A legendary animal that has been described since antiquity
as a beast with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead.
The unicorn was depicted in ancient seals of the Indus Valley Civilization
and was mentioned by the ancient Greeks
in accounts of natural history by various writers,
including Ctesias, Strabo, Pliny the Younger, and Aelian.
The Bible also describes an animal, the re'em,
which some translations have erroneously rendered
with the word unicorn.
In European folklore,
the unicorn is often depicted as a white horse-like or goat-like animal
with a long horn and cloven hooves (sometimes a goat's beard).
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance,
it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature,
a symbol of purity and grace,
which could only be captured by a virgin.
In the encyclopedias its horn was said
to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness.
In medieval and Renaissance times,
the horn of the narwhal was sometimes sold as unicorn horn.
Unicorns are not found in Greek mythology,
but rather in the accounts of natural history,
for Greek writers of natural history were convinced of the reality of unicorns,
which they located in India, a distant and fabulous realm for them.
The earliest description is from Ctesias who,
in his book Indika ("On India"),
described them as wild asses, fleet of foot,
having a horn a cubit and a half (700 mm, 27 inches) in length,
and colored white, red and black.
Aristotle must be following Ctesias when he mentions two one-horned animals,
the oryx (a kind of antelope) and the so-called "Indian ass".
Strabo says that in the Caucasus
there were one-horned horses with stag-like heads.
Pliny the Elder mentions
the oryx and an Indian ox (perhaps a rhinoceros) as one-horned beasts,
as well as "a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag,
the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar,
while the rest of the body is like that of the horse;
it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn,
which projects from the middle of its forehead,
two cubits (900 mm) in length."
In On the Nature of Animals
(Περὶ Ζῴων Ἰδιότητος, De natura animalium),
Aelian, quoting Ctesias,
adds that India produces also a one-horned horse (iii. 41; iv. 52),
and says (xvi. 20) that the monoceros (Greek: μονόκερως)
was sometimes called cartazonos (Greek: καρτάζωνος),
which may be a form of the Arabic karkadann,
Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant of Alexandria
who lived in the 6th century,
made a voyage to India and subsequently wrote works on cosmography.
He gives a description of a unicorn
based on four brass figures in the palace of the King of Ethiopia.
He states, from report,
that "it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive;
and that all its strength lies in its horn.
When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture,
it throws itself from a precipice,
and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn,
and so escapes safe and sound."
A one-horned animal (which may be just a bull in profile)
is found on some seals from the Indus Valley Civilization.
Seals with such a design
are thought to be a mark of high social rank.
Medieval knowledge of the fabulous beast
stemmed from biblical and ancient sources,
and the creature was variously represented
as a kind of wild ass, goat, or horse.
The predecessor of the medieval bestiary,
compiled in Late Antiquity and known as Physiologus (Φυσιολόγος),
popularized an elaborate allegory in which a unicorn,
trapped by a maiden (representing the Virgin Mary),
stood for the Incarnation.
As soon as the unicorn sees her,
it lays its head on her lap and falls asleep.
This became a basic emblematic tag
that underlies medieval notions of the unicorn,
justifying its appearance in every form of religious art.
Interpretations of the unicorn myth
focus on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers,
whereas some religious writers
interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ.
The myths refer to a beast with one horn
that can only be tamed by a virgin;
subsequently, some writers translated this
into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary.
The unicorn also figured in courtly terms:
for some 13th century French authors
such as Thibaut of Champagne and Richard de Fournival,
the lover is attracted to his lady as the unicorn is to the virgin.
With the rise of humanism,
the unicorn also acquired more orthodox secular meanings,
emblematic of chaste love and faithful marriage.
It plays this role in Petrarch's Triumph of Chastity,
and on the reverse of Piero della Francesca's portrait of Battista Strozzi,
paired with that of her husband Federico da Montefeltro (painted c 1472-74),
Bianca's triumphal car is drawn by a pair of unicorns.
The Throne Chair of Denmark is made of "unicorn horns"
almost certainly narwhal tusks.
The same material was used for ceremonial cups
because the unicorn's horn
continued to be believed to neutralize poison,
following classical authors.
The unicorn, tamable only by a virgin woman,
was well established in medieval lore by the time Marco Polo
described them as "scarcely smaller than elephants.
They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's.
They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead...
They have a head like a wild boar's…
They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime.
They are very ugly brutes to look at.
They are not at all such as we describe them
when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins,
but clean contrary to our notions."
It is clear that Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros.
In German, since the 16th century,
Einhorn ("one-horn") has become
a descriptor of the various species of rhinoceros.
The horn itself and the substance
it was made of was called alicorn,
and it was believed that the horn holds magical and medicinal properties.
The Danish physician Ole Worm
determined in 1638 that the alleged alicorns
were the tusks of narwhals.
Such beliefs were examined wittily
and at length in 1646 by Sir Thomas Browne
in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica.
False alicorn powder,
made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals,
has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741.
The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to detect poisons,
and many physicians would make "cures" and sell them.
Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift;
these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory.
Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages
and were often really the tusks of narwhals.
One traditional method of hunting unicorns involved entrapment by a virgin.
In one of his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote:
The unicorn, through its intemperance
and not knowing how to control itself,
for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness;
and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel
and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.
The famous late Gothic series of seven tapestry hangings
The Hunt of the Unicorn are a high point in European tapestry manufacture,
combining both secular and religious themes.
The tapestries now hang in the Cloisters division
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
In the series, richly dressed noblemen,
accompanied by huntsmen and hounds,
pursue a unicorn against mille-fleur backgrounds
or settings of buildings and gardens.
They bring the animal to bay
with the help of a maiden who traps it with her charms,
appear to kill it, and bring it back to a castle;
in the last and most famous panel,
"The Unicorn in Captivity," the unicorn is shown alive again and happy,
chained to a pomegranate tree surrounded by a fence,
in a field of flowers.
Scholars conjecture that
the red stains on its flanks are not blood
but rather the juice from pomegranates,
which were a symbol of fertility.
However, the true meaning of the mysterious resurrected unicorn
in the last panel is unclear.
The series was woven about 1500 in the Low Countries,
probably Brussels or Liège,
for an unknown patron.
A set of six engravings on the same theme,
treated rather differently,
were engraved by the French artist Jean Duvet in the 1540s.
Another famous set of six tapestries of Dame à la licorne
("Lady with the unicorn") in the Musée de Cluny, Paris,
were also woven in the Southern Netherlands before 1500,
and show the five senses (the gateways to temptation)
and finally Love ("A mon seul desir" the legend reads),
with unicorns featured in each piece.
Facsimiles of these unicorn tapestries
are currently being woven for permanent display
in Stirling Castle, Scotland,
to take the place of a set recorded
in the castle in a 16th-century inventory.
A rather rare, late-15th-century,
variant depiction of the hortus conclusus
in religious art combined the Annunciation to Mary
with the themes of the Hunt of the Unicorn
and Virgin and Unicorn, so popular in secular art.
The unicorn already functioned
as a symbol of the Incarnation and
whether this meaning is intended in many prima facie
secular depictions can be a difficult matter of scholarly interpretation.
There is no such ambiguity in the scenes where the
archangel Gabriel is shown blowing a horn,
as hounds chase the unicorn into the Virgin's arms,
and a little Christ Child descends on rays of light from God the Father.
The Council of Trent finally banned this
somewhat over-elaborated, if charming, depiction,
partly on the grounds of realism,
as no one now believed the unicorn to be a real animal.
Shakespeare scholars describe unicorns
being captured by a hunter standing in front of a tree,
the unicorn goaded into charging;
the hunter would step aside the last moment
and the unicorn would embed its horn deeply into the tree.
In heraldry, a unicorn is often depicted
as a horse with a goat's cloven hooves and beard,
a lion's tail, and a slender, spiral horn on its forehead
(non-equine attributes may be replaced with equine ones,
as can be seen from the following gallery).
Whether because it was an emblem of the Incarnation
or of the fearsome animal passions of raw nature,
the unicorn was not widely used in early heraldry,
but became popular from the 15th century.
Though sometimes shown collared and chained,
which may be taken as an indication that it has been tamed or tempered,
it is more usually shown collared with a broken chain attached,
showing that it has broken free from its bondage.
In heraldry the unicorn is best known as the symbol of Scotland.
The unicorn was chosen because it was seen as a proud and haughty beast
which would rather die than be captured,
just as Scots would fight to remain sovereign and unconquered.
Two unicorns supported the royal arms of the King of Scots,
and since the 1707 union of England and Scotland,
the royal arms of the United Kingdom have been supported by a unicorn
along with an English lion.
Two versions of the royal arms exist:
that used in Scotland gives more emphasis to the Scottish elements,
placing the unicorn on the right and giving it a crown,
whereas the version used in England
and elsewhere gives the English elements more prominence.
Golden coins known as the unicorn and half-unicorn,
both with a unicorn on the obverse,
were used in Scotland in the 15th and 16th century.
In the same realm,
carved unicorns were often used as finials on the pillars of Mercat crosses,
and denoted that the settlement was a royal burgh.
Certain noblemen such as the Earl of Kinnoull were given special permission
to use the unicorn in their arms,
as an augmentation of honour.