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When Unicorns Roamed the Earth

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

This Halloween, there were many little girls dressed up as sweet, colorful, unicorns. This could have something to do with the ever-popular unicorn trend. According to a 2017 article in Vox, the unicorn trend is described as “what happens when nostalgia and social media collide.” The aesthetic is described as rainbow, pastel colors, and pearly iridescent hues. In sort, it is attractive in a fairytale and happy sort of way. This is something that people today seem to desperately need in the face of worldly woes. But where did the unicorn legend begin?

Ancient Unicorns of the World

Unicorns have been a popular topic in mythology since at least the 4th century BCE. Ctesias, a Greek doctor and historian, in his book Indica, that in India there are “certain wild asses which are as large as horses... Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn in the middle of the forehead that is one cubit in length; the base of this horn is pure white…the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson, and the middle portion is black.” (Ctesias, Inica 25th fragment)

Scholars believe that this animal was likely an Indian Rhinoceros whose horn was believed to have healing powers. This may not be far from the mark. During the Pleistocene era (ending about 9640 BCE) the wooly rhinoceros roamed Siberia. The beast is also referred to as the Siberian unicorn. Such descriptions also appear to fit with a cave drawing in Lascaux, France dating to 15,000 BCE. Surrounded by identifiable drawings of animals that still exist today is that of a bulky beast with a single horn which scholars have called the Licorne or Unicorn.

Unicorns of Ancient China

It may come as a surprise to that legends exist of unicorns in in Asia. In Chinese myth, an animal called the qilin (chee-lin) is said to exist. The story, adapted from ancient Chinese stories, relates that the sage, Fu Hsi (2600 BCE), was sitting by a river when he was splashed by water. When he looked up to discover who had splashed him, he saw a qilin wading across the river. It was described as resembling a deer with shiny scales like a dragon. Further, a single horn grows from its head. Fu Hsi described the animal as having strange signs covering its back. According to legend, Fu Hsi traced the markings in the dirt, and this marked the beginning of writing.

According to Confucius, the Asian unicorn is a beast of power and wisdom. It is always benevolent and will avoid fighting at all costs. Similar to the European unicorn, it is a solitary creature and eludes captured. Chinese tradition believes that the appearance of the creature is an omen which celebrates a wise and just ruler. Legend relates that Confucius was the last person to see an Asian Unicorn. He describes the unicorn as having a multicolored scaly deer like body, an ox’s tail, and can have more than one horn.

The Legendary European Unicorn

Thanks to the European legend of the unicorn, the creature that is most often seen in pop culture is based upon the descriptions brought here from immigrants. Traditionally, the European unicorn is considered as having a white coat and a horse’s body, a long white spiral horn, a goats beard, and the tail of a lion. Throughout the Middle Ages, people believed unicorns to be real. Within Medieval chivalry, unicorns were considered a symbol of purity and protection. Further, it became associated with Christianity as an allegory for Christ. The unicorn was a popular subject for art in the Middle Ages and was included in bestiaries. The most famous example is the unicorn tapestry as seen in Hogwarts, but officially held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

It was with the rise in heraldry during the Middle Ages that Scotland chose the unicorn as its national animal. Similar to other cultures around the world, Medieval Europeans also thought the unicorn horn to possess magical qualities and were anxious to purchase one. The European Journal of Archaeology states that people in Europe during the Middle Ages were unaware of the existence of Narwhals, or unicorns of the oceans. Conversely, Vikings were familiar with the animal. They commonly sold Narwhal horns as unicorn horns to Europeans.

American Unicorn

American legends of the unicorn were not brought here by immigrants. It had been known in Europe for at least twenty centuries before being first mentioned through written accounts in North America. The first written legend of unicorns in America derives from 16th century explorer Sir John Hawkins. In 1564 while exploring what is now the state of Florida, he describes the indigenous people as wearing pieces of unicorn in their necklaces. He goes on to say that the indigenous inhabitants confirmed the beast had one horn and came to the river to drink and dip its horn in the water.

Because of the lack of written history regarding Native American legends the stories surrounding unicorns are sparse. However, unicorn do appear in Native American pictographs and tapestries. This is how they told their stories and histories rather than through written words.

Unicorn myths date back as far as the 4th century BCE and historical evidence for such creatures dates back as far as 17,000 BCE! Paleontologists have uncovered bones of long extinct animals resembling the unicorn. Perhaps the modern idea of the unicorn is flawed, and the creature is not what modern humans believe. Perhaps the unicorn is an ancient rhino or similar animal that through the years of storytelling has morphed into what we now view as a unicorn.

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