...and on the eighth day God created the horse in perfect image, to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever it darn well pleases, in divine grace.
Horses are featured extensively in legends and myths and perhaps one of the most romantisized is the unicorn, which has many different names, attributes and forms, in many different cultures.
One of the more popular portrayals is the unicorn of modern Western society, the large, elegant white horse with a spiraling horn made of pure gold, which projects from the center of its forehead.
The unicorn of the Orient is shown as a cross between a goat and a horse, with a beard under its chin and sporting cloven hooves. The Chinese unicorn is known as “ Ki-lin,” and the Japanese unicorn is called, “Kirin.” (1)
Both of these words originate in Hebrew, the word being, “re’em,” which roughly translates into, “one horn.”
The Russian version is known as the “indrik,” the subject of folklore, but it has two horns, is the ruler of water, and is king of all the animals.
As legend goes, he lived up on the Saint Mountain and the earth trembled whenever he moved about. (2)
Cresias, a Greek historian, wrote about unicorns, and he thought they originated in India, around 398 BC, and he described them in vivid detail.
He felt it looked similar to the wild ass, but with the large, traditional white body of a horse, a dark, red head, blue eyes and sporting the familiar single horn. (3)
Speculation has it that this description came from the stories of excited travelers, and in probability was based on mixes of Himalayan antelopes, Indian rhinoceros and wild asses.
Dutch tapestries from the 15th Century depict the archetypal unicorn as white with the golden horn, while carved, Chinese wooden statues resemble goats with large, single horns protruding from the forehead.
The unicorn’s horn itself was supposed to have secret properties of healing and resurrection of the dead. The physical appearance tells of them having a sharp, red tip, being white at the base and black in the middle.
The famous medieval tale of the unicorn tells of how the animal dipped its magic horn into a poisoned pond, thus cleansing the water a giving all the animals a safe place to drink.
Perhaps the custom of kings and nobility drinking out of a cup fashioned from a unicorn’s horn began so they could protect themselves from the poison of assassins.
Eastern and Western societies associated different temperaments to the animal. In Eastern cultures, it was thought to be tame and gentle, while in the West it was considered to be wild and unapproachable.
Perhaps you have read the medieval tale of the tragedy of the unicorn.
No man was ever able to get near one of the mythical beasts, however, unicorns found young maidens to be irresistible.
A pure, young maiden would sit down under a tree out in the woods, and the unicorn would be drawn to her perfume.
It would lay down beside her and put its head in her lap, falling asleep.
The cruel maiden would then cut off the unicorn’s horn, the source of all its power, and leave the helpless animal to the hunters and their dogs.
One should question the unicorn’s sense of smell, that it could sniff out the young maiden’s perfume on the breeze, but not sense the approaching dogs and hunters.
The Roman naturalist, Pliny, described the unicorn as a fierce beast that could never be captured alive, with the head of a deer and the body of a horse, sporting a single, black horn in the middle of its forehead, along with the tail of a boar, the feet of an elephant and a loud, bellowing voice. (4)
The unicorn is featured extensively in heraldry and emblems such as tapestries, shields or coats of arms. Some of these tapestries tell sequential stories of capture, containment and escape of the creature.
Some suggestions are that the unicorn itself is based on an Eurasian rhinoceros called “Elasmotherium,” which went extinct with the rest of the megafauna from the glacial age. (5)
The 13th Century traveler, Marco Polo, claimed he saw an actual unicorn in Java, but by his description, it was obvious he was looking at a Javan Rhinoceros. (6)
A Danish zoologist named Olen Worm, established the existence of the “Narwhal fish” in 1638, an Arctic cetacean that had a horn protruding from its forehead. (7)
Interesting lore to ponder as I leave you with the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.”
1-4, “The Encyclopedia of Horses and Ponies,” by Tamsin Pickeral