Unicorn Research

The Unicorns in this book are real.
They are based on the histories and legends of Europe and Asia…

Thus begins my book, Rampant. The story behind the book stretches back for thousands of years. When we think of unicorns today, we are likely to visualize them as gentle, pure, white horse- or goat-like creatures. This version of the unicorn legend comes from the Christian, Western European tradition. But there are other stories about unicorns from cultures all over the globe. This page talks about how those traditions fit into my story…


Unicorns of the World

The Chinese Unicorn

Chinese Unicorn

One of the most enduring unicorn legends comes from China. The zhi, or xie zhi, was a one-horned mythical beast that could separate the innocent from the guilty. One story tells of a xie zhi who lived in the courts during the early Han dynasty (~200 B.C.) and assisted officials in their trials. It was said that the zhi would spare the innocent, but would gore the guilty through the heart.

During the Han dynasty, court officials wore the symbol of the zhi sewn into their robes and hats. Even today, the Chinese character of fa (“law”) incorporates the symbol for zhi.

(Picture shows a statue of a xie zhi on the Sacred Way in the Ming Tombs in Beijing.)

The Japanese Unicorn
Japanese Unicorn

The kirin of Japanese and Korean folklore is closely related to the ki’lin or Qilin of China. (By the Ming dynasty, however, the Qilin was associated with the giraffe, another animal which the people of Asia had never seen.) According to some ancient legends, the ki’lin was the combined name of a male unicorn (ki) and female unicorn (lin).

The kirin was considered one of the four noble or prophetic creatures, along with the dragon (air), phoenix (fire), and tortoise (water). The kirin was considered the king of all the land creatures, a designation that may have given rise to the perceived rivalry between the unicorn and the lion — the “king of beasts” of the West — in Middle Eastern tradition. It was thought to appear at the birth of a wise man or great ruler, such as the one who appeared to the mother of Confucius. The kirin was always described in the most glowing of terms: it was said to eat no living creature, to have the ability to walk on water, and that its hooves would not bend a single blade of grass as it skipped across the ground.

The kirin was often depicted with a body covered in scales, and occasionally surrounded by flames or clouds. Alternately, it was shown with dappled skin for camouflage.

(Picture shows the official logo of the Kirin Beer Company.)

The Unicorn of the Ancient Near East

Near East Unicorn

The civilizations of Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Babylon depicted unicorns as large, ox-like creatures or wild asses called — depending on the tradition — rimu or alim. A legend of ancient Babylon maintained that the sun was a lion who constantly pursued the unicorn moon (horned) about the sky.

In the fifth century B.C., during the time of the Persian Kingdom of Darius II, a Greek physician named Ctesias wrote of this unicorn: “There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads are dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about eighteen inches in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs.”

The oryx, a type of antelope, looks similar to this unicorn, as the oryx’s symmetrical horns look like one horn when viewed from the side.

(Pictured is an ancient seal from the Indus Valley.)

The Turkish Unicorn

Turkish UnicornThe unicorn of Asia Minor was known as the karkadann, or kartijan (Sanskrit for “Lord of the Desert”). Many scholars now believe that those describing this creature may be confusing it with a now-extinct species of rhinoceros called an Elasmotherium that lived in that area. Both the 10th century Muslim writer Ahmad Ibn Fadlan and the 14th century Berber explorer, Ibn Battuta, claim to have seen this monster.

The karkadann, unlike the unicorns of Western Europe, was a ferocious beast. It was said that it was “born in blood,” that when it ran, the earth shook and when it bellowed, all creatures would flee from it, including elephants, its mortal enemy. The only animal that would go near a karkadann was the ring dove, whose song would soothe the creature’s terrible temper. Some legends claimed that hunters used women as bait for the creature, which may have given rise to the unicorn myths of Western Europe.

Many of the classical biographies of Alexander the Great (called “Alexander Romances”) claim that his warhorse was not a horse at all, but actually, a karkadann. (See below for more information.)

The Biblical Unicorn

Unicorn Biblical

The word unicorn appears nine times in the King James version of the Bible. In more modern editions, these instances have mostly been changed to “aurochs” (a type of wild ox) or “goat.” The unicorn first appeared in the Bible in an edition called the Septuagint, which was an attempt by a group of scholars in Alexandria around 300-100 B.C. to translate the Hebrew writings into Greek. These scholars came across the Hebrew word re’em, and knew it meant a large horned beast. Because of the context in many of the passages, that spoke of these creatures as noble, impossible to tame, and due to the fact that they were also familiar with the unicorn legends, the scholars translated the word monokeros (literally “one horn.”) Monokeros, in Greek is Unicorn, and thus the unicorn remained a part of the Bible for centuries.

One description of the unicorn appears in a vision of the prophet Daniel (Book of Daniel, 8:5): “And as I was considering, behold, a he-goat came from the west over the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground: and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes.” Many scholars believe this prophesy is a reference to Alexander the Great, an unstoppable conqueror who may have ridden a unicorn into battle, and at the very least, had the strong, untamable aspects that were associated with the unicorn.

Aside from the actual words of the Bible, stories about the unicorn have long been associated with Biblical heroes. One story claims that the unicorn was the first creature “named” by Adam in the Garden of Eden, after God gave him the privilege of naming the animals. Another claims that the unicorn was the only creature who accompanied the couple after their expulsion from Paradise. In some medieval descriptions of the Unicorn, it would return to Paradise every hundred years.

Another enduring unicorns-in-Biblical-stories legend is about the Flood. It says that the unicorn, being so untamable, would not climb aboard the Ark, but instead swam beside it for forty days and forty nights.

(Pictured above is a unicorn from an illuminated manuscript of the Bible.)

The Medieval Unicorn

Medieval UnicornBecause the unicorn appeared in the Bible, most Christians of Western Europe took it as a given that the creature existed. They hadn’t seen elephants or lions either, but they also believed in those.

A popular book in this time period was called a “bestiary” or a “physiologus” which not only listed different types of animals and described their appearance, behavior, and habitat, but — in order to fall into the good graces of the Church — subscribed to each of them allegorical meanings and characteristics. In these books, the unicorn became a Christ allegory. This is where the creature’s association with the virgin became codified and ritualistic. According to the Physiologus, the unicorn was an utterly untamable and uncatchable beast, but it was susceptible to the charms of a virgin. Hunters who wished to capture this animal would take a maiden of noble birth and place her in a clearing. There, the unicorn would be helplessly attracted to her purity, and would come and lay his head in her lap, and thus, would be caught. The connection to virginity has an obvious correlation to the birth of Jesus, and so the unicorn began to appear in religious art as a symbol of Christ. (See more below, in the “unicorn and art” section.)

Another unicorn legend arose in the middle ages: a belief that the horn of the unicorn was considered to possess magical medicinal properties. This can be attributed partially to its association with Jesus, and partially with the long-term association the creature had with prophesy, greatness, and the Garden of Eden. Purity in one aspect of existence was thought to translate readily to purity in another aspect. (For instance, it was also a widely held belief that sleeping with a virgin would cure one of diseases, especially venereal diseases — which is clearly not true!)

Ancient classical scholars such as Aelian wrote that nobles would drink from the cups of unicorns as a preventative measure against poisons, and this legends was expounded upon. In the Middle Ages, it was thought that unicorn horn could neutralize poisons and purify drinking water. The demand for cups, eating utensils, and other items made from unicorn horn (which became known as alicorn) was very great.

And it was fulfilled.

The Sea Unicorn

NarwhalsSo where did the rulers of Europe and Asia get these alicorns? From a creature called a narwhal. The narwhal (monodon monocerous) is a type of arctic-dwelling whale, distantly related to the beluga. The males of the species have one tooth that grows in a long spiral shape, similar to what you would imagine is a unicorn horn, and eventually bursts through their front lip and protrudes like a tusk. It was big business back in the day for hunters up in the arctic circle to kill these creatures for their tusks, which were worth insane amounts of money, 10 or 20 times its weight in gold. Queen Elizabeth I owned one called The Horn of Windsor that was worth 10,000 pounds, today’s equivalent of twenty million dollars.

Because “alicorns” could be supplied, it was a lot easier to believe that unicorns existed, despite the fact that no one ever actually saw a unicorn. In addition, there was a belief at the time that every animal on earth had a corresponding creature in the ocean: humans had mermaids (don’t even get me started), snakes had sea serpents, birds had flying fish, etc. So if there was an ocean unicorn, there must be a land one as well.

The Modern Unicorn

Wimp UnicornPossibly due to the enduring association with Christ, virgins, magic, and purity, the unicorn gradually lost its more ferocious associations, and was remembered mostly as a pure and noble being who, like Christ, is sacrificed to heal others. Indeed, by the twentieth century, depictions of the unicorn in books and movies are almost exclusively harmless, white, innocent, good, pure, and all-healing. This, in turn, leads to a general feeling of derision regarding the creatures. Now, when the word unicorn comes up in conversation, it is usually meant to paint something as “unrealistic,” “wimpy,” “immature,” “naive,” or “girly.” (This last one is particularly aggravating, since the word “girly” is used to mean all negative things.) When people think “unicorn” they think “my little pony” not “man eating creature born in blood” like the karkadann. But there are many, many types of unicorns.

In my book, I attempt to bring back the fullness of the unicorn legend in all its complexity.

People and Unicorns

Alexander the Great and Bucephalus

One of the most famous historical figures to allegedly come into contact with a unicorn was the great conqueror and Macedonian king, Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). Alexander is most often pictured astride his beloved warhorse Bucephalus, whom he first trained as a child and who he rode almost his entire life (Bucephalus allegedly died in battle at the age of thirty). In fact, Alexander was so distraught when Bucephalus died that he named one of the cities he conquered after this brave horse.

Bucephalus in the Alexander RomanceOne of the most famous stories about Alexander (next to the story of the Gordian Knot), was that when he was a child, he saw Bucephalus about to be put to death. Seems the horse, which was living in Alexander’s father’s stables, was deemed completely untrainable. On top of this, he was described as “anthrophagos” — man-eating. Obviously, they coudln’t keep a man-eating horse around. But Alexander saw potential in Bucephalus, and bet his father, King Philip, that he could train the horse himself. He did, and thus was formed a lifelong bond.

Great. So where do the unicorns come in? Well, back when Alexander was alive, there was a popular book out about his life called the ALEXANDER ROMANCE. Some of the information in the book was what we would today call true, and some of it is more like the legend of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. One of the legends about Bucephalus was that he wasn’t a horse at all — he was a special kind of unicorn called a karkadann (see above). There were many reasons for this belief. First of all, someone as cool as Alexander the Great — who was believed to be, during his own lifetime, both a god and the descendant of gods — might not ride anything so staid as a simple horse. Secondly, the karkadann was known to be absolutely untameable, man-eating, and, also, incredibly fierce — descriptions that applied to Bucephalus as well. And finally, there was his name: Bucephalus. In Greek, Bucephalus meant “ox-head,” which some believed to describe the fact that this animal had horns. In most classical and medieval manuscripts of hte Alexander Romance, Alexander is depicted as riding a horse with either one horn or two.

Pictured here is a page from an illuminated medieval biography of Alexander that shows the scene in which King Philip lets the young Alexander tame the man-eating unicorn, Bucephalus.

So much for the idea of innocent fluffy unicorns.

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