A unicorn is a mythical creature that has been mentioned in the texts of different cultures around the world for a long time.
The earliest mentions of this legendary beast date back to antiquity, well before the Middle Ages. For instance, the first recorded evidence of the belief that unicorn existed is from Indus Valley Civilization stamp seals dating back to around 2000 B.C.
The seals depict an animal shaped like a horse or a cow, with a single horn on the forehead. Other cultures depicted the unicorn variously as a goat, cow, or horse-like animal with a single horn.
During the Middle Ages, unicorns figured in several pieces of European art and literature.
During the Middle Ages, Europeans believed that the unicorn was an actual creature living in the woodlands. The identifying feature of this animal was a longhorn on the forehead.
The body of the unicorn was described as that of a goat or a horse. The horn was believed to carry distinct spiraling grooves which lend a unique beauty to it.
In some descriptions, the unicorn also had a beard. Some Europeans took the unicorn legend to be literal. Others believed that the unicorn was an allegory that referred to Christ.
In so doing, several parallels were drawn between the unicorn and the way Christ sacrificed himself.
The famous Italian explorer Marco Polo mentions unicorns when writing about his travels.
The detailed description from Marco Polo actually refers to a rhinoceros, as opposed to a unicorn. However, as the Europeans had not before laid eyes on a rhinoceros, they took the animal to be a unicorn.
Other Europeans of Marco Polo’s age and later periods also mistook the rhinoceros for the legendary unicorn. This was largely due to the size and horn of the rhinoceros.
One of the most interesting stories surrounding the legend of the unicorn in medieval times was about capturing it.
It was believed that it is extremely hard to capture a unicorn. The only way a hunter could capture it was by using a virgin maiden as bait.
The unicorn, otherwise impossible to catch, was believed to come straight to a virgin maiden and lay its head on the maiden’s lap.
Once asleep, a hunter could catch it. Even Leonardo da Vinci in one of his notebooks mentions this precise method for the capture of the unicorn.
The horn of the unicorn had its own unique name in medieval European literature. It was known as an alicorn. Most Europeans believed that the alicorn contained magical properties. This was why it was a highly sought-after object which led many people to sell narwhal tusks and rhinoceros horns as alicorns.
The common belief was that a cup made from the horn of a unicorn could detect poison or even neutralize it. Purported alicorn powder was also sold across Europe as a substance that could heal many ailments. Some of the monarchs actively sought cups that were said to be made from unicorn horns, although these were actually made from ivory.
Like the symbol of the lion, the symbol of the unicorn came to be widely used in European heraldry during the Middle Ages. Specifically, unicorns became a heraldic symbol of Scotland. This adoption of the unicorn as a formal symbol also denoted Scotland’s conflict with England, with English monarchs having adopted the symbol of the lion which was considered an enemy of the unicorn. Following the union of England and Scotland, the symbol of unicorns became a part of the heraldic royal arms of the United Kingdom.