Mythological creatures are often scary, and many were used to warn children or adults about dangerous behaviors. Unicorns are a different mythological creature though because it’s always had a peaceful and powerful reputation. In Asian cultures, the unicorn is always benevolent. Their aura, kindness, and healing powers have drawn people to them for generations.
Today’s unicorns are easily identified by their white hair coat. The multi-colored (or white), spiraling horn that rises from their forelock, between their ears is another indicator. They have special powers that are said to heal people and other animals, whether a wound or sickness. The unicorn can also neutralize poison. Unfortunately, humans were not always kind to unicorns.
Stories of unicorns and their power passed through generations and are revered by many. Most had never seen a unicorn but kept perpetuating the stories. Unicorns are very reclusive, avoiding contact with humans and trying not to be seen, according to legend. This is partly because stories say that humans hunted them. Their legend and power date to early civilizations when they were first documented and remain as powerful today as it was then.
A Brief History
Images of unicorns, or an animal that appears as a unicorn, date to somewhere between 3300 B.C. and 1300 B.C. in South Asia. These animals don’t have the consistent characteristics we think of today, but can definitely be considered a unicorn.
Unicorns were believed by many to be real animals. Greeks, returning from far-off lands, told stories about unicorns that lived in these places. When the Greeks were translating the Old Testament from Hebrew in 300 BC they found mentions of the unicorn there too. Newer research believes that the Hebrew actually referred to a rhinoceros, but this helped the unicorn grow in significance. Unicorns are also recorded in early naturalist documentation of species, and it’s said that they fought with elephants and lions.
Of course, we know from this explanation, and one that Marco Polo provided upon his return to Italy after exploring Africa, that these were actually the rhinoceros. There was also a wild ox in South Asia that looked like a horse with a single horn. It’s extinct now, but many thought this might have been what people referred to when mentioning unicorns. People finally stopped believing unicorns were real animals in the 1700s. Long story short here is that there were a lot of references to unicorns throughout history and geographic locations.
There are a couple of different versions of what unicorn characteristics are. The first, more modern version states that they have the body of a horse, and one has to imagine that some of the magical powers we lend to our horses come from the unicorn. The second version is that the unicorn has the body of a goat, the head of a horse, and a multi-colored horn.
The unicorn’s horn is of varying lengths but is most often about twice the size of the ear and a spiraling shape on their forehead. Even today, in some cases, the horn is white and in other cases it’s multi-colored.
The Asian unicorn has a coat with scales instead of sleek hair like a horse. These unicorns could be yellow, white, red, blue, or black though. They have a deer’s body and the tail of an ox. Asian unicorns have a flesh-covered horn. The Asian unicorn is also able to walk across blades of grass without damaging them.
The European unicorn has a pearl white coat in most cases, although in some it is yellowish red or brown. It has a horse’s body and goat hooves. A goat’s beard was also on its chin. The tail could be that of a lion, horse, wild boar, or goat. The Greeks described the horn as short and either black, red, or white. That changed in the Middle Ages and became the white, spiral horn we know today.
Danish sailors started bringing Narwhal tusks back with them off expeditions. These whales weren’t in the waters around Europe at all so no one else was familiar with them. Narwhals have a large tusk – up to 10 feet long – and it’s white and spiraled. The sailors brought these back and sold them as unicorn horns. People paid a lot of money for these. Poison cups were created with them. They thought they could drink out of the cups and avoid being poisoned. The advent of the horns for sale increased the consistency of the imaging and messaging around unicorns’ appearance and their horns.
Popular Culture and Unicorns Today
Popular culture latched onto the unicorn, and we find many instances and references to them, further cementing their identity and power in our cultural legends. In fact, we celebrate National Unicorn Day on April 9th each year. Here are a few of the important unicorns in popular culture.
- Harry Potter – Unicorns are important to the wizards of Harry Potter, and they make several appearances throughout the series. Draco Malfoy also has unicorn hairs on his wand.
- My Little Pony – Princess Celestia, one of the ponies in this iconic children’s brand, has a horn. They added wings to her, a la Pegasus. But, she is considered a unicorn.
- Pokémon – Even Pokémon has unicorns. Technically unicorns aren’t supposed to exist in Pokémon. But look at a picture of Rapidash and tell me that’s not a unicorn.
- The Last Unicorn – This 1982 film was one of my favorites as a kid (and still is today)!
The United Kingdom and Scotland both still feature the unicorn in their Royal Arms. There’s a unicorn beer in Japan. These are just a few of the instances where we see unicorns in pop culture. There are many others, and more to come as we hope they share their magical powers with us.
Sources: American Museum of Natural History, Britannica, Live Science, and Side Show.