Friday, March 11, 2016

The Unique Unicorn

Unicorns are one of the most loved symbols in art, along with rainbows and fairies. The mythology of the unicorn is ancient and is concentrated in the northern hemisphere. Evident in the Indus valley cultures of Harappa, over 5,000 years ago, the unicorn appears on mud tablets and contracts. Herodotus mentions the unicorn as living in Libya. Emperor Fu Hsi (2852 - 2738 BC) is said to have received the secrets of written language from a unicorn 2,800 years ago. In ancient China the unicorn is called Ki-lin, was a badge of kingship, and symbolized kingly qualities. Like the western unicorn, the elusive Ki-lin is solitary and hard to capture. Considering their qualities, the images likely have a common ancestor.

As with many symbols, unicorn legends developed a dark side. The mythology of a dark, menacing unicorn developed from tales of the dangerous and mean-spirited wooly rhino during the Paleolithic era, 12,500 BC. In antiquity, the dark unicorn sometimes appeared with evil characteristics and was thought by early Christians to harbor ill will toward men. The history of the more common white unicorn is surrounded by a great deal of debate; a mythology developed partly from the narwhal, which sports an impressive uni-horn, and partly from the conical sand filters used to clean water thousands of years ago. Like other magical symbols, the unicorn has many healing properties. The unicorn horn purifies water poisoned by a serpent. The legend probably dates back millennia, to the use of cone-shaped sand filters, made with hardened clay, and filled with sand. When poured through them, water comes out clean, like granular charcoal filters in use today.

Because of the healing properties attributed to the horn, uni-horns were sold during the medieval period, claiming to be unicorn horns with miraculous healing properties. Medicines that had “unicorn” horn as an ingredient were expensive; horns were worth about 3,000 ounces of gold and making them affordable only by emperors, kings, and popes. They “cured” poisoning, epilepsy, fever, gout, and other ailments, as well as to provide protection from demons. Belief in the medical benefit of uni-horns persisted until the 1700’s. Now these “unicorn horns” are actually thought to come from other exotic animals and sea creatures, such as the narwhal. Many medieval European apothecaries had unicorns as their symbol.

The unicorn symbol is generally associated with unified absolute monarchy, stressing courage, grandeur, wisdom, nobility, and justice. Ancient legends tell of captured unicorns taken to kings, who were their sole possessors. According to legends, only a virgin, on whose lap it willingly lies down, can catch a unicorn. A set of 15th century European tapestries, The Hunt of the Unicorn, depict richly dressed noblemen, huntsmen, and hounds in pursuit of a unicorn. They succeed in “catching” it only after it surrenders to a maiden. An engraving from the 15th century also depicts the “capture” of the unicorn; however, the maiden has removed the animal’s neck chain, and he is sitting with his head in her lap as she pets him. The unicorn is associated with courtly love. A French nobleman gave the La Dame a la Licorne, also 15th century tapestries, to his bride. They picture the five senses; unicorns feature in each tapestry.

The Maiden and The Unicorn, fresco by Domenico Zampieri.

A 15th century Dutch Bible and a Swiss tapestry both depict the unicorn in Paradise. He occupies a place of honor among the other animals in the Garden of Eden. In Christian texts unicorns are mentioned in Psalms, Job, and Numbers.
“Save me from the lion's mouth: for you have heard me from the horns of the unicorns” – Psalms 22:21; “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 39:10; “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 23:22.

The unicorn also can be a symbol of purity, Christ, and healing love. Unicorns are attributes of sun-heroes, its horn was symbolic of the unity of Christ and God. The single horn of the unicorn is the Horn of Salvation from the House of David. In some mythologies, the single horn is a phallic symbol, and, as it protrudes from the forehead, represents chastity and wisdom. In alchemy the unicorn represents quicksilver, the hermaphrodite Mercury, or the Fifth Element, spirit. In Arabia the two flexible horns of young antelopes were twisted together so they would grow as one, producing the homegrown variety “unicorn;” two spirals entwine into one horn symbolize the union of opposites. To the Chinese it is the essence of the five elements and the union of yin and yang, a herald of good fortune and wisdom. In Japanese legends, unicorns are fearsome and can detect guilt in a criminal, whom they then punish. Unicorns are mentioned in the Indian Vedas. In European heraldry, the unicorn is lunar and feminine, and in Greco-Roman mythologies it is an attribute of all moon goddesses. During the 1500’s the unicorn became associated with chastity, the moon, and Diana.

Pliny mentioned an Indian unicorn referred to as Monoceros. A German scientist, Jakob Bartsch, formulated a constellation in 1624 which he named Monoceros, located between Canis Major and Minor, Orion, Gemini, and Hydra. The word Monoceros traces back to a Greek word for one-horned and translates as unicorn. The word could refer to the unicorn imaged during the Renaissance, but more likely refers to a mythological beast from antiquity; part lion, part stag, and part horse, depicted in Assyrian art around 3000 BC.

Many 15th century engravings depict unicorns with “wild men.” The characters are humans covered with plant-like designs, leaves, animal-like hair, and sometimes branches. Some are male, some female, and some teenagers. These “savages” sometimes fought against the knights, or threatened damsels, but lived in harmony with nature and the unicorns; in appearance these figures have the same attributes as the Green Man. According to Pliny, symbolism associated with unicorns can be seasonal: the uni-horn represents autumn, the lions tail symbolizes summer.

In folklore from Babylon, ca. 3500 BC, the lion and the unicorn hate each other; a battle that may have roots in the unicorn, which represents spring, and the lion, which represents summer. King James I added the Scottish unicorn to the Royal arms, indicating knightly power, courage, and pugnaciousness. The unicorn has been part of the official seal of Scotland since the 1300’s, used at first for its association with purity and strength. England, with a lion emblem, and Scotland, with a unicorn, were at war for a long period; the battles are remembered in a traditional nursery rhyme from 1603 where England was usually victorious:

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake and drummed them out of town.

Today, the unicorn and the lion are reconciled on the British coat of arms, the unicorn as a symbol of goodness and honor in women, and the lion as a symbol of courage and strength in men. Unicorns are often imaged as white horses with a single horn growing from their
foreheads, and, indeed, often are pictured this way. In depictions of the unicorn and lion in the Royal Arms, the unicorn has split hoofs, a small beard like a goat, and a tail that looks more like that of a donkey, which curls up over his back, like the lion he faces. The golden chain and crown around the unicorn neck denotes his royalty.

Old esoteric writings describe the unicorn as having a white body, red head, and blue eyes; some have a horn that is white at the forehead, red in the center, and black at the tip. Added to the symbolism associated with the unicorn, this description indicates royal Celtic origins, a symbol for the bloodlines of princes and kings. A poem by Thibaut, Count of Champagne, supports the idea of the unicorn being a symbol for male royalty:
“The unicorn and I are one:
He also pauses in amaze
And, while he wonders, is undone.
On some dear breast he slumbers deep,
And Treason slays him in that sleep.
Just so have ended my life’s days;
So Love and my Lady lay me low.
My heart will not survive this blow.”

From a 1566 manuscript of a bestiary by Manuel Philes
Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, ms. 3401

Isaiah 34:7 in the King James version also makes reference to the unicorn in such a way as to denote a royal position: “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.” As the use of unicorn symbols traveled, we can see a particular conception of its meaning develop. Although the opinion that unicorns really existed is common, to date there is no provable evidence beyond the many images which resemble oral tradition and literary descriptions. Unicorns are much loved characters in Fairy tales; and their history has been preserved through these great stories. The character of Prince Charming, the hero prince, is the Unicorn at his best.

The Light Princess, MacDonald, G., 1864
About Symbologist Michelle Snyder

Michelle is a professor of mythology and symbolism, an author, blogger, artist, and geek. She earned her post-graduate degree at the University of Wales, decoding prehistoric images and folklore, tracing them to their roots. Her artwork has appeared in galleries from MA to CA. Michelle is co-owner of White Knight Studio.
     Books by Michelle, available at Amazon:


Symbology ReVision: Unlocking Secret Knowledge  
Symbology: Hidden in Plain Sight
Symbology: My Art and Symbols 
Symbology: Fairy Tales Uncovered 
Symbology: Decoding Classic Images 
Symbology: World of Symbols 

 Fairy Tales: 

A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book One - The Lost Unicorn
A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book Two - The Lost Mermaid
A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book Three - The Lost Dragon
Call of the Dragon and other Tales of Wonder
The Fairy Tales: Once-Upon-A-Time Lessons First Book


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