Unicorns have many meanings in different contexts and their meanings have changed somewhat over time but the key elements of the symbolism of unicorns remains pretty constant through history. By considering those elements that have remained the same and looking at the more recent attributes which have been ascribed to the unicorn we can catch a glimpse of the true nature of the unicorn and what it symbolises.
Innocence and Purity
Unicorns are associated with innocence and being pure of heart. It is often said that only someone who is pure of heart can see a unicorn. Traditionally represented as a fierce beast who could not be defeated in battle it was said that a unicorn in full rage could be rendered harmless by meeting with a virgin. Legend states that the unicorn would fall at the feet of a virgin and become as docile as a lamb in her presence. There are many depictions in Medieval art and earlier art forms stretching back to Roman times which testify to this deep connection between the virgin and the unicorn although whether this is a test of the innocence of the maiden or the credentials of the unicorn remains unclear.
In recent times the prerequisite of virginity has been somewhat down-played and it is believed that anyone who is pure of heart can meet a unicorn. Children are naturally pure of heart and so unicorns have become associated with childhood or having a child-like sense of wonder for the world. Children also have vivid and pure imaginations so again it becomes natural to associate childhood with unicorns and the realm of the imagination and fairytales.
In the Despicable Me films Agnes, who turns six in the second movie, has a toy unicorn which she takes everywhere with her. The choice of a unicorn toy for Agnes is a genuine reflection of popular culture as unicorn toys are still very high on the best-seller lists. It also reflects our association of children with unicorns. The kids in Despicable Me are sweet and innocent but they also have a very sassy and determined personality. Basically unicorns are pure, innocent and magical, but if you mess with them, they will kick your butt.
Masculinity and Femininity
Originally unicorns were almost always depicted as male. This was due to their reputation for being fearless and undefeatable in battle as well as their complete vulnerability when faced with an innocent maiden. In other words, the big tough guy unicorn would be rendered harmless by meeting a beautiful and chaste female. This very traditional and stereotypical representation of the ideals of masculinity and femininity is generally obsolete now but it was at the core of the concept of chivalry to the Medieval mindset.
Chivalry was a code of conduct which governed the behaviour of Medieval Knights. Chivalry puts a high value on bravery and honour in battle and also requires courtesy, kindness and humility in dealings with women. There are strong parallels therefore between the code of conduct of Medieval Knights and the personality traits, ascribed to unicorns.
At the same time there is a strong association between unicorns and qualities which are viewed as traditionally feminine. At one time it was universally accepted that all unicorns were white, which is the colour associated with female chastity. Unicorns are viewed as mysterious, intuitive and nurturing which are elements traditionally ascribed to femininity. In popular culture these days unicorns are most often depicted as female. This is largely because unicorns have come to symbolise a certain type of woman, one who is playful, open-minded, fun-loving but will take no nonsense. The unicorn woman doesn’t care what people think of her, she has her own style and she retains a childlike wonder for things like rainbows, sunsets and she’s not afraid to laugh at herself. Most of all she has self-belief in the face of adversity and even ridicule so the unicorn has come to symbolise female-empowerment.
Magic and Enchantment
The unicorn is a symbol of magic, enchantment and wonder. Unicorns only appear to very few people and this underlines their special nature and their magical abilities. Universally in different cultures the unicorn is regarded as a creature of wonder and miraculous powers. They grant their gifts only to the truly deserving who are of course also the pure in heart.
Across all cultures where they appear, unicorns are always a positive symbol which is why they have come to symbolise self-belief. There are no negative depictions of unicorns apart from one exception, the Unicorn in Alice in Wonderland who is frankly a bit of an idiot. Like many of Lewis Carroll’s characters the Unicorn is the opposite of what you would expect him to be. In the story, the Lion and the Unicorn are fighting over the crown of the White King, which is pretty silly of the Unicorn as he is on the White King’s side! It is from this book however that we get one of the most famous unicorn quotes. The Unicorn has never seen a human, he thinks they are a myth and he believes Alice is a monster. Alice responds by telling the Unicorn she had always thought unicorns were fabulous monsters too.
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?”
This message of self-belief is reflected in many popular unicorn memes and repeated on wall plagues, T-shirts, mugs and other artefacts popular with unicorn fans. Because most people don’t believe unicorns are real, unicorns have to believe in themselves to survive. This is how the unicorn has become a symbol of self-belief and in particular female self-empowerment. The unicorn has in recent years become associated with the LGBTQ community for the same kinds of reasons.
Symbolic Meanings in Heraldry
The unicorn is a popular symbol in heraldry and can be found on the coats of arms of countries, towns and cities in various locations across the globe and especially in European cultures. A coat of arms is a design in the form of a shield which symbolises a group of people and how they wish to represent themselves to outsiders. The unicorn is the national animal of Scotland and appears on the coat of arms of the UK alongside the Lion, which is the symbol of England so together they represent the unification of Scotland and England.
What is a Unicorn Company?
In financial circles these days people sometimes refer to certain companies as unicorns. A unicorn company is a privately held start-up business with a value of over $1 billion. In other words it is a very rare thing, so rare in fact that it almost doesn’t exist which is why the term was coined as a way of emphasising how statistically low it is for a business to achieve this status. Although more and more companies now are fulfilling the requirement to be regarded as a unicorn, the term is still used to mean a highly desirable and profitable business idea.
The Symbolism of the Unicorn – a Summary
The unicorn symbolises purity, rarity, beauty, magic and power. It is a thing which may or may not exist but which people are driven to strive for. This may be in terms of striving for the business which is going to propel you to unbelievable heights financially, or finding the perfect partner or spouse who will be a soul mate like no other. The unicorn symbolises the desire for something better and totally unique whether that is for yourself or for someone else. More than anything the unicorn symbolises our most heart-felt and purest desires and a deep sense of self-belief and empowerment.
What does the unicorn mean for you?
Do you agree with our interpretation of the symbolism of the unicorn? Do you know any other meanings which we haven’t included here? Do unicorns inspire you? If so we’d love to hear what unicorns symbolise for you and how they inspire you. Share your thoughts in the comments box below, we’d love to hear from you.