Historically Speaking: The Many Breeds of Unicorn

Ancient India, China and Greece all told stories about one-horned creatures, each with a different kind of magic.

The Wall Street Journal

June 1, 2023

There are around 1,280 active unicorns in the world, with just over 50% located in the United States. These aren’t the four-footed, one-horned kind, but privately held startups valued at least $1 billion. When angel investor Aileen Lee coined the term back in 2013, it seemed apt since such startups were incredibly rare, magically successful and free of worldly taint—just like a unicorn. Ten years on, however, it is clear that modern-day unicorns also represent some of the less appealing aspects of their ancient brethren. Not only are they vulnerable to frauds, they can also be a conduit for irrational feelings.

The mythical unicorn seems to have appeared independently in several Eastern and Western cultures. The earliest known images appear on seals used by the Indus Valley Civilization in India during the 3rd millennium B.C.; the animal depicted may be a now-extinct type of auroch, but the shape is unmistakably unicorn-ish, with an elongated body and a slender arching neck. Scholars identify the single horn as a symbol of pure, concentrated sexual virility, probably in reference to an ancient Indo-European deity known as the “master of the animals.”

The unicorn found in ancient Chinese myths, the qilin, was different. It was a multicolored, fantastical creature whose appearance heralded good news, such as the birth of an emperor. Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks were convinced by travelers’ reports of oryxes and the occasional Indian rhinoceros that the unicorn was a real creature. In the 1st century A.D., Pliny the Elder described the unicorn as “the fiercest animal” alive.

Thomas Fuchs

Greek and Latin translators of the Hebrew Bible rendered the word re’em, “horned animal,” as unicornis. Its presence in the Bible remained problematic for Christians until the theologian Tertullian, in the 3rd century, declared that its horn symbolized the beam of the holy cross. Character-wise, the Western unicorn was depicted as benevolent, like its Chinese counterpart, but also powerful like the Eurasian iteration. As in Indian tradition, unicorns were believed to have magic inside their (phallic) horns, though they were powerless against virgins. It is not hard to discern the psychosexual drama in “The Hunt of the Unicorn,” a series of tapestries made in the Netherlands around 1500, which tell the allegorical tale of a unicorn lured into a deadly trap by a beautiful virgin.

The widespread European belief that unicorn horns could protect against poison created a lucrative market for fakes, usually narwhal horns. In 1533 Pope Clement VII bought one for 17,000 ducats, roughly $5.3 million today. Once narwhals became better known the market dissipated, as did the belief in unicorns.

Its exposure as a tall tale rescued the unicorn from the clutches of charlatans and misogynists to live freely in the imaginations of 19th century writers and artists like the French symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. In the realm of the unreal, the unicorn accrued far more cultural potency than it had while theoretically alive. Lewis Carroll predicted its ascendancy in “Alice Through the Looking Glass”: “‘Well, now that we have seen each other,’ said the unicorn, ‘if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.’” Quite so.

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