People often ask me are unicorns real. My answer is yes, of course they are! Probably… Some people believe that perhaps there used to be unicorns but that sadly they have become extinct like so many other rare and beautiful creatures. There are certainly some very ancient depictions of unicorns that suggest that not only did they exist in the past, but they existed all over the world as these representations are found across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. That said, there will always be unbelievers, so here are some unicorn facts to consider and a few real life unicorns that can be more easily found today.
One of the earliest depictions of a unicorn is a seal discovered in Mohenjo Daro in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan. It dates back at least 2,000 years but stories about this creature date back another 700 years in that part of the world.
Around the same time there was a kind of ancient Chinese unicorn called a Qilin which had a yellow belly and a multicoloured back. This may well have evolved over the years into the rainbow coloured unicorns familiar today. The ancient Greeks also wrote about unicorns. Not in their famous myths and stories however but in serious books about natural history. The Greeks had documented these creatures in India describing them as white with a purple head, blue eyes and a red, white and black horn. Again, very colourful, however the rest of their appearance is somewhat similar to the rhinoceros…
The Unicorn Myth
Many people say unicorns are a myth however there are no actual ancient myths, legends or tales about unicorns. People sometimes confuse the unicorn with Pegasus. Pegasus was in fact a winged horse and featured in Greek myth and legend.
The unicorn however doesn’t have wings and Pegasus didn’t have a horn so its unlikely the two are related. All the ancient accounts of unicorns as well as those in the middle ages refer to actual encounters between real people and creatures they identified as being unicorns. Julius Caesar, Ghenghis Khan and Marco Polo all claimed to have encountered unicorns. Marco Polo later agreed that what he had seen was probably a rhino however I don’t think anyone would have dared contradict Ghenghis Khan or Caesar.
The Middle Ages
It is in the Middle Ages when the unicorn really began to look like the classical noble white creature familiar today, This is because it was a time when travel, especially global travel, became more readily available due to advances in ship building and other transport. Those who could afford it began adventuring into foreign lands and returning with stories of all kinds of fabulous creatures such as unicorns, dragons and sea serpents. Wars, conquests and crusades were happening across the globe and people would listen wide-eyed to the stories of those who came back.
In Europe at least people were deeply religious and the qualities of the unicorn became symbollic of those of Christ so unicorns abound in Medieval art. Paintings and tapestries of the time still exist today and the unicorn became a familiar feature and instantly recognisable.
Unicorns were associated with nobility, even royalty, and featured prominently in heraldry. Gifts and artifacts made from actual unicorns were very popular with monarchs across Europe. These include The Horn of Windsor, a unicorn horn presented to Queen Elizabeth the First which she loved so much it is still part of the famous Crown Jewels displayed in the Tower of London today. The horn was brought back from Canada for the Queen by the explorer Captain Frobisher. He had found it mysteriously washed up on a beach so either unicorns like to swim, or there may be another explanation… In the 1660s, King Frederick III of Denmark had a throne made entirely from unicorn horn. The throne still exists and the number of horns used to make such a grand piece could go a long way toward explaining why unicorns are so rarely seen now. If you thought someone was keen to make you into furniture, you would go into hiding too.
So where are the unicorns today? Well, if you need to ask then sadly you may not be pure enough in heart to see a unicorn! Relatives of the unicorn however abound throughout the natural world and the ocean is a great place to start your unicorn hunt. From the tiniest Unicorn Shrimp to the Unicorn fish to the mighty Narwhal there are Unicorns in the seas all over the planet.
Unicorn fish are part of the Surgeonfish family. So named presumably because they use their horns to perform operations on other fish when necessary.
They live in the Indo-Pacific Ocean and grow up to half a metre or so long.
Narwhals on the other hand are unicorn whales.
They prefer the Arctic waters around Norway, Greenland and Canada. Narwhals can grow between 4 and 5.5m long with the males boasting spiral horns that can grow up to 3m in length.
Although these grow in a straight line, they spiral round exactly like a unicorn’s so maybe with all that unicorn hunting in the Middle Ages, wise old unicorns simply took to the sea in a bid to outswim the hunters.
As recently as 2008, a single-horned Roe Deer was born in a wildlife park in Italy and its photos were widely shared across the world’s media. Scientists believe that although this natural phenomena is very rare, there have probably been other deer as well as goats born with the same genetic hiccup.
Sightings of such rare creatures would certainly have added to the unicorn myth through the centuries. Certainly there are many species of deer and goats throughout the world whose horns grow so closely together that from the side they may appear to only have the one.
In the insect world too there are instances of uni-horned beetles and other mini-beasties.
These include the Unicorn Mantis and the Unicorn Beetle also known as the Hercules Beetle. Bug-keeping may not be everyone’s first choice when thinking about getting a pet, but if you really want a unicorn of your very own to cherish, then these little fellas would be easier to house than some of their larger cousins.
Are Unicorns Real?
So, are unicorns real? Only you can decide. As for me, some say I have been riding unicorns for years!