In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, a mystical creature known as the unicorn made many appearances. As described throughout much of literature, the unicorn is reputed to look somewhat like a white horse, although it has a long, twisted horn protruding from its forehead.1 The earliest description of the unicorn was by Ctesias (400 BC) (The New Book of Knowledge, Vol. U-V 19: 391). Unicorns have cloven hooves that are somewhat yellow in color; some are said to have a lion-like tail. Male unicorns can be distinguished from their female counterparts mainly in part of the goat-like beard beneath the chin. Also, the females are more elegant and have a slimmer muscle frame. The typical European unicorn has a coat of hair that is pure white, and has eyes that are either deep sea blue or fiery pink. Long and silky strands of white hair hand down from its mane and forelock. In his book, The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle describes this mythological creature as looking nothing like a horned horse…[as she was] smaller and cloven-hoofed (1). In his book, Beagle’s unicorn was the color of sea foam when it was young; as it aged, its color changed to the color of snow falling on a moonlit night (1). A unicorn’s horn is white, silver, or golden in color, is about two to three feet in length, and is said to have special healing powers.
Throughout time, there have been many varied descriptions of the unicorn. In Asia, for example, mention of the animal dates back as far as 26 century BC.1 The animal described is far more different than the European unicorn. Rather than looking like a horse, the Asian unicorn, known as the k’i-lin, appears more like a dragon, although it has cloved hooves.1 The k’i-lin’s body was made predominately of shimmery fish scales that shone in every color of the rainbow, and its horn was also thought to contain magical healing powers.1 The k’i-lin is reported to have wandered through the palace of the emperor Huang-ti in 2697 BC, and was honored as the king of all the land animals.1
Of the two, the European is the more widely known unicorn, and thus, more information is readily available on that type of unicorn. In Beagle’s book, he states that it is their nature to live alone in one place: usually a forest… (1). As they are vain creatures, they prefer to live in solitary places where there is a shallow pool of water nearby were they can see themselves clearly (Beagle, 1). They normally dwell only in temperate woodlands, away from human activity. They are herbivorous creatures, living mainly off of tender leaves of the forest and its grasses.
Although unicorns are immortal, they do have enemies and can be killed. Its enemies include the harpy, dragon, and chimera (Beagle, 95). Not much is known about the unicorn’s reproductive habits, only that it rarely ever mates (Beagle, 1). However, it is believed that when they do, it is for life. As the unicorn’s horn was reputed to have mystical healing powers, unicorn hunts were popular throughout the Middle Ages. Since baby unicorns were almost non-existent, if one could catch a baby, he was even more richly rewarded.
The unicorn’s horn was thought to be a healing source. It was claimed to cure many diseases and ward off many others, such as epilepsy and different stomach illnesses. It was also believed to a neutralizer against poison.3 The horn was continuously sought after to be given to apothecaries; they would grind up the horn to make a poison neutralizing powder. Also, the horn was said to bleed if poison was brought near it.3 For these reasons, over 40,000 gold pieces were offered for the horn of a unicorn (which almost always turned out to be the horn of the narwhal, or unicorn of the sea). Although it was a healer of wounds, the unicorn was a ruthless, savage fighter when cornered. She had killed dragons with it [the horn], and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close… (Beagle, 1). Beagle clearly shows that the unicorn’s horn was its means of protection, as well as its healing strength. He clearly emphasizes the extreme change in the unicorn’s temperate, going from killer to healer. In ancient Greek and Roman myths, unicorns were an emblem of purity. As such, they were placed among virgin saints whenever they were mentioned in a myth.2 In medieval society as well, the unicorn was a symbol of purity and innocence. It was fabled that a unicorn would only allow an untouched person of pure heart to touch it. From this came the tradition a princess bride-to-be would have to go through in order to marry. Before a prince and a princess could be married, the princess would have to go into the forest in search of a unicorn. The princess would have a bridle of gold waiting, and would call softly to the unicorn to come and lay its head on her lap (Beagle, 73). In most instances, the princess would wait until a good amount of time had passed and would then go back to tell them that she had satisfied the tradition (Beagle, 73-74). This tradition had come about mainly to prove that the young girl about to be married was still pure and untouched.
The unicorn was also revered in society as a symbol of honesty.3 In the Middle Ages, many upper-class family crests contained an image of the unicorn for this reason. The unicorn’s counterpart was the lion, as they were both considered king of all animals.3 In many cases, both the unicorn and lion were placed on the crests as symbols of honesty, purity, and strength. In time, the unicorn came to be seen as an emblem of the spring season, and the lion stood for summer.3
As the unicorn was a symbol of chastity and purity, it was claimed that it could only be captured by a virgin’s touch.3 Because of this, a virgin was almost always included in the unicorn hunts that were organized. Eventually, it was realized that it was impossible to capture a real, live unicorn. Therefore, many people turned to weavers to capture them on tapestries.3 Some of these tapestries, known as the Unicorn Tapestries, now hang in museums across the world. Hanging in the Cluney Museum in Paris are two of the most famous of the tapestries.2
Later, with the resurgence of the Christian religion, the unicorn became a symbol of the Virgin Mary. It was also believed to be the guardian of the Tree of Life in the Bible.3 However, before it ever became a Christian symbol for purity and virginity, the unicorn was a symbol of the moon. As such, it was a symbol of the virgin goddess of the hung, Artemis, also known as the Roman goddess Diana. 3 Throughout much of literature the unicorn has made its fair share of appearances. Peter S. Beagle devoted an entire book, The Last Unicorn, to this mythical creature. In many instances, he wrote of the animal as if it were an ethereal creature. …Her [the unicorn’s] neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thing legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight. She had killed dragons with it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs (Beagle, 1). Beagles writes of the unicorn as if it were a kind, giving animal who, when needed, could also be dangerous and threatening. The combination of the color of the horn and its ability to shine with its own light even in the darkest of nights lends the unicorn an ethereal, almost heavenly quality.
Later in his book, Beagle relates to the belief of the symbolic meaning of the unicorn. ?Unicorns are for beginnings,’ he [Schmendrick the Magician] said, ?for innocence and purity, for newness. Unicorns are for young girls’ (Beagle, 70). In this passage, Beagle clearly alludes to the beliefs of the Middle Ages where the unicorn was thought to be a symbol of purity and virginity. By making reference to unicorns being for young girls, Beagle indirectly hints at the belief that only pure, untouched girls were allowed to be near it. In pages 72 through 74 of Chapter Five of The Last Unicorn, Beagle makes reference to the tradition surrounding princes and princesses who are to be married. He has a young princess who unsuccessfully tries to lure the unicorn out of hiding so that she can place the golden bridle on it, as a way of proving herself to be pure and untouched. It is understood that the unicorn will not appear, and after a few futile efforts, the prince tells the princess to leave it be, that she has satisfied custom and they can now be married (Beagle, 73-74). This is a distinct reference to the tradition behind the marriage of princes and princesses.
Beagle also tries to write of the unicorn in an almost Christ-like way. With an old, gay, terrible cry of ruin, the unicorn reared out of her hiding place. Her hooves came slashing down like a rain of razors, her mane raged, and on her forehead she wore a plume of lightning. The three assassins dropped their daggers and hid their faces, and even Molly Grue and Schmendrick cowered before her. But the unicorn saw none of them. Mad, dancing, sea-white, she belled her challenge again…[as]…the Red Bull came. He was the color of blood, not the springing blood of the heart but of the blood that stirs under an old wound that never really healed. A terrible light poured from him like sweat, and his roar started landslides flowing into one another. His horns were as pale as scars… (Beagle, 94-95). In this passage, it is evident that Beagle puts his unicorn in a God vs. The Devil situation. Where the unicorn is described in a way that portrays her as an angel fighting for her people, Beagle depicts the Red Bull as a Satan figure. Whereas the unicorn is sea-white, the bull is blood red. Where the unicorn is surrounded by a white (possibly representing good) lightning, the bull is enveloped in a terrible light. Throughout the entire passage, Beagle contrasts the unicorn and the bull in a manner that can only be described as good versus evil.
Unicorns. Http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Shadowlands/1272/unicorn.html. March 11, 2000.
Unicorn Myths and Legends. Http://members.tripod.com/%7Ewaterdragon/origins.html. March 11, 2000.
Origins of the Unicorn. Http://stud-www.uni-marbug.de/~Vigier/unicorn.html. March 14, 2000
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: Penguin Publishing, 1991
Unicorns. The New Book of Knowledge, Volume U-V 19. Grolier Incorporated, 1982.