mandeville penned “The Traveler's Tales” in which he told of many adventures taken by the traveler and wrote as if the unicorn was a real animal. This book was taken as truth for many years. Reports of unicorn sightings were written as late as 1673 ,they were often penned by monks and missionaries and so were believed to be true.
The Christians of the day adopted the unicorn as a symbol of Christ. It was well known that only a pure maiden could tame a unicorn and therefore Mary, the Virgin Mother, was often depicted in art with a unicorn with its head in her lap and hence it became a symbol of Christ himself in allegory. During this time the unicorn was often part of heraldry and included in a nobleman's coat of arms. The French were partial to the combination of the unicorn and the iris as symbols of nobility and loyalty. The English used the rose and unicorn to stand for strength, constancy and immortality. When England, Scotland and Wales consolidated into the United Kingdom of Britain many Coats of Arms then included the lion of England with the unicorn of Scotland. In the 15th century a series of 6 tapestries were woven in Brussels that depicted the unicorn being captured with the lure of virgin maidens. These tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn, were created as a wedding present to a noble and today reside in the Cluny Museum in Paris, France. Another famous series, The Hunt of the Unicorn, is comprised of 7 tapestries that are at the Cloisters Museum in New York. They are collectively probably the most famous art works of all time.
Written and researched by Jorge Desjardins
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