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unicorn, mythological animal resembling a horse or a goat with a single horn on its forehead. The unicorn appeared in early Mesopotamian artworks, and it also was referred to in the ancient myths of India and China. The earliest description in Greek literature of a single-horned (Greek monokerōs, Latin unicornis) animal was by the historian Ctesias (c. 400 BCE), who related that the Indian wild ass was the size of a horse, with a white body, purple head, and blue eyes, and on its forehead was a cubit-long horn coloured red at the pointed tip, black in the middle, and white at the base. Those who drank from its horn were thought to be protected from stomach trouble, epilepsy, and poison. It was very fleet of foot and difficult to capture. The actual animal behind Ctesias’s description was probably the Indian rhinoceros.
Certain poetical passages of the Bible refer to a strong and splendid horned animal called reʾem. This word was translated “unicorn” or “rhinoceros” in many versions of the Bible, but many modern translations prefer “wild ox” (aurochs), which is the correct meaning of the Hebrew reʾem. As a biblical animal, the unicorn was interpreted allegorically in the early Christian church. One of the earliest such interpretations appears in the ancient Greek bestiary known as the Physiologus, which states that the unicorn is a strong, fierce animal that can be caught only if a virgin maiden is placed before it. The unicorn leaps 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 legends tell of the unicorn’s combat with the elephant, whom it finally spears to death with its horn, and of the unicorn’s purifying of poisoned waters with its horn so that other animals may drink.
Cups reputedly made of unicorn horn—but actually made of rhinoceros horn or narwhal tusk—were highly valued by important persons in the Middle Ages as a protection against poisoned drinks. Many fine representations of the hunt of the unicorn survive in medieval art, not only in Europe but also in the Islamic world and in China.
The Unicorn in Captivity, from The Hunt of the Unicorn, French or Flemish millefleur tapestry, late 15th–early 16th century, from the Chateau de Verteuil; in The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., 1937, (37.80.6), www.metmuseum.org
The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle, wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts, South Netherlandish, 1495–1505; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Photograph by KaDeWeGirl. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.5)
Detail of The Unicorn Crosses a Stream, wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts, 1495–1505; at the Met Cloisters, New York City. This is the third of a set of seven tapestries on the popular medieval theme of a unicorn hunt. The set is believed to have been designed in France and woven in what is now Belgium.
Photograph by Katie Chao. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.3)The Editors of Encyclopaedia BritannicaThis article was most recently revised and updated by Patricia Bauer.