Today, unicorns have a reputation for rainbows, sprinkles, and glitter. From Starbucks’ Unicorn drink and My Little Ponies to New Age community mascots, unicorns are a ubiquitous symbol of magic in dark times.
Tracing the origins of the unicorn myth takes us back to Antiquity.
Unlike many creatures, there are no unicorns in Greek mythology. Instead, Greek historians believed that unicorns lived in the distant, fabulous realms of India.
Rare, beautiful, and powerful, the unicorn emerges from folktales around the world. As people explored the globe, they believed less in the unicorn as a real creature.
Despite this decline, from Greek mythology to medieval romantic literature and the travels of Marco Polo, the unicorn has lingered for millennia as a magical symbol on the fringes of popular imagination.
Here are the top 10 most popular myths about the existence of unicorns.
Myth #1: The Unicorn in Chinese Mythology
According to Chinese mythology, stories exist about a fantastic, horned creature called a qilin. In ancient China, this chimera with a deer’s body, a lion’s head, colorful green scales, a tufted tail, and a single long horn would appear at a sage’s birth.
In Japan, a similar beast is known as the kirin.
Bringing peace, magic, and power, the qilin can walk so softly on across the grass that a single blade doesn’t move. Typically, the creature does not set foot on the ground, preferring to glide through clouds or walk on water instead.
They can judge good or evil in a person, value peace, and punish the wicked.
In ancient China, people did not hunt the qilin for their horns. Instead, they passed into mythology as fertility symbols bringing babies to Chinese families.
Myth #2: Unicorns in the African Kongo
In the remote areas of the Kongo, oral traditions exist about a horse-shaped creature with a boar’s tail. Called the Ababda, this creature has two horns.
Like the unicorn, this horn cures diseases and acts as an antidote for poisons.
Myth #3: The Camahueto Unicorn in Mesoamerica
From the mountains in Chile comes the story of the camahueto. Shaped like a calf or a bull, this shy creature has a single horn sprouting from its forehead.
Due to its magical medicinal powers, medicine women called machis stalked and hunted down the camahueto.
With a lasso, they snag and take the creature’s horn. Then they bandage the wound and set the animal free back into the wild.
If you shave pieces off the horn and mix it with apple cider and sea water, it is believed to cure impotence.
The early peoples in Chile also said that planting pieces of the horn in the ground would also birth new camahuetos.
Myth #4: Ctesias the Greek Sees Red, Black, and White Unicorns in Persia
The word unicorn first appears in the writings of Ctesias, a Greek natural historian. In his work, “Indika” (“On India”), he described unicorns as herds of lightning-fast wild donkeys with 28-inch horns growing out of their heads.
While traveling through Persia, the historian claimed to see these equine herds and examine unicorn carvings and sculptures in the capital of Perspolis.
While unicorns are white in most legends, Ctesias said that they could have red, black, or white coats. He also claimed that drinking out of cups made from unicorn horns could cure epilepsy, seizures, and poisoning.
Myth #5: Cosmos Indicopleustes of Alexandria Visits Unicorn Statues
Another account about unicorns’ magical potions comes from writings by an Alexandrian merchant.
While traveling in Ethiopia, Cosmas Indicopleustes encountered four brass statues at the court of the King of Ethiopia.
When he examined these statues, he discovered that they represented unicorns.
After learning more about the unicorn on his trip, the merchant claimed that the unicorn’s strength lay in the horn.
Shy, wild, and fierce, the mysterious unicorn escaped its human captors by flinging itself off a high cliff. It survived the fall by striking the ground with its horn, absorbing the impact, and bounding away.
Myth #6: Aelian and the One-Horned Asses of India
In his Second Century C. E. book, On Animals, the natural historian Aelian describes two kinds of horses and donkeys, called Hippoi Monokerata or One-Horned Horses and Onoi Monokerata or One-Horned Asses that he claimed lived in distant India.
With white bodies, purple heads, and jewel-like deep blue eyes, these creatures also possessed a single long horn, white at the base, black in the center, and crimson at the tip, hat sprouted out of their heads.
Like his fellow Greek authors, Aelian claimed that unicorn drinking horns created a powerful antidote to poison.
Myth #7: Philostratus and Unicorn Horn Potions
In his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Greek biographer Philostratus declared that unicorns roamed along the marshes of the Hydroates River in India.
According to myth, these creatures sparred at each other with their horns.
Not only did cups carved out of unicorn horn make you immune to poison, but he claimed that wounded men survived, people could walk through fire without burning, and those who drank from the cup would never fall sick again in their life.
Not surprisingly, only kings could hunt this miraculous creature or drink from the special goblet.
Myth #8: Unicorns in the Bible
The very origin of the word unicorn comes from the translators of the King James Version of the Bible in the early seventeenth century.
For hundreds of years, from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate to English translations, scholars puzzled over the meaning for the Hebrew word “re’em” that appears nine times in the Bible.
Some people think that it referred to a horned creature such as a wild ox. By 1611, King James’s translators interpreted the word as a single-horned “unicorn”.
Myth #9: Marco Polo and the Unicorn
When Marco Polo set off on his travels through Asia and the Far East between 1271 and 1295, he encountered a kaleidoscope of new people, animals, and customs.
In his writings, Marco Polo described a fantastic beast almost as big as an elephant and covered with buffalo hair. A single black horn protruded from its head.
Instead of a pure white creature, a symbol of romance and love, this “unicorn” loved to bask in slimy mud. Based on his report, other medieval writers began a new surge of belief in the unicorn myth.
Today, we aren’t sure what Marco Polo saw, but it was probably a rhinoceros.
Myth #10: Purity, Sacrifice, and Immortality: The Unicorn in Medieval Legend
By the late Middle Ages, the unicorn had become an established symbol of purity and sacrifice. Medieval art and heraldry depicted unicorn motifs. Troubadours and poets exalted the creature as a symbol of chastity, purity, healing, morality, and divinity.
During the Renaissance, tapestries such as The Hunt for the Unicorn, displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters, depicted a pure white sacrificial unicorn as a metaphor for Jesus Christ.
While interest in the unicorn as a living creature declined as the world opened to exploration in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the unicorn remained an important religious and secular symbol.