The True History of Unicorns

by TerryMcNamee

Like the ancient gods, mystical beings like unicorns might only exist as long as people believe in them. But were they ever living, breathing creatures?

By Terry McNamee © 2013

The Irish Rovers sang that “you'll never see a unicorn to this very day” because they literally missed the boat, getting left behind when Noah's ark sailed. But what really happened to unicorns? Were they real animals that became extinct? Are they real animals that still exist, hidden deep in the wilds where no one can find them? Or did unicorns only exist in the beliefs and imaginations of the people of Medieval Europe?

What is a Unicorn?

First one needs to know what a unicorn is. The modern description is of a horse with a single twisted horn on its forehead, but the unicorn did not always look like this. In Medieval Europe (fifth to fifteenth centuries), the unicorn was a horse-like animal with a twisted horn on its forehead, but with a deer's feet, a goat's beard, and a lion's tail. This is the unicorn found on Medieval tapestries and illuminated manuscripts. The horn was believed to have magical powers, such as purifying water, neutralizing poisons and healing wounds, and a cup made from a unicorn's horn was believed to detect poisons. The unicorn's tears also were thought to have similar healing powers.


Only virgins who were pure of heart were believed able to tame a unicorn.

Both types of unicorn are described as pure white or white with a gold mane and tail. The horn is straight, but spiraled like the tusk of a narwhal. In fact, there was a lucrative trade in narwhal tusks being sold as unicorn horns in the Middle Ages.

A Unicorn from the Historia Animalium, 1551
"De Monocerote" or unicorn, 1551
"De Monocerote" or unicorn, 1551

Ancient Unicorns

Unicorns were first described some 2,400 years ago, but they didn't match the Medieval or modern types of unicorns. The ancient Greek physician, Ctesias of Cnidus, wrote in in 398 BC that the unicorn was native to India and was similar to a wild ass, but much swifter, with a dark red head and white body. He said the unicorn had deep blue eyes and a single horn that was 18 inches long. The horn was bright red at the tip, black in the middle, and white at the base. However, his description was based on Persian archives and state records rather than on his own eyewitness account. The Asian wild ass he referred to is a sandy to fawn colour with extensive white shading, can run almost as fast as a modern horse, and stands up to 14 hands, about the same size as horses of Ctesias's time. The species is considered untameable.

Over three centuries later, Julius Caesar pieced together various tales he had gathered from travellers in Gaul. He described the unicorn, an animal said to inhabit the forests of Germany, as an ox shaped like a stag, with a single straight horn coming from its forehead.


By the first century AD, the unicorn had changed shape a bit. Some accounts give it an elephant's feet, a stag's head, a horse's body and a pig's tail, all combined with a nasty temper, which actually describes a rhinoceros, not a unicorn. Most stories said the animal was so fierce, it could not be captured alive, and described its voice as a loud bellow.


 A couple of hundred years later, the unicorn was being described as a small animal the size of a baby goat, with a beard on its chin and cloven hoofs. Since only cloven-hoofed animals have horns or antlers, that part does make sense. It also had an exceedingly dangerous temper.

Unicorn (an Aurochs in profile, only one horn visible) on the ancient Ishtar Gate
Ishtar Gate from Babylonia ca. 575 BC, reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin
Ishtar Gate from Babylonia ca. 575 BC, reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

A Case of Misidentification

Could the original unicorn have been a different animal altogether? The now-extinct wild ox, or aurochs, is seen in many European cave paintings, and while the aurochs was usually brown or black, some cave art includes white ones. Babylonian stone carvings depict these wild cattle in profile, always with only one horn visible. The wild ox was once widespread across Europe, western Asia and northern Africa and is the ancestor of modern domestic cattle. The last aurochs died in a nature reserve in Poland in 1627.


 The aurochs is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible as the re'em. When the Bible was being translated into Greek, this beast's name was accidentally rendered incorrectly as monokeros (one-horned), then into Latin as unicornos, which then was translated yet again into English in the King James Version, thus creating this passage: “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: 9-12). Unicorns also appear in several other books of the Bible. The presence of these “unicorns” in the Latin and later the King James versions of the Bible led to the creature being associated with godliness and purity and with the Virgin Mary and Christ. It therefore became a popular emblem in heraldry and is still found in many coats of arms.


 Although unicorns also were described in China and Japan, these Asian “unicorns” looked quite different, and seemed more closely related to dragons (which were equally mysterious mythical creatures) than to the unicorn of Europe.

Were Unicorns Real Animals?

Certainly there are many strange and amazing animals that once lived on this earth and no longer exist. Could the unicorn be one of them? There is a candidate: the Elasmotherium, a large and hairy animal with a rhinoceros-type horn located on its forehead. It lived on the steppes and grasslands of central Asia. It is believed to have died out some 125,000 years ago, but it lived on in the legends of the steppe tribes. Perhaps these legends were carried into other lands, with the animal's description changing into something slightly more familiar, such as goats or wild asses, as the stories were passed from person to person across Asia and Europe.


If there truly were unicorns alive in the past (although no doubt lacking magical powers!) goats are the most likely possibility. White goats are common, and goats have cloven hoofs, grow beards on their chins and even have been known to grow a single horn instead of the usual two.


However, nature also sometimes creates unicorn deer, antelope and other animals where only a single horn or antler develops instead of the usual two. It is also not uncommon for deer to come in white instead of the more common shades of brown. White stags were considered magical, holy or mystical in many cultures. Even today, in remote parts of Mongolia, white reindeer are revered. So it isn't much of a stretch to suggest that there really was a unicorn, and that it was a beautiful white stag, very much like this one photographed in Scotland, but with a single straight “horn” instead of the usual antlers.


The beauty of such a beast would certainly be more than enough to inspire the legend of the unicorn.

Stuff for Unicorn-Lovers!

Love unicorns? Here are some items you might like.

The Unicorn Treasury: Stories, Poems and Unicorn Lore

A collection of stories, poems, and unicorn lore about the mythical creature.

View on Amazon

Unicorns Coloring Book (Dover Coloring Books)

The mythical, horse-like creature with a single horn in the middle of its forehead is celebrated in this beautifully illustrated coloring book. Thirty lovely illustrations show ...

View on Amazon

Unicorns Stained Glass Coloring Book (Dover Stained Glass Coloring Book)

This little coloring book invites youngsters into the magical world of the unicorn. Crayons, paints, or felt-tip pens will bring to life 8 bold designs of this gentle beast.

View on Amazon

Updated: 04/25/2013, TerryMcNamee
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Ann on 04/12/2013

Wonderful article! Really enjoyed it!!

JoHarrington on 03/22/2013

I had no idea that the description of unicorns had changed so much over the centuries! Thanks for the education.

dustytoes on 03/20/2013

When I was a kid I liked to pretend I had a unicorn as a pet! I imagine the legend has made them more beautiful than they actually were (if they did exist).

Sheri_Oz on 03/20/2013

I believe in unicorns!! What a wonderful history here!

katiem2 on 03/07/2013

Interesting to learn the truth about a common childhood toy the unicorn actually has a true story and it's interesting. Thanks for the heads up :)K

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