What else can be said about the unicorn that has not been told already? The virtues –real or supposed— of these beasts are narrated, represented and proclaim by fables, the arts, heraldry and pharmacopoeiae, not to mention cinematography and television. From the majestic beasts of Ridley Scott's Legend (1985), to the rainbow farting, horn killer from Supernatural (CW, 2005), unicorns are everywhere.
And I think that’s the problem, we have become so familiar with the classic representation of the unicorn –the wild white mare with a long twisted ivory horn on its forehead— that we have forgotten the real origins of this beast, it’s closest relation with the moon and other creatures of the night, its ever-lasting rivalry with the lion and it’s master the sun, and its tendency to be dominated by women and hunted by men… do you see a trend there?
So where and when all this started?
Classical descriptions of the unicorn mostly refer to hunting and often mountains. In high mountainous areas of Europe and the near East (western Asia), the most important pray animal for hunters is typically the goat, ibex or chamois (only in the lowest forested areas deer is a common hunting prey). So, it’s understandable that the oldest depictions of the unicorn usually show an animal with goat like characteristics, typically cunning and well versed in the art of creating mischief (if you have ever seen a goat in action after escaping its corral, you know what I’m talking about).
Early description of unicorns, also mention an owner. Originally, unicorns were not considered wild beast; they usually belonged to someone, and the hunter always got in trouble for not knowing this. Several old tales also mention a master, but more often a mistress, of the beast or beasts (it seems women like their unicorns in blessings, which is the proper noun for a collective of unicorns). This Mistress often had the ability to command the unicorns from far, or to sense and see the thing the animals had witnessed.
In Western Europe, the stories that mention the owner of the magical beast have faded, however, in the Caucasus Mountains such legends are still fresh in the memory of people, and goat-like unicorns are still considered the source of accidents and other nuisances experienced by hunters and people working the fields.
There are a few recorded remnants of goat-like unicorns in Western Europe, all with common characteristic: the Mistress is always a lady of virtue, which could be a reference to the purity of the lady in question or to her status in society, and the beast offer her protection and loyalty.
It was in the Middle Ages when legends including unicorn-like creatures became more common. It was also at that time when the mythological beast left behind her goat-like appearance and like for tomfoolery, took the shape of a horse and decided to implore the moon for protection.
By the 1500’s, unicorns where already inherently associated with the night, the moon, and the feminine side of magic. Legends of hunters using virgins as bait to lure the wild unicorn to her lap so that it can be captured or killed, became a common thing. It was also at this time that the creature itself became imbued with magic. Its horn could cure all sorts of illnesses, even revert death, it was said in the courts of France. Using a unicorn’s skin as cover, a maiden could escape in invisibility, most often before she was forced by a brute into some unmentionable acts. The dust of a unicorn hove mixed with wine was all the protection any traveler could need to reach her destination safe and without problem.
The popularity of the unicorn also seems to coincide with the popularization of the accounts of explores and merchants returning to Europe after traveling through Asia. For example, in his The Book of Marvels Marco Polo called the Javan rhinoceros a unicorn because he didn’t know what else to call it. It’s possible then, that the descriptions given by Marco Polo influenced the image of the unicorn, turning the beast from a small animal with some special abilities into a portentous beast with all kinds of magic powers. Very revealing is the fact that the horn of the unicorn became a common ingredient in magic potions, much as the horn of the rhinoceros was a common, a highly sought after, component in traditional Chinese remedies. There are other similarities between the myth of the unicorn and that of the Xi-Rhinoceros, a Chinese mythical beast, since both creatures where often believed to serve as protectors of the recently decease.
In modern fiction the unicorn is often associated the shyness and virginity. Their horns have the power of healing. In fact, more generally, the very presence of the unicorn itself can in some mystical way, heal the land, a notion present in modern fantasy novels that featured this beast. Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1987), while a satire, retains the notion that a unicorn's presence keeps the land and those who inhabit it unsullied by time or corruption. The film adaptation of this work is a well-loved piece of animation.
-Hunt, D., 2003. The Association of the Lady and the Unicorn, and the Hunting Mythology of the Caucasus. Folklore, pp.75-90.
-Caillois, R. and Walker, R.S. 1982. The Myth of the Unicorn. Diogenes, 30(119), pp.1-23.