The Unicorn: An (Un)Natural History

So many unicorns, so little time.

Sure, the unicorn is special, but you have no idea how deep this goes.

And yes, I know that “being special” is practically the unicorn’s defining trait, but I’m not talking about a mythical animal — I’m talking about the myth itself. The story of the unicorn, which has been forged over centuries of oral storytelling and pseudo-religious lore, is a legacy that stands apart from the history of every other cryptid I’ve researched for this blog. Much more so than kraken or bigfoot or zombies, the unicorn embodies an idea that is often too elusive to pinpoint with precision: science and mythology are basically the same thing.

Oh, and also: science and mythology are complete opposites. Like I said, the unicorn is special.

Such a rich mosaic of history.

In taking a broad perspective on the history of this magical, uni-horned beast, we find a perpetual oscillation between pragmatic biology and complete fantasy; and the pendulum swings back and forth between fact and fiction with such fervor that each side becomes even stronger than before. The debates to both prove and disprove the myth of the unicorn have evolved in tandem; they remain in lockstep even today.

It’s awe-inspiring, truly, to see how at dozens of points in history, the unicorn has represented both the real and the unreal, simultaneously. And I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning.

Unlike many other myths, the unicorn seems to have a very defined origin: the volumes of Indica, published around 500 BC by Greek historian Ctesias about his travels through the Persian Empire. The book exposed the Greeks to dozens of significant natural phenomena, like elephants and the Indus River, as well as a few…less-than-verified stories. Sandwiched between his accounts of pygmies and manticores is a brief description of giant, white, wild ass with “a horn on the forehead, which is about a foot and a half in length.”

He also mentions that this magical one-horned animal is inedible “on account of its bitterness.” Glad the Greeks sorted this out ASAP.

These earliest records of the unicorn didn’t regard the animal as myth, but actually a legitimate animal — and why wouldn’t they? After the testimony of Ctesias, and later verification by Pliny the Elder in his volumes of Natural History in 79 AD, there was enough “evidence” floating around in popular culture to deem the creature a true natural phenomenon. Straight from the quill of Pliny himself:

“His Body resembleth a horse, his head a stag, his feet an elephant, his tail a boar; the sound he utters is deep; there is one black horn in the middle of his forehead, projecting two cubits in length. By report, this wild beast cannot possibly be caught alive.”
This wood-etching is from 1658, but it sticks to the Greek description better than most.

Our modern interpretation looks a bit more elegant. And if you’re convinced that Pliny is just describing a rhinoceros, it’s not that easy: he goes on to describe the rhino as a different animal later in the text.

Still, many researchers do claim that rhinos contributed heavily to the early history, alongside an extinct species of ox known as the auroch, but no comparison is perfect. Most likely these early stories were spawned from confusion and exaggeration, and the unicorn wasn’t alone in this camp; ancient greeks considered other animals like sphinxes, pegasi, and basilisks to be factual as well. And compared to tales of real animals like the giraffe — which is just as crazy if you think about it — there wasn’t any reason to cast doubt. Evidence consisted of oral history and artistic renditions, unless the animal could be caught and transported back to…well, wherever the scientists lived at the time.

But of course, by definition the unicorn can’t be caught. The argument is fool-proof.

When looking back at this era, much of what we consider “science” and “fantasy” were still ill-defined, and in many cases, they were one-in-the-same. Think back to my research into the Kraken: the very name of a mythical animal can help collect observations and data. Yes, most of it may be incorrect, but that gets sorted out with time. Tales of the unicorn were no different, although if we’re being specific, at the time the creature was known as the Monoceros. The name unicorn (brilliantly fusing the words for “one” and “horn”) didn’t come until the Middle Ages.

It was around this time that the unicorn mythos began to mature into what we (sort of) know today, bolstered mostly by its role as a symbol of something greater than itself: Jesus.

Throughout this era, stories of unicorns became rich with symbolism for “Christianity, immortality, wisdom, lovers, and marriage,” largely spawning from Pliny’s early (and fleeting) observations that a unicorn was impossible to capture alive. The mysticism became deeply-rooted in religious storytelling, including tales of hunters using a virgin woman as lure, or how the horn itself possessed the power of immortal life.

I’m no art historian, so I’ll just leave this to the experts.

These stories planted the seeds of most unicorn lore (uniclore!) that surrounds us today, culminating in the King James Bible released in 1611 which included nine references to the unicorn, although much like the initial texts from Ctesius and Pliny, many scholars blame this on mistranslation. Still, during this window, we see the “science” of unicorn observations taking an obvious backseat to the stampede of religious imagery. The unicorn became more of a symbol than anything real; it was more important what the animal represented, rather than what it really was.

This became the status quo until exactly 1648.

When I first began researching unicorn history, my initial stop was the handy Google Ngram tool to see how the lexicon evolved up through to present day. Clearly in the late 1640s, something big went down.

This spike represents the release of Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, also known as “Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and commonly Presumed Truths,” and boy is it a doozy. In this series of encyclopedias, Browne took aim at hundreds of myths and fallacies that plagued Europe at the time — and the unicorn carved out a healthy portion. Browne’s crowning argument tackled the horn itself, claiming that the length and angle of the horn would make it impossible for the unicorn to graze.

His biggest beef seemed to be the horn’s magical healing properties, which as a practicing physician, he had a personal stake in disproving. At the time, the horn was sold for a high-price to royalty, but Browne wasn’t the only scientist to claim that this “magical” material actually belonged to the narwhal.

As I mentioned at the top of this article, now we start to see the “pendulum” swinging back and forth between science and fantasy. 1648 marks the first large-scale effort to disprove the unicorn and say, basically, “Yo guys we’ve never actually seen this thing. Maybe we’re being bamboozled.”

Those being bamboozled didn’t take this lightly.

A single rant against the unicorn wasn’t enough to dissuade a societal hunger for magic and symbolism. In 1663, German soldiers “discovered” a unicorn skeleton and soon made the relic a public spectacle. Powdered unicorn horn, which had previously only been available to the elite, became common in London pharmacies up until about 1741.

In the century that followed Browne’s essays, the public seemed to double down on the unicorn myth — it’s almost as if, at the very notion that the beast could be disproven, there became a cultural fervor to prove the legends to be real. The schism between science and fantasy became palpable, after centuries of existing together in an ill-defined sludge.

If we adjust the scale of our Ngram and look at the lexicon during this era, we can spot the slow transition from “Unicorn” (uppercase, proper, and mythical) to the lowercase “unicorn” that we more commonly use today — and while this shows an opposite trend to what we observed with the Kraken, it represents a similar shift into contemporary language. Mythical symbolism around the unicorn never truly subsided, but on the other side of the spectrum, scientific appreciation for ambiguous “unicorn” terminology began to grow.

Research of the natural world exploded in the 1800s, and with a broader understanding of the scope and complexity of nature, the “unicorn” became a descriptor for actual, discoverable zoology. As one example, while the narwhal was known to science prior to this era, it’s presence in museums and artwork became popular in the 1700s under a common moniker: “the unicorn of the sea.”

The oryx is self-conscious that you never heard of it before this article.

Zoos started to pop up as public attractions in the 18th Century, and as the public became skeptical over unicorn truth, science was quick to offer replacements. “You like unicorns? Where here are some real-life examples.” Rhinos, narwhals, and oryx all became well-observed in real life, not just in art and stories.

Well…maybe not the oryx quite as much.

I’m generally not a fan of the goalpost fallacy, but in this case, I appreciate what science achieved. Scientists and naturalists reframed the debate to focus on the “real unicorns” that exist around us, diverting attention away from debate over classical mythology and bringing light to what can, actually, be proven true. On the above Ngram you’ll see a spike in 1933 when the biologist W. Franklin Dove reached the pinnacle of this perspective by engineering his own unicorns by binding together the horns of infant goats and cattle.

Wow this is cruel.

You want unicorns? You’ll get unicorns.

And how does “fantasy” respond when science regains the lead? Fiction, and lots of it.

Prior to the mid-1900s, the unicorn featured relatively infrequently in popular fiction…but that wouldn’t last long. By the ‘60s, the myth would become an anchor of gateway fantasy, bookended by the famous 1962 song by Shel Silverstein that introduced the unicorn’s role in Noah’s Ark (to the best of my knowledge) and the 1968 pop-fantasy novel The Last Unicorn, with the titular character voiced by Mia Farrow in the film adaptation 14 years later. In the 1980s the unicorn became observed as an icon of feminization, and with Disney and Hasbro soon entering the picture, the rest is history.

But this newfound symbolism doesn’t quite herald a return to the “non-science” of the past. You don’t have to look far to tap into the strengthened science narrative, like blog posts about Real Life Unicorns from the BBC, or scientists giddy at the idea of genetically spawning unicorn-like hybrids. And, most peculiarly, fossil evidence of actual extinct unicorns…sort of.

Science has circled 360-degrees, now reframing the narrative so intensely, that we actually take the side of the debate that we once condemned. We’re trying to prove the fantasy to be real.

It’s called the Siberian Unicorn and I think it’s beautiful.

Hence, magnificently, the paradox of the unicorn. The animal is the apex of science-versus-fantasy, while at the same time showing us that in many cases, fantasy and science are one in the same. Myth represents two things: a remnant of outdated fantasy, and a wishful naïveté about the world. Whereas one side exists to be disproven, the other exists to be someday vindicated.

In the end, science doesn’t disprove fantasy — it enhances it. Luckily for the scientists though, this is a two way street. The strongest fuel for mythology is the need to dig in its heels, and the strongest fuel for science is the need to disprove these stupid people. In the end, apparently, everything turns out okay. :)

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