AskDefine | Define unicorn

Dictionary Definition

unicorn n : an imaginary creature represented as a white horse with a long horn growing from its forehead

User Contributed Dictionary



unicornis, from unus : one + cornu - u : horn.


  1. A mythical beast traditionally represented as having the legs of a buck, the body of a horse, the tail of a lion with a single spiral horn on its head; a symbol of virginity.
  2. A heraldic representation of such a beast used as a charge or as a supporter; as in the arms of Great Britain and of Scotland.
  3. A mistranslation by the King James Bible (wild ox according to RSV). Young Earth Creationists and Fundamentalists believe the Unicorn to be some type of extinct one horned animal, possibly a dinosaur:
    Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? Or will he harrow the valleys after thee? — Job 39:9-10 KJV.


mythical beast

Extensive Definition

A unicorn (from Latin unus 'one' and cornu 'horn') is a mythological creature often used in fantasy stories, picture book, and novels.Though the modern popular image of the unicorn is sometimes that of a horse differing only in the horn on its forehead, the traditional unicorn has a billy-goat beard, a lion's tail, and cloven hooves - these distinguish it from a horse. Marianna Mayer has observed (The Unicorn and the Lake), "The unicorn is the only fabulous beast that does not seem to have been conceived out of human fears. In even the earliest references he is fierce yet good, selfless yet solitary, but always mysteriously beautiful. He could be captured only by unfair means, and his single horn was said to neutralize poison."

Medieval unicorns

Medieval knowledge of the fabulous beast stemmed from biblical and ancient sources, and the creature was variously represented as a kind of wild ass, goat, or horse.
The predecessor of the medieval bestiary, compiled in Late Antiquity and known as Physiologus, popularized an elaborate allegory in which a unicorn, trapped by a maiden (representing the Virgin Mary), stood for the Incarnation. As soon as the unicorn sees her, it lays its head on her lap and falls asleep. This became a basic emblematic tag that underlies medieval notions of the unicorn, justifying its appearance in every form of religious art. The two major interpretations of the unicorn symbol hinge on pagan and Catholic symbolism. The pagan interpretation focuses on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas some Catholic writings interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. The unicorn has long been identified as a symbol of Christ by Catholic writers, allowing the traditionally pagan symbolism of the unicorn to become acceptable within religious doctrine. The original myths refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin maiden; subsequently, some Catholic scholars translated this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary.
The unicorn also figured in courtly terms: for some 13th century French authors such as Thibaut of Champagne and Richard de Fournival, the lover is attracted to his lady as the unicorn is to the virgin. With the rise of humanism, the unicorn also acquired more orthodox secular meanings, emblematic of chaste love and faithful marriage. It plays this role in Petrarch's Triumph of Chastity.
The royal throne of Denmark was made of "unicorn horns". The same material was used for ceremonial cups because the unicorn's horn continued to be believed to neutralize poison, following classical authors.
The unicorn, tamable only by a virgin woman, was well established in medieval lore by the time Marco Polo described them as:
''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.
It is clear that Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros. In German, since the 16th century, Einhorn'' ("one-horn") has become a descriptor of the various species of rhinoceros.
The ancient Norwegians were said to believe the narwhal to have affirmed the existence of the unicorn. The unicorn horn was believed to stem from the narwhal tooth, which grows outward and projects from its upper jaw.
In popular belief, examined wittily and at length in the seventeenth century by Sir Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, unicorn horns could neutralize poisons. Therefore, people who feared poisoning sometimes drank from goblets made of "unicorn horn". Alleged aphrodisiac qualities and other purported medicinal virtues also drove up the cost of "unicorn" products such as milk, hide, and offal. Unicorns were also said to be able to determine whether or not a woman was a virgin; in some tales, they could only be mounted by virgins.

The hunt of the unicorn

One traditional method of hunting unicorns involved entrapment by a virgin.
In one of his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote:
''"The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it."
The famous late Gothic series of seven tapestry hangings, The Hunt of the Unicorn'' are a high point in European tapestry manufacture, combining both secular and religious themes. The tapestries now hang in the Cloisters division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In the series, richly dressed noblemen, accompanied by huntsmen and hounds, pursue a unicorn against mille-fleur backgrounds or settings of buildings and gardens. They bring the animal to bay with the help of a maiden who traps it with her charms, appear to kill it, and bring it back to a castle; in the last and most famous panel, "The Unicorn in Captivity," the unicorn is shown alive again and happy, chained to a pomegranate tree surrounded by a fence, in a field of flowers. Scholars conjecture that the red stains on its flanks are not blood but rather the juice from pomegranates, which were a symbol of fertility. However, the true meaning of the mysterious resurrected Unicorn in the last panel is unclear. The series was woven about 1500 in the Low Countries, probably Brussels or Liège, for an unknown patron. A set of six engravings on the same theme, treated rather differently, were engraved by the French artist Jean Duvet in the 1540s.
Another famous set of six tapestries of Dame à la licorne ("Lady with the unicorn") in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, were also woven in the Southern Netherlands before 1500, and show the five senses (the gateways to temptation) and finally Love ("A mon seul desir" the legend reads), with unicorns featured in each piece.
Facsimiles of the unicorn tapestries are currently being woven for permanent display in Stirling Castle, Scotland, to take the place of a set recorded in the castle in the 16th century.


In heraldry, a unicorn is depicted as a horse with a goat's cloven hooves and beard, a lion's tail, and a slender, spiral horn on its forehead. Whether because it was an emblem of the Incarnation or of the fearsome animal passions of raw nature, the unicorn was not widely used in early heraldry, but became popular from the 15th century.
Baron Georges Cuvier maintained that as the unicorn was cloven-hoofed it must therefore have a cloven skull (making impossible the growth of a single horn); to disprove this, Dr. W. Franklin Dove, a University of Maine professor, artificially fused the horn buds of a calf together, creating a one-horned bull.
P. T. Barnum once exhibited a unicorn skeleton, which was exposed as a hoax.
Since the rhinoceros is the only known extant land animal to possess a single horn, it has often been supposed that the unicorn legend originated from encounters between Europeans and rhinoceroses. The Woolly Rhinoceros would have been quite familiar to ice age people, or the legend may have been based on the rhinoceroses of Africa. Europeans and West Asians have visited Sub-Saharan Africa for as long as we have records.

Elasmotherium or rhinoceros

One suggestion is that the unicorn is based on the extinct animal Elasmotherium, a huge Eurasian rhinoceros native to the steppes, south of the range of the woolly rhinoceros of Ice Age Europe. Elasmotherium looked little like a horse, but it had a large single horn in its forehead. It became extinct about the same time as the rest of the glacial age megafauna.
However, according to the Nordisk familjebok (the Nordisk Familybook) and science writer Willy Ley the animal may have survived long enough to be remembered in the legends of the Evenk people of Russia as a huge black bull with a single horn in the forehead.
In support of this claim, it has been noted that the 13th century traveller Marco Polo claimed to have seen a unicorn in Java, but his description makes it clear to the modern reader that he actually saw a Javan Rhinoceros. Perhaps additional supporting evidence can be found in the fact that a rhinoceros' horn reacts with alkaloids by turning a different color. A majority of the medieval poisons were made from alkaloids, which coincides with the myth that unicorn horns change color when a poison in placed within them.

A single-horned goat

The connection that is sometimes made with a single-horned goat derives from the vision of Daniel:
And as I was considering, behold, a he-goat came from the west over the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground: and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes. Bible verse |Daniel|8:5
In the domestic goat, a rare deformity of the generative tissues can cause the horns to be joined together; such an animal could be another possible inspiration for the legend. Antiquities researcher Timothy Zell also produced artificial unicorns dubbed "the Living Unicorn", remodelling the "horn buds" of goat kids in such a way that their horns grew together into a single one. Zell theorized that this process might have been used in the past to create court curiosities and natural herd leaders, because the goat was able to use this long straight horn effectively as a weapon and a tool. Medieval art often depicts unicorns as small, with cloven hooves and beards, sometimes resembling goats more than horses with horns. This process is possible only with animals that naturally have horns. For a time, a few of these unicorns travelled with the Ringling Brothers Circus.

The kirin

The Japanese kirin is depicted as a bearded one-antlered deer.

The narwhal

The unicorn horns often found in cabinets of curiosities and other contexts in Medieval and Renaissance Europe were very often examples of the distinctive straight spiral single tusk of the narwhal (Monodon monoceros), an Arctic cetacean, as Danish zoologist Ole Worm established in 1638. They were brought south as a very valuable trade, passing the various tests intended to spot fake unicorn horns. The usual depiction of the unicorn horn in art derives from these. Elizabeth I of England kept a "unicorn horn" in her cabinet of curiosities, brought back by Arctic explorer Martin Frobisher on his return from Labrador in 1577.
Furthermore in the 1500's people believed that all land animals had a counterpart in the sea. The discovery of narwhals "proved" that unicorns really existed.

The oryx

The oryx is an antelope with two long, thin horns projecting from its forehead. Some have suggested that seen from the side and from a distance, the oryx looks something like a horse with a single horn (although the 'horn' projects backward, not forward as in the classic unicorn). Conceivably, travellers in Arabia could have derived the tale of the unicorn from these animals. However, classical authors seem to distinguish clearly between oryxes and unicorns. The Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, published in 1486, was the first printed illustrated travel-book, describing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and thence to Egypt by way of Mount Sinai. It featured many large woodcuts by Erhard Reuwich, who went on the trip, mostly detailed and accurate views of cities. The book also contained pictures of animals seen on the journey, including a crocodile, camel, and unicorn - presumably an oryx, which they could easily have seen on their route.

The eland

In Southern Africa the eland has somewhat mystical or spiritual connotations, perhaps at least partly because this very large antelope will defend itself against lions, and is able to kill these fearsome predators. Eland are very frequently depicted in the rock art of the region, which implies that they were viewed as having a strong connection to the other world, and in several languages the word for eland and for dance is the same; significant because shamans used dance as their means of drawing power from the other world. Eland fat was used when mixing the pigments for these pictographs, and in the preparation of many medicines.
This special regard for the eland may well have been picked up by early travellers. In the area of Cape Town one horned eland are known to occur naturally, perhaps as the result of a recessive gene, and were noted in the diary of an early governor of the Cape. There is also a purported unicorn horn in the castle of the chief of the Clan MacLeod in Scotland, which has been identified as that of an eland.

See also


  • Beer, Rüdiger Robert, Unicorn: Myth and Reality (1977). (Editions: ISBN 0-88405-583-3; ISBN 0-904069-15-X; ISBN 0-442-80583-7.)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911: "Unicorn"
  • Gotfredsen, Lise, The Unicorn (1999). (Editions: ISBN 0-7892-0595-5; ISBN 1-86046-267-7.)
  • Shepard, Odell. The Lore of the Unicorn. (1930) text
  • The Living Unicorn


External links

unicorn in Arabic: يونيكورن
unicorn in Azerbaijani: Təkbuynuz
unicorn in Bosnian: Jednorozi
unicorn in Bulgarian: Еднорог
unicorn in Catalan: Unicorn
unicorn in Czech: Jednorožec
unicorn in Danish: Enhjørning
unicorn in German: Einhorn
unicorn in Estonian: Ükssarvik
unicorn in Spanish: Unicornio
unicorn in Esperanto: Unukornulo
unicorn in Persian: تک‌شاخ
unicorn in French: Licorne
unicorn in Scottish Gaelic: Aon-adharcach (each)
unicorn in Korean: 유니콘
unicorn in Croatian: Jednorog
unicorn in Indonesian: Unicorn
unicorn in Icelandic: Einhyrningur (dýr)
unicorn in Italian: Unicorno
unicorn in Hebrew: חד-קרן
unicorn in Latin: Unicornis
unicorn in Latvian: Vienradzis
unicorn in Hungarian: Egyszarvú
unicorn in Dutch: Eenhoorn (fabeldier)
unicorn in Japanese: ユニコーン
unicorn in Norwegian: Enhjørning
unicorn in Polish: Jednorożec
unicorn in Portuguese: Unicórnio
unicorn in Russian: Единорог
unicorn in Simple English: Unicorn
unicorn in Slovenian: Samorog
unicorn in Serbian: Једнорог
unicorn in Finnish: Yksisarvinen
unicorn in Swedish: Enhörning
unicorn in Tamil: யுனிக்கோர்ன்
unicorn in Thai: ยูนิคอร์น
unicorn in Turkish: Tekboynuz
unicorn in Ukrainian: Єдиноріг
unicorn in Urdu: ارنا گھوڑا
unicorn in Chinese: 独角兽

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