The Power of Purity
It’s a good thing unicorns don’t actually exist because a ton of virgin dudes would end up being totally emasculated when these gentle creatures laid their sweet and noble heads in their laps. It’s tough to recover your macho image from that sort of thing! Although I guess it’d be a decent consolation prize for those people that take vows of chastity or celibacy…those poor people deserve all the little perks they can get, even if it’s just the attention of magical horses with stuff sticking out of their heads!
Unicorn comics! Fat unicorns!
The unicorn, much like the dragon, is an iconic part of European folklore, though similar creatures can be found in the folklore of other regions, particularly in Asia. Most often described as a beautiful white horse with a long mane, cloven hooves, and a large spiral horn jutting from the middle of it’s forehead, the unicorn was an important part of many stories throughout Europe for thousands of years, from the time of the ancient Greeks all the way up to the 19th century. Fiction writers, particularly fantasy novelists, make use of these creatures in their work even today and many of the traits ascribed to these creatures in modern works are part of the traditional lore of the unicorn, though these traits did take time to evolve into the shape we see them today.
Curiously enough, if one looks back at the history of the unicorn, one should not be looking into the world of mythology but rather into natural history. The Ancient Greeks, being practical folks, were very much interested in the natural world and in the creatures and plants that populated it. Large texts were written up on the flora and fauna throughout the Mediterranean and the neighboring regions and among the many bits of information were descriptions of this elusive beast. During this time, there were differing descriptions of the creature. Ctesias, one of the first figures to write about the unicorn described it as having a white body, a dark red head, dark blue eyes, and its horn being white near its base and crimson near the top with a black middle section. He refers to it as the wild ass of India and says it was able to out run the common ass, horses, and stags and also mentions one of its most iconic properties: the healing properties of its horn. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant famous for his travels to India gave a description of the unicorn based on brass figures he found in the palace of the King of Ethiopia stating, “It is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.” Kind of a ridiculous image when one thinks about it.
It was with this attitude of natural history and taxonomy that the unicorn made its way into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, though it did take a significant step toward folklore and religious symbolism during this time. There are a number of references to unicorns within the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, though the “unicorn” discussed in the original Hebrew is actually a slightly different creature known as the re’em and was a symbol of strength and will. Throughout the Middle Ages, the unicorn began to be linked to purity and godliness and many of its most enduring traits took shape. The fact that only a virgin could tame it is a reference to the virgin mother of Jesus Christ in Christian mythology and a connection of purity of body with purity of spirit (this is always a virgin female, unlike in the comic!). The healing property of the horn became a central concept associated with the beast and many charlatans wandered the countryside selling unicorn horns for use in healing medicines, though Ole Worm, a Danish physician, discovered that these alleged unicorn horns were simply the tusks of narwhals.
Stories of unicorns persisted well into the 19th century and were believed by many of the common people to be true stories of a beast that resided in the forests of Europe. Eventually, science settled the matter on the reality of the unicorn. While we now know that no such creature ever existed, we still enjoy the power and symbolism of the unicorn in modern literature. It is one of those rare creatures that needs no introduction, being so iconic that the mere mention of its name conjures vivid imagery in the mind. Everything from TH White’s The Once and Future King to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series has utilized the unicorn to great effect and helped to keep its memory alive and in the spotlight of human consciousness.