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What's the Real Story Behind Unicorns?

I'll never get rid of my VHS tape of The Last Unicorn.

While the movie wasn't as great as I remembered, it was still the catalyst for one of my first rabbit holes — unicorns.

My resources were pretty limited in the late 80's. And I was five. Besides cartoons, storybooks, and coloring books, my unicorn research project left little to be desired.

But that all ends now.

Here, I'll finish what I started back in 1989. Get whimsical with me.

Origin of the Unicorn

Before starring roles in major motion pictures, unicorns found their start in the ancient Greek texts of Ctesias, a 400 BC historian and physician who hailed from Persia (Iran) but practiced in Greece.

Unicorns were described specifically in his work, Indica, which examined the flora and fauna of India through the "accounts" of traveling Persians. Because Ctesias never went to India himself, and none of these first-hand accounts were recorded, many proved to be untrue, including unicorns, manticores (flying lions), Dog-human hybrids, and griffins.

While Ctesias didn't uncover a unicorn, he stumbled onto something. Scholars believe that what he actually discovered was the present day Indian Rhinoceros.

The Allegorical Unicorn

While Ctesias tried to define the physicality of the unicorn, two landmark texts were the first to ascribe allegorical meaning to the unicorn - the Bible and the Physiologus.

If you're unfamiliar with the Physiologus, this was an Ancient Greek text produced in 2nd-century AD. The author was never discovered, but it's considered the earliest precursor to bestiary, the allegorical fiction genre that was wildly popular in the Middle Ages.

The Physiologus gave unicorns "strength" and "fierce" intensity, but also nurturing sensibilities. From this work, legends grew of unicorns possessing anecdotes to poison, specifically, using their horns to magically purify water for fellow animals.

Weird History

Virgin and Unicorn (November 3, 1560 – July 15, 1609).

Virgin and Unicorn (November 3, 1560 – July 15, 1609).

Fascinatingly, unicorns are mentioned nine times in the bible!

However, scribes may have been describing the Oryx, an antelope whose antlers were often mistook as 'unicorn horns', or the Auroch, an extinct cattle breed last documented in the 17th-century, whom one scientist seriously considered reviving from extinction.

The Bible reinforced unicorns as a symbol of strength and ferociousness, 'eating up the nations of his enemies', breaking their bones, and 'piercing' them with arrows. This narrative carried through to the 7th century when Isidore of Seville suggested that unicorns could overtake elephants and any animal that got in its path.

Seville also introduced the literary relationship between virgins and unicorns by suggesting that virginity was the only force powerful enough to catch a unicorn. Therefore, if anyone were to catch one, they would need a virgin to help them. Movies like 1985's Legend found Tom Cruise's character in a similar predicament when he needed the help of a princess to save a unicorn himself.

It wasn't long before unicorns exploded onto the European folklore scene. So much so that medieval wealthy elite would buy 'unicorn horns' in droves, which scholars suspect were from the Oryx.

Unicorns of the East

While unicorns may be a fixture of western culture and literature, they actually have an older history in the east.

According to the American Museum of Natural History, unicorns appeared as early as 2600 BC in ancient Chinese texts. Similarly to the west's version, unicorns, which were called Qilins, symbolized power and strength, but they were also described as benevolent and wise. Both western and eastern texts emphasized unicorns' need for solitude. That's why their appearances were both rare, cherished, but also dangerous.

The most striking difference between eastern and western unicorns is their look. In western lore, unicorns took on the form of a horse, usually white, with a horn. While, unicorns of the east more closely resembled deer with a multicolored scaly coat, ox-like tails, and scaly horns.

In ancient Japanese lore, unicorns, also known as 'kirins', more closely resembled giraffes. In fact, the literal translation of kirin is giraffe. Scholars believe the Japanese term may owe its roots to an ancient Chinese story of an explorer who returned to China from Africa and presented a live giraffe as a 'kirin' (unicorn.)

But the history of unicorns in the east doesn't end there. In fact, one of the last 'unicorn sightings' was as recent as 2013! While the Saola may not be the fictional Qilins and Kirins of eastern lore, they earned the nickname 'Asian unicorn' from their distinctive parallel horns that, at the right angle, looks like the singular horn of a mythical unicorn.

Saolas are so rare and endangered that they weren't even discovered until 1992, a story not unlike their rare mythical counterparts. At the time, it was the largest new mammal discovery in over 50 years. Today, there are just approximately 100 Saolas left in the wild, despite not one documented sighting in over five years.

Unicorns in Film

Fast-forward to the 80's, and we start to see unicorns emerge in film and TV. Legend and The Last Unicorn are two of the most recognized movies of the very niche unicorn genre. However, don't forget such honorary favorites as Stardust, based on the Neil Gaiman book and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone which also had significant unicorn cameos.

While unicorns certainly had some major movie cameos, it was the weird and wacky world of children's retail that turned unicorns into the pop culture icons we know and love. You can thank the 80's, and most certainly the 90's, and your's truly, for this.

Unicorns regularly appear in children's cartoons, grace the covers of school binders and pencil boxes, and continue to be immortalized in stuffed animals, figurines, t-shirts, video games, and more consumer products.

Love unicorns as much as myself? Maybe even more? Sound off in the poll or comments below!

Ultimate Unicorn Poll

© 2018 Elissa Capelle Vaughn