Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Although unicorns have an important place in European mythology, they have a rich history in Africa and Asia as well. The European unicorn has its roots in the Middle East (aka. the top of Africa) and India, while the Chinese qilin/Japanese kirin has its own separate, long history. Because the qilin/kirin is so different, it deserves a full post. This is going to be about decentering Europe from the history of the “western” unicorn.

“Virgin and Unicorn.” Defensorium Inviolatae Virginitatis Beatae Mariae [Defense of the Inviolability of the Blessed Virgin Mary]. German woodcut. 1490. From The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol. 87, German Book Illustration before 1500: Anonymous Artists, 1489-1491

In 398 BC, Ctesias of Cnidus records “in India certain wild asses” with “a horn in the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length” (qtd. in Lavers 1). The body of this animal is white, but “their heads are dark red.” Cnidus is in modern-day Turkey, but Ctesias’s name identifies him as culturally Greek. The name alone alerts us to the ways “Western” cultures are far more diverse and complex than we now recognize. Anyways, Cnidus’s record of the Indian unicorn also indicates how much the Ancient Greek world oriented itself towards the Mediterranean and what is now the Middle East: modern Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Iran. In 326 BC, Alexander the Great made it as far as India, but didn’t stay for long. India, therefore, demarcates the edges of Greek scientific research and record. The unicorn is just out reach.

Unicorn and incense burner Stamp seal. ca. 2600-1900 B.C. Indus Valley Culture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

At around the same time, another important strand of Western unicorn mythology developed in Ancient Israel. The Biblical unicorn has its roots in Middle Eastern culture and fauna…we don’t know exactly what the re’em cited in the Book of Job 39:9-12, and Psalms 29:6 and Isaiah 34:7 is, exactly. We know the re’em is used to describe unruly wild power and the re’em seems like it was a real, local animal. The re’em was translated as monocerous in Greek, which became unicornis in Latin. Bam! UNICORN! Except it could also be a rhinoceros.

Heading back to India, the Indian Rhinoceros is also a prime suspect in Marco Polo’s thirteenth-century description of a unicorn: “They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than an elephant. The unicorn has the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. In the middle of its forehead is a single horn, very thick and black. I assure you it does no harm with its horn…” That’s pretty far from a pearlescent dainty horse-creature. It’s this kind of unicorn that features in Peter S. Beagle’s story “My Son Heydari and the Karkadaan” in The Unicorn Anthology.

All of these “real” unicorns are located far away – both in time and space – from the medieval Europeans who reworked the image of the unicorn into the form we recognize today. The medieval Christian practice of reading nature metaphorically meant that descriptions of rhinoceroses were reworked to resemble Jesus Christ. This isn’t a case of epistemological violence…a British monk had a zero percent chance of seeing a rhino…I mean, a unicorn.  

Between the Greek and Roman empires and the rise of transcontinental European imperialism in the sixteenth century, there’s about a thousand years where Europe wasn’t dominant, when it wasn’t contributing to the intellectual glory of the world. (That honour would go to the Muslim caliphates and Asian empires that generated ground-breaking mathematical, scientific and medical research…remember, Marco Polo isn’t a colonist. He’s a measly merchant who’s blown away by Kublai Khan’s kingdom.)  However, as Chris Lavers describes in The Natural History of Unicorns, once European empires started to grow, natural scientists began searching for real-life unicorns. They found lots of rhinos and gazelles that look like they have one horn in profile…and so the image of the unicorn diverges into “real” unicorns and mythological ones.

Does engaging with the “real” Asian and African history of the unicorn mean setting aside the mythological power that built throughout medieval Christianity and modern fantasy? Or does it provide new opportunities for wonder?

Works Cited:

King James Bible. Ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Lavers, Chris. The Natural History of Unicorns. London: Granta, 2009.

Polo, Marco. The Travels. Trans. Nigel Cliff. London: Penguin Books, 2015.

The Unicorn Anthology, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. San Francisco: Tachyon Books, 2019.

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