The power of the Unicorn rests in its singularity. Despite variations in the mythology relating to this most elusive and remarkable of creatures, a persistent aspect of Unicorn lore is that there is only ever one of them. This adds to the mystique which has always surrounded this most extraordinary beast, and makes it the object of passionate quest by generations of mystics, who see in it a universal symbol of the greatest prizes of all – enlightenment and spiritual transformation.
The Unicorn is generally described as looking like a small horse. But it is a feature of its fabulous history that it changes shape with time, appearing now in one form, now another. Its size and shape varies enormously, from a kid or gazelle to an elephant. The Roman historian Aelian (c. AD 220) says that in India it is the size of a mature horse, [it] possesses a mane and reddish hair…it excels in swiftness. Like an elephant it has spatulate feet and has a boar’s tail and one black horn projecting from the eyebrows, not awkwardly, but with a certain natural twist and terminating in a sharp point. It has, of all animals, the best and most contentious voice.
Even the shape of the Unicorn’s feet differ: the medieval Vertomannus wrote: ‘Unicorns have feet divided in two much like the feet of a goat,’ while according to such classical luminaries as Aristotle, Pliny and Solinus they were solid. The horn too varies greatly in length and colour and can be either straight or twisted. The conventional Unicorn of heraldry, with which most of us are familiar, has the head and body of a horse, the tail of a lion and the legs of a stag, with a single horn on its forehead. The 2nd-century Alexandrian Physiologus, which describes the shapes and forms of the animal kingdom, notes ‘it is a small animal, but exceedingly strong and fleet, with a single horn in the centre of its forehead.’
The mythology and symbolism of the Unicorn dates from earliest times and is virtually worldwide. One tradition said that it lived in ancient times but perished in the Flood. The Unicorn’s antiquity is attested right back to the early Indus valley cultures of Harappa and Mohenjo-Dara of over 5,000 years ago where it appears frequently on the mud tablets that served as contracts in that culture. That wonderful assembly of lies, history and myth, the Histories of Herodotus, mentions the Unicorn as living in Libya. The Roman historian Aelian says that it lives in India and that the Brahmins call it the Cartazonon and say that it reaches the size of a large horse when mature, that it frequents desert regions and wanders alone and solitary.
Ethiopia was also said to have Unicorns – fierce and impossible to capture, while the Hereford Mappa Mundi depicts it in the upper Nile region. According to Vertomannus, travelling in Arabia in 1503, the Arabs had a welldeveloped Unicorn tradition that said that it was to be seen in the Temple of Mecca. Egypt has versions of the animal in Abyssinia, and missionaries and travellers testified to its existence there and in Central Africa. The Roman emperor Julius Caesar said it dwelt in the Great Hercynian Forest and was the size of a bull and shaped like a stag.
A Chinese traveller of the 11-12th centuries said that Unicorns occurred in great numbers in Tibet and that Genghis Khan met one on Mount Diadanaring. In the 19th century, a French priest and traveller named Abbé Huc said, ‘The Unicorn really exists in Tibet and is known by the name of Serou, or Kere in Mongolia.’ In 1820, a British Major named Latta said that he had found one in Tibet and that it was called the one-horned Tso’Po. In the New World, the Unicorn is referred to by the conquistadors, by Sir John Hawkins in Florida, and by a Dr Dappe in 1673 as living ‘on the Canadian border’. In each case, the description fits that of the conventional Unicorn. The Unicorn is drawn to water. Its horn, called the Alicorn, is able to detect and counteract poison and was greatly sought after and prized. Kings and princes had drinking vessels made from it to detect poisoned wine. To test whether the horn was genuine, a circle was inscribed in the earth and a scorpion, spider or lizard placed in it; if genuine, the creature could not escape the circle. It has been suggested that the horns traded throughout the world during the Middle Ages were probably those of the narwhal.
The belief in the medicinal value of the horn can be traced back to the 4th century BC, when it was believed to prolong the act of love and the life of the individual. Perhaps the most fascinating and romantic belief attached to the Unicorn is that it could only be captured in a particular way. The Roman writer Mysiologus gives an account of this, describing it as the Holy Hunt or Virgin Capture. This is achieved by: …decking a chaste virgin with beautiful ornaments and seating her in a solitary place in the forest frequented by the Unicorn, which no sooner perceives her than it runs to her and laying its head gently in her lap, falls asleep. Then the hunters come and take it captive to the King’s palace and receive for it much treasure.
The Virgin with a Unicorn resting on her lap was a common feature in ecclesiastical architecture, particularly in stained glass windows. It appears there because it was seen as symbolizing the triumph of chastity. Other traditions say that the virgin had to be naked and in some instances she was depicted as tied to a tree. Medieval poets used the virgin capture theme to represent the lover being lured to destruction. Christian theologians preferred to see it as depicting the defeat of the Devil, who can only be overcome by purity and innocence. Associating the Unicorn with the Virgin Mary further extended such symbolism, but its chief association was with Christ, who, according to St Ambrose, ‘is the only-begotten Son of God’. It is also that aspect of Christ who ‘raised up the horn of salvation’. The horn as an antidote to poison is seen as representing Christ’s power to destroy sin. In the earliest translations of the Old Testament (Septuagint), the Hebrew Re’em is translated as ‘monoceros’ (one-horned), but in later versions this becomes the Unicorn or wild oxen and is a symbol of fierceness.
In Hebrew, it represents royalty, power and strength. Probably the oldest form of the Unicorn is the Chinese Ki-Lin, a one-horned animal that is said to have appeared to the sage Fu Hsi about 3000 BC, emerging from the Yellow River. It appeared again at the death of the Emperor Huang Ti and at both the birth and death of Confucius. In Chinese symbology, it is described as one of the Four Spiritually Endowed or Auspicious Creatures or Ssu Ling, and is the essence of all five elements. It is also seen as embodying the union of the yin and yang, the Ky being masculine and the Lin feminine. In the West, the Unicorn is almost always depicted as white or silver in colour and is strongly associated with the moon. This almost certainly derives from Graeco-Roman lore relating to moon goddesses, especially Artemis and Diana, whose triumphal chariot is drawn by eight Unicorns. In general, it represents gentleness, chastity, purity, virginity and strength of mind. It is also closely associated with royalty, the single horn being symbolic of unlimited and individual power. This is prominent in heraldry, in which the Unicorn appears frequently with the lion as representative of both solar and lunar energies.