Horselike animal with a single horn; see SEMI-MYTHICAL Beasts. Unicorn legends have a long and cosmopolitan history ranging throughout most of Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Unicorn of Western lore is based on a complex number of traditions and animals that can be grouped into three major trends: Unicorns in classical Western literature, the Unicorn of the medieval bestiaries, and reports of one-horned animals in the Renaissance and afterward. In addition, the visual conventions of Christian art and heraldry turned the small, goatlike animal of the bestiaries into a conventional white horse with a horn. Legends of an Asian unicorn (Ki-Lin) also fed into the popular imagination.

Etymology: From the Latin uni ("one") + cornu ("horn").

Variant names: Abou-karn, Agaba, Alicornio (Portuguese), A'nasa (in Sudan), Bundiaru (Ka-nuri/Nilo-Saharan), Campchurch, Cartazonus (related to the Sanskrit kartajan, "lord of the desert"), Dajja, Dakarkulewal (Fulfulde/ Fulani), Iwu (Yoruba/Defoid), Kamarami (Ka-nuri/Nilo-Saharan), Karafitu (Margi/Chadic), Ki-Lin, Licorne (French), Licorno (Italian), Mariri (Hausa/Chadic), Monoceros (Greek), Nzoo-dzoo (in South Africa), Panlili (Nupe/Niger-Congo), Patagonian Unicorn, Re'em (Hebrew/Semitic), Tenesek (Tamasheq/ Berber), Yilifu (Fulfulde/Fulani).

Physical descriptions:

Ancient unicorn—White, asslike animal. Dark-red head. on its forehead is a single spi-raled horn 18-24 inches long; its base is white, the middle portion black, and the sharp tip is crimson. Blue eyes. Mane. Thick, oxlike ankle-bone. One-toed hooves. Tail like a goat's or boar's.

The Bestiary unicorn—Small, goatlike animal. Long, white, spiral horn. Cloven hooves.

African unicorn—Medium-sized animal like a colt or a wild bull. Top third of the body is scarlet, the rest is ashen-gray. Almost hairless.

Mane. A single, grooved, ivory- or black-colored horn, 18-36 inches long, grows between the eyes. Beard like a goat's. Legs and feet of an elephant. Short tail.


Ancient unicorn—Swift runner. Powerful voice. Also makes a deep, lowing sound. Males instinctively butt and fight each other. Pulverized horn is said to be an antitoxin or aphrodisiac. Drinking out of the horn prevents epilepsy and other diseases. Its flesh is too bitter to be eaten.

Bestiary unicorn—Cautious but is said to lay its head on the lap of a virgin, allowing it to be captured. Its horn has the ability to detect and negate poison.

African unicorn—Horn swings to either side as it walks. Sheds its horn like a stag. Leaves tracks like a zebra. Charges at humans and other animals with horn lowered.

Distribution: Arabia; India; Tibet; South Africa; Nigeria; Chad; Ethiopia; Sudan; Palestine; Egypt; Iran; Uzbekistan; Ukraine; Poland; Scandinavia; Florida; Maine.

Significant sightings: There are only a few eyewitness reports of a living animal. Most accounts are rumors or artistic depictions. one of the earliest mentions is in the Indika of Ctesias, a Greek physician of the late fifth century B.C. who visited Persia and heard fabulous stories about India. He described a white wild ass with an 18-inch-long horn on its dark-red head.

In the first century B.C., Julius Caesar wrote that an animal like a one-horned stag lived in the Erzgebirge of southern Germany.

Unicorn horns were highly prized as curios by European royalty in the Renaissance. Nobles and monarchs said to possess one or more of them included Edward IV of England, James III of Scotland, Pietro de' Medici, Pope Clement VII, Pope Julius III, and Philip II of Spain.

Felix Fabri and other pilgrims saw a large, one-horned animal from a distance near Mount Sinai, Egypt, on September 20, 1483.

Lodovico de Varthema reported hearing in 1503 that there were two Unicorns in a park outside the temple at Mecca, Arabia. one was as large as a colt and had a horn 4 feet 6 inches long, while the younger one was smaller and had

UNICORN. From Konrad Gesner, Historiae animalium (Zürich: Christ. Froschoverum, 1551—1587). (From the original in the Special Collections of Northwestern University Library)

a 16-inch horn. The animals' hooves were cloven. They had been given as a gift from a king in Ethiopia to the sultan of Mecca. At the port of Saylac, Somalia, he also observed cattle with single horns that bent backward from their brows.

Around 1630, the Jesuit Jeronimo Lobo noted the common occurrence of the Unicorn in Ethiopia. It looked like a bay horse with a black tail and long mane.

Some time before 1669, a group of Portuguese soldiers ran across a Unicorn in Ethiopia, where the animals were said to be often seen grazing in the mountains.

In 1673, Olfert Dapper wrote that Unicorns were said to live in the woods near the Canadian border, presumably in Maine. They resembled horses but had cloven hooves, a long and straight horn on the forehead, and a curled tail like a boar's. Most likely, he was referring to the Moose (Alces alces).

In the late eighteenth century, an unnamed Boer saw an ash-gray Unicorn with cloven hooves in South Africa.

In 1820, John Campbell came across a "real unicorn" that had been killed by the inhabitants of South Africa. It had a 3-foot horn projecting 10 inches above the tip of its nose, and its head was 3 feet from mouth to ear.

In the nineteenth century, caves in the interior of South Africa were said to contain drawings of Unicorn-like animals.

Eduard Rüppell (in the 1820s) and Baron von Müller (in 1848) both heard of a horse- or donkeylike, one-horned animal in the Kurdufan region of Sudan. Müller said it was called A'nasa and had a movable horn.

In April 1843, Fulgence Fresnel, the French consul at Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, wrote that several Arabs he knew often killed a Unicorn-like animal in eastern Chad. The animal looked like a wild bull with legs like an elephant's, a short tail, and a single movable horn. Most of it was gray, but the front part was a vivid scarlet. Possible explanations:

(1) The Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornus) is the best-known single-horned mammal and one whose history is intertwined with ancient accounts of the Unicorn. Its horn has similarly been valued as both a curative and an aphrodisiac since ancient times.

(2) The long antlers of the Chiru (Pantholops hodgsonii), an antelope of northern India, China, and Tibet, could be mistaken for a single horn when viewed from the side.

(3) The Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) is a graceful, white animal with long, straight horns. It once ranged over much of the Arabian Peninsula.

(4) The Onager or Persian wild ass (Equus hemionus onager) formerly ranged widely across southern Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan. It is a swift runner and was captured in ancient times as a breeding animal. The back and legs are rusty brown and the underside is white. It has no horn, but Ctesias may have gotten it confused with the rhinoceros.

(5) The Aurochs (Bos primigenius) was extinct in Palestine when the Bible was first translated from Hebrew into Greek in the third century B.C. (the Septuagint version), so the scholars responsible for the translation of the word re'em rendered it as monoceros in Greek. This was converted to Unicorn in the King James Version. Modern


editions of the Old Testament now translate it as "wild ox," its original meaning.

(6) Spiral tusks from the Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) were widely circulated in the Middle Ages as Unicorn horns. In 1638, the Danish scholar Ole Wurm was the first to identify them as originating from this Arctic whale.

(7) From the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, herding tribes of East Africa used to twist the horns of their cattle into a single shape that curved backward. This practice probably accounts for Lodovico de Varthema's report of one-horned cattle in Somalia in 1503.

(8) A large White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) probably explains John Campbell's 1820 discovery in South Africa of a dead rhino ("real unicorn") that he thought was a new species.

(9) Genetic anomalies may have formed occasional single-horned bulls that attained herd dominance. A grafting experiment by William Franklin Dove in 1934 produced a one-horned calf that adapted well to its singularity.

(10) A surviving Pleistocene antelope (Procamptoceras brivatense) that lived in Europe 1 million years ago. It had two slightly curved, upward-pointing horns that were close together and may have appeared to be a single horn.

Sources: Bible, Old Testament (Num. 23:22; Deut. 33:17; Pss. 22:21, 29:6, 92:10; Isa. 34:7; Job 39:9-12); Ctesias, Indika, in J. W. McCrindle, ed., Ancient India (Calcutta, India: Thacker, Spink, 1882), pp. 26-27; Aristotle, Historia animalium, in The Works of Aristotle, trans. D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1910), vol. 4 (II. 2, 8; VI. 36); Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, trans. S. A. Handford (New York: Penguin, 1951), p. 37n (VI. 26); Pliny, Natural History (VIII. 33); ^lian, De natura animalium (iii. 41, IV. 52, XVI. 20); Physiologus, in William Rose, ed., The Epic of the Beast (London: G. Routledge, 1924), pp. 199-200; Felix Fabri, Evagatorium in Terrae Sanctae, ed. Konrad Hassler [1502] (Stuttgart, Germany: Societatis Litterariae Stuttgardiensis,

1843-1849), vol. 2, p. 441; Lodovico de Varthema, The Itinerary of Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna from 1502-1508 [1520] (London: Argonaut Press, 1928), I. 17, II. 15; Pierre Belon, Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables (Paris: G. Corrozet, 1553); Luis del Marmol Carvajal, Descripcion general de Affrica (Granada, Spain: Rene Rabut, 1574-1599), I. cap. 23, fol. 30; Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus solidipedibus (Frankfurt, Germany: Joannis Treudel, 1623); Thomas Bartholin, De unicornu observationes novae (Passau, Germany: Typis Cribellianis, 1645); Jeronimo Lobo, A Short Relation of the River Nile (London: Royal Society, 1669); Arnoldus Montanus, Die unbekante Neue Welt, trans. Olfert Dapper (Amsterdam: J. von Meurs, 1673); Herr von Wurmb, Briefe des Herrn von Wurmb und des Herrn Barons von Wollzogen auf ihren Reise nach Afrika und Ostindien in den Jahren 1774 bis 1792 (Gotha, Germany: Bey Carl Wilhelm Ettinger, 1794), pp. 412-416; John Campbell, Travels in South Africa (London: Francis Westley, 1822), vol. 1, p. 294-295; Fulgence Fresnel, "Lettre sur certain quadrupèdes réputés fabuleux," Journal Asiatique, March 1844, pp. 155-159; Charles Hamilton Smith, "Reem," in John Kitto, ed., A Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature (New York: Mark H. Newman, 1846), vol. 2, pp. 605-607; Francis Galton, Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa (London: John Murray, 1853), pp. 283-284; William Balfour Baikie, "In Search of a Unicorn," The Athenaeum, August 16, 1862, p. 212; W. Winwood Reade, Savage Africa (London: Smith, Elder, 1863); Odell Shepard, The Lore of the Unicorn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930); William Franklin Dove, "Artificial Production of the Fabulous Unicorn," Scientific Monthly 42 (1936): 431-436; Margaret B. Freeman, The Unicorn Tapestries (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1956); Rüdiger Robert Beer, Unicorn: Myth and Reality (New York: Mason/Charter, 1977); Larry Brian Radka, Historical Evidence for Unicorns (Newport, Del.: Einhorn Press, 1995); Bruno Faidutti, "Images et connaissance de la licorne (Fin du Moyen-Age-XIXème siècle)," Ph.D.

diss., l'Université Paris XII, November 1996, on line at http://faidutti.free.fr/licornes/these/ these.html.

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