The unicorn, an ancient myth

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The Unicorn speaks to anyone's imagination. We grow up with them displayed in any kids store, and featured in many movies. Usually portrayed as a white horse with a big horn on its forehead. They signify purity. No one but a virgin female is allowed to approach this creature. Anyone else will either get speared by the horn, or die upon touching the magical creature.

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

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The unicorn, an ancient myth

When it comes to the ancient unicorn myth, the history is long. Very long. In fact, it’s so old that nobody really knows anymore where the myth comes from. But what the unicorn is, is mutually agreed on. It’s a very pure, immortal, magical creature and therefore traditionally shown as a white horse, that even to this day, tends to look like the old Iberian or Arabian horse breeds. These horse breeds are very elegant and proud-looking horses that speak to our imagination. Just like the unicorn does.

Fun fact:
Did you know that white horses as foals are unusually dark of color? This is called hyperpigmentation. Over time they lose their color and turn white. This can take from two to 15+ years.
Foals are usually born with foal camouflage. They can have any color but black. Black foals are a faded gray or brown when born, The legs of all foals are a grayish color. But those that gray out, like the white horses the unicorn legend refers to, have a very dark pigmented coat. The legs are usually black, or a very deep brown. And if the base color of a foal is black: The foal will be pitch black until it starts greying out.

Old unicorn seal of Indus Valley
Image by Royroydeb

The horn, but not the horse!

The most popular way the unicorn is portrayed is as a horse. But did you know it’s not uncommon for the unicorn to be a goat? Or a horse with a goatee? And that even donkeys are portrayed as unicorns? If we go back to 400 BCE, we have the historian Ctesias speak of the Indian wild ass with a white body, purple head, blue eyes, and a long horn colored red at the tip, black in the middle, and white at the base.

It’s possible that other animals are mistaken for unicorns. the Oryx is one of these creatures. Especially in the old days, many animals were drawn right from the side. Horned animals would look like they only had one horn on their heads. But there is also a slight possibility that the skulls from extinct creatures, like that of the Elasmotherium, or old cave paintings fed the myth. There are even ancient reports of unicorns with elephant-like feet and the tail of a boar. These sightings come from India, making it very likely that the Indian Rhino was the source of inspiration and sightings.

The origins of the unicorn

Marco Polo thought this Rhino species was a unicorn.
Image by: Par Alan

Although the exact source of unicorns is unclear, there are a lot of theories going around, of which many came forth from thorough investigations. Poetical passages for example in the bible refer to a splendid horned animal called re’em, which is translated to the unicorn, rhinoceros, or, in modern translation, wild ox.
This suggests that no matter where the idea came from, a unicorn is at least a biblical creature. In a Greek bestiary, it’s stated that the unicorn is a strong, fierce animal that can only be caught if a virgin maiden is present. This is also why it’s not uncommon to find illustrations of unicorns in the laps of maidens in white clothing, or sometimes even naked. According to ancient history, the maiden would suckle the unicorn and lead it to the king’s palace.

Legends about the unicorn

Little girls tend to love unicorns. So does my little niece. Isn’t she cute?

Unicorns are part of human history, there are few people who don’t know about the unicorn. Many religions and myths contain unicorns. The unicorn even seeps into our modern times. In games and movies, but also in every household with a girl in it. Not to mention the young girls that have a pony of their own and can dress them up to their likings!

‘My little pony’ is probably one of the biggest, if not thé biggest market out there built around unicorns. They have series, movies, merch, games, even for the mobile phone and tablets. My little pony exists since 1981 (as My Pretty Pony), but the love for my little ponies frequently meets new heights, like between 2011 and 2015. The unicorn being as popular as it is, that likely won’t change anytime soon, if ever. So don’t hesitate to tap into that.

Fun fact:
Even rappers use unicorns in their songs. I mean, who doesn’t love unicorns and guys in pink suits?
Check out Tom MacDonald with his pink unicorn pony!
Ps: I love how the pony just gazes as if she saw it all before.

The unicorn and Christianity

Virgin Maria with a unicorn in her lap.

In Christianity, the unicorn is thought to be a pure creature. Because of this purity, the unicorn was a symbol for Jesus Christ, who would raise the horn of salvation for mankind, and dwelt in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Just like Jesus Christ, the unicorn signifies strength and healing. These days, Christians will argue the word ‘unicorn’ is Latin for the word ‘One Horn’. Which then would refer to the horn that’s been raised by Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind. Christians however, don’t usually believe in the existence of the unicorn.

The elephant and the unicorn

Unicorns are known for their purity and their fierce nature. But they’re also known to be very powerful and probably even vengeful. One old story is about a unicorn that attacked an elephant on sight. Maiming the elephant’s belly with his hooves and horn, killing it on the spot.
Descriptions of this story are vague as to why the unicorn would attack an elephant. But one of the stories tells of the time when Noah built the Ark, to save animals from the coming floods. Only animals who came together would be allowed to enter the Ark. So when the unicorn showed up alone, Noah would tell it that the Ark was completely filled up. Upon which a couple of elephants was allowed onto the Ark. From that moment on the unicorn deeply hated elephants and would attack them on sight.

Unicorn healing powers

As enigmatic as the creature was, it was also attributed to many healing powers. The horn could remove poisons from liquids or from the human body. The horn or powder of the horn was also considered to be an aphrodisiac and the powder could heal the most deadly wounds. But also heal diseases like measles, rubella, and fever. The liver of the unicorn could heal leprosy, and if you managed to get your hands on a pair of shoes of unicorn hide, you were ensured of healthy feet and legs for as long as you wore the shoes.

Other powers attributed to unicorns

In the middle-ages, there were some solid beliefs about unicorns and unicorn parts. As time went on, more were added through folklore and religion. Some of the other powers attributed to unicorns are:

  • They are the embodiment of the wild. Unicorns can’t be tamed unless you’re a virgin of course. They are so fierce that they are considered to be the embodiment of freedom.
  • They fulfill the wishes of those that are pure of heart. (And they will pierce your heart with their horn if you’re not, but still make a wish).
  • If you have bad intentions and you lay your eyes on a unicorn, it’s likely you will rethink your plans. They carry forward a beautiful and positive action.
  • They can lead people from the dark side to the light.
  • Unicorns are extremely fast, at their top speed they can move across space and time dimension.

The Alicorn and the Vikings

Only male Narwhal grow a tusk from one of their front teeth. In very rare occasions they grow two.
Image by W. Scoresby

The Alicorn is the horn of the unicorn. Back in the days, people believed that it was an aphrodisiac and that it would neutralize any poison that may have been in the drink that’s served in the horn. For this reason, cups were made from the horns as gifts for kings. And many physicians would make ‘cures’ from the powder of these horns.
It was a very lucrative trade, and whole horns were extremely precious in the middle ages.

Of course, unicorns don’t exist. So where did these horns come from? The truth is that it’s a very well-kept secret held by Vikings. They would hunt down Narwhals for their unusually large and twisted tusks and sell these tusks as unicorn horns. These tusks could get up to three meters long and weigh up to ten kilos. The Vikings had a monopoly on these tusks and other ‘unicorn parts’ from the 13th to the 17th century, as they managed to supply the whole of Europe with them throughout this time.
Even when it became known that unicorns weren’t land-dwelling creatures, the wishful thinking of people took over, and a unicorn swimming in the sea simply became a marine unicorn.

Fun fact:
In 1560, German merchants sold a unicorn horn to the pope for 90,000 scudi, which was about £18,000.
Today it would be roughly 4.2 million pounds, which is nearly 4.9 million euros and 5.8 million US Dollars.
In 1560 you could buy 3789 horses from that money, and it encompassed 600,000 working days for a skilled tradesman. That is if he worked every day for 1642.71 years.

Different interpretations of the unicorn

Like many mythological creatures, the unicorn knew many forms. In some cases, they proved to be actual animals, in others they were misconceptions, or have religious roots. Throughout time this provided a wide variety of descriptions for the beloved unicorn, we now know as a horned horse. You’d be surprised that many continents had their own unicorns.

The Asian unicorn

A figurine of the Asian unicorn

In Chinese mythology, there are many accounts of a creature that is known as the Qilin. The Qilin is thought to be the Chinese equivalent of the unicorn and has the body of a deer, the head of a lion, scales on the body, a long horn on its forehead, an oxtail, and horse hooves. In some cases, it’s portrayed with deer antlers. This mythical creature is born in the core of the earth and lives behind the clouds. It will only appear when it has an important announcement, like the birth of a child. Chinese brides make paintings in their bedrooms for quick childbirth.

Fun fact
Did you know that the Qilin is drawn in often the colors red, yellow, blue, white, and black? They are holy colors in China. Red for happiness, success, and good fortune, yellow for royalty and power of the throne, blue for positivity, healing, harmony, trust, and longevity. White for death and mourning, and black for immortality, knowledge, stability, and power.

The African unicorn

The Okapi was thought to be a unicorn for a long time because of its unique looks and elusive nature.
Image by: Rennet Stowe

Stories about the African unicorn come from oral stories originating from Kongo. It’s called the Ababda, and is quite similar to the unicorn. This creature is around the size of a donkey and has a boar tail. Unlike the traditional unicorn, this creature has two horns instead of one, which has the same powers as that of the horse-like unicorn. It’s said that the Abada is native to Kurdufan, a former province of central Sudan.

The okapi

For quite some time the Okapi was believed to be a unicorn. They obviously don’t have a horn, let alone two, but when European travelers, already fascinated by unicorns, saw the very elusive, horse-like, and notoriously difficult to catch creature, conclusions were made quickly. Also, the unusual looks and the fact that the Okapi lives in very dense forests helped support that myth.

Fun fact
Did you know that, although the Okapi looks a bit like a horse, it’s actually closer related to the giraffe?

Okapi lives in Africa around Congo and is also known as the forest giraffe. Okapi are solitary animals that mostly live in dense rain forests with a lot of undergrowth. These animals are most easily found around valleys surrounding the river Kongo., above 500 meter height. It was thought for a long time that the species went extinct in the wild, but in 2006, nearly 50 years after its last sighting, it was rediscovered.
They are herbivores, living from leaves, twigs, buds, ferns, fruit, and mushrooms.
When males fight, they do so by hitting their necks against each other, something giraffes do as well.

The South-American unicorn

The Camahueto, or the South-American unicorn can be found mostly around the island of Chiloé near Chille. This creature possesses many of the qualities of the unicorn, however, the Camahueto is more similar to a bull with sharp claws and sometimes a seal hind body, than to a horse. Its horn possesses the same healing powers as that of the unicorn and in some cases, it even has two horns. A Machis (medicine woman) will stalk the Camahueto until she can capture it with a lasso. She will then tear out the horn and bandage up the hole it leaves behind and releases the beast. To grow new Camahueto, the machis would plant small pieces of the horn into the ground. This relates to the idea that the traditional unicorn is immortal.

Although not water-bound, the young will start their lives in rivers, but will later migrate to the sea. When it reaches adulthood, it can become strong enough to destroy ships, and will have humans for breakfast. It is possible that the legends came from a deformed seal, an animal species that is not uncommon for the area.

The Greek-European unicorn

Unicorn portrayed in Iran
Image by: Mohammad m nazari

The Greek-European unicorn is the unicorn as we know it to this day. First portrayed as a goat, or donkey, and later as a majestic horse. In the past, Marco Polo believed to have seen a unicorn, but was distraught by its ugliness. It had a large black horn, elephant-like feet, a pigs tail and made ugly noises. Worse even: It loved to spend its time in slime and mud.
Today we know that he most likely saw an Indian Rhino and either mistakenly took it for a unicorn, or let his opinion on the glorified unicorn bleed through with this observation.

The Arctic unicorn

Just like the African unicorn, the Arctic unicorn is very much a real animal. When people found out that the unicorn horns actually came from an aquatic creature, the Narwhal as we now know. The unicorn simply became an aquatic unicorn. This of course came forth out of wishful thinking, but technically, the Greek-European- and the Arctic unicorn are one and the same. It’s just how the story evolved overtime. However, modern lore clearly prefers the land-dwelling horse-like unicorn.

The narwhal

Narwhal live in close communities around the North pole. They live around Canada and Greenland mainly but are also seen near Iceland, Norway, Russia, and all the way to the east of Siberia. They’re rarely seen near Alaska and the western side of the Canadian North Pole, but they’re seen there too. There has been one sighting in the Netherlands (1912) and a dead male Narwhal has been found in Belgium. The last is the most southern sighting of this species.

Narwhal is a very quick and agile animal, their primary food source is squid. They are hunted by polar bears, killer whales, and Walrus’. They always have been prized for their enormous ‘horns’ which in fact are tusks. The male grows its left front tooth into a huge tusk, sometimes up to three meters long. On very rare occasions a male grows two of these large tusks.
Although this tusk looks like a weapon, like the antlers of a deer, the horn of a rhino, or the tusks of an elephant, we now know that this tusk likely is a sensing organ. It’s packed with nerves that can detect things like movement, pressure, temperature, and probably even more. This makes them unlike any other animal in this world.

Fun fact
Did you know that a tusk is an oversized tooth, a horn is permanently attached to the animal, and antlers fall off at a certain point in an animal’s life?

Black unicorns

You may be surprised to learn that black unicorns are a thing and that they’re not perse evil unicorns. In some mythological sources, they are indeed nightmares because black tends to represent darkness and danger. In others, they’re the harbingers of death and the embodiment of ill intentions. But in most, they aid a hero or are a faster and stronger version of the white unicorn. Black unicorns are often connected with the idea of power and freedom, luck and prosperity, and healing.
Black unicorns are thought to be hunters, their hooves, therefore, are sometimes portrayed as clawed fingers, giving them a nightmarish look. Their great speed aids them in hunting down their prey. They are very tall, have spindly legs and a black horn, but despite their odd features, are still really beautiful creatures.

They may come across as dangerous beings, but towards people, they’re usually just shy. It’s very unlikely you see one, but when you do, you will recognize them for their delicate shadowy beauty.
An interesting detail is that the black unicorn existed before the white one in ancient Greek mythology, and many of the qualities of the white unicorn were first attributed to the black one. Ancient societies likely connected black unicorns with good fortune and freedom. But when the white unicorn came to be, the black one was pushed back into the shadows and negative associations quickly were made.

Unicorns in dreams

Dreaming of a unicorn is literally ‘the’ dream of many small children. They are so embedded into modern culture that they became very beloved mythical creatures. Dreaming of unicorns is therefore not that uncommon. But what does it mean? Every dream and situation is different, but following are a few situations that may occur.

White unicorns

  • When you dream of white unicorns signify good fortune will come your way.
  • White unicorns encourage you to continue on the path you are on. This is especially significant when you just started a new journey.

Black unicorns

  • Black unicorns, just like the whites, are there to help you on your way.
  • In some cases, dreaming of a black unicorn could be a warning related to your health or wellbeing.
  • Black unicorns signify power and strength. More than the white unicorn, they will push you in the right direction and help you overcome obstacles.

Baby unicorns

  • Dreaming of a baby unicorn signifies a good relationship with children.
  • Dreaming of a baby unicorn may mean that something important will enter your life soon.

Other colors

  • Blue unicorns signify faithfulness between partners, prosperity, and good fortune.
  • Purple unicorns signify that positivity is coming your way, both in the relationship- and business world.
  • Rainbow unicorns, signify business or financial success.
  • Golden unicorns signify roughly the same as rainbow unicorns.

When the color has no significance

  • Aggressive unicorns. no matter the color, signifying that something is wrong in your life. Something needs to change, or you need to make amends.
  • No matter the color of the unicorn, you may be seeking more magic in your life.
  • When a unicorn runs away from you, this could mean you lost your innocence, or you did something bad, contrary to your nature.
  • When a unicorn runs towards you, this could mean a new journey in your life.
  • Getting kicked by a unicorn either means you’re growing away from someone, or your partner doesn’t love you anymore and you subconsciously picked up on that.
  • Riding, petting, or catching a unicorn indicates joy, satisfaction, and prosperity are coming your way.
  • Killing a unicorn is an indication of selfishness. You may be pushing people away you care about.
  • Failing to catch a unicorn may mean that you have high hopes for your future, but these are far-fetched, or still a long way ahead.
  • Freeing a unicorn from a trap is a good omen for your creativity and inspiration.

Unicorns as spirit animal

It’s said that, when a unicorn is your spirit animal, that you are a powerful and enlightened person, and any financial trouble will soon be over. You might even end up rich. Unicorns also stand for inner- and outer beauty. When the unicorn first shows up, it’s wise to start your creative pursuits, You’d supposedly have magic inside of you, and therefore may be visited by other magical creatures, like fairies, but you can also easily manifest your desires and dreams without any trouble.

Unicorn heraldry

Edinburgh castle, the scottish unicorn glad and shield. Portraying a lion on the shield.
Public Domain

In Scotland, the unicorn was believed to be the natural enemy of the lion. The lion was a royal symbol of England. So at the time, when Scotland and England were at war (the 15th-century war), Scotland adopted the unicorn as their symbol, portraying them on flags and shields. Since the union of Scotland and England, the royal arms are now portrayed with an English lion and a unicorn.

Before this time, unicorn heraldry was very uncommon. However, since the 15th century, it became widely accepted. The unicorn was often portrayed as either the incarnation or as the fearsome animal passions of raw nature. In some cases it would be chained, in others, it broke free of its chains, both meanings are very powerful. Since this time, many countries and cities took on the unicorn as their herald.

  • Hungary (Arms of John, King of Hungary, 16th century)
  • Hungary (Arms of Eger)
  • Baltic Germany (Arms of Krüdener family, a Baltic German baron family)
  • Germany (Arms of Schwäbisch Gmünd)
  • Germany (Arms of Giengen)
  • Scotland (Arms of county of Roxburgh)
  • France (Arms of Saint-Lo)
  • Czech republic (Arms of Lisnice)
  • Switzerland (Arms of Ramosch)
  • Netherlands (Arms of Menameradiel)
  • Netherlands (Arms of Hoorn)
  • England/Scotland (Royal arms of Queen Elizabeth II)
  • Lithuania (Coat of arms used by President)
  • Nova Scotia (Coat of arms)

The unicorn for creatives

When it comes to the unicorn, it’s been portrayed so many times before, that you really need to work your imagination to come up with something new. That is if you want to reinvent a unicorn, instead of coming up with a whole new creature.
The many different creatures that were an inspiration for the unicorn, still provide more than enough ideas for modern-day creatives. So most of all, the unicorn is a great study about religion, folklore, history, and modern time. The unicorn is one of the most beloved mythical creatures out there, so there is a lot to learn from them.

Unicorn colors and religion

Especially for the unicorn, it’s important to understand the different kinds of religions it exists in. Not only because of the backstory but also because of the way it looks and the colors that are used. For example, White. In Christianity, it stands for virginity, surrender, victory, harvest, peace, joy, saints, and triumph. But in China, this color is associated with death and mourning.
This can be a great source of inspiration, but make sure that, if you target a specific religion or group of people, you pick your colors thoughtfully to bring across the right message.

The unicorn unbound

Pottery unicorn, displayed in Shaanxi History museum.
Image by: John Hill

There are many powers attributed to the unicorn. From healing to traveling through time, and from being an enigmatic land-bound animal, to one that dwelt in the oceans. And from a chimera-like creature to majestic horses to bull-and goatlike animals. The unicorns know no bounds, It seems like, if the animal has one horn on its forehead, it’s a unicorn. This leaves a lot of space for imagination. When you think of creating a unicorn that’s not the traditional horned horse, think of where it may live, what abilities it has, what powers it holds, and what it signifies.
Don’t bind yourself to land, or time, or even this world. Go wild, and bend the meaning of unicorns, as ancient people did in ancient times before us.

More inspiration

Still not inspired enough? Look even further! Don’t stop with the animals that unicorns are inspired by. Look at related animal species and their diets. Think of what these species eat, how they would collect their food. and where. Or what a hunt would look like. Find out more about their behavior. Are they group animals? Solitary? What makes one subgroup so different from another? And would this be interesting for your design?
If all of this isn’t enough: Making these discoveries are still no waste of time. Because, if you’re not gonna use them for your unicorn, your knowledge surely will be useful for another design!

More myths and legends

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