Unicorns. The fairy princess’s first choice of true friend and trusty steed, faultlessly flaunting braided hair and exuding rainbows.
How did it become so pink-and-purplified? And where did the idea for a horse with a single horn sticking out of its head come from? And why did people think its horns had healing powers? In today’s blog post, I answer all these questions and more!
How many animals do you know of that only have one horn? The rhino (some species, anyway) and the narwhal. And this little one-horned chameleon, if you want to count him. He’s pretty cute, so we will.
Anyone else? No? That’s because most animals are a bit more symmetrical with their horns and antlers.
So how did the unicorn end up with only one?
Let’s take a look at what similar creatures, both living and extinct, may have inspired the idea of the unicorn, assuming it's only a made-up animal. What do these animals have to tell us?
Once again, we look to ancient Greece for the origins of this creature’s story. This is another animal, like the griffin, who did not make appearances in mythological stories so much as it was mentioned in real-life accounts.
They are described by the Greek historian Ctesias as having the body of a horse and a horn about a cubit long. He says that the horn is white at the base, black in the middle, and flaming red on the end.
Pliny the elder says that it has the body of a horse (if a bit bigger), the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant and the tail of a boar. According to him, the horn reaches lengths of three feet and was mostly black. Many other Greek historians describe the creature similarly.
Other than the colors of the horn, these descriptions make me think rhino. They have feet similar to elephants—ish—and some species have tails that curl over like a pig’s. While there are some species of rhino that have two horns, others only have one. And they can reach lengths of three feet.
To people of our time who’ve grown up seeing animals from all over the world, a rhino doesn't really look like a horse. But if you hadn’t had access to pictures of all kinds of animals and were mostly limited to horses, elephants and boars, you might decide that a rhino does most closely resemble a horse.
Where this doesn’t fit is the part about the head of the stag (male deer).
Another theory about what animal they could have been describing is the Arabian oryx. This creature has two horns, but if viewed from the perfect lateral angle, they appear to be one. This creature does have a deer-like head, but it’s tail more closely resembles that of a horse than a boar. And it has hooved feet, very un-elephant-like.
My biggest problem with this theory is that it only works if the oryx is never seen from any angle except perfectly sideways.
There's just no way that people were only seeing it from one angle, with the horns always perfectly lined up. Unless a whole group of people were just looking at some artwork done by someone else who had drawn them all from a side angle.
And this little guy? He was never in the running, of course. He’s just cute.
The Greeks also said that it is a fierce animal impossible to take alive. This definitely would fit the rhino. They are very dangerous, and will invariably charge if taken by surprise, especially a mother with her calf. Can you imagine trying to wrangle a thirteen-foot-long 4-ton animal with a three-foot horn swinging at you? I’m sure the oryx would give you a run for your money too, but sounds like the rhino would be much more intimidating.
But neither of these animals completely fits the description.
So if it wasn’t either of them, what might it have been? What creatures do we have fossil evidence of?
Meet Elasmotherium, a giant rhinoceros-like prehistoric beast also known as the Siberian Unicorn. This guy was three meters tall! Nine feet! Scientists speculate that his horn was also about three feet long at the most.
But the kicker about Elasmotherium is that his horn has never actually been found. He’s got a huge hole in his rostrum (nose) where a horn could conceivably have fit, but apparently rhino horns just don’t fossilize.
Why is this? Most horns are made of bone covered in a layer of keratin, which is why they fossilize—because of the bone. But a rhino horn is just keratin. Which means that like hair, it doesn’t fossilize well.
Interestingly though, their horns can be preserved in ice, and a baby wooly rhino, which is similar to the Elasmotherium though it has two horns, was recently found in the permafrost of Siberia. Its horns were very tiny, as it was only a baby, but they were both definitely there.
Still though, these prehistoric rhinos were significantly bigger than a horse and also lack the deer-like head.
Besides this, there is very little fossil evidence of unicorn-like animals.
But wait! Look at this!
Just kidding. Unfortunately, this is not an exciting fossil of a possible unicorn. This is the skull of a roe deer recently shot by a hunter in Slovenia. This deer had a rare antler deformity that caused it to only have one horn. Scientists believe that it was likely caused by a head injury when it was very young.
Was the unicorn probably based on something like rhino or an oryx, or another animal with some kind of deformity? While these theories have their merits, there are still a lot of holes in them. Maybe there really was something more unicorn-ish out there that we just haven’t managed to find yet.
So how did they become so girlified?
Unicorns are usually associated with innocence and purity, qualities that are usually associated more with women than men, especially young women. There are bits of stories about how the only way a unicorn can be caught is by a pure, virgin girl. Could those stories be true?
Over time, due to these associations, the creature gradually became pastel and sparkly until it reached favorite animals status with all the princesses. And here we are now.
But what about those healing powers?
In ancient times, “unicorn horns” were believed to be incredibly valuable medicinally. If you drank from a cup made of one, or if you sprinkled powder from a ground-up horn into a drink, the liquid would bubble if there was any poison present, preventing people from getting poisoned. It was also believed that if you ingested the powder from grinding up the horn, it could cure fever.
Because of this ancient belief, scientists did an experiment to see if any of it was true. And interestingly, it was found that ground rhino horn could slightly lower fever in rats. But they were using significantly higher concentrations of ground horn than people did in ancient times. So what made them keep thinking that it was helping?
Could the horns have been more useful for lowering fever in ancient times?
What about wolf saliva? Have you ever heard about how wolves used to be able to heal wounds by licking them? Presumably, that is why dogs still lick their wounds today. And scientists have found that dog saliva does have some bactericidal elements. The theory is that wolves used to have an even stronger healing ability with their saliva, but it has been lost through the generations of wolves still alive today, and lost to the point of barely existing at all in domestic dogs.
What if rhino horns really did have healing abilities once, but whatever caused the wolves’ abilities to decrease also decreased the rhinos?
And then what if unicorns really did exist and their horns had even greater healing properties? That experiment about the rhino horn extract lowering fever in rats didn't only look at rhinos. They also found that extract from the horns of the Saiga antelope and water buffalo had the same effect. And both rhino horns and narwhal tusks were sold as unicorn horns for great prices. Were actual unicorn horns perhaps included in this?
So what if there was an animal who had one horn that was made of just keratin or some similar non-fossilizing material, that when ground up and dissolved in liquid, really did have healing properties?
Since none of our candidates for possible unicorn inspiration completely fit the bill, maybe there really were unicorns out there that we just have yet to find.
What do you think? Have I missed an interesting fact or theory about unicorns? Tell me about it in the comments!
In Recent Media
There are so many unicorns in recent media that I couldn’t begin to describe them all. So we’ll settle with an interesting fact about the circus in the 80’s. That's recent-ish right?
In the 1980’s, the Ringling brothers had a few “unicorns” in their show. Turns out an ambitious cryptozoology nerd named Oberon Zell found a way to surgically join the two horn stumps in a week-old baby goat, resulting in a single horn emerging from the forehead as the animal matured.
The Circus made a deal with Zell to take his four best animals on tour for four years, and the stipulation was that he was not allowed to talk about how he did it. But because of all the fuss about possible cruelty to animals in the situation, the Ringling brothers opted to only take advantage of two of the four years of the contract.
There is a ton of creative material here, and while lots of it has been used before, things could always be done in a new way. A paleontologist could discover a horse-ish skeleton with a hole in its forehead like Elasmotherium. Maybe he has a young daughter who’s chronically ill, but loves unicorns, and despite all the resistance from the paleontologist community, he victoriously finds a way to prove that the skeleton is the first ever discovered unicorn skeleton.
Maybe in a fantasy novel, there could be a team of people looking for actual unicorn horns among the narwhal and rhino horns, either to take them for their magical properties or to punish whoever dared kill a noble unicorn in order to get it.
Do you have a fantastic unicorn story idea? Please share in the comments!