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Creature Compendium: Unicorn

While not a creature rare on the collective consciousness, I would like to blog about the often overlooked and maligned unicorn. I myself have suffered anti-unicorn snobbery for years. Why should I be enamored of a creature that does little but prance around, deer like and innocent, when I could choose a flying horse to ride into battle? It turns out my impression of unicorns are all the fault of  medieval artists and Peter Beagle.

The Unicorn

The Last Unicorn by Blue-Dragon22

The first mention of the unicorn come from Greek texts in natural history, rather than mythology. The unicorn was thought to be a real creature native of India described by Pliny as "very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length." This is no gentle creature.

The mythology of the unicorn does not begin until the middle ages, when it became a subject of Christian artwork. A wild beast that can only be tamed by the heart of a virgin, the unicorn becomes a symbol of purity, chastity, innocence. The horn of the unicorn is said to be made of a material called alicorn, which can cure disease and combat poison. An alicorn cup was a gift given to kings and queens. These goblets were often made of ivory, and full horns, from narwhals.

FYI the unicorn appears on the Royal Coat of Arms of Canada (taken from the Scottish coat of arms).

Further Reading:

Related Creatures: zhi / quilin (China), kirin (Japan)

Region of Origin: Multiple

By the way, I love the book "The Last Unicorn" despite my prejudice. That story plays very closely to the medieval concept of the unicorn: innocent, difficult to tame, and possessing magical healing powers. What do you think of unicorns? Are they badass, or a yawn?

Printed from: http://www.tsbazelli.com/blog/2012/04/creature-compendium-unicorn/ .
© Copyright T.S. Bazelli 2010 2014.

8 Comments  

  • My understanding of the Greek natural history is that what they were describing as a unicorn was, in fact, a real creature: what today we call {drumroll please} a rhinoceros.

    Imagine, if you will, that you've never seen such a thing, and you were trying to describe it based on second- or third-hand reports. The strange description given in the Greek natural history, which eventually informed the medieval interpretation, might well be what you'd come up with.

    • Also, to my shame, I have never read The Last Unicorn, nor, for that matter, have I seen the movie...

    • The rhino was described elsewhere in Pliny's text (some kind of ass) though other Greek texts are not consistent so there is confusion. It may have been a gazelle at a distance, or the rhino, or a single horned goat (mutation). Alas, we'll never know.

  • Jay Noel says:

    My favorite unicorn movie had to be Legend. That movie was visually stunning.

    Oh, and I plan on posting about unicorns too on my A-Z challenge. But it'll be a steampunk unicorn!

    • Oh that movie is beautiful. I can still recall specific scenes from it, because they were so gorgeous. The demon thing scared me for a long time.

      So we need to wait for U day then? :)

  • John Wiswell says:

    I had to leave them out of my novel, because the only possible result was having their horns ground up as sexual aids for the rich. There's just no other end for the poor critters in that world.

    Did you see Cabin in the Woods? If you have, you know why I ask!

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