Unicorns might be mythical beasts, but they’re far from unfamiliar. As children, and now as parents, we know that unicorns are something that never goes out of style.
The little girls, and sometimes little boys, in our life are enchanted by these strange beasts, who appear in everything from Harry Potter to the Bible. But where did they really come from?
The Beginning of Unicorns
Some of the earliest mentions of unicorns were found in Greece, but not where you might expect.
Instead of being found in the pages and oral stories of folklore, unicorns were a feature of natural history.
Greek writers who travelled into lands unknown were wholly convinced that they had seen unicorns in places like India. Even famous names like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder wrote on the one-horned beasts, which some called monoceros.
An Artist’s Illusion or An Ancient Beast
Some modern historians have noted that, although some writers claim to have seen unicorns in the flesh, others were working from carvings of animals from faraway kingdoms. It is here that we see a potential flaw in the unicorn’s backstory. The issue is that many two-horned animals, like bulls and goats, appear to have one horn in profile. This means that on a stone carving, and with a language barrier preventing proper communication, a simple error might have been made.
Other science minds have noted that the reputed sightings of this mythical beast correspond quite clearly with the old stomping ground of a now extinct species: Elasmotherium.
Although a genus of rhinoceros, the Elasmotherium was very horse-like in the way that it moved at a gallop. These enormous beasts, roughly the size of mammoths, had a single massive horn, and existed on the planet as early as 2.6 million years ago, and as late as 10,000.
Whatever unicorns might have been, their status in myth and legend was cemented in the centuries that followed.
Unicorns and Purity
From the early days, the unicorn and the bible went hand-in-hand. Although there is some debate now about the correct translation of the word “re’em”, during the medieval days, it was translated into unicorn. In many religious stories, which made their way into the mainstream, a unicorn could only be tamed by a pure virgin. This eventually led to the unicorn itself being represented in white or silver, the colour of purity and virginity. This is one of the reasons that unicorns appear to have lasted throughout time. These links meant that they were a popular symbol of grace and purity over centuries of societal change.
The Power Of The Unicorn
The unicorn has been assigned various powers over the centuries, most recently in popular culture as having blood that can keep anyone alive (Harry Potter). But, for most of its history, the unicorn was renowned for its horn. The horn, known as an alicorn, was believed to hold both magical and medicinal properties. Although we now know for a fact that unicorns certainly aren’t real, their horns did have a habit of showing up in all sorts of places. They’re even the main medium used to construct the Throne Chair of Denmark. Most historians and laymen agree that these horns are either narwhal tusks, shaped ivory or walrus tusks.
The alicorn was used to make cups, with the belief that they were able to neutralise poisons. The horn was also ground up and used in the treatment of various ills and diseases, including measles and the plague.
An Interesting Fact
It is interested to note that, when compared the lineup of mythical and magical beasts, the unicorn is one of the few that is not based on a human fear. Even in the earliest writings about unicorns, where the writers note that they need be tamed by virgins, the beasts appear to be both revered and respected. They are not the monsters that so fill the ranks of mythical creatures. They are strong but independent animals who improve the world around them. The only time they appear to be a threat is when first threatened by hunters. Perhaps this is the reason for their longevity, beyond many other mythical beasts who populated the early days of human history. They are familiar, they excite our imaginations, and they soothe our fears, as they have for centuries.