Unicorn Mythology

If the mention of unicorns conjures up images of radiant white horses with a flowing manes and a single horn in the middle of the forehead, you may be surprised to learn that that is only one version of this mythical creature. The legendary unicorn from some cultures bears little resemblance to the popular fairy-tale version depicted in children’s stories and videos in the U.S.

Unicorns in Chinese Mythology

The unicorn called Qilin has held a place in ancient Chinese mythology since the time of Confucius. It is believed to be one of the nine mythic monsters who were sons of a dragon with the ability to tell good from evil. This unicorn has the head of a dragon, blue and green scaly skin, cloven hooves and the tail of a bear. This unicorn often had more than one horn. It is believed to live for 2000 years or more.

  • Although it has changed symbolism over time, it was originally portrayed as a kind and loving creature that fed on magical grasses, walked on water and even flew. It also had the mysterious ability to walk on grass without crushing the blades. Its image was carved on gravestones to assist the dead to heaven and to ward off evil spirits.
  • The Chinese believe that Qilin can only be seen by ‘chosen ones’ and only appears during the reign of superior rulers. It is also believed to carry extraordinary children on its back transporting them from heaven to their earthly parents.
  • Today, Qilin represents strength and power. It is used in Feng Shui to attract wealth and to eliminate negativity. It is also thought to help women who desire a child. Overall, it is seen as a good omen that brings joy, wisdom and long life.

Myth of the Turkish Unicorn

Like many other early reports of unicorns, the Turkish unicorn, called karkadann, or kartijan, was thought to be a ferocious beast with a massive body and one horn. The karkdann was thought to outrun all the beasts of the forest with its thundering gait that shook the earth. Its voice was a frightening bellow that chased away all animals except for the ringdove, whose song was thought to lull the beast

Medieval Unicorns

The medieval unicorn myth likely gave rise to the western version of the unicorn. Because the unicorn was mentioned in the Bible, people of that time naturally assumed it was a real animal. (Scientists now believe the unicorn of the Bible was actually a type of wild ox.) It was included with other beasts in a book called The Physiologus, which listed and described existing animals.

  • To please the church, each animal was given human traits and served as an allegory for Biblical teaching. The unicorn was portrayed as untamable and uncatchable, except by a virgin. According to The Physiologus, a unicorn was attracted to the purity and innocence of a virgin and would come to lay its head in her lap.
  • The unicorn soon became associated with Christ and the Virgin Mary, which in turn led to the symbolism of unicorns as pure and gentle creatures able to discern truth.
  • The belief that the unicorn horn possessed magical powers soon spread through medieval Europe. Drinking from the horn or ingesting the powdered horn was thought to cure disease combat poison.
  • One of the most famous depiction of medieval unicorns is still accessible today through seven tapestries known as “The Unicorn Tapestries” or “The Hunt for the Unicorn” cycle.

Unicorns in Greek Mythology

Surprisingly, myths and legends of unicorns have no part in Greek mythology. Unicorns are not associated with Greek gods and goddesses. However, a Greek doctor named Ctesias gave us the first written description of this mythical creature after visiting Persia and hearing the stories from Indian travelers. According to Ctesias, the unicorn was a massive beast with a white body as big as a horse, a red head and single horn in the middle of the forehead.

An Evolving Mythical Creature

Some unicorn enthusiasts claim that to avoid the hunters that threatened the unicorn’s existence on earth; the unicorn took to the sea. In order to survive in the watery world, it evolved to become the narwhal, a whale-like creature from the arctic with one long horn in the middle of its forehead. The narwhal’s horn is actually an elongated tooth used to break the ice during mating. Ironically, narwhal ‘horns’ were often sold as unicorn horns in medieval times.

Unicorns and Modern Myths

Nowadays, unicorns have become part of modern culture through books, movies, online games, and social media. Perhaps the most recent “temporary unicorn myths” take the shape of memes. Memes are an important cultural development. They usually encompass any catchy saying, funny image, unusual story, or quick and shallow joke that gets spread around like a virus through social media, including face to face chats in some cases. Unicorn memes predate the Internet, but they spread so much faster and easier now that everyone can check Facebook multiple times a day.

After reading unicorn mythology facts, you probably have an opinion about the mysterious unicorn. Whether unicorns are real is up to you to decide. But, don’t be too quick to judge. This solitary creature is thought to live deep in the forest and only be seen by the chosen. Just because you haven’t seen one yet, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.