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Animals > Unicorns

The Unicorn 1

The idea of the unicorn probably originated in travellers’ tales about the rhinoceros whose horn was highly valued in the east as an aphrodisiac.  Sailors from the north brought narwhal tusks into Western Europe where they were sold as the horns from unicorns for more than the value of their weight in gold.  So-called unicorn horns were displayed in places such as Antwerp, Paris and Venice.  Drinking from a horn cup supposedly prevented death from poisoning, especially from arsenic, and the beast was said to purify water by merely dipping its horn into it.

In early descriptions the unicorn appears as a fierce and ugly creature with the body of a horse, feet like an elephant, the tail of a pig and the head of a stag, but in the 15th and 16th centuries it metamorphosed into a pure-white, elegant and alluring fabulous beast.

The unicorn was, therefore, eagerly sought but proved difficult to capture.  It was, supposedly, only attracted to a creature as pure and chaste as itself, and scenting a virgin alone in the woods it would place its head in her lap, fall into a trance and allow itself to be killed by hunters.

This story became the allegory of the Holy Hunt, the unicorn representing Christ who was slain for the sake of the sinful world.

The natural enemy of the unicorn was the lion; whenever a lion saw a unicorn it would flee towards a tree, so that the charging unicorn would get its horn stuck fast into the tree and the lion could then overpower it.

On this carving the opposing forces of the lion and the unicorn are each holding a separate shield.

The Sea Unicorn 2

The real source of unicorn horns found in Western Europe was the narwhal, images of which appeared in bestiaries and on early maps, inspired by the sitings of sailors.  Unicorns and narwhals are uncommon on woodcarvings, though they appear famously in tapestries and in painting.