What is a Unicorn?

[Scotland’s National Animal Contents]

Well, really it depends who you ask, where, and when. 

“Chinese writers enumerate six different sorts of unicorns: the King, the Kioh Twan, the Poh, the Hiai Chai, the Too Jon Sheu, and the Ki-lin; but it seems probable that all six are derived from a single original…  

The ki-lin, moreover, does not show the tendency to sink down and fade away into the rhinoceros which is so deplorable in the Western unicorn, for the Chinese know the rhinoceros perfectly well and describe it accurately as a totally different species.” – p.97. 

“The third passage in Aelian about the unicorn is the most important. ‘They say,’ he writes, ‘that there are mountains in the interior regions of India which are inaccessible to men and therefore full of wild beasts. Among these is the unicorn, which they call the “cartazon”… This animal is as large as a full-grown horse, and it has a mane, tawny hair, feet like those of the elephant, and the tail of a goat. It is exceedingly swift of foot. Between its brows there stands a single black horn, not smooth but with certain natural rings …, and tapering to a very sharp point.’ ” – p.36.  

Pliny the elder [23-79CE] says:  

“The Orsæan Indians hunt an exceedingly wild beast called the monoceros, which has a stag’s head, elephant’s feet, and a boar’s tail, the rest of its body being like that of a horse. It makes a deep lowing noise, and one black horn two cubits long projects from the middle of its forehead.” – p.37.  

Off the back of Pliny’s writings, Julius Solinus [300ish CE] has this description, I’ll not attempt the Latin, but it was helpfully translated by Arthur Golding [1536-1606];  

“But the cruellest is the Unicorne, a Monster that belloweth horriblie, bodyed like a horse, footed like an Eliphant, tayled like a Swyne, and headed like a Stagge. His horne sticketh out of the midds of hys forehead, of a wonderful brightness about foure foote long, so sharp, that whatsoever he pusheth at, he striketh it through easily. He is never caught alive; kylled he may be, but taken he cannot bee.” – p.38.  

“The faithful did not know what to think, and in default of a Thomas Aquinas to resolve the apparent discrepancies between Aristotle and Physiologus they tried to believe in a unicorn somewhat like a goat and somewhat like a horse at the same time. Early representations of the animal show cloven hoofs on the fore feet and solid hoofs behind, or vice versa; they show a goat’s beard on a horse’s head or even the body of a goat with the head of a horse. A more perfect example of the divided allegiance of the Renaissance could hardly be imagined;..” – p.70.  

“Oppian in his ‘poem on the art of hunting’ [212-217CE] speaks of a species of bull or oxen with one white, black, and red horn issuing from its forehead.” 

We’re told how to capture a unicorn; 

“Men lead a virgin to the place where he most resorts and leave her there alone. As soon as he sees this virgin he runs and lays his head in her lap. She fondles him and he falls asleep. The hunters then approach and capture him and lead him to the palace of the king.” – p.47.  

The Abbess Hildegarde of Bingen had a belief in the “power of the eye”;  

“When the unicorn sees a bevy of such [virgin] damsels wandering about, gathering flowers or engaged in some other such maidenly pursuit, he stops at once in his tracks and eyes them; they eye him; then he advances very slowly, crouches on his hind legs and looks at them for a long time from a distance. He is surprised at the fact that although they have in general the appearance of human beings yet they have no beards; he loves them because he sees, forsooth, that they are gentle and kind; and while he is gazing at them, all his wild and innocent heart drawn forth in adoration, the hunters steal up behind and slay him and cut off his horn.” – p.57. 

“Instead of the proud beast of Ctesias and Aelian – fierce, shaped like an ass or horse, solid-hoofed, dangerous, indomitable – we have here an animal… chiefly characterized by a propensity to fall asleep in virgins’ laps. The only discernible likenesses are that in both legends the animal is said to be fierce and not to be taken by the ordinary arts of the hunter, and that the quarry in both belongs to the king;..” – p.48. 

“Julius Caesar tells us that in his time there was to be found in the Hercynian Forest – where wonders have always abounded – a huge beast with the form of a stag, from the middle of whose brow and between the ears there stood forth one horn, longer and straighter than the horns known to the Romans.” – p.40.  

The horn keeps getting longer as reports become more contemporary. 

“Ctesias gives the length of the horn as one cubit or eighteen inches, Aelian as a cubit and a half, Pliny as two cubits, Solinus and Isidore as four feet, Cardan as three cubits, Rabelais as six or seven feet, and Albertus Magnus as ten feet. At this point the growth of the horn was checked, for the animal that bore it was obviously becoming top-heavy and needed, as several sceptics pointed out, to be “as big as a ship” merely to carry such a formidable bow-sprit.” – pp.101-102.  

Pantagruel says, in narrating his adventures in the Land of Satin; 

“I saw there two-and-thirty unicorns. They are a cursed sort of creature, much resembling a fine horse, unless it be that their heads are like a stag’s, their feet like an elephant’s, their tails like a wild boar’s, and out of each of their foreheads sprouts a sharp black horn, some six or seven feet long. [Pliny, whom Rabelais follows in most other particulars, had made the horn only three feet in length.] Commonly it dangles down like a turkey-cock’s comb, but when a unicorn has a mind to fight or put it to any other use, what does he do but make it stand, and then it is as straight as an arrow,” – p.84.  

This assertion is repeated in the Leith Burghs Pilot, 28th June, 1890; 

“The unicorn always resembles a horse or a donkey, and  

ITS HORN IS FLEXIBLE, 

curled up like an elephant’s trunk when the creature is asleep or calm, stiffening to rigidity under excitement. It is not extravagant to suppose that the mediæval draughtsmen based their sketch of a beast with a spiral horn on the same legend which is still current. We ought to add that Colonel Hamilton Smith observed the horn of some animal, perhaps in the British Museum – his memory was not quite clear on that point, as he admitted – which, ‘from the narrowness of the base, the great length, and weight, must evidently stand movable on the nasal bones until excitement renders the muscular action more rigid and the coriaceous sole which sustains it more firm – circumstances which may explain the repeated assertions of natives that the horn, or rather the agglutinated hair which forms that instrument, is flexible.’ ”  

I’m not sure how much these descriptions of unicorns correlate with our contemporary ideas. We, here in Scotland, at least, see the unicorn as mainly a white horse with a white stiff horn out the middle of its forehead, though it has goat-like details in that he can sport a wee beard and have cloven hooves. 

British children used a publication called ‘A Description of Three Hundred Animals;’ to learn about world zoology. 

The original description given for our animal of choice was; 

The Unicorn, a Beast which though doubted of by many writers yet is by others thus described: He has but one Horn, and that an exceeding rich one, growing out of his Forehead. His Head resembles an Hart’s, his Feet an Elephant’s, his Tail a Boar’s, and the rest of his Body an Horse’s. His voice is like the lowing of an Ox. His Horn is as hard as Iron, and as rough as any File, twisted and curled, like a flaming sword; very straight, sharp, and everywhere black, excepting the Point. Great Virtues are attributed to it, in expelling of Poison, and curing of several Diseases. He is not a Beast of prey.” – pp.182-183.  

In my updated version, published in 1812, it now reads; 

“THE UNICORN. 

This is another offspring of the lively and fruitful fancy of man. Surely there is variety enough in the real works of nature; why should we conceive monsters, and hatch them out of our imagination? The word Unicorn is found in the Psalms, and it is not certain what animal is meant by it, unless it is the Rhinoceros; however, the animal known now by this appellation, is a compound of the horse and Antelope. The head and body belong to the equine species, but the hoofs are those of a stag, and the horn, the tuffs, and the tail, are anomalies. This animal holds a high rank in Heraldic lore, and is one of the supporters of the royal arms.” 

Let’s have a wee look at its horn now, being its most important feature. 

7 thoughts on “What is a Unicorn?

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