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The Mysterious Mythology Of Unicorns

Unicorns are fascinating creatures, and they have enthralled writers, story-tellers, poets, and even historians throughout the ages. They appear in many different cultures across the world, often taking on different shapes or representations, and dancing into the dreams of people everywhere.

The Hunt of the Unicorn
The Hunt of the Unicorn. By Unknown author – www.metmuseum.org

Despite their popularity, however, there is little “official” mythology surrounding them. As mentioned by GodsandMonsters, they don’t appear in any culture’s actual mythology, even if they were commonly written about within that culture. There are no unicorns in Greek or Roman myths, for example. However, unicorns are unquestionably mythical creatures, and even if they don’t step into official myths and legends, they have certainly walked through our stories and tales for centuries, leaving magic and mystery behind.

If you’ve ever wondered about some of the mythology behind these amazing creatures, here are a few areas where they have particularly interesting myths or legends surrounding them. If you know of any we haven’t included which you think should be here, let us know; we love learning more about these bright and incredible equines.

Unicorns Across The Globe

All around the world, unicorns have left their hoofprints in myths and legends and traditions, as they continue to do today. It’s incredible how many different countries have tales of unicorns, many of which vary enormously in appearance and associations. Almost all of them, however, relate to good luck and positivity.

Unicorns are one of the few mythical creatures which are based on something positive. Most are related to fears or vices, so it’s nice to focus on and explore the meaning of one which isn’t. Unicorns are almost invariably considered to represent good.

The Scottish Unicorn

Unicorns are the symbol of Scotland, and have been since the 1500s. They also appear on the British flag beside the British lion, as a representation of the union between Britain and Scotland. Unicorns were chosen as a symbol for Scotland because of their association with freedom and power, according to ScottishAtHeart. They are also closely associated with healing and purity.

Unicorn proudly in the Royal Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Scotland

It’s often said that the real reason unicorns were chosen as the national symbol of Scotland is that they would rather die than be captured. The Scots were known for being fierce, proud fighters, who would never surrender to invaders or tyrants, so the association was very fitting.

What better creature for the national flag? Unicorns have been linked with royalty since the Romans, though many of the other things they symbolized have changed. It’s no surprise that such graceful and powerful creatures were claimed by the royals and nobility; they are certainly a desirable association to have, and Scotland is fortunate to enjoy such a wonderful crest!

Medieval Unicorns

These great creatures probably are the closest ancestors to the unicorns we think of today, and likely inspired many of their traits. According to UnicornsRule, they were mentioned in the Bible, and many people took this to mean they must be real creatures. It was later established that, although some translations of the Bible do include unicorns, these probably referred to a wild ox, rather than the great mythical horses we think of today.

Used as an allegory, unicorns were considered impossible to catch or tame, except by one pure of soul – often a virgin. They soon became associated with Christ, and have even served as a parallel of his life, with their innocence and healing powers reflecting his time on Earth.

Medieval societies respected and admired unicorns for their religious associations, and the popularity they enjoyed at this time is probably partially responsible for unicorns surviving in so many myths and legends. Whatever the original meaning intended by the Bible, we’re certainly glad that unicorns have survived to grace our world today!

Chinese Unicorns

UnicornsRule also tells us a bit about Chinese unicorns, otherwise known as qilins. The Chinese unicorn has existed for centuries, and may be one of the oldest unicorns. Unusually, it is a unicorn with more than one horn; it is frequently shown as having horns which more like a deer’s antlers, though it also sometimes depicted with a single horn. It has a green scaly body and a dragon’s head, as well as a bear’s tail. This may not be quite what most of us picture when we think unicorns, but it’s nonetheless rather beautiful!

Chinese Unicorn, The Qilin
Statue of Chinese Unicorn (Qilin)

This creature was also certainly powerful, like all unicorns. According to ThoughtCo, it heralded the birth or death of a significant leader or a scholar. As with many of its cousins, the Chinese unicorn was associated with peace and gentility, which may be one of the major reasons for grouping it in with unicorns – in terms of looks, it doesn’t seem to qualify.

Interestingly, the qilin is also related to Western unicorns in that it manages to be both male and female simultaneouslyBritannica states that “qi” is male and “lin” is female. The qilin is therefore an explicit mix of the two, which is fascinating considering the gender fluidity of the Western unicorn. Western unicorns have been associated with both male power and female gentility over the years.

African Unicorns

Unicorns come from Africa too; they really are amazingly spread across the whole globe. It’s probably not a surprise, given what wonderful creatures they are, and the speed and ease with which they can travel, but sometimes it’s astounding to think about how many cultures represented them and in how many different ways.

In Africa, the unicorn is also known as the okapi, and it’s a real, breathing creature that lives in canopy forests in Central Africa. Its somewhat elusive nature, vegetarianism, and striking looks may all contribute to its status as a “unicorn” though it does noticeably lack a horn.

African Unicorn - Okapi
The African unicorn Okapi, which noticeably lacks a horn.

It may only have been classified as such because it was unknown to Europeans until around the 20th century; a creature shrouded in myths, living in the depths of the African forests, probably cried out to be grouped with the beautiful mythical equines Europe was already so fascinated by.

DinoAnimals also informs us that okapi are notoriously difficult to catch, and very shy creatures. They were thought by many to be fictional, which may be another reason they were related to unicorns. Okapi is not, however, horse-like, but instead they are closer to giraffes. Despite the fact that okapi are not a wonderful fit for the category of unicorns, I think it’s fascinating to see how our enthusiasm for unicorns has led to so many creatures being embraced by the ever-growing family.

South American Unicorns

Unicorns have walked South America as well, in the form of a creature known as a camahueto. According to Mythology.net, this creature shared many similarities with other unicorns, though it tends to be depicted as a heavy, bull-like creature. It is specifically associated with Chile.

South American Unicorn - Camahueto
South American Unicorn, Camahueto. Image source

It has one horn, which – like many unicorn horns – was thought to have curative properties. Mixed with vinegar and seawater, it could cure impotency, as well as other ills. Some believed camahuetos came from the sea, and others believed they returned there. It was thought that planting a piece of a camahueto’s horn would lead to the growth of a new creature. This regeneration isn’t unlike the idea of a unicorn’s immortality, though this is very dependent on the myth.

Certainly, the power of these creatures is centered upon their horns, just as with other unicorns. They may not share as much similarity in terms of their bodies, but they are clearly immensely powerful creatures, worthy of their place in unicorn mythology.

Arctic Unicorns

Narwhals are perhaps the most famous real creature associated with the mythical equines. As mentioned by Reference.com, they are often referred to as “unicorns of the sea” and for good reason. They tick many of the boxes, with graceful long horns breaking through the water, and smooth, gleaming white bodies. Their horns are often called tusks, but the perfect, spiraling shapes very closely resemble unicorn horns.

Narwhal - whale with a unicorn horn (tusk)
Narwhals are often referred to as “unicorn of the sea” (Source: Earth.org)

Narwhals fence using their horns, but they are generally very gentle creatures, living in large family groups. They drift calmly in the ocean waters, disappearing in the depths in much the way land unicorns disappear into forests and shadows.

As porpoises, narwhals belong to both the land and the sea; they must breathe air, yet have flippers and spend all their time in water. This is similar to the way unicorns exist in the twilight of reality, flitting between worlds, half-myth and half-reimagined in the everyday creatures we see around us. If you would like to know more about Narwhals and their association to unicorns, feel free to our previous article about these fascinating creatures.

Other Mythological Unicorn Symbols

Myths and legends have plenty more to say about unicorns, and some of the facts transcend borders and time, remaining fixed with minimal alterations wherever you look. There seems to be a particular interest in the properties of unicorn body parts across the globe, which led to an immensely profitable trade in fakes.

Purity and Virginity

Perhaps one of the most common symbols associated with unicorns is purity, and in most legends, it’s agreed that only those with pure souls can catch or approach them. In many stories, this is equated with a female virgin, but this image is perhaps becoming less popular as feminism and sexual rights progress.

Unicorn with a virgin woman
Domenichino, 1602. Unicorn with a virgin woman.

Medieval myths in particular believed that unicorns could only be tamed by a virgin, and often depicted unicorns as calmed by their presence. This is perhaps because unicorns themselves were considered so pure, they wouldn’t allow anyone unworthy near them.

In the book Spellfall, only Spellmages can approach unicorns, because Casters are considered unworthy. When a Caster attempts to ride a unicorn, it throws him off, despite the fact he is accompanied by a Spellmage and is trying to save the unicorns’ homeland. Though the Spellmages are not considered pure in terms of their moral standing, they are reflections of purer magic than the banished Casters are capable of. A delightful twist on the traditional myth, this idea could be continued in all sorts of ways.

Dark Unicorns

Perhaps surprisingly, dark unicorns are not necessarily associated with evil, though in some cases they certainly are. In my article, Black Unicorn: Mythology, Meaning In Dreams, Literature & Games, I explored the different things they represent and the juxtaposition inherently present in them.

The Black Unicorn Apparition (Credit: Santharia.com)

In some mythological sources, black unicorns are Nightmares, or are the result of Nightmares breeding with white unicorns. They are seen as forces of evil in many games such as Dungeons & Dragons, where they will refuse to ever serve or knowingly aid a good character.

In many other incarnations, however, dark unicorns are seen as stronger and faster versions of the white ones. In dreams, this can mean that they bring particularly potent help to the dreamer. The black unicorn has also appeared in pop culture as a force for good, such as The Black Unicorn, by Terry Brooks, in which the black unicorn is needed to assist the characters in saving a kingdom.

Black unicorns are probably among the most contentious unicorns when it comes to deciding what they represent, but whether you feel they bring good fortune or bad luck, they are breathtaking, powerful creatures that have left their mark on many legends and tales.

Unicorn Horns

Unicorn horns are undoubtedly one of the most powerful symbols of unicorns, if not the most powerful. They are almost the definition of a unicorn, and these amazing horns have been important in mythology for centuries.

unicorn, landscape, the atmosphere
white unicorns following each other. When seeing a dream following unicorn, it means you need more magic in life. Photo by Mysticsartdesign on Pixabay

Unicorn horns are endowed with many powers, including the power of flight, the power of healing, and the power of good fortune. According to AncientOrigins, the very first mention of a unicorn horn was by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias, in 5BC. He believed it was used by Indian princes to safeguard themselves against poisons, so the association of unicorn horns as antidotes could hardly be longer-lived.

This belief was passed on for centuries, and unicorn horns were highly coveted by medieval nobility in particular. They would pay enormous amounts of money to traders who could sell them unicorn horns – at least until the narwhal was discovered. These poor creatures took the brunt of traders’ greed, and many were slaughtered so their horns could be sold to unsuspecting Europeans, who had never traveled far enough to learn of narwhals.

Another property which unicorn horns are thought to have, according to AncientOrigins, is the purification of water. This is perhaps because they are such pure creatures themselves, or maybe due to their association with the Bible. Just as priests can sanctify water and make it holy, a unicorn can make the sign of the cross in the water with its horn, and rid it of evils or poisons.

Unicorn Blood

Given how powerful unicorns are, it’s no surprise their body parts are considered powerful too – though the poor unicorns may not approve enormously! Drinking unicorn blood could have similar effects to touching the horn, curing those who were sick, or even bringing immortality, depending upon which myths and legends you look at.

There is evidence of this in today’s pop culture too; in Harry Potter, Voldemort slays unicorns and drinks their blood to sustain his half-existence. It serves to prolong his life, though at the cost of any innocence he had remaining. Mythology.wikia also recognizes this trait of unicorn blood. View to the original scene from the movie in the video below.

Unicorn blood does not seem to have as many uses as unicorn horns, however. It may be that this was a less salable commodity, since blood from one animal would have been impossible to identify as different to blood from another. In some legends, unicorn blood is silver, so this would also have made it very difficult for merchants to fake. Perhaps because of this, there seem to be fewer legends surrounding it. If I were a unicorn, I would be grateful for that, at least!

Unicorn Hair

White unicorn with elegant mail and mane.

The hair from unicorns’ tails and manes is also thought to be quite magical, and again has been used in modern literature, as well as in old tales. It is one of the three wand cores mentioned in Harry Potter, and it’s said that the character Hagrid also used to collect it and use it to bind injuries.

Unicorn hair is used as a curative in Ella Enchanted; it is part of a soup recipe which is supposed to cure characters. The character who consumes the soup with the hair lives, while the other dies, showing its unquestionable power. Again, unicorn hairs probably proved difficult for medieval traders to fake, but they seem the most comfortable part to collect for medicinal purposes to me; they can at least be gathered without causing harm to the majestic creatures who own them!

Have you ever seen a strand of unicorn hair gleaming in a bush or snagged on a thorn?

To Conclude

Unicorn law and mythology is almost endless, despite their absence from the “official” myths of the world. They are clearly enigmatic, magnetic creatures which have held the attention and admiration of artists everywhere. These amazing equines appeal to us on so many levels and represent so many different things, it’s difficult to absorb just how influential they have been throughout history.

What do unicorns mean to you? Do any of the myths and traditions mentioned here sound particularly appealing, or are your unicorns stepping off the path of history and forging their own meanings? We’d love to hear about it if so!

One response to “The Mysterious Mythology Of Unicorns”

  1. […] you ever heard of a magical creature called an alicorn? It’s like a mash-up of a unicorn and a Pegasus, and it’s totally awesome! Picture a horse with wings and a majestic horn on […]

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