The Unicorn, a usually beneficent creature that has been celebrated and revered since at least the 3rd century B.C., is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the world. The fact that it is familiar to most civilizations in one form or another makes a definitive report of what a unicorn is almost impossible.

There is no simple way to describe a unicorn. There is a great number of physical descriptions, legends and tales, reports of its origins, and attempts to draw a parallel to animals known to exist. Apparently the only point of agreement among all the different versions of the unicorn’s description is that it had one horn. There the agreement ends.

The unicorn is mentioned in several places in the Bible. Some Biblical scholars, basing their studies on the King James Version, believe that the puzzle of how a mythical character earned mention in the Bible is the result of an inaccurate translation of a word. The Hebrew word is re’em, meaning “wild ox.” Various languages interpreted the word to mean a one-horned creature; however, many Jewish translations did not, for fear of being inaccurate. A few clues as to the source of the misinterpretation were unearthed when archaeologists found Mesopotamian stone carvings that showed Assyrian King Assurnasirpal hunting oxen with one horn, along with a caption naming the animal rimu, the equivalent of re’em. The kind of oxen depicted actually had two horns, but the symmetry of the horns was much admired, because from the side only one horn was visible. This may be the origin of the erroneous translation that gave rise to the term unicorn.

The unicorn was represented in the context of virtue and purity; it could detect virginity and would lay its head in the lap of a virgin and sleep. If it discerned a pretender, it would tear her apart with its horn. Many Christians believed the unicorn was a symbol that honored the Virgin Mary.1

The unicorn has long been an important element of both Chinese and Japanese cultures. The Chinese customarily portrayed the unicorn as a creature with the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, the hooves of a horse, and a single horn growing out of its forehead. The five colors of hair on its back represent the five sacred Chinese colors of red, yellow, blue, white, and black. The Chinese unicorn — the Kilin — has yellow belly hair and sometimes green dragon-like scales, and is claimed to have a life span of 1,000 years. The Kilin is revered as one of the four superior animals of good omen, along with the phoenix, the dragon, and the tortoise. According to Chinese mythology, the fact that the unicorn has not been seen in many centuries is a bad omen, but it will reappear when goodness reigns once again.

In Japan, the unicorn is known as the Kirin, with the body of a bull and a shaggy mane. However, the Kirin was feared, especially by lawbreakers, because it was able to detect guilt. In fact, the judges would consult with the unicorn to determine the guilty parties in legal disputes. Legend has it that after it identified the guilty party, it would pierce him through the heart with its horn.

In Arabia, the unicorn was known as Karkadann, a creature with magical powers. Its horn was a good-luck charm against the scorpion, and those who ate its meat were rid of demons. Experts now believe that the Karkadann was actually an Oryx, a large antelope that appears to have only one horn when seen in profile.

The writings of Greek historian and physician Ctesias included fantastic stories from India about a creature he referred to as “wild ass of India,” described as the size of a horse, with a white body, red head, blue eyes, and a magical horn on its forehead that could ward off evil and neutralize poisons. Ctesias also described the unicorn as being extraordinarily fast, wild, and almost impossible to capture.

Shortly after Ctesias’ stories became known, Greek philosopher Aristotle concluded that the unicorn was probably a real animal but without magical powers. Pliny the Elder, a Greek historian, also believed that the unicorn was a real animal found in India, a ferocious beast with the body of a horse, the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a wild boar, and a single black horn on its forehead.2

The unicorn has also been described as having a beard and a lion’s tail; and as a white horse with a spiral-shaped horn.3

Intact unicorn horns were very rare and much prized for their remarkable powers. In fact, Queen Elizabeth I of England purchased one for 10,000 pounds — enough money at the time to buy a large country estate with a castle. Kings would place one on their tables to protect themselves against poisoned food and drink Rather than coming from unicorns, these complete horns often turned out to be the long spirally twisted tusks of the male narwhal, a white whale similar to a dolphin or porpoise. But they weren’t considered fake; some believed that the narwhal was the aquatic equivalent of the unicorn.

The mysterious unicorn is considered to be in the big leagues with dinosaurs, mammoths, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster. Some believe the Unicorn still exists in remote regions and can be discovered only by those of exceptional virtue and honesty. 2