The legendary unicorn is probably one of the world’s most famous fantastic beasts. This white horse-like animal sporting a long, spiral horn on its forehead was said to live for a thousand years. Long held a symbol of purity and chastity; a protector of the just endowed with exceptional magical powers. Little wonder then that the unicorn myth developed its own associations with the fabled King Arthur and mystical Brittany.
The earliest reference we have of the unicorn is from the work of the Greek physician Ctesias who wrote an account of India around 390BC based on the reports of travellers he met during his seven year sojourn in Persia. According to Ctesias: “In India there are certain wild asses that are as large as horses; their bodies are white, their heads dark red and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a cubit (half a metre or 18 inches) in length. The powder scraped from this horn is taken in a potion as a protection against poisons. The base of the horn, for the breadth of two hands above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and vivid crimson; the middle part is black. Those who drink from cups made of these horns are saved from the sacred disease (epilepsy) and are even immune to poisons.”
In his commentaries on the Gallic Wars of the 1st century BC, the Roman general who led that campaign, Julius Caesar, tells of the curious animals found in the Hercynian Forest. One of which he described as a beast with “the form of a stag, from the middle of whose brow there rises one horn, taller and straighter than any known.” Another Roman author, Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century, described the unicorn as a very fierce animal that “has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise and has a single black horn, two cubits in length, that projects from the middle of its forehead. It is said, this animal cannot be taken alive.”
At the beginning of the 3rd century, the Roman author Aelian wrote of the very wild heart of India where, protected by inaccessible mountains, wild beasts such as the unicorn thrived. He described a fleet footed animal as large as a horse with a tawny mane, feet like those of an elephant and the tail of a boar. Between its brows grew a single black horn, not smooth but with natural spirals that tapered to a very sharp point. Like earlier accounts, the horn was noted for its powerful magic but Aelian also added that the unicorn was gentle when approached by other animals.
These brief references to the unicorn are worth noting because it is these few scant descriptions, likely of the Indian rhinoceros and a confused account of the antelope, that underpinned popular belief in the marvellous unicorn for the subsequent 1,500 years or so.
In the centuries that followed, the unicorn acquired religious connotations within the Christian Church as a symbol of grace and purity, even sometimes being used as an allegory for Jesus Christ; a process likely helped by the authoritative presence of unicorns in the Bible. The early Latin translations of the Bible and the vernacular translations derived from them mention the unicorn seven times; all in the Old Testament. Such references conjure the image of an animal remarkable for its strength and wild ferocity: “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.” (Numbers 23 v22). “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 33 v17). “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 v9-10).
Clearly these passages relate to some actual animal of which the writers possessed clear impressions; a natural rather than supernatural creature yet mysterious enough to inspire a sense of awe and power. However, these references are likely legacies of translation errors that occurred when the Old Testament was translated into Greek in the 2nd century BC. In the Hebrew text, the word re’em is used to designate a type of wild ox but without an equivalent word in Greek, the translators used the word monoceros (one-horned animal). When the Bible was translated into Latin at the turn of the 5th century, the Greek monoceros was rendered as unicornis which, a thousand years later, was translated as licorne in French and unicorn in English. Unfortunately, the first Breton translation of the Old Testament, published in 1827, is a scarce book and I have not been able to see what word was used there!
The unicorn’s passage into the rich folds of Christian myth and symbolism gathered pace thanks to the bestiaries of the Middle Ages. These books of beasts discussed the appearance, habitat and habits of the creatures of the natural world as allegories to illuminate moral truths that might edify the faithful. Although condemned as heretical by Pope Gelasius in 496 (the same year he established the feast of Saint Valentine), such works were widely circulated and remained very popular even into the 15th century. Thus, the popular tradition of the marvellous unicorn was steadily spread throughout Europe.
The medieval Bestiaries generally describe the unicorn as a small animal, akin to a large goat or small horse, fast and fierce for its size, with a single horn growing from the middle of its head. No hunter was said able to catch it but the beast could be taken by deception; the most common ploy involved a virgin girl left alone in the woods to act as a lure. Upon sighting the girl, the unicorn was believed unable to resist her and would go and rest its head in her lap where it soon fell asleep; the insensible unicorn could then be captured or killed by the hunter. Some accounts embellished this ruse to say that the girl needed to bare her breast and even to allow the unicorn to suckle in order to gain its trust. The 12th century nun and visionary Hildegarde of Bingen went so far as to claim that “the girls by whom he is captured must be noble and not rustic, not quite grown-up or quite young but moderately youthful and … gentle and sweet”.
Many of the bestiaries highlighted the healing properties of the unicorn mentioned by the early Greek and Roman authors. The animal’s horn was said to be powerful against pestilential diseases and highly effective against all poisons. Hildegard of Bingen recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy and claimed that a girdle of the animal’s skin protected the wearer against pestilence and fever, even shoes made from its skin ensured healthy feet and legs.
Although best known for his work on the therapeutic power of thermal springs, the 16th century Italian scholar Andrea Bacci wrote an extensive treatise in defence of the unicorn and the virtues and possible uses of its horn. In his Discorso dell’Alicorno (1573) just ten grains scraped from the inside of the animal’s horn was considered enough to counteract any poison. Other Renaissance scholars also extolled the importance of the unicorn whose powdered horn was recommended as a remedy against the plague during the 16th and 17th centuries. In Johann Schröder’s influential work Pharmacopoeia Medico-Chymica (1672) unicorn horn was commended against poisons, infectious diseases and even epilepsy in children.
The early-17th century French pharmacologist Laurent Catelan warned that unicorn horn must never be put into hot water, for this would destroy all its virtue; he advised that powdered horn be dissolved in cold water and drunk. Given the scarcity and thus high cost of unicorn horn, water that had simply been in contact with it was also considered to have powerful therapeutic virtues. Its rarity ensured that pieces of horn were highly prized; a supply challenge that proved fertile ground for the unscrupulous who touted other types of animal horn as unicorn. One means of testing the authenticity of unicorn horn was to observe the behaviour of spiders placed around it; if the spiders avoided it, the horn was believed genuine.
The strong belief in the ability of unicorn horns to protect against poisons also saw them used as a means of detecting such substances; fragments of horn would be touched to plates of food or jugs of wine in the belief that they would alert to the presence of poison either by changing colour or giving off steam. Those that feared poisoning had pieces of horn fashioned into the stems of cups, the handles of knives and even set into salt pots; Cosimo de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany possessed such a cup and King Henry V of England is known to have presented one to the Duke of Brittany in 1414. Indeed, unicorn horns were listed amongst the prized possessions of many European rulers such as King Charles VI of France, Philip III Duke of Burgundy and Queen Elizabeth I of England.
Given the unicorn’s reputation as a creature of both immense power and intense grace, it is perhaps of little surprise that the animal eventually found its way into literature. The first Arthurian legend to feature unicorns is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, written in the early 13th century, which tells of Sir Percival’s long quest for the Holy Grail across the lands of Britain and Brittany. In an attempt to cure the Fisher King, wounded in the groin by a poisoned lance, many fantastic remedies are administered to him, such as the blood of the pelican and the herbs grown where a dragon had bled. One treatment was prepared with the heart of a unicorn and the carbuncle that was said to grow at the base of its horn but these also failed due to the will of God.
Von Eschenbach’s tale builds on that found in French poet Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished Perceval ou le Conte du Graal (Percival or the Tale of the Grail) written in the late 12th century. Another medieval romance that tells a broadly similar story is the 14th century Welsh tale Peredur fab Efrawg (Peredur son of Efrawg). Scholars are divided as to how much the anonymous author of Peredur borrowed from de Troyes or whether both tales share the same ancient, lost source. One notable incident in the Welsh tale is a character known as the black maiden commanding Peredur to kill the stag with one sharp horn on its forehead that is plaguing the forest. While stag hunting is a familiar trope in Arthurian romances and there is a similar incident recorded in de Troyes’ work, could Peredur’s stag with one horn actually have been a unicorn rather than a battle-scarred stag?
Le Chevalier au Papegau is an anonymous medieval tale known in only one original manuscript dating from the end of the 14th century; much of the action takes place here in Brittany. It tells how, almost immediately after his coronation, the newly crowned King Arthur sets out from Camelot, without his retinue, to help a lady terrorised by a brute who has already killed 60 of her best knights. Championing the Lady Without Pride, the unrecognised Arthur defeats the monstrous Sir Bad Boy of Causuel in single combat thanks to his trusty sword Chastiefol (the punisher of fools) and, in doing so, excites the attention of a magical parrot who proclaims him as the one “about whom Merlin prophesised” beseeching Arthur to allow him to accompany him because: “I am rightfully yours for you are the best knight in the world”.
Now acclaimed as The Knight of the Parrot, Arthur continues his mission in company with the Countess Beauty Without Villainy and a cowardly dwarf who carries the magical parrot in its richly bejewelled golden cage. When Arthur encounters the knight who has been terrorising the lands of the fay Lady of the Blonde Hair a furious battle ensues. After hours of hard fighting, Arthur finally slays the evil knight; a giant whose horse was the size of an elephant and a creature that was later discovered to be one beast.
Alas, Arthur’s adventures do not end with the restoration of Lady of the Blond Hair to her lands. Love’s arrow is fired, Arthur’s honour is shamed and there are more damsels in distress to be rescued. Amid the pangs of unrequited love and the restoration of honour, Arthur and his parrot undergo a series of marvellous adventures. He encounters giants, sea monsters, a bridge of knives and a dwarf whose son grew into a giant thanks to having been suckled by a unicorn.
This creature was described as a beast of extraordinary size, as tall as a horse and with a horn sharper than any razor in the middle of its forehead. She had fourteen large teats, the smallest of which was the size of a cow’s udder. After having nursed her foals, the unicorn continued to succour both the dwarf and his son with delicious sweet milk; the dwarf’s son grew prodigiously on account of its miraculous properties. Arthur’s ship had run aground on the dwarf’s island and he was only able to re-float it with the aid of the giant and the unicorn who pulled the vessel back into deep water. Once afloat, the dwarf and his son boarded Arthur’s ship but the unicorn could not be parted from the giant whom he loved deeply and together all safely reached the lands of the Lady of the Blond Hair.
A more recent tale tells that one stormy February night, the great forest of Brocéliande was briefly illuminated by an immense ball of fire that raced across the black sky. In that one moment, a fierce bolt of lightning cleft the heavens; striking ground deep in the forest. People claim that it was in that twinkling of an eye that a most peculiar beast first appeared on Earth. A marvellous creature that might have been taken for a mare but for the magnificent horn that stood proud upon its head; in recognition of which the fairies of the forest called it Unicorn.
Over time, the Fairy Queen became firm friends with the Unicorn who would often allow her to sit upon its back and it was in this manner that the Queen, accompanied by her attendants, undertook a great journey around the farthest boundaries of her realm. It was during this grand tour that, one evening, the darkness was so complete that even the Unicorn could no longer find its way through the forest.
Fortuitously, the fairy Viviane appeared and with a single stroke of her wand she made a burst of pure white light stream forth from the Unicorn’s horn, and day won over night; to the great astonishment of the Fairy Queen and her party. Enraged at the victory of light over darkness, the Devil suddenly materialised in their midst and violently attacked the unwary Unicorn. During the struggle, the Lord of Darkness managed to snap off the Unicorn’s horn and instantly disappeared into the darkness with his trophy.
It was said that, to restore balance to the Earth, the enchanter Merlin toiled tirelessly to recover the magical horn and that after he had managed to secure this prize, he worked in secret with a master smith to forge a magnificent sword from the finest steel and the horn of the Unicorn. Later, Merlin bestowed upon Arthur the responsibility of wielding this magical sword and charged him with driving evil further into the darkness.
The unicorn’s position in the popular imagination is a curious one for it was not a beast that flourished much beyond the pages of dry histories and fantastic bestiaries; domains reserved for the privileged few able to afford and read such texts. Perhaps if Pliny, the most widely read of the early authors, had spoken of the magical qualities of the unicorn’s horn the legend of the unicorn would have buried itself deeper into European folklore?
For millennia, the fact that no one ever saw a unicorn did not affect belief in its existence and yet the unicorn did not enter popular mythology and folklore to the same extent that other marvellous creatures, once held to exist such as the basilisk, dragon or griffin, did. As the world became smaller, belief in the unicorn had all but disappeared in Europe by the middle of the 17th century but faith in the healing power of its horn somehow survived here for another century.