Medieval knowledge of the fabulous beast stemmed from biblical and ancient sources, and the creature was variously represented as a kind of wild ass, goat, or horse.
The predecessor of the medieval bestiary, compiled in Late Antiquity and known as Physiologus, popularized an elaborate allegory in which a unicorn, trapped by a maiden (representing the Virgin Mary), stood for the Incarnation. As soon as the unicorn sees her, it lays its head on her lap and falls asleep. This became a basic emblematic tag that underlies medieval notions of the unicorn, justifying its appearance in every form of religious art.
Interpretations of the unicorn myth focus on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas some religious writers interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. The myths refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; subsequently, some writers translated this into an allegory for Christ’s relationship with the Virgin Mary.
The unicorn also figured in courtly terms: for some 13th century French authors such as Thibaut of Champagne and Richard de Fournival, the lover is attracted to his lady as the unicorn is to the virgin. With the rise of humanism, the unicorn also acquired more orthodox secular meanings, emblematic of chaste love and faithful marriage. It plays this role in Petrarch’s Triumph of Chastity, and on the reverse of Piero della Francesca’s portrait of Battista Strozzi, paired with that of her husband Federico da Montefeltro (painted c 1472-74), Bianca’s triumphal car is drawn by a pair of unicorns.
The royal throne of Denmark was made of “unicorn horns” – almost certainly narwhal tusks. The same material was used for ceremonial cups because the unicorn’s horn continued to be believed to neutralize poison, following classical authors.
The unicorn, tamable only by a virgin woman, was well established in medieval lore by the time Marco Polo described them as “scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead… They have a head like a wild boar’s… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.” It is clear that Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros. In German, since the 16th century, Einhorn (“one-horn”) has become a descriptor of the various species of rhinoceros.
The horn itself and the substance it was made of was called alicorn, and it was believed that the horn holds magical and medicinal properties. The Danish physician Ole Worm determined in 1638 that the alleged alicorns were the tusks of narwhals.
Such beliefs were examined wittily and at length in 1646 by Sir Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Sir Thomas did not use the term ‘alicorn’ and only said ‘unicorn horn’ though.
False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to detect poisons, and many physicians would make “cures” and sell them.
Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory. Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages and were often really the tusks of narwhals. People who feared poisoning sometimes drank from goblets made of “unicorn horn”. Alleged aphrodisiac qualities and other purported medicinal virtues also drove up the cost of “unicorn” products such as milk, hide, and offal. Unicorns were also said to be able to determine whether or not a woman was a virgin; in some tales, they could only be mounted by virgins.
The hunt of the unicorn
One traditional method of hunting unicorns involved entrapment by a virgin.
In one of his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote:
The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.
The famous late Gothic series of seven tapestry hangings The Hunt of the Unicorn are a high point in European tapestry manufacture, combining both secular and religious themes. The tapestries now hang in the Cloisters division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In the series, richly dressed noblemen, accompanied by huntsmen and hounds, pursue a unicorn against mille-fleur backgrounds or settings of buildings and gardens. They bring the animal to bay with the help of a maiden who traps it with her charms, appear to kill it, and bring it back to a castle; in the last and most famous panel, “The Unicorn in Captivity,” the unicorn is shown alive again and happy, chained to a pomegranate tree surrounded by a fence, in a field of flowers. Scholars conjecture that the red stains on its flanks are not blood but rather the juice from pomegranates, which were a symbol of fertility. However, the true meaning of the mysterious resurrected Unicorn in the last panel is unclear. The series was woven about 1500 in the Low Countries, probably Brussels or Liège, for an unknown patron. A set of six engravings on the same theme, treated rather differently, were engraved by the French artist Jean Duvet in the 1540s.
Another famous set of six tapestries of Dame à la licorne (“Lady with the unicorn”) in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, were also woven in the Southern Netherlands before 1500, and show the five senses (the gateways to temptation) and finally Love (“A mon seul desir” the legend reads), with unicorns featured in each piece.
Facsimiles of the unicorn tapestries are currently being woven for permanent display in Stirling Castle, Scotland, to take the place of a set recorded in the castle in a 16th century inventory.
In heraldry, a unicorn is depicted as a horse with a goat’s cloven hooves and beard, a lion’s tail, and a slender, spiral horn on its forehead. Whether because it was an emblem of the Incarnation or of the fearsome animal passions of raw nature, the unicorn was not widely used in early heraldry, but became popular from the 15th century. Though sometimes shown collared, which may perhaps be taken in some cases as an indication that it has been tamed or tempered, it is more usually shown collared with a broken chain attached, showing that it has broken free from its bondage and cannot be taken again.
Hunts for an actual animal as the basis of the unicorn myth, accepting the conception of writers in Antiquity that it really existed somewhere at the edge of the known earth, have added a further layer of mythologizing about the unicorn. These have taken various forms, interpreted in a scientific, rather than a wonder-filled manner, to accord with modern perceptions of reality.
Among numerous finds of prehistoric bones found at Unicorn Cave in Germany’s Harz Mountains, some were selected and reconstructed by the mayor of Magdeburg, Otto Von Guericke, as a unicorn in 1663. Guericke’s so-called unicorn had only two legs, and was constructed from fossil bones of a woolly rhinoceros and a mammoth, with the horn of a narwhal. The skeleton was examined by Gottfried Leibniz, who had previously doubted the existence of the unicorn, but was convinced by it.
Baron Georges Cuvier maintained that, as the unicorn was cloven-hoofed, it must therefore have a cloven skull (making the growth of a single horn impossible); as if to disprove this, Dr. W. Franklin Dove, a University of Maine professor, artificially fused the horn buds of a calf together, creating the external appearance of a one-horned bull.
Unicorn seals of the Indus Valley Civilization
The first objects unearthed from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were small stone seals inscribed with elegant depictions of animals, including a unicorn-like figure in upper left, and marked with Indus script writing which still baffles scholars. These seals are dated back to 2500 B. C. Source: North Park University, Chicago, Illinois.
This seal is a close-up of the unicorn-like animal found in Mohenjo-daro, measures 29 mm (1.14 inches) on each side and is made of heated Steatite. “Steatite is an easily carved soft stone that becomes hard after firing. On the top are four pictographs of an as yet undeciphered Indus script, one of the first writing systems in history.”
Elasmotherium or rhinoceros
One suggestion is that the unicorn is based on the extinct animal Elasmotherium, a huge Eurasian rhinoceros native to the steppes, south of the range of the woolly rhinoceros of Ice Age Europe. Elasmotherium looked little like a horse, but it had a large single horn in its forehead. It became extinct about the same time as the rest of the glacial age megafauna.
However, according to the Nordisk familjebok (Nordic Familybook) and science writer Willy Ley the animal may have survived long enough to be remembered in the legends of the Evenk people of Russia as a huge black bull with a single horn in the forehead.
In support of this claim, it has been noted that the 13th century traveller Marco Polo claimed to have seen a unicorn in Java, but his description makes it clear to the modern reader that he actually saw a Javan Rhinoceros.
The connection that is sometimes made with a single-horned goat derives from the vision of Daniel:
And as I was considering, behold, a he-goat came from the west over the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground: and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes. (Daniel 8:5)
Antiquities researcher Timothy Zell also produced artificial unicorns dubbed “the Living Unicorn”, remodelling the “horn buds” of goat kids in such a way that their horns grew together into a single one. Zell theorized that this process might have been used in the past to create court curiosities and natural herd leaders, because the goat was able to use this long straight horn effectively as a weapon and a tool.
Medieval art often depicts unicorns as small, with cloven hooves and beards, sometimes resembling goats more than horses with horns. This process is possible only with animals that naturally have horns. For a time, a few of these unicorns travelled with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
The unicorn horns often found in cabinets of curiosities and other contexts in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, were very often examples of the distinctive straight spiral single tusk of the narwhal (Monodon monoceros), an Arctic cetacean, as Danish zoologist Ole Worm established in 1638.
They were brought south as a very valuable trade, and sold as horns from the legendary unicorn; being of ivory, they passed the various tests intended to spot fake unicorn horns. As these ‘horns’ were considered to have magic powers, Vikings and other northern traders were able to sell them for many times their weight in gold.
Elizabeth I of England kept a “unicorn horn” in her cabinet of curiosities, brought back by Arctic explorer Martin Frobisher on his return from Labrador in 1577. The usual depiction of the spiral unicorn horn in art, derives from these. The truth of the tusk’s origin developed gradually during the Age of Exploration, as explorers and naturalists began to visit regions themselves.
In 1555, Olaus Magnus published a drawing of a fish-like creature with a “horn” on its forehead.
The oryx is an antelope with two long, thin horns projecting from its forehead. Some have suggested that seen from the side and from a distance, the oryx looks something like a horse with a single horn (although the ‘horn’ projects backward, not forward as in the classic unicorn).
Conceivably, travellers in Arabia could have derived the tale of the unicorn from these animals. However, classical authors seem to distinguish clearly between oryxes and unicorns.
The Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, published in 1486, was the first printed illustrated travel-book, describing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and thence to Egypt by way of Mount Sinai. It featured many large woodcuts by Erhard Reuwich, who went on the trip, mostly detailed and accurate views of cities. The book also contained pictures of animals seen on the journey, including a crocodile, camel, and unicorn—presumably an oryx, which they could easily have seen on their route.
In Southern Africa, the eland has somewhat mystical or spiritual connotations, perhaps at least partly because this very large antelope will defend itself against lions and is able to kill these fearsome predators.
Eland are very frequently depicted in the rock art of the region, which implies that they were viewed as having a strong connection to the other world, and in several languages the word for eland and for dance is the same; significant because shamans used dance as their means of drawing power from the other world.
Eland fat was used when mixing the pigments for pictographs, and in the preparation of many medicines. This special regard for the eland may well have been picked up by early travellers. There is a purported unicorn horn in the castle of the chief of the Clan MacLeod in Scotland, which has been identified as that of an eland.
Genetic disorders of horned animals
A new possibility for the inspiration of the unicorn came in 2008 with the discovery of a roe deer in Italy with a single horn. Single-horned deer are not uncommon; however, the placement of the horn in the middle is very unusual.
Fulvio Fraticelli, scientific director of Rome’s zoo, has said “Generally, the horn is on one side (of the head) rather than being at the center. This looks like a complex case.” Fraticelli also acknowledges that the placement of the horn could have been the result of some type of trauma in the life of the deer.
According to Gilberto Tozzi, director of the Center of Natural Science in Prato, “this single-horn deer is conscious to its uniqueness and does not come out a lot, always hiding.”