It comes out that unicorns, in various forms ranging from dangerous creatures to cheerful rainbow-spouting mascots, have existed in some form or another since the dawn of human civilization. Because April 9th is National Unicorns Day, we thought we'd take the opportunity to briefly review some of the unicorn's evolutionary history...
Beginnings that are uncertain
The Indus Valley Civilization, together with old Egypt and Mesopotamia, formed one of three major civilizations of ancient Near East between 3000 and 1300 BCE. The first doubtful reference to unicorn mythology is found in the Indus Valley Civilization. A horse-like animal (seen in profile) with just a single horn emerging from its skull is depicted on seal belonging to members of society who are considered to be elite. To be sure, this early connection to unicorns is tenuous at best, and it's far more probably that these are representations of aurochs, a sort of enormous wild cattle that once roamed Europe, Asia, and North Africa, rather than unicorns.
Experts in the art of avoidance
As well as describing their physical characteristics, Pliny is one of the first writers to define the unicorns' personality traits, declaring that they were among the toughest animals in India and that they were impossible to capture alive – something that would become a running theme in their mythology, particularly during the medieval period.
Cosmas Indicopleustes (a traveling merchant from Alexandria) wrote a beautiful tale about the unicorn's infamous ability to evade capture in the 6th century CE, which may be found here. He claims that the unicorn's horn contains all of its power, and that when threatened, a unicorn will cheerfully jump from a cliff, resting safely just on point of its horn... He does not mention how it then disconnected itself from the earth, which is disappointing. Shame.
Unicorns are shown in Christian art.
According to legend, a misinterpretation of the Bible's ancient Hebrew language resulted in the unicorn being referenced in some manuscripts of the book of Revelation. The word 'ox' was effectively converted to the word 'unicorn' as a result of a supposed translation error when the Hebrew term 'Re'em' (ox) was translated as'monokeros.'
This allegory was further popularized in the 2nd century CE, when a Greek Christian writing recognized as Physiologus (widely regarded as the forerunner of the famous medieval "bestiaries," or "books of beasts") added that unicorns were powerful, fierce animals and that their horn might purify poisoned waters. Another popular notion that had formed was that unicorns can be controlled with the assistance of something like a virgin maiden, because unicorns were thought into becoming loving and submissive in the presence of a virgin maiden. The book further reinforced this popular view. As a result of this, as well as their purifying properties, the unicorn came to be connected with Christ himself, and medieval artwork frequently showed a unicorn as just a metaphor for the Savior.
Symbols of chivalry can be found in a variety of forms.
For most of medieval Europe, an unicorn was seen as a symbol of chivalry; great lovers and their female companions were frequently compared to a doting bond that exists between the unicorn as well as a virgin. A secular unicorn symbol of virginity and fidelity emerged during the Renaissance as a reaction to the Christian allegory that had previously prevailed.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, unicorn began to gain popularity in heraldry, where they were commonly represented as a pony with goat-like hooves and beard, as well as having a graceful spiral horn. They're also frequently depicted wearing a broken chain around their necks, maybe as a testament to their great strength and ultimately untamable nature. As a sign of purity, innocence or power in Celtic mythology, a unicorn was an easy choice for Scotland's royal coats of arms, and it has remained so ever since.
Possessing curative properties
Apparently poisonous properties linked with the unicorn's horn were so widely believed that cups reportedly made of unicorn single horn were highly treasured by medieval nobles for their purifying properties and as a means of protecting against poisoning. Rather than being constructed of ivory, the cups have been most likely made of rhinoceros or narwhal tusk.
AND the use of unicorn horns as a form of protection didn't stop there... It was commonplace in London newspapers during the 17th century to see adverts for wonder elixirs produced from "genuine Unicorn Horn." These were claimed to be effective in treating a wide range of ailments, including ulcers and scurvy, as well as melancholy or fainting spells.
From the realm of reality to the realm of mythology
Unfortunately, by the eighteenth century, believe in unicorns had begun to diminish, as more of world was discovered and the existence of these majestic beasts was discovered to be false. Until the Victorian era, it was impossible to see or appreciate the now famous 'Lady and the Unicorn' tapestries (created around 1500 and largely thought to be among the best works of medieval art) because they had been lost to time. Victorian artists were able to rediscover and romanticize these tapestries. Starting from this moment forward, the unicorns as a glamorized mythological beast gained in popularity, eventually reaching the point where the unicorn craze is thriving today! It's impossible to avoid the unicorn "brand," which now includes everything from unicorn coffee and bagels to emoticons and a whole slew of accessories.
Lapse of judgement
Unicorns first occur in ancient Greek writings, not in mythology but in "natural history" writings about the ancient World. It's the first recorded proof we have towards unicorns. Ctesias, a 4th-century BCE writer, is the first to write about it. Described as a "fleet of foot, with a horn one cubit or a half in size, and colored white, red and black"– fancy!– in his work Indika (On India), he makes the earliest mention of a unicorn. His description of the oryx (an antelope with similar colorings to those described above) are in the same works, therefore the two are very certainly interchangeable.