A Practical Guide to Unicorns: Are they Fact or Fiction

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Why Unicorns

In honour of International Unicorn day I have decided to dedicate this week’s blog post to those wonderful mythical creatures we all love, Unicorns. These days we see Unicorns as friendly, happy horses with a glowing horn that is synonymous with rainbows. Mostly they are the main theme of many little girl’s rooms and Birthday parties.  To another group of people they remain a mythical being that represents magic, wisdom and purity. But what is the Unicorn exactly? What did they represent in the past?

I know the feeling

The Unicorn of old is mostly depicted as a white horse with a single horn protruding from it’s forehead. Unicorn magic was concentrated in the blood and the horn itself, which was believed to be able to dispel any poison. Thus it was highly sought after by King’s and nobles who would have the peace of mind when dining that they would not be poisoned.

In this article I will include:

  • The origin of Unicorns
  • Attributes of Unicorns
  • How to trap a Unicorn
  • Unicorns and Heraldry
  • Modern depiction of Unicorns

The Origin of Unicorns

There is a whole debate on whether Unicorns really existed. Some argue that they formed from people mistakenly seeing an animal that already exist but the explorer witnessing said animal at the time did not recognise for example a Rhinoceros and wham a fairy tale is born. Or certain individuals hunting Narwhals and selling their tusks, which is suspiciously very similar to a Unicorns horn. These sellers or other persons seeing only the horns fabricated a story into the fabled Unicorn.

A Narwhal Tusk

For  more information about Narwhal Tusks you can click here

More details about the background relationship between Narwhals and Unicorns can be found in this very interesting article

Another theory was that someone witnessed a usual animal that lost a horn and standing at a certain angle that it looked like a totally different animal altogether, like the Onyx, and wham a fairy tale was born.

In the days of the Unicorn so to speak, when the Unicorn myth developed and grew into what we know today people did not have the same knowledge of the world as what we do. They had to solely rely on the experiences and subsequent tales of travellers and explorers. If an explorer wanted to make his trip more exciting to his audience and add embellishments of magic and danger to his tales, none would be the wiser.

A likely scenario

It is also not impossible that explorers came across an animal that might have resembled a unicorn. Most accounts of Unicorns depict the area of origin to be India. This brings us to the final and maybe most plausible argument.  As in the case with the first arguments I must add that although people of that time and era were not very informed, they were not idiots either. So to me there must have been another animal that gave rise to the tale of the Unicorn. Maybe that animal is extinct now or maybe with growth in knowledge that animal was identified as something different and quite normal and the connection between the two was lost through time.

A seal depicting a Re’em

According to some scholars the Unicorn was mentioned in the bible as an animal Re’em. It is described as a bull like animal with one horn. The Bible also mentions its immense strength and power.

Need more info on the Re’em, here you go.

Although not mentioned in Greek Mythology it is mentioned in the Greek accounts of natural history. Described by various authors as resembling a wild ass or Onyx, some describing a Rhinoceros, pointing to their location as being modern day India.

A bronze statue of a Qilin

In Chinese and Japanese mythology they have the Qilin or Quilin, a unicorn like animal. According to the Chinese mythology it more closely resembles a Manticore but the Japanese mythology’s description is more closely related to the western Unicorn.

Apart from the different descriptions and arguments of whether it was an animal known today, an animal all on its own or just a fabrication altogether, there is also the fact of the alleged magic of the Unicorn.

Attributes of the Unicorn

As mentioned above, the magic of the Unicorn’s horn was a prized and very well paid for commodity. It was called the “bane of Evil” as it could dispel any evil magic including poison. Adding powdered unicorn horn known as Alicorn powder or drinking from a cup fashioned out of a Unicorn horn would render any poison and evil magic in the food useless providing the consumer with peace of mind to enjoy their meal.

The Unicorn is depicted as a powerful, strong and wild animal, making it a very dangerous affair to try and hunt them. Earlier descriptions of a Unicorn was more like a goat but later on it settled on a horse and sometimes giving them more of a bull like appearance.

the Quilin was said to be a symbol of good luck, could walk on water and would appear, marking the passing of an illustrious leader.

Here you can find more in depth detail regarding the Qilin

Trapping a Unicorn

Artwork depicting the classic legend

With the Unicorn being such a formidable opponent, it was obviously really difficult to capture or kill one of these creatures. History depicts them as fierce animals that would not hesitate to impale any would be hunter with its horn. The legend goes that one day a hunter decided to take his young fair maiden daughter with him. It was soon discovered that the Unicorn could be tamed by the Virgin maiden. The Unicorn would walk right up to her, lay his head on her lap and fall asleep. The hunters then had the perfect opportunity to slay the animal. Many stories and versions abound but the central theme remains the same.

 Unicorns in Heraldry

Scotland’s Unicorn in Hampton Court

We all know the National animal of Scotland is a unicorn. Many family crests also proudly adorn a Unicorn. Although it does not look the same as the fluffy happy Unicorns we have today, it usually rears up, with goat like hooves and feet and bound in broken chains. So what does that mean?

My Grandfather’s family crest depicting the Unicorn – I’m so proud

Family crests were created in the distant past where the combatants fighting on a battlefield needed to recognise friend from foe whilst in the throngs of combat. Later on it became a signature of the family with each component representing something the family stood for.

The Unicorn in heraldry represents strength and fierceness, bound by broken chains it also represents that it is free from bondage. Today we do not need heraldry as much and we certainly do not use it any more but you can still be proud of what your ancestors achieved and stood for.

Modern depiction of Unicorns

Somehow the Unicorn transformed from a fierce, dangerous wild animal to a fluffy happy rainbow spouting being.  Not that I say there is anything wrong with that, of course. We all have the rainbow unicorn emoji on our phones or the pink and white fluffy Unicorn plush, with the rainbow manes.

Unicorn emoji, I may or may not use it frequently, not admitting to anything

Unicorns are also depicted in film. Most notably In Harry Potter and the Philosophers stone. Where the Unicorns were killed by Voldemort to drink their blood in order to sustain him. Do yourself a huge favour and read the books.

that is just a crime!

There is also the animation, The Last Unicorn. Unicorns also make a lot of cameo appearances in other films. A whole episode of the TV show Merlin, revolved around King Arthur killing a Unicorn. He then has to atone for his mistake in order to save his kingdom.

The TV show my little pony features unicorns and I wont even start on all the Unicorn apparel you can buy, like horns to attached to your head etc. They are everywhere!

Conclusion

We have loved Unicorns throughout the ages. It does not matter if they are real or not. They are here to stay and we would not have it any other way. Whether you think of them as a fluffy rainbow horse or a mythical being that you would be lucky to see in the forest, Unicorns will always have a certain appeal to us. So in that sentiment they definitely do exist. In our collective cognitive memory as a specie, they will always be there.

Who knows you might see a Unicorn when you least expect it.

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