“I thought unicorns were more…fluffy” – Terry Pratchet

Unicorns love the ladies.
Unicorns love the ladies.

The only thing more heartwarmingly adorable than the modern interpretation of a unicorn is two unicorns.  Or a rainbow.  Maybe a puppy.  Everybody loves a unicorn, right?  Wrong.  If you ever chance to encounter a unicorn, approach with a healthy dose of trepidation and two fingers of suspicion.  Odds are it will gore you to death given the chance.  The magically awesome, crunchy goodness attributed to the unicorn with which we are all familiar is a product of a remarkably effective medieval propaganda machine.  Up until the unicorn was co-opted as an allegorical stand-in for Jesus Christ and poster-boy for virginhood in the forerunner of the ever-so-popular medieval bestiary called the Physiologus, the unicorn was traditionally regarded as a fairly nasty wild beast.  Perhaps, surrounded by plush Unicorn dolls, My Little Pony’s, and Hummel figurines, you are skeptical.  Rest assured, I would not lie to you seven-year-old girl.  When they needed a stand-in symbol for serenity and wholesome saintliness, the authors of your higher class of bestiary more or less randomly opted for the unicorn.  They could have just as easily gone for the Aspidochehelone (a gigantic turtle that pretends to be an island, and then drowns you when it submerges), but they didn’t think an amphibian would sell and it clearly didn’t have the right attitude what with the intentional drowning, not to mention that for the most part, turtles are not pretty.  Ever since the Dark Ages (aptly named since they couldn’t see stuff really clearly with all the crazy superstition, paranoia, and eyes caked in mud due to the general lack of hygiene), the unicorn has taken its place in the pantheon of fantastically awesome and enchantingly good mythological beasts, when in fact, it had for generations been regarded as just another weird animal that lived in the East (that would be “east or south of Europe”) that happened to have one horn, conveyed some immunity to poison, and frequently got confused with the rhinoceros.  How did we come to regard the unicorn as the most totally awesome of magical fauna that crapped sunshine and gushed unadulterated sweetness over everything?  The unicorn had a good agent.  In this case, the agent was usually a local representative of the Catholic Church, and since they were the only ones writing anything in the western world for a few hundred years, the image kind of stuck.

Now, we tend to associate effective propaganda with the Nazis (along with snappy uniforms, a passion for leather, and genocide), but the term actually originates in the early 17th Century with the Catholic Church’s Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith), an unassuming little office of the Vatican concerned with propagating the Catholic faith in non-Catholic countries.  This was the de facto institutionalization of the activities of the church since the fall of the Roman Empire.  The simple fact is that Europe was largely illiterate for half a millennium and the few people that could read and write were generally monks working for the Catholic Church.  Medieval monks had a lot of free time between Lauds and Compline, what with the strict routine and vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, so they spent a lot of time illuminating manuscripts, copying ancient texts, and thinking of stuff to record for future generations, in particular bestiaries.  When your ideology suggests that the entire world reeks of divine authorship, you tend to read moral lessons into everything you see, hear about, or read.  Hence, the garden variety bestiary associated every fantastical critter with an underlying ethical imperative.  Monks don’t really do competitive sports or play poker, so they had to come up with some way to keep themselves entertained, and being fairly learned dudes, piecing together the message conveyed by a marvelous monster qualified as a rocking good time.  Upon reflection, given how closely this describes my own life, its fortunate I’m already married with children, gainfully employed in a non-theological capacity, and fond of scotch.  Otherwise, I would have just depressed myself. At any rate, once monks settled on the notion that every monster engendered a moral lesson, the medieval bestiary was born and mythological hijinks ensued, including the revisionist interpretation of the unicorn as symbol of magically squishy coolness suitable for plush toys.  Of course, the monks were just doing their jobs, so we have to lay some blame for this misconception at the hooves of unicorns, who totally capitalized on their new found beatification.  One presumes they get royalties every time their image is used, plus they get to snuggle with a lot of virgins (children and fantasy novelists, cover your ears, I’ll explain later).

The authors of medieval bestiaries could not be bothered to spend all that time and money running around making firsthand observations of monstrosities.  I mean, have you seen how much a 10th Century plane ticket was between Paris and Bombay?  And without today’s anti-malarial drugs, a trip to Ethiopia was usually fatal, so they relied rather heavily on documentation from classical Greeks and Romans.  This requires enormous patience, since the predominant theme of classical Greek and Roman writings is how undeniably awesome it is to be a classical Greek or Roman.  Luckily, they managed to fit a little bit of actual information on the papyrus.  Since book-burning was a big thing back then, the graduate assistants conducting research for scholarly monk’s authoring medieval bestiaries had to rely on the few recognized heavy-hitters of the classical world that had been preserved for their materials from Ctesias, to Aristotle, to Megasthenes, and Pliny, which makes the exceedingly positive reputation of the unicorn all the more puzzling, since the luminaries of the ancient world didn’t really ascribe any sort of moral superiority to them, instead describing them much as they did any other marvelous monster for which there were rumors.

The 5th Century B.C. Greek historian and physician Ctesias of Cnidus was taken as a prisoner of war to the court of Persian King Cyrus the Younger (424-401 B.C.), and wrote a few books on the history of Persia and India (he never actually visited India, but was recording what Persians said about India) and provided us with the earliest description of the unicorn, which he assumed was a sort of wild Indian donkey.  Donkeys are strong and sturdy equines, albeit cantankerous, but are rarely considered a wellspring of enchantment.  Ctesias did emphasize that if cornered, the unicorn would kill a whole lot of people, and would likely fight to the death in an orgy of kicking, biting, and maiming.  Oddly, he mentions that they don’t taste very good, either.

There are wild asses in India the size of horses and even bigger. They have a white body, crimson head, and deep blue eyes. They have a horn in the middle of their brow one and a half cubits in length. The bottom part of the horn for as much as two palms towards the brow is bright white. The tip of the horn is sharp and crimson in color while the rest in the middle is black. They say that whoever drinks from the horn (which they fashion into cups) is immune to seizures and the holy sickness and suffers no effects from poison, whether they drink wine, water, or anything else from the cup either before or after ingesting the drug. They also say that other asses, both tame and wild, and the other solid-hoofed animals have no astragalus or bile in the liver. However, these creatures do have an astragalus and bile in the liver. The astragalus, which is similar in size and shape to that of an ox, is the most beautiful I have ever seen. It is as heavy as lead and the color of cinnabar even at its deepest points. This animal is extremely swift and strong and neither horse nor any other animal can overtake it in pursuit. It begins running slowly, but the longer it runs, the more speed it picks up as it exerts itself brilliantly. Usually this animal cannot be hunted, but when they bring their young to pasture and are surrounded by many men on horseback, they choose not to flee and abandon their colts; rather, they fight both with their horn and by kicking and biting. They kill many horses and men, but they are taken down by the bow and javelin, as one could never capture them alive. Their flesh is inedible on account of its bitterness, but they are hunted for their horns and astragaloi. (Ctesias, Indica, Fragment 45).

I’m starting to believe that Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was a bit obsessive-compulsive, since he was way too concerned with the difference between solid and cloven-hoofed animals and the relationship to their number of horns than is healthy for a red-blooded Greek philosopher.  Like Ctesias, he was not especially impressed with the awesomeness of the unicorn, apart from the anomalous nature of its horn placement vis-à-vis its hoof type.  Dude.  Get over it.  You partied with Alexander the Great.  Stop ruminating on animal hooves.

Most of the animals that have horns are cloven-hoofed; but the Indian ass, as they call it, is also reported to be horned, though its hoof is solid. Again, as the body, so far as regards its organs of motion, consists of two distinct parts, the right and the left, so also and for like reasons the horns of animals are, in the great majority of cases, two in number. Still there are some that have but a single horn; the Oryx for instance, and the so-called Indian ass; in the former of which the hoof is cloven, while in the latter it is solid. In such animals the horn is set in the centre of the head; for as the middle belongs equally to both extremes, this arrangement is the one that comes nearest to each side having its own horn (Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, Book 3, Ch 2).

Greek ethnographer Megasthenes (350-290 B.C.) may actually have been to India, as an ambassador from Seleucus I of the Seleucid dynasty to Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra, and is quoted by Strabo as making an offhand reference to the unicorn, suggesting that there is nothing more remarkable about them than the fact that they have the head of a deer and a single horn.

Megasthenes says that the men who inhabit the Caucasus have intercourse with the women in the open and that they eat the bodies of their kinsmen; and that the monkeys are stone-rollers, and, haunting precipices, roll stones down upon their pursuers; and that most of the animals which are tame in our country are wild in theirs. And he mentions horses with one horn and the head of a deer; and reeds, some straight up thirty fathoms in length, and others lying flat on the ground fifty fathoms, and so large that some are three cubits and others six in diameter (Strabo, Geography, Book 15, Ch. 2:56).

Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) mentions that the unicorn is the fiercest of animals, refusing to be taken alive, ascribing to it a chimerical nature than includes a single, three foot long black horn.

In India there are also Fauna of oxen with solid hoofs and one horn,and a wild animal named axis, with the hide of a fawn but with more spots and whiter ones, belonging to the ritual of Father Liber (the Orsaean Indians hunt monkeys that are a bright white all over the body); but that the fiercest animal is the unicorn, which in the rest of the body resembles a horse, but in the head a stag, in the feet an elephant, and in the tail a boar, and has a deep bellow, and a single black horn three feet long projecting from the middle of the forehead. They say that it is impossible to capture this animal alive (Pliny, Natural History, Book 8, Ch.31).

None of the ancients was particularly enamored of the unicorn.  It is variously a sort of donkey, goat, deer, or horse with a single horn, but certainly not the creature to give warm fuzzy feelings to young girls everywhere.  The Physiologus was written around the 2nd Century A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt, most likely by Christian theologian Titus Flavius Clemens (150-215 A.D.), and more or less set the standard for all European bestiaries to follow – that is, most subsequent bestiaries were either bald-faced copies or leaned heavily on the encyclopedic work of the Physiologus for accounts of fantastic and rarely seen animals.  The reference to the unicorn is brief, but introduces the use of virgins to trap them, commenting, as transcribed by Archbishop Isidore of Seville (560-636 A.D.), who’s Etymologiae constituted the main source material for bestiaries authored between the 10-13th Centuries A.D., “He is a small animal, like a kid, but surprisingly fierce for his size, with one very sharp horn on his head, and no hunter is able to catch him by force. Yet there is a trick by which he is taken. Men lead a virgin to the place where he most resorts and leave her there alone. As soon as he sees this virgin he runs and lays his head in her lap. She fondles him and he falls asleep. The hunters then approach and capture him and lead him to the palace of the king” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XII.2.13).  The allegorical interpretation of this, with heavy emphasis on the Christianized aspects awaited slightly later bestiaries.  Interestingly, a frequently reproduced and curious characterization of unicorns is that they are the mortal enemies of elephants, using their sharp horns to pierce the elephant’s belly.  This alone should make us suspicious.  I mean, who hates an elephant, the wise and gentle giants of the animal kingdom?  It takes a fairly mean spirited equine to think it is great fun to disembowel a pachyderm.  Somewhere around the 12th Century A.D., the unicorn got one heck of a public relations boost, exemplified by the sermons of popular 12th Century Christian theologian Honorius of Autun (1084-1154 A.D.), or Honorius Augustodunensis when he wanted to sound formal, in particular one that discussed the relationship between virgins and unicorns, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and how they all tied together into one blissful symbol of purity and sacrifice.  The heretofore aggressive and unpleasant unicorn essentially got a saintly kick in the pants.  This is explained in Honorius’ Speculum de Mysterius Ecclesiae.

Honorius saw in the unicorn a symbol of the Incarnation.  The unicorn he says, briefly summarizing the Bestiaries, is a beast so savage that it can only be caught by the help of a young maiden.  When he sees her the creature comes and lies down in her lap and yields to capture. The unicorn is Christ and the horn in the midst of its forehead is a symbol of the invincible might of the Son of God He took refuge with a Virgin and was taken by the huntsmen, that is to say He took on human form in the womb of Mary and surrendered willingly to those who sought him (Mâle, 1913, p40).

Things kind of took off for the unicorn from then on.   We’re talking about inclusion in the romantic literature of the late Middle Ages, countless tapestries depicting beautiful virgins coddling serene little unicorns pleasantly asleep in their lap, and a thousand versions of cuddly stuffed animals and Maxfield Parish paintings.  From a grouchy quadruped lurking in the Indian subcontinent, fighting a vicious gang war against elephants to a body double for Jesus Christ.  Not too shabby.  As late as the 13th Century, there were a few well-travelled folks like Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324 A.D.) who harbored suspicions that the unicorn’s theological makeover hid a nastier reality, commenting, “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.”  Since theological speculation still trumped travel writing on the bestseller lists at the time, the reborn image of the unicorn persisted, and has endured into the modern era.  This undoubtedly has inspired a certain arrogance among unicorns, exemplified in the Ukranian folktale that notes, “All the beasts obeyed Noah when he admitted them into the ark. All but the Unicorn. Confident of his own abilities, he boasted ‘I shall swim’”.  Cheeky bastards.  There are no doubt those of you still doubting the existence of the unicorn (whether he is a nasty brute or a spirited and magical animal that’s fond of lovely ladies), but as Pablo Picasso observed, “God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things.”  And if you want to get the real dirt on unicorns, just ask an elephant.

Aristotle. Aristotle: On the Parts of Animals. London: K. Paul, French & co., 1882.
Isidore of Seville.  Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies: Complete English Translation. Trans. Priscilla Throop.  MedievalMS: Charlotte, Vermont, 2005.
Mâle, Emile. Religious art in France, XIII century: A Study in Mediaeval Iconography and its Sources of Inspiration.  J.M. Dent and Sons, 1913.
Nicholas, Andrew.  The Complete Fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus.  Dissertation, University of Florida, 2008).
Pliny, the Elder. Natural History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938.
Strabo. The Geography of Strabo: With an English Translation by Horace Leonard Jones. Based In Part Upon the Unfinished Version of John Robert Sitlington Sterrett. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1917.