The history of the unicorn has its roots in heraldry and the British Crown and is said to symbolise virginity.
The unicorn is a mythical animal that has changed in appearance over the many thousands of years of it first being recorded.
It first was described as kid or small goat and then the popular description of the white horse with a one long spiralled horn jutting out from its forehead. It is believed to have lived in India.
The earliest description in Greek literature of a single-horned animal was by the historian Ctesias (c.400 BC), who related that the Indian wild ass was the size of o horse with a white body, purple head and blue eyes. The actual animal thought to be behind Ctesias’ description was the Indian rhinoceros.
In the Middle Ages it was thought of as being a strong and fierce animal associated with chastity and virginity (and could only be captured by a virgin) and also with Christ’s love of mankind. The unicorn is said to have leaped into the virgin’s lap, and she suckles it and leads it to the king’s palace. Medieval writers thus likened the unicorn to Christ, who raised up a horn of salvation for mankind and dwelt in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Other well-known legends tell of the unicorn’s combat with the elephant, which it spears to death with its horn.
It’s horn was supposed to reveal the presence of poison in food or drink. The horn was reputedly made into cups but were actually made from the rhinoceros horn were highly valued by important people in the Middle Ages as a protection against poison drinks.
The unicorn features greatly in heraldry in the arms of Scotland and was also combined in the arms of the British Crown after the accession of James I.
In Greek and roman myths the unicorn had hind legs like an antelope, and a tail like that of a lion. The body was white, the head red and the eyes bright blue. The horn had a white base, a black middle and a long red tip.
The creature is of course mythical, zoologists believe that the idea of the unicorn arose when someone saw an oryx far away. The big desert animal sometimes seems to have one long horn in its forehead instead of two.
Even in literature the unicorn is ever present. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through The Looking Glass:
“’Do you know, I always thought unicorns were fabulous monsters, too? I never saw one alive before!’ ‘Well, if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you’”