Religious Symbolism And The Unicorn

Summary of Traditions

The unicorn has symbolized many things throughout history, and it is depicted in many ways. Some descriptions include: a horse with a horn, a beast resembling a rhinoceros, an ass with a horn, a goat-like creature, a stag, and sometimes a combination of these and other animals. It has both secular and Christian significance. It represents various aspects of romantic love, magic, and providence, and it has also been seen as a symbol of Christ. The myth of the unicorn contains something for almost everyone.

Adam names the animals in the Garden of Eden, beginning with the Unicorn.  Dutch Bible c. 1440. Printed in The Unicorn by N. Hathaway, 1980 According to a Western tradition, when God commanded that Adam and Eve should name all of the animals of the Earth, the first one given a name was the unicorn. Because of that, God gave that creature a special blessing and touched it on the tip of its horn. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God's command and were banished from the Garden of Eden, the unicorn was given the choice to follow Adam and Eve into the world or remaining in paradise. The unicorn chose to follow them into the world of pestilence, war, pain, and death. The unicorn was blessed forever after for his compassion. The unicorn chose the difficult human path out of love.

Traditional Western Image of the Unicorn.
A traditional unicorn
Has the body of a stag,
the tail of a lion,
and the head of a goat
with a single horn.

An Eastern tradition says that the universe began like an egg. The shell cracked and chaos spewed forth in all directions. Out of the chaos of the five elements and the light and the dark, the first man created the universe; it took eighteen thousand years. Four animals assisted in this task: the dragon, the tortoise, the phoenix, and the unicorn. Upon completion of the task, the first man died and his body became the Earth, his blood the waters, and his breath the wind. His voice became thunder and his eyes became the sun and moon. His bones were stones and metals while his hair was vegetation, and his sweat became the rain. Each animal chose territory. The dragon went to the waters, the tortoise crawled into the swamp, and the phoenix flew to dry land. The unicorn, known as the K'i-lin in China, ran into the forests. These special animals rarely reveal themselves to humans. On two auspicious occasions does the unicorn choose to show itself: when the ruler is just and kind and when times are peaceful and prosperous. Also, when a great leader is about to die, the unicorn appears as a sign of loss. The Eastern unicorn is like a calf covered with dragon-like scales and bearing a silvery horn from its forehead. The K'i-lin reportedly appeared to the mother of Confucius before he was born. The unicorn is known as the Ki-rin in Japan, and it looks more like a lion than a calf. The tawny creature, with its thick mane and single horn, was fierce and had the ability to distinguish right from wrong, innocence from guilt. In India, the unicorn appeared to the mother of the Buddha before his birth. The animal was reported to be like a graceful golden gazelle with luminous brown eyes.

Traditional Eastern Image of the Unicorn.  Printed in:  The Enchanted World , Magical Beasts.  Time-Life Books, pp. 116-7.
The Mother of Confucius
saw a K'i-lin just before conceiving;
the animal resembles a calf
covered with dragon-like scales
and bearing one silvery horn
from its forehead.

Ancient Origins

Actual written accounts of the unicorn first appear in the fourth century B.C. In 416 BC, a Greek physician named Ctesias left his home in Cnidus to serve Darius II, the King of Persia. He remained there for about 17 years; upon his return to Cnidus in 398 BC, Ctesias wrote a 23-volume History of Persia, which has been lost, and Indica, of which only fragments remain. In this work, Ctesias describes the wonders of India as told to him by numerous travelers who told tales of their journeys to northern India where valuable dyes and woven fabrics were obtained through trade. His description of a unicorn, in Indica, seems to encompass descriptions of several creatures from several travelers as the creature appears to include elements of several animals and customs: the rhinoceros, whose horn was considered to be proof against poison and many diseases by inhabitants of the orient; the Antholops Hodgsoni, a large and fleet antelope of Tibet with nearly straight horns that could appear as a single horn when seen in profile; the wild asses that were common in Persia; and the artistic renditions of the rhinoceros in embroidered fabrics (with ornate blue, purple, and red dyes) along with the traditional oriental belief in the magical and medicinal properties of the horn of the rhinoceros and its use as a decorated drinking vessel by wealthy and powerful men (such vessels were often colored with dyes and sometimes ringed with gold bracelets). Later writings, including the biology texts of Aristotle who catalogued all known animals via genus and species, referenced the work of Ctesias as though it were an accurate first-hand account of creatures from the East. A passage describing the "unicorn" is found in the 25th fragment of the Indica, by Ctesias.

"There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs. The base of this horn, for some two hands'-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers. Other asses, both the tame and the wild, and in fact all animals with solid hoofs, are without the ankle-bone and have no gall in the liver, but these have both the ankle-bone and the gall. This ankle-bone, the most beautiful I have ever seen, is like that of an ox in general appearance and in size, but it is as heavy as lead and its colour is that of cinnabar through and through. The animal is exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it."

The Unicorn of Ctesias.  Printed in: The Truth About Unicorns by J. C. Giblin. (c) 1991.
The Unicorn of Ctesias:
the body of a wild ass,
the tail of a lion, and
a single horn of red, black, and white.

Many other famous people such as Aristotle, Julius Ceasar, Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 A.D.), and Aelian (170 - 235 A.D.) make reference to the unicorn. In Historia Naturalis, Pliny the Elder says: "The Orsaean Indians hunt an exceedingly wild beast, which has a stag's head, elephant's feet, and a boar's tail, the rest of its body being like that of a horse. It makes a deep lowing noise, and one black horn two cubits long projects from the middle of its forehead. This animal, they say, cannot be taken alive." Aelian notes that the unicorn is called the "cartazon" in India. "This animal is as large as a full-grown horse, and it has a mane, tawny hair, feet like those of an elephant, and the tail of a goat. Between its brows there stands a single black horn, not smooth but with certain natural rings, and tapering to a very sharp point." Aelian goes on to say that it has a dissonant voice and is gentle with other animals, but it fights with its own kind. One ancient reference to the unicorn is a description, by Julius Caesar, of an animal found in the Hercynian Forest. The huge beast had the body of a stag and a long single horn above its brow, between its ears. The Old Testament of the King James Version of the Christian Bible contains seven references to the unicorn.

"God brought them Out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of the unicorn." Numbers xxiii. 22.

"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 xxxiii. 17.

"Save me from the lion's mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns." Psalm xxii. 21.

"He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn." Psalm xxix. 6.

"But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil." Psalm xcii. 10.

"And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness." Isaiah xxxiv. 7.

"Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide in thy crib? "Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? "Wilt thou trust him because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? "Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?" Job xxxix. 9-12.

Unicorns from Theatrum Universale Omnium Animalium of Johannes Jonston, 1755. Printed in: A Book of Unicorns by W. Poltarnees. (c) 1978. Unicorns from
Theatrum Universale
Omnium Animalium,
of Johannes Jonston, 1755

Animals in the Holy Land, Erhard Reuwich, from Breydenbaach (Mainz, 1486).  Printed in: A Book of Unicorns by W. Poltarnees. (c) 1978. The word "unicorn" appears to be a translation of the Hebrew term "Re'em" which refers to an unknown animal depicted as fleet, fierce, indomitable, with distinguishing armor of the brow. This mysterious and awful horned beast of the Hebrews seemed to the seventy translators (the Septuagint) to be like the strange and remote unicorn of Greek writings. Thus, the writings of Greek historians and taletellers became accepted as the inspired word of God. In all likelihood, the Re'em was the Bos Primigenius, a wild buffalo, native to the area of Mount Lebanon, which became extinct in the sixteenth century. The myth of the unicorn as a special creature was perpetuated by the early Christian tradition of viewing the physical world as an allegory of spiritual truth. God created the physical world merely as a reflection of goodness, so all things were embodiments of moral significance. During this time, many moral animal tales were created to teach moral truth much as Aesop's Fables seem to do. These stories were collectively referred to as the Christian Beast Epic. The work was later known in Europe as the Bestiary and attributed to Physiologus since the original text often began with the statement "the naturalist (physiologus) says..." The animal lore was denounced by Pope Gelasius in 496 as heresy, but these old wives' tales persisted and spread the image of the unicorn as a special, magical beast throughout Europe so that the creature was depicted in stained glass, tapestry, and heraldry (as seen in the British Royal Arms).

British Royal Arms. Printed in: The Royal Arms by C. Hasler. (c) 1978.  p. 196.
British Royal Arms
from 'The Book of Common Prayer' (1662)

The Medieval Unicorn

In writing for Philippe de Dreux (1175-1217), a man named Pierre described the unicorn as having the body of a small horse, the head of a stag, and a straight and sharp horn about four feet long. In some Italian art of the fifteenth century, the unicorn is depicted with cloven hooves, shaggy hair, a goat-like beard, and a straight and spiraled horn. The famous Medieval tapestries (created around 1500) of "the unicorn hunt" and of " the lady and the unicorn" depict the creature as it is most commonly conceived; these tapestries were created during the height of the unicorn's medieval popularity. Here it is depicted as a somewhat small goat-like animal which is milk-white in color and has gray eyes. Its most popular depiction remains as a milk-white beast which resembles a stag and a goat, has a lion's tail, and possesses a long single horn to which magical properties are attributed.

Sight, from the Gobelin tapestry. Printed in: A Book of Unicorns by W. Poltarnees. (c) 1978.
"Sight" from the Gobelin tapestry
(c. 1500). A unicorn looks
in a mirror held by a lady.

The horn of the unicorn is said to have the ability to repel poison. Thus, the creature was hunted. It is a fierce creature which could best be captured with a virgin. Philippe de Thaun, a twelfth century Anglo-Norman poet, describes the method of capturing the unicorn. One should place a virgin in the forest with her breast uncovered. The scent will be perceived by the unicorn who will come and kiss the breast and then fall asleep in her lap. The hunter may then kill or capture the beast in its sleep. Honorius of Autum (1100's) uses the hunt of the unicorn as an analogy in one of his sermons. The unicorn gives up its fierceness to a virgin just as Christ gives up his divinity through a virgin in order to become human. In human form, He can be found by those who love him (hunters). Other Christian writers point to Biblical references of the unicorn as symbols of Christ. St. Ambrose quotes Deuteronomy "his horns are like the horns of unicorns. . ." and says "Christ is meant be this (animal) and the horn denotes Christ's cross" (Migne. col. 346). St. Basil (330 - 379) says that the horn represents the glory and power and salvation of Christ.

The European tradition of the hunt for the unicorn is depicted in numerous works of art, so the tale bears repeating here. The unicorn is small like a kid (goat), but surprisingly fierce. With its singular sharp horn, this creature cannot be captured by a hunter; but it can be tricked. If a virgin is left alone in the woods, the unicorn will come to her and lay its head upon her lap. If she strokes the unicorn, it will fall asleep. Then, it can be captured by the hunters and taken to the castle of the king where the beast can be kept in captivity. What is most intriguing about this myth is the symbolism of the unicorn's affinity for a virgin, the reason for leading the beast to the king, and the necessity of tricking the creature with an elaborate ruse. Further, this small goat-like unicorn with cloven hooves is quite dissimilar to the large, ass-like solid-hoofed, dangerous unicorn of Greek writings. Apparently, two separate traditions of the unicorn merge in the Middle Ages: the naturalist perspective of Ctesias and the moral tales attributed to Physiologus.

The Christian tale of the virgin capture of the unicorn forms an allegory to the Incarnation of Christ in the Physiologus account.

In its simpler versions this interpretation likens the unicorn directly to Christ: its one horn is said to signify the unity of Christ and the Father; its fierceness and defiance of the hunter are to remind us that neither Principalities nor Powers nor Thrones were able to control the Messiah against His will; its small Stature is a symbol of Christ's humility and its likeness to a kid of His association with sinful men. The virgin is held to represent the Virgin Mary and the huntsman is the Holy Spirit acting through the Angel Gabriel. Taken as a whole, then, the story of the unicorn's capture typifies the Incarnation of Christ."

Virgin Capture of a Unicorn from a 14th century Italian Manuscript. Printed in: The Lore of the Unicorn by O. Shepard. (c) 1979. Ancient, non-Christian, tales of the capture of the unicorn include a more sexual element to the story. The maiden bears her breasts, and the unicorn sucks them. While thus engaged, the maiden can grasp the horn of the unicorn and thereby capture it. Then, the unicorn can be taken by the huntsmen. Some twelfth century writings declare that the process is more successful if the virgin is completely naked because, according to Alanus de Insulis, the power of the virgin over the unicorn stems from the vast difference in their humours and the propensity for opposites to attract. This sexual connotation is retained in some accounts and incongruously made to fit Christian morality as is reflected in the Syriac version of the Physiologus story.

"There is an animal called dajja, extremely gentle, which the hunters are unable to capture because of its great strength. It has in the middle of its brow a single horn. But observe the ruse by which the huntsmen take it. They lead forth a young virgin, pure and chaste, to whom, when the animal sees her, he approaches, throwing himself upon her. Then the girl offers him her breasts, and the animal begins to suck the breasts of the maiden and to conduct himself familiarly with her. Then the girl, while sitting quietly, reaches forth her hand and grasps the horn on the animal's brow, and at this point the huntsmen come up and take the beast and go away with him to the king. Likewise the Lord Christ has raised up for us a horn of salvation in the midst of Jerusalem, in the house of God, by the intercession of the Mother of God, a virgin pure, chaste, full of mercy, immaculate, inviolate."

The unicorn is a proud, noble, powerful, fiercely courageous creature who is also gentle, beneficent to his fellow creatures, and happily serene in the end. The unicorn can be seen in art throughout time and it has come to symbolize many things, both Christian and secular. This powerful, mystical beast is depicted in many ways, but it always retains its single magical horn, and the love that Medieval and Modern people hold for the creature.

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(c) 2003 Dee