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.
Over the centuries, Aelian’s belief that unicorn horns have powers translated into the beings themselves having ‘magical powers’ in popular fiction. Take the Harry Potter novels, for instance. 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.
The unicorn is clearly considered an epitome of strength. It’s probably why the beautiful creature was used as a symbol of power in heraldry. The 16th-century King John of Hungary used the unicorn in his royal arms. Coins from the Indus Valley Civilisation bear the unicorn; archaeologists believe it was associated with men of power and status. Many countries still continue to use arms with unicorns on them. Queen Elizabeth II used the Scottish unicorn in her arms in the 20th century and it’s still used in the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. Towns Schwäbisch Gmünd, Giengen, and Eger of Germany as well continue to use the unicorn in their honorary arms.
Various stories have described the unicorn in various ways. In European folklores, it’s depicted as a white horse-like animal with cloven hooves and, of course, the iconic horn. In the coins from the Indus Valley Civilisation, it resembles an auroch. The Venetian explorer Marco Polo is known to have described a unicorn as having the features of a rhinoceros. The horse, bull and rhinoceros have one thing in common–raw strength. So, it’s no wonder that popular culture–as did ancient natural history, myths, legends, and folklore–depicts the unicorn as an epitome of power.