A fabled creature symbolic of virginity and usually represented as a horse with a single straight spiraled horn projecting from its forehead.
Heraldry. A representation of this beast, having a horse’s body, a stag’s legs, a lion’s tail, and a straight spiraled horn growing from its forehead, especially employed as a supporter for the Royal Arms of Great Britain or of Scotland.
Unicorn Astronomy. The constellation Monoceros.
If asked to picture a Unicorn, one would probably imagine a white horse with a silvery, pearly, or golden spiral horn growing out of the middle of its forehead. Indeed, the unicorn has been described as everything from a horse, to having antelope legs, a lion’s or boar’s tail, the feet of a goat or an elephant, and sometimes a single black horn. Until the 18th century, unicorns were actually thought to exist. They were written about by such learned men as ancient physician Ctesias, Aristotle, Pliny, St. Gregory, and Genghis Khan. Unicorns were mentioned in the Bible several times, most especially the earlier Greek version of the Old Testament They were frequently considered to be a native animal of India. Marco Polo’s description of them as being “scarcely smaller than elephants” and “ugly brutes” who “prefer to wallow in mud and slime” makes them sound very similar to a rhinocerous. Anyone finding a washed up narwhal horn on the beach could also get ideas about unicorns. Chinese legends also include a unicorn that they call ‘K’i-lin.’ This beast was said to be gentle and lucky to see. It has been credited with beginning the Chinese written language.
Unicorns in legend and as used in heraldry of Britain, were strong, often fierce creatures who were impossible to tame. Warriors therefore honored them for those qualities. It is ironic then, that unicorns were thought to be exceedingly gentle in the presence of purity and goodness. A ancient method of capturing them was to seat a naked female virgin under a tree and wait for the unicorn to come and rest its head on her. This is shown in the famous Unicorn Tapestries. But why would anyone want to catch a unicorn if they revered their strength and wild vigor so much? The answer lies in the unique single horn, or alicorn.
The horn of a unicorn was the main ingredient in many medicines and potions. It was said to be able to cure poisonings, epilepsy, and all manners of illness. Many important men paid large amounts for alicorn powder. Pope Paul III paid 12,000 pieces of gold for one. Perhaps that purchase stemmed from the biblical symbolism as Jesus Christ as a unicorn. When gold like that was to be had, not all men were honest. Of course, unicorn horn was hard to come by, so substitutions were made from narwhal horns to elephant tusks. Simple tests were conducted to determine the authenticity of the alicorn offered for sale. Most involved testing its powers against poison.
These days we have modern medicine, and not many men are out trying to prove themselves by catching ferocious and untameable beasts. Yet the unicorn holds a special place in our hearts and culture. In “Harry Potter & The Sorceror’s (Philosopher’s) Stone,” the evil Lord Voldemort is killing and using unicorn blood to extend his life. There is a visible stellar constellation “Monoceros” that depicts the unicorn. There is a music band formed in 2000 called The Unicorns. Other movies, besides “Harry Potter,” that unicorns have been seen in are “The Last Unicorn” and “Legend”.
I can’t claim to be conversant with many unicorns. You read the story up there, they don’t like to hang around much. There was one particular incident that I can relate however. It was during my years as a curiousity to Prince Alvagard. (Whoever says ‘house pet’ gets their knee caps broken.) All his men were excited about getting this unicorn that was rumored to be hanging out in the woods. So they did the old ‘virgin naked at the base of the tree’ thing. Well, me and Alvagard were walking down the path and he spots the chick. Well, what would do you expect a young stud to do? If I recall correctly, Alvagard got really surprised when the unicorn DID show up. He started hopping around insisting “She’s still a virgin… really!” Now, unicorns can give some really scathing looks. “Puh-leeeese,” it said, and wandered back into the woods, never to be seen again.