Saturday, July 6, 2013

Mythical Creature Article: Species of Unicorn

One of the most enduring mythical creatures (and particularly popular with young girls) is the unicorn. However aside from being a hoofed quadruped with a single horn protruding from it’s forehead there’s actually a wide variety of unicorns described in classical sources.

Many historical figures have claimed to have seen unicorns, including Marco Polo:
"scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead... They have a head like a wild boar's… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions." But just what sort of unicorn did Marco Polo see?

Mythical Unicorns:

Greek Unicorns - Unicorns were first described by Ctesias, a Greek physician and historian (4th century BC). He described them as quick creatures with the body of a wild donkey, that possessed a 27 inch horn colored white, black, and red. Unicorn horn was believed to capable of purify liquids, therefore drinking from a cup made of this sort of unicorn’s horn was believed to prevent poisoning.

Roman Unicorns - The Roman view of the unicorn was slightly different. Pliny the Elder, a Natural Historian, described unicorns as having a horse’s body, a stag’s head, elephant feet, and a boar’s tail. It was believed to have made a deep bellowing call. Note the exceptionally long black horn at 36 inches. 
Ethiopian Unicorns - Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant traveling from Alexandria to India describes the unicorns he learned about in Ethiopia as a ferocious beast that could not possibly be taken alive. It’s horn was supposed to be incredibly strong, used both for fighting and to absorb the shock of landing when it jumped from cliffs.

Re'em (Biblical Unicorns) - Unicorns are briefly mentioned in some translations of the bible, though many modern translations replace this phrase with wild ox, it was more likely an extinct breed of wild cattle, the auroch. It is said to be a strong beast, too wild to be tamed.

Tahash (Kosher Unicorns) - Sometimes described as being the same beast as Re’em, the Tahash is a multicolored unicorn that conforms to the Jewish standards of clean (eatable, touchable) animals. It is believed to have appeared to assist in the rebuilding of the temple.

Medieval Unicorns - Probably best known is the unicorn mythology of the middle ages, the shy innocent creatures that could only be caught by using a virgin as bait. These are undoubtedly the horse-like unicorns we see in British and Scottish Heraldry, though often they are also depicted as goat-like, with a lion tail, and a spiraled horn.

In Heraldry the collared unicorn can represents courage, strength, virtue, harmony, or understanding, while an un-collared unicorn represents an unrecoverable loss of such traits.

- The Shadhavar is a cruel carnivorous creature of Persian fokelore. Physically it resembles a one horned gazelle with the cheetah’s tear-like markings on it’s face.

It is said to lure prey in by allowing wind to whistle through it’s horn creating a siren-like melody.

Related Creatures:

Quẻ Ly (Vietnamese Unicorns) - Often mistaken for unicorns, the Quẻ Ly is supposed to bring happiness, wealth, prosperity

Ch’I Lin/Qilin (Chinese Unicorn) - Ch’I Lin is a chimerical creature of Chinese mythology whose appearance varies greatly, sometimes looking like a tiger or a giraffe, and at others looking like a dragon. It is it’s gentle and righteous nature however, that links it to the western ideals of the unicorn.

Kirin/Sin-you ( Japanese Unicorn) - The Japanese Kirin probably has it’s roots in the Chinese Ch’I Lin. It is usually depicted as being more deer like, though sometimes it takes on giraffe or even western unicorn-like features.

- These mythical winged horse of ancient Greece, are commonly associate with unicorns nowadays. Unlike the only known flying mammals, bats, Pegasus have feathers like a bird.

Unipegasus - Sometimes called Alicorns by MLP fans (though Alicorn is actually the mythical red substance that’s supposedly give the unicorn’s horn it’s power) are just what they sound like, horse-like unicorns with wings.

Real Animals:

Rhinoceros - Did you guess it? The one horned quadruped that Marco Polo observed was in fact a rhinoceros.

There’s also conjecture that the Greek unicorn is actually an extinct species of hairy dwarf rhinoceros.

- The unicorn of the sea, yes! Though it’s horn is actually tooth, it was good enough to fooled the royals of Denmark who built their throne of these supposed unicorn horns.

Oryx - A pale antelope with dark marks on it’s face and legs, oryxes and other antelope are also a possible source of unicorn fables. They have long, slightly curves horns which can appear as one when viewed from the side.

Natural Oddities - Occasionally a one horned or antlered animal will appear in nature among animals that normally have two. Recently, in 2008, a one antlered roe deer was discovered on an Italian nature preserve, unfortunately the creature is rather shy and there are very few pictures of it.

Manmade Oddities - Occasional experiments and sideshows are created by fusing the horn buds of calves and kids. Such unicorns are considered animal cruelty by many, though they usual show no signs of discomfort or distress outside recovering from the surgery. While there have been reports of such unicorns being temperamental, there are also reports of them being extra gentle.

Additional Reading & Resources:

Rosen, Brenda.
The Mythical Creatures Bible.
New York: Sterling, 2008.

Wikipedia, Oryx
This page was last modified on 1 October 2012 at 18:55

Wikipedia, Qilin
This page was last modified on 6 January 2013 at 04:22

Wikipedia, Shadhavar
This page was last modified on 1 December 2012 at 14:39

Wikipedia, Unicorn
This page was last modified on 1 December 2011 at 17:31.

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