In the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry finds a hooded figure drinking silvery blood from a wounded, white unicorn in the Forbidden Forest. Just as the figure approaches Harry, he is saved by Firenze, the centaur who chases it away. When a terrified Harry asks him why anyone would want to drink unicorn blood, Firenze tells him, “The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death.”
It’s not just popular culture that features unicorns in its stories. The fascinating mythical creature has long been a part of myths, legends, and fairy tales. Physiologus, a didactic Christian text, contains an allegorical unicorn that is tamed by a maiden; a reference to Jesus and Mother Mary. In the King James version of the Bible, the unicorn is often used as a metaphor for strength, a powerful beast that couldn’t be tamed. However, linguists clarify that this could simply have been a mistranslation for ‘re’em’, an animal mentioned in the original Hebrew Bible. Re’ems are believed to be the same as aurochs, the extinct ancestors of the modern-day bulls.
Today, we believe the unicorn is mythical, the stuff of legends and lores. But this fascinating creature was believed to be a real, terrestrial animal for centuries. In his book Indika (On India), the 5th century BC Greek historian Ctesias is known to have described the unicorn as a fascinating wild ass that lives in India, which is white, red or black in colour, and has a 28-inch horn between its eyes. Another 2nd century AD Greek scholar, Aelian wrote in his book De Natura Animalium (On the Characteristics of Animals), a Grecian record of natural history, that unicorns are found on the lands of India, and that their horns are used as drinking cups by noble men to keep illnesses at bay. It’s rather strange that ancient Greeks mentioned the animal, not in Greek mythology but in natural history.
Unicorns have very special uses in the story: unicorn blood, when drunk at regular intervals, keeps death at bay; unicorn hair, when used in wands, makes them the most faithful and reliable; unicorn horn powder makes for antidotes to many common poisons.