The year is 1206 (or, historians assert, 1224). Genghis Khan has set out with his Mongol hordes, with every intent to invade India (specifically, Hindustan). And yet, poised to strike at the top of Mount Djadanaring, the conqueror is confronted by a astounding event that completely perplexes him, as great as he may be: a beast of unknown origin, a slender horn on its brow, comes before him and bows three times reverently before leaving. Genghis Khan is caught in a quandary; what does this event mean? Truly it must be an event of great significance, for he can think of no other possible reason for an animal to act as it just did to him:

"This middle kingdom of India before us is the place, men say, in which the sublime Buddha and Bodhisatwas and many powerful princes of old time were born. What may it mean that this speechless wild animal bows before me like a man? Is it that the spirit of my father would send me a warning out of heaven?"

After long thought, he is forced to conclude that it was indeed a sign of his father and, instead, completely passes India by.

He is not the only one to be heralded by such a creature; legend has it that Confucius' mother was visited by a ki-lin, who presented her with a jade token heralding the future greatness of her unborn son.


The history of the "unicorn" has been a long, illustrious, and curious one, though nowadays it's more of a fanciful wishing dream to be had by young girls in their "I want a horse" phase. It has been called by many names in different cultures: unicorn, monoceros, re'em, dajja, ki-lin, alicorno... the list is endless, due to the uncertainty of translation and the differing contexts that the unicorn is presented. It would be rather like trying to describe a god, in a sense; everyone has a different interpretation, after all. For the purposes of this writeup and for the sake of clarity, I will stick to "unicorn" when speaking of the Western version, as "ki-lin" for Eastern.

The West

  1. Description

    Descriptions of the unicorn vary. The physician Cteisias of Cnidus, in his Indica, a history of Persia, asserts:

    "There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs. The base of this horn, for some two hands' breath above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. Those who drink out of these horns.... indeed, they are immune even to poisons..."

    Later writers expand upon Cteisias' depiction, some asserting that the horn was a cubit and a half in length (Aelian). In the King James version of the Bible, several references are made to the "unicorn", though this is heavily dependent on the translation. (I must add, however, the NIV version of the Bible replaces "unicorn" with "wild ox", which, I suppose, lends a bit more credulity to the story as well as make it easier to translate such a phrase internationally.)

    Over time, its appearance has changed drastically from this original probably due to Christian influences, Renaissance liberties, and the Millefleur tapestries (also more commonly known as the Unicorn Tapestries), though where the Millefleur tapestries owe their inspiration from, no one knows. Current day interpretations of the unicorn make it out to be a dainty, pure white horse with a white mane (albeit smaller than a horse), a spiraled slender horn reminiscent of the narwhal's horn (its very spirals are suggested to come directly from the narwhal), cloven hooves, and a beard.

  2. Symbolism

    Most people are familiar with the procedure of capturing a unicorn: that is, use a virgin girl and the unicorn will come and lay its head in her lap (a picture depicted very prettily in one of the Millefleur Tapestries, for example).

    Medieval sensibilities were in conflict over this, interpreting the symbolism in two vastly different ways. The interpretation that has survived to this modern age, however, have been prone to allegorize the unicorn as some sort of symbolic interpretation of Christ, with the virgin as the Virgin Mary. The unicorn's characteristics make it especially well-suited for this allegory: the supposed chastity of the unicorn, its uniqueness, its self-sacrifice (in a sense), the properties of its horn, and most especially, its color - white being associated with purity. (How such a color change came about, considering Cteisias' initial interpretation, is clearly a chicken and egg deal; did the color change first to associate readily with interpretations of Christ, or did its connections to Christ cause the color change? Even Shepard passes by this change of appearance with very little examination or conclusion.) Either way, it is a curious interpretation, especially when you consider that the virgin girl who ensnares the unicorn is there explicitly to keep the unicorn unaware of the hunters, who are (presumably) hiding in ambush to slaughter the unicorn. And no matter how you look at it, it's rather hard to put mind to the idea that the Virgin Mary definitively lured Jesus to the slaughter, a Judas goat in her innocence.

    True to medieval sensibilities, yet again, the Christians solved this problem by piling even more symbolism on top of the mess, employing a tortured logic that defies, well, logic. An old German story that tries to solve this knotty problem presents it thusly: A king had two sons, one of whom committed suicide, and the other of whom fell ill. As the king was anxious to cure his only remaining son, he found, through means of inquiry, that only the unicorn's blood may save him. And so he sets out to hunt the unicorn, procuring the most beautiful maiden in the kingdom (as well as six lovely companions) and setting his four dogs and hunters to this task. They succeed in their task, and the son is saved. Now, the writer of this story asserts, if you look at it symbolically, even spiritually, the representations are as follows: the king is God; his dead son is Lucifer; his dying son is Adam; the virgin is the Mary, her companions are personifications of virtues, the hunter is the Holy Ghost (sometimes in the form of the angel Gabriel), and the four swift dogs are, respectively Veritas, Justitia, Pax and Misericordia (respectively, Truth, Justice, Peace, and Mercy).

    Whether or not this solved the problem is another matter entirely, but is really very inconsequential as the medieval ages as a whole can be considered an age of inconsistency, anyhow.

    The other medieval interpretation, however, goes the opposite direction: the unicorn, indeed, is some sort of representation of the Devil, an evil that can only be overcome by good. This interpretation fits especially well when one reads the text of the Physiologus, a bestiary:

    "There is an animal, called dajja, extremely gentle, which the hunters are unable to capture because of its great strength. It has in the middle of its brow a single horn. But observe the ruse by which the huntsman take it. They lead forth a young virgin, pure and chaste, to whom, when the animal sees her, he approaches throwing himself upon her. Then the girl offers him her breasts, and the animal begins to suck the breasts of the maiden and to conduct himself familiarly with her. Then the girl, while sitting quietly, reaches forth her hand and grasps the horn on the animal's brow, and at this point the huntsmen come up and take the beast and go away with him to the king."

    Though the bestiary asserts a need for a virgin, later stories mention that if no virgin was available, any woman would do; indeed, if that was not even possible, Johannes Tzetzes (a Greek grammarian) remarks that a boy would do, as long as he was dressed as a girl and heavily perfumed (which must be some form of bastardization from the original, which asserted that the girl must be naked, and, on top of that, tied to a tree).

    The fact that the unicorn did not seem too picky about the whole girl/boy deal led some to propose that the unicorn was drawn to the virgin because of the smell of innocence (or some semblance of it, bottled up in perfume), or through some sort of "humours" that the unicorn lacked but desired greatly. Later interpretations explained that the unicorn was drawn instead to the sight of such beautiful ladies, beardless and gentle, and would indeed be drawn out more successfully if several naked ladies were cavorting the forest, an explanation especially favoured by the Abbess Hildegarde.

    Either way, the sexual connotations of this Syrian bestiary interpretation were obviously too much for the Christian sensibility, and were promptly buried, much like Perrault's original fairy tales.

  3. Function

    Aside from being an allegory of Jesus or the complete opposite, the capture of the unicorn was important particularly because of its horn, which was said to detect all poisons, and indeed, even purify if need be (the stories vary as wildly as the descriptions). The horn is also noted for destroying particularly dangerous creatures of poison, such as scorpions. The tests involved in determining a true unicorn horn are numerous, and quite bizarre, as the case of David de Pomis' belief:

    "The test is this: place the horn in a vessel of any sort of material you like, and with it three or four live and large scorpions, keeping the vessel covered. If you find four hours later than the scorpions are dead, or almost lifeless, the alicorn is a good one, and there is not money enough in the world to pay for it. Otherwise, it is false."

    Poison was the greatest fear of a politician, as news of the Borgias and the very art itself had exploded into a mythological frenzy, where a skilled poisoner could bypass a taste tester completely and kill through a poison that was diluted sufficiently enough to time death to hours, perhaps even days later. Naturally, enormous sums were paid for the powder of a horn.

  4. Origin and Confusion

    A great many unicorns seem to have come from the court of Prester John (sometimes referenced as Prestor John), a mythological priest and king who apparently held reign over a Christian kingdom (early on, in India; in later times, apparently Ethiopia) in a region full of heathens, specifically Muslim (a myth that I'm sure took root from the Crusades). He was a much remarked phantom, partly because of his apparent connections to the Pope, and partly because his kingdom seemed rather like the ultimate utopia, as he "holds full great land, and hath many full noble cities and good towns in his realm and many great diverse isles and large... (he) hath under him many kings and many isles and many diverse folk... and this land is good and rich... The Emperor Prester John is Christian, and a great part of his country is also." (I must note that Umberto Eco wrote a marvelous story about Prester John in his recent book Baudolino, if anyone wishes to read it.)

    Aside from Prester John's magical horde of unicorns, there were numerous false "sightings", though in many cases, were in fact simply sightings of rhinoceros, which also had a similar "capture" legend affiliated with it (starting with "take two virgins in the wild and captivate the rhino..."; you get the rest). Marco Polo, recently returned from India, was clearly disappointed at the unicorn he saw, writing that it "is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin; in fact, 'tis altogether different from what we fancied."

  5. Other

    Traditionally, the unicorn was ideal for heraldry, especially as it represented, in a nutshell, what an ideal knight was supposed to be: virtuous, meek as a lamb but fierce of nature when roused, and easily overcome by a virtuous woman.

    Its symbolism was used almost as often as the lion; there is a curious notion that sprung up about the lion and the unicorn being mortal enemies (though its origin is unclear), reinforced rather nicely through the British Royal Arms and a small ditty:

    The lion and the unicorn
    Were fighting for the crown;
    The lion chased the unicorn
    All round the town.

The East

  1. Description

    Descriptions of the eastern ki-lin vary almost as wildly as the western variety. As the unicorn was some allegory of Christ, the ki-lin was a true Buddhist, neither harming nor eating any living thing, plant or animal, its tread not even touching a single blade of grass. It is described to be:

    "It has the body of a stag, the hoof of a horse...the tail of an ox, and a single horn twelve feet long springing from the middle of its brow, which has at the end a fleshy growth."

    Odell Shepard

    Other additional details had sprung up: the scales of a fish, the virtue of righteousness, the color white.

    It is said that the ki-lin consists of five sacred colors, to represent its perfection; it is considered one of the four sacred animals of the cardinal directions: Phoenix (South), Dragon (East), Tortoise (North), and the Ki-lin (West) (though in some cases, I've seen the Tiger represented instead for the West). Other depictions color it as one color (green), but give the ki-lin a multilingual trait: it could speak four languages.

    Unlike the western variety, the ki-lin is not meant to be hunted, nor was it sexless. The name, ki-lin, is a compound of the male unicorn's name (ki), and the female's name (lin), much like the way that that the phoenix's name in Chinese is also a compound when referring to the species in general.

  2. Purpose

    It is considered a herald, "to come in the shape of an incomparable man, a revealer of mysteries, supernatural or divine, and a great lover of all mankind. He is expected to come at about the time of a particular constellation in the heavens, on a special mission for their benefit." Confucius is often considered the prime example of such an event, and in the Spring and Autumn Annals, he reports that a ki-lin came and was slaughtered; upon hearing the news, he wept bitterly.

    The first time it is reported is in 2697 B.C., in the palace of Emperor Hoang-ti.

  3. Other

    It is interesting to note that, despite the surface layer details of both the unicorn and the ki-lin, there exists a very similar purpose to both.

The Modern Age

There have been a great many interesting fakes presented to the public. Aside from the narwhal, man-made unicorns have been made with goats and other two-horned animals, primarily by manipulating the horn buds to grow closely together, to emulate the effect of a single horn.

In 1933, Dr. Franklin Dove produced a unicorn cow by transplanting the horn buds to the center of the skull, which then grew into what appeared to be a single horn. He did this to prove that it was possible for horns to grow in the center of a forehead that had a divided frontal lobe, a theory proposed by Baron Georges Leopold Cuvier. (It is interesting to note that the cow used the horns very differently than what it normally would have done had it had two horns; it would simply charge instead of slashing, thereby using its full weight against the target to great effect.)

The most well known "unicorn" to date is probably the goat Lancelot, who was once (still is?) an attraction of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey.

Literary and Artistic References

This is by no means a seminal list; I am merely highlighting those of note that use such creatures for their personal interpretation. If you would like to add something, feel free to message me, but I'd like a bloody good reason why your addition is special.

  • The Lore of the Unicorn, Odel Shepard. A scholar with far too much time on his hands, and who I draw a lot of this information from. Probably the seminal work if you wanted to know anything about the unicorn; webpages abound with information blatantly taken from him without credit.
  • The Millefleur Tapestries (also known as the Unicorn Tapestries), the Cloister Museum. Located in New York City. I've yet to see these, but I've seen pictures of them and they are breathtaking.
  • The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle. This is by far probably the most famous literary work today, especially when paired with the lovely animated work done by Miyazaki and gorgeous soundtrack. Also the first time I ever heard the phrase "do you know the muffin man?" but don't mind me...
  • Swiftly Tilting Planet, Madeleine L'Engle. Mostly centered on Charles Murray. Though not my favorite of the quartet, still a very beautiful work.
  • Wandering Unicorn, Manuel Mujica Lainez. Ok, I noded this one, but I still think it's lovely work and it did get shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award.

The ever-present sources:
  • Mandeville, Sir John. On Prester John ( some interesting text about Prester John.
  • Shepard, Odell. The Lore of the Unicorn, Crown Publishers, 1982. Central Library, you rock. Shepard is probably THE resource for all unicorn lore, though he sticks mostly to historical stuff and is very very very lacking on the eastern kylin/ki-rin/kirin.
  • The Bible, both King James and NIV version. Have no clue how to cite Bibles, don't really have a wish to know, either. I don't know why, but I seem to have 4 different versions of the Bible in my room and I'm not all that particularly religious, either...
  • some modern unicorn, plus information on the transplants.
  • some minor info about the four cardinal gods.