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Alternate Names

Qilin (Chinese), Kirin (Japanese)

Appears In

Aelian's On Animals, the Bible



Character Overview

The word unicorn comes from the Latin for “one-horned” and refers to an imaginary beast that appears in the legends of China, Japan, India, Mesopotamia, and Europe. Since medieval times the unicorn has often been portrayed as a horse with a single horn growing from its forehead. Descriptions of the animal in various sources differ somewhat, but they all agree on the horn. According to ancient Greek sources, the unicorn has the tail of a lion and split hooves like a boar. Some images of unicorns were probably based on real animals, such as the one-horned rhinoceros or the narwhal—a small whale with a single long tooth or tusk that resembles a spiral ivory horn.

In Chinese tradition, the unicorn was one of four magical or spiritual creatures—along with the phoenix , tortoise, and dragon—that were regarded as signs of good fortune. The appearance of a unicorn signaled the birth or death of a great person; one was said to have appeared when Confucius (pronounced kuhn-FYOO-shuhs), a famous wise man, was born.

Although unicorns were thought to be fierce fighters, they were also symbols of purity. Perhaps this was because the ancient Greeks and Romans had associated them with virgin goddesses, such as Artemis , whose chariot was said to be drawn by eight unicorns. According to tradition, one way to capture a unicorn was to send a very young virgin into the forest. The unicorn would be attracted to her and would rest its head in her lap, at which point a hunter could catch the animal.

Unicorns in Context

The Western image of the unicorn comes in part from the Hebrew Bible. During its translation into Greek, a Hebrew word for “wild ox” was changed to a Greek word that people interpreted as a reference to either a unicorn or a rhinoceros. Around 400 bce, the Greek historian Ctesias (pronounced TEE-shee-uhs) wrote of a wild beast in India that had a single horn and fought elephants. It was probably the rhinoceros, though later writers developed an image that much more closely resembled a horned horse.

By the Middle Ages, Europeans had come to believe that these horse-like unicorns really existed in remote parts of the world. Among the legends linked to them was the belief that water touched by a unicorn's horn became safe for animals and people to drink. From this tradition developed the idea that powdered unicorn horn offered protection against poison and possibly cured disease as well. Rich and important people treasured horns and powders said to have come from unicorns. Some kings, fearing that rivals might try to poison them, drank from vessels that they believed to be unicorn horns.

Key Themes and Symbols

The unicorn is most commonly associated with purity. This is shown in the idea that a unicorn's horn could purify a poisoned drink, and in the legend that one could catch a unicorn only by its attraction to a pure young woman. The unicorn's white color also represents purity.

Unicorns in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The unicorn has endured through the centuries as one of the most popular mythical creatures ever conceived. Throughout medieval Europe, the unicorn appeared as a symbol of heraldry on the coats of arms of cities and many noble families. In modern times, the unicorn remains a popular decorative image on posters and other items. Unicorns have appeared in books, such as the Peter Beagle novel The Last Unicorn (1968) and the Chronicles ofNarnia series by C. S. Lewis. The Chinese qilin is very popular in Asian animated series and video games, and the Japanese kirin is used as the logo for a popular beer of the same name.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The Last Unicorn (1968) by Peter S. Beagle tells the story of a unicorn who may be the last surviving member of her species in a mythical land. She embarks on a journey to discover the truth about the fate of the other unicorns, and to try and find others like her that are still alive. Along the way, she joins with various other misfits and outcasts who assist her with her quest.

SEE ALSO Animals in Mythology