Have you ever wondered where the origin of the Unicorn came from? The history of this ancient and mythical creature is fascinating. Maybe you know some of the origins of the Unicorn, in particular, the European Unicorn. But, did you know that a large percentage of ancient people believe unicorns are real?
Some even believe that the unicorn was 100% real but hunted to extinction. Let’s dive into the crazy origin of the Unicorn.
Origin of The Unicorn: Mentions in History
The unicorn has been mentioned all around the world in various languages and descriptions. The most description of a unicorn is the one we most well know. A pure white horse with a long ivory white tusk protruding from the head.
But the origin of the Unicorn is vast. There have been mentions in history from a vast collection of places and times.
The ancient Roman naturalist Pliny The Elder wrote extensively on “unicorns” in his book Natural History. As I can’t read ancient Roman, I must accept the translation from Wired.
“The unicorn is the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead. Its cry is a deep bellow.”
Later in the 7th-century the scholar, Isidore of Seville chimed in, noting that the unicorn “is very strong and pierces anything it attacks. It fights with elephants and kills them by wounding them in the belly.”
Pliny also wrote “the rhinoceros was also exhibited, an animal which has a single horn projecting from the nose; it has been frequently seen since then. This too is another natural-born enemy of the elephant [in addition to the dragon]. It prepares itself for the combat by sharpening its horn against the rocks; and in fighting directs it chiefly against the belly of its adversary, which it knows to be the softest part. The two animals are of equal length, but the legs of the rhinoceros are much the shorter: its skin is the color of box-wood.”
As you can see by the series of expert texts, the unicorn and the Rhinoceros where clearly mixed up as one in the same creature. Pliny the elder’s work was considered fact for over 1600 years.
The Origin of the Unicorn is still hotly debated as there have also been mentions all throughout eastern Asia and Europe.
Narwhal The TRUE Origin of the Unicorn:
There are many theories as to the origin of the Unicorn myth. Evidence from all around the world points to a collective imagination of a great beast with a single horn. The strongest of all evidence comes from the real world animal the Narwhal.
Imagine if you will that you are an ancient Viking explorer in Denmark. As you take a walk down the beach you see a beautiful ivory spiral horn three feet in length. What do you make of this new discovery? Maybe you even see a beautiful white stallion running in the fields next to you.
As you tell the story to friends, the beautiful white horse happens to have this perfectly rare and beautiful horn. You become the talk of the town and the story goes on from there. Eventually, that horn has magical powers
In reality, the tusk you found happens to be from a Narwhal. A cousin to the beluga whale that grows to 13-18 feet and around 1000 pounds. The Narwhal has a single long horn made of Ivory and is a common trade item of ancient Viking explorers. They would hunt Narwals for their meat and horns, later selling the horns. The Danish Kings were known to make their thrones out of Narwhal horns and there is even evidence that a single horn of 10 feet in length has been found.
The Origin of The Unicorn in Stories:
With an understanding of the origin of the Unicorn from ancient Narwhal horns and oral storytelling, we can start to see the how the most common type of unicorn came into existence. The European Unicorn is best understood by the ancient tale of King Arthur and his encounter with a Unicorn.
An excerpt from The Dwarf, the Giant, and the Unicorn: A Tale of King Arthur:
‘In the forest not far from here I found a large hollow tree filled with dead leaves. Just right for a cradle I thought, seeing how nothing better was to be had. But as I began to plump the leaves up into a pillow, I heard a rustling and found a nest of fawns. They had been so well covered that I didn’t see them until they moved. Each fawn had a tiny horn in the middle of its brow.
‘Well, I was so taken aback that for a while I did not know what to do. Then suddenly their mother returned. She was a great white beast, as large as any mare and with a sharp horn like a lance on her brow. She had a spark in her eyes that told me she thought I had been about to steal or harm her children. I panicked and ran and was just about to congratulate myself on my escape when I realized that I had lost my own son. Then I heard his cry from far away and knew I must have left him by the hollow tree.
‘In fear and trembling I crept back and my heart almost stopped when the babe suddenly went quiet. I loved the child dearly already, both for his own sake and because he was all I had to remind me of my dear wife. As I crept nearer, I found the Unicorn lying in the hollow of the tree with her fawns nursing at her breast, and my own babe in there among them, feeding as mightily as if he were their brother.
‘That night I hid nearby, almost freezing to death, unable to decide what to do. It was plain that the Unicorn could feed the babe better than I, but how could I abandon him to the care of a wild beast? In the morning the Unicorn left to feed and I took my son and washed him and wrapped him in swaddling as best I could. I meant to return him to the nest, but before I was done, the mother returned. This time though, she greeted me in the sweetest and gentlest way. There was no spark of anger in her blue eyes and, when she lay down with her fawns, she motioned with her head for me to return the child to her.
‘From that day until he was weaned the Unicorn remained my son’s wetnurse. I built a hut near the hollow tree and we lived together as a family, no evil creature daring to threaten us. Such was the virtue of the Unicorn’s milk that my son grew into a giant, soon able to uproot trees with his bare hands. In time he built this tower for me, so I would be safe when he was off hunting or at play. And the Unicorn is still my son’s constant companion, although her other children have long gone off into the world.’
As the dwarf concluded his tale the ground began to tremble. ‘Here comes the boy now,’ said the dwarf. Arthur, who had not known how much of the tale to believe, was mightily impressed to see a true giant come striding out of the forest with a dead bear slung lightly over one shoulder and a mighty club over the other. Beside him came, trotting daintily, a milk-white Unicorn.
Between the “evidence” of the Narwhal horn and the ancient Anglo-Saxon story of King Arthur, the Unicorn has been cemented in our minds. The great white stallion with a long magical horn is by far the most well known Unicorn.
The Unicorn in Modern Day
As you might imagine the unicorn trend is gaining in popularity. There has been a resurfacing of unicorn type items from the Unicorn Frappuccino, Unicorn onesies, and even guides to living a magical awesome unicorn life. What has kept the general population in love with Unicorns since the ancient times?
One might point to the pen and paper game Dungeons and Dragons first created in 1974 by Gary Gygax. Gary laid forth the foundation of modern-day fantasy. Our collective understanding of mythical creatures such as orcs, goblins, fairies, elves, dwarves, and unicorns all come from his work.
Unicorns in Dungeons and Dragons
The unicorn was one of the first monsters introduced in the earliest edition of the game, in the Dungeons & Dragons “white box” set (1974), where they were described as creatures that can be ridden by maiden-warriors and will obey them.
As editions advanced the Unicorn has become a staple creature representing the few “good” creatures that players can encounter. They are always a symbol of purity and divinity, and in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, Unicorns are considered celestial creatures.
With the collective storytelling and reemergence of Dungeons and Dragons in popular culture, you can see how the unicorn trend reemerged.
Did you enjoy learning about the origin of the Unicorn, is there anything I missed or you would like to add?