Unicorns are such pure, beautiful and mysterious creatures. These mythical horses with a single spiraling horn protruding from the forehead have continuously populated legends and magical myths all over the world. Everything has been said about them. Somebody says there’s a strange healing power enclosed in the horn, others say they can actually fly without having wings. Everybody says they’re immortal.
When the cultural beliefs about the magical creature were exploding , a “unicorn horn” was literally worth 10 times its weight in gold. Pharmacies in London sold powdered unicorn horn as late as 1741.
|The unicorn of the Lascaux Caves, France|
But despite being very well known, nobody has actually seen a living one grazing on the neighbors’ lawn. These magical horses have been discussed in religious texts, travel observations, and even ancient academic papers. But the real question is: Did unicorns, at one point in time, actually exist? And If they didn’t, where did the legend come from?
The first ever known depiction of a unicorn is said to be found in the ancient Lascaux Caves in France, but this should be classified as a misconception. These drawings date back to 15,000 BCE. Lots of researchers were surprised to see an animal with only one horn, claiming the discovery of an ancient “unicorn”. Until they realized that the so-called unicorn had two horns, drawn confusingly close together. More likely, the drawing depicts some sort of bull or antelope.
The first written description of a unicorn in Western literature comes from the Greek physician and historian Ctesias in the 4th century BCE. While he was traveling through Persia (what is now named Iran), he heard tales of a single-horned “wild ass” wandering around the eastern part of the world from fellow travelers. In his writings (found in Odell Shepard’s 1930 research manual called “Lore of the Unicorn”), Ctesias minutely described these creatures as “large as horses” with white bodies, red heads and blue eyes. Ctesias depicted the horn as multi-colored (precisely red at the tip, black in the middle and white at the base) and about a foot and half in length. They were so fast and powerful, claimed Ctesias, that “no creature, neither the horse or any other, could overtake it”. According to Time Magazine’s article “A Brief History of Unicorns,” it was likely Ctesias never actually saw this creature himself, but rather combined the portrayals that his foreign friends told him.
|Is this what Marco Polo saw ?|
Talking about actual unicorns sightings, there’s a funny story about Marco Polo. In his travels, he stumbled across unicorns and this is what he said about them:
“…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”.
|Nothing is impossible...|
That day he saw a rhino. In fact, a lot of the sightings of unicorns are relatable with these “not so beautiful” animals (Even Genghis Khan decided not to conquer India after meeting a “unicorn”, which bowed down to him). And this funny mistake has been adopted by modern science, giving rhinos the scientific name of Rhinoceros unicornis.
The unicorn is even mentioned in the King James version of the Bible nine times.
“God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn”
“Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns”
are just two of the unicorn-themed lines in this version of the Bible. But this is probably due to a simple mistranslation. In fact, in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), there are references to a creature named “re’em”. Researchers believe “re’em” were a now-extinct type of wild ox or, potentially, the now endangered, but still existing, Arabian Oryx. The book doesn’t specifically talk about one single horn, but translators were more familiar with Mesopotamian depictions of these animals, drawn as profiles in which only one horn is visible. So, when the Old Testament was translated to Greek, these creatures took on the word “monokeros”, meaning one-horned. Then, in the Latin Bible, this became “unicornos” and then “unicorn” into the modern English translation.
And no let’s talk about Narwhals, unicorns’ cousins. Some of the most die-hard unicorn believers think the narwhal is the missing link that can lead to the ancient existence of their beloved creatures. But there’s so little in common between unicorns and narwhals. The narwhal is a member of the whale/porpoise family and owns a single horn (that is actually a tooth) located in the middle of the forehead. This tooth is used during mating and to create holes in the ice of the cold waters of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland they often live in. These unicorn supporters speculate that unicorns, being threaten on land by hunters and those wishing to do them harm, took the sea and evolved into the narwhal. However, without a minimal connection with the horse morphology and DNA, this kind of evolution is extremely improbable. In fact, narwhals are actually much closer to beluga whales, dolphins, and porpoises than horses in terms of DNA.
Howwever, the legend that unicorn horns could counteract poison and purify water destroyed narwhal populations, as the single tooth of the whale’s was sold as a popular counterfeit. The Throne Chair of Denmark was also made of narwhal horns.
All of this evidence seems to point to that unicorns, unfortunately for us, never actually existed. More likely, the unicorn could be seen as a mixture of all the real animals we’ve seen so far.
But don’t be sad, cause I have wonderful news for you. If you still think the unicorn is real (like I do), there is a place for you: Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. In 1971, the college created a group dedicated to the staking out and hunting of these mythical creatures called “the Unicorn Hunters”. Though the group disbanded in 1987, you can still have a Unicorn Questing license on the university’s website. The PDF is downloadable here: http://www.lssu.edu/banished/uh_license.php
I already have mine and my life is complete. Don’t care what people say. Now I have the License. And so do you…