I recently learned that the national animal of Scotland is the unicorn. Apparently, it’s because the unicorn was believed to be the natural enemy of the lion, which explains the choice. For a second, I thought, “I didn’t know that the unicorn originated from Scotland.” I don’t know why I immediately went there, but a few seconds on the web prove me wrong. So…
Who Invented the Unicorn?
I don’t know how there would be confusion, but to avoid any, let’s be clear from the start, we are talking about a legendary creature. The unicorn is a kind of a horse (or a goat, depending on the era) with a spiraling horn projecting from its forehead. You never saw one. I never saw one. But we can imagine what one may look like as drawings and video representations of the mythical beast are present in our popular culture.
The Hall of the Bulls at Paleolithic Lascaux Cave, the Indus Valley Civilization, and Mesopotamia are where the earliest evidence of the unicorn tale may be found. There, seals, cave paintings, and artifacts show creatures that resemble unicorns. However, rather than depicting supernatural beings, these images are frequently taken to represent genuine animals like aurochs or wild cattle. The similarity with unicorns is, it seems, debatable.
That is not the case with one of the earliest written accounts that contributed to the creation of the unicorn myth. Coming from the Greek historian Ctesias in the 4th century BCE, it described a creature called the “wild ass” from India, which had a single horn on its forehead and possessed various magical properties. It’s believed that this description might have been based on the Indian rhinoceros, but through translation and retelling, the image of a unicorn-like creature began to take shape.
This was corroborated in Aristotle’s History of Animals, one of the key works in biology, which also identified the “Indian ass” as an animal with a single horn sticking out of the middle of its head. Additionally, the Indian ass is described in this source as being “single-hooved” and not “cloven-footed.”
The unicorn myth gained further traction during the medieval period, with the concept being woven into religious symbolism and allegorical narratives. In medieval bestiaries and illuminated manuscripts, unicorns were often depicted as fierce and untamable creatures, representing purity and the struggle between good and evil. These depictions were often influenced by religious beliefs and stories, with unicorns being associated with Christ-like attributes, such as their ability to heal and purify.
The myth of the unicorn also found its way into various cultures, including Chinese, Persian, and European folklore. In China, the myth of the qilin, a benevolent creature with features similar to the unicorn, blended with the Western unicorn myth through cultural exchanges along the Silk Road.
The First Use of the Word “Unicorn”
When you dig a little into the history of the unicorn, it became clear that, if a creature similar to the unicorn existed at some point (the Indian rhinoceros apparently), it was probably not the majestic creature we came to think of when we read its name.
In fact, the propagation of the word “unicorn” may even have contributed to that embellishment as it was introduced in the English language with the help of religious texts.
Scholars who translated the Hebrew text of the Old Testament into Greek around 300 BC came to the conclusion that the Hebrew word re’em meant a “unicorn.” The unicorn is listed in several ancient encyclopedias of creatures of the world and is described as a solitary animal that frequently engages in combat with lions and elephants. The aurochs, often known as the wild ox, is thought by contemporary scholars to have been the re’em. The passage is translated differently in the 1952-released Revised Standard Version of the Bible to reflect this viewpoint.
But why use the word unicorn? The Latin language is where the word “unicorn” first originated. It comes from the Latin words “uni,” which means “one,” and “cornu,” which means “horn.” These two terms together represent the creature’s distinctive feature, a single horn on its forehead. When the word “unicorn” was first used in English, it was derived from the Old French word “unicorne,” which was itself derived from the Latin word “unicornis.”