Unicorns are magical creatures that have long been the subjects of human fascination. Throughout history, they have been symbols of truth, purity, grace, innocence, feminine power, and even Christ himself.
Many famous historical figures believed in unicorns, such as Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Queen Elizabeth I to name a few.
Unicorns appear in various European and Asian legends, myths, and works of art. They are also featured in countless modern fantasy books, movies, and TV series. “The Last Unicorn” written by Peter Beagle was a popular novel that has been turned into an animated movie in 1982.
Depending on the culture and era, unicorns come in many different shapes. The traditional European unicorn typically has the head of a goat and a horse’s body, paired with cloven hooves and a lion’s tail. In contrast, the modern version looks no different to a horse, except for the long twisted horn on its head.
Considering that unicorns are mythical creatures, there is quite a lot of information available about them. Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, you’re guaranteed to find some of these facts fascinating!
Here are 21 interesting facts about Unicorns:
1. A Greek called Ctesias was the first to write about unicorns
Although Unicorns are not part of Greek mythology, the first written account of these elusive creatures came from a Greek historian called Ctesias (c. 400 BCE). According to Britannica, Ctesias described the Indian wild ass as a large single-horned animal with a purple head, blue eyes, and pure white body.
The historian’s description also elaborated on the creature’s horn, which was white at the base, black in the middle, and red at the tip. He believed drinking from the horn would protect the person from poison, stomach ache, and epilepsy. He also mentioned that the animal was very flighty and almost impossible to capture.
Today, experts believe that the animal Ctesias described was most probably the Indian rhinoceros.
2. The first drawing of a unicorn was found in the ancient Lascaux Caves
The first known drawing resembling a unicorn decorates the walls of the ancient Lascaux Caves of southwestern France, dating to 15,000 BCE. Found in the Hall of the Bulls, the “unicorn” actually has two front-facing horns that appear as one large horn from profile view, hence the name.
In front of the unicorn are an incomplete bull and a herd of horses. Like other paintings in the Hall of Bulls, the walls are only decorated with animals with no vegetation or landscape surrounding them. (Source: New World Encyclopedia)
Besides Lascaux, early accounts of artwork featuring unicorns were discovered in the remains of Mesopotamian and Indus Valley civilizations. The latter, for example, revealed that people in the Indus Valley used a unicorn emblem to seal clay tablets around the Bronze Age (3300 BCE to 1300 BCE).
3. Unicorns appear on various pieces of medieval art
Having stood the test of time, unicorns have made it onto the fine tapestries and paintings of European, Chinese, and Islamic nations.
A famous example is The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry created by Flemish or French artists around the turn of the 16th century. It was originally hung in the Chateau de Verteuil of western France before it was moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
It is curious how unicorns independently appeared in the medieval art of unrelated cultures located far away from each other. Whether that’s a coincidence or not, everyone should decide for themselves.
4. Unicorns are mentioned several times in the King James Bible
In King James’s version of the Old Testament, certain passages describe a strong and beautiful animal with a single horn called “re’em” in Hebrew. Some versions of the Bible translated the word as “unicorn”, while others preferred the use of “rhinoceros”. However, the most recent translations consider “aurochs” (wild ox) the correct meaning of “re’em”. (Source: Britannica)
Here is a passage talking of a creature some translators believed to be a unicorn:
“But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of a unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” (Psalm 92:10)
5. The national animal of Scotland is a unicorn
Scotland is one of the few countries that has a fantastical being for its national animal. The exact reason for this is uncertain, although there is one possible explanation.
Unicorns have always been notorious for being hard to capture and impossible to tame. Adopting a unicorn in chains as their national emblem might have been a way for Scottish kings to show they are strong enough to tame the untamable. (Source: National Trust for Scotland)
The spirit of the unicorn is deeply ingrained into Scottish heritage. Unicorns have already decorated the coat of arms of Scottish royalty in the 15th century. Around this time, there were gold coins in circulation known as the “half-unicorn” and the “unicorn”.
Prior to 1603, the Scottish royal coat of arms was supported by two majestic white unicorns. However, when King James VI of Scotland also became the king of England following the Union of the Crowns, he swapped one of the unicorns out for a lion representing England.
If you ever find yourself exploring Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, you’ll notice that unicorns are everywhere. They decorate heraldic shields by historic buildings and adorn the interior of the majestic St Giles’ Cathedral.
Further north, you can also visit a replica of the famous “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries at Stirling Castle and admire its unicorns.
6. A unicorn horn is known as an alicorn
Alicorns have always been regarded as a priceless possession and a great blessing to their owners. They were often given as diplomatic gifts to royals or sold for astronomical prices to the wealthy. Other than being extremely rare, alicorns were believed to have healing powers and other magical properties that justified their price.
One of the most widely-known powers of alicorns during the Renaissance was their water-purifying ability. Many royals and members of the aristocracy kept alicorn cups at their tables to protect themselves from poison.
According to folklore, all of a unicorn’s strength is in its horn, which explains why people thought it had magical powers. The idea was first proposed by Cosmas Idicopleustes of Alexandria in the 6th century and stood its ground ever since.
The Jewish also believed in the supernatural power of unicorns. In Jewish mythology, there is a tale about a combat between a unicorn and a full-size elephant. At the end of the fight, the unicorn emerges victorious after causing a mortal wound to the elephant with its horn. (Source: Britannica)
7. Pharmacies sold powdered unicorn horns until the 18th century
Unicorn horn powder was thought to cure many ailments, although few people could afford it. According to 17th century English botanist Nicholas Culpeper, you needed several ingredients to make the healing powder. Other than unicorn horn, these included pearl, ivory, and grains, which only the wealthiest could get hold of at the time. (Source: Every Fact Ever)
Pharmacies in London were selling powdered unicorn horn until 1741. Imagine going into a pharmacy and asking for unicorn horn medication over the counter! Now that would be a bizarre conversation.
In the past, those who owned some kind of unicorn product were always very proud of their possession. These precious items were often placed into display cabinets for visitors and customers to see.
8. Unicorns live in groups of four or five
Most legends describe unicorns as shy creatures that live deep in the forest. A unicorn family or herd usually contains four to five members and is led by the elder unicorn. Elders are the oldest members of the group who can be several hundred years old.
While the elder unicorn is on top of the hierarchy, the youngest members are usually at the bottom. A unicorn’s foal is called a sparkle, and they are born with both male and female reproductive organs. That’s right, these mythical beings actually belong to both genders!
So what do unicorns eat? Well, some legends say they have the same diet as horses and live off grass and hay. Meanwhile, others state that unicorns don’t need to eat as their horn absorbs solar energy, which they can use to survive.
Also Read: 20 Best Unicorn Gifts for Adults
9. Unicorns Are Always Pure White
Traditionally, unicorns have always been pure white with purple or light blue eyes. According to folklore, stumbling upon such a creature in the wild brought good luck and prosperity. Moreover, those who managed to get close enough to touch a white unicorn could look forward to joy and happiness for the rest of their lives.
While pure white unicorns are undoubtedly the most common, some mythologies describe them in various colors. Black unicorns, in particular, have become relatively well-known in today’s society. They not only symbolize strength and power, but also the overcoming of barriers and achievement of a desired goal.
10. Unicorn Horns Were Gifted To Royals And Sold For Hefty Prices
In 1577, English seaman Martin Frobisher returned from his Canadian expedition with a unique gift to Queen Elizabeth I. He presented the Queen with the horn of a dead “sea-unicorn” that he found on the shores of Northern Canada. The Queen was so delighted with this rare gift that she commanded it preserved with the British crown jewels. (Source: History)
Frobisher even claimed the horn had magical powers. Before handing it to Queen Elizabeth I, he placed spiders inside the six-foot horn to test its medical properties. When the spiders died, he pronounced the horn an effective barrier against poison.
Unicorn horns reportedly sold for jaw-dropping prices throughout history. Some sources say these magical items were worth ten times their weight in gold! In 1560, German merchants sold a unicorn horn for 90,000 scudi, which was a tremendous amount of money at the time. (Source: Serious Facts)
Owning magical unicorn horns soon became an obsession of European rulers. For example, Pope Clement VII gifted a splendid horn mounted in solid gold to King Francis I of France in 1533. Philip II of Spain had 12 horns in his possession, while Russian ruler Ivan the Terrible owned a unicorn horn staff. (Source: History)
11. Selling Narwal Horns As Unicorn Horns Began With The Vikings
The disappointing truth about the unicorn horns of history is that they were all narwhal tusks. Also known as the “unicorns of the ocean”, narwhals are medium-size whales that boast an oversized canine tooth we see as a magnificent horn. These horns actually function as sensory organs that are able to detect subtle changes in the animal’s environment.
Narwhals are most common in the Arctic Ocean bordering Russia, Canada, and Greenland. In the past, they were intensively hunted on numerous occasions by traders and people who thought they were the same animals as unicorns.
According to History, Viking traders were the first to realize the value of narwhal tusks. Around 1000 A.D., they came across narwhal tusks washed up on the shores of Greenland and sold them to Europeans. When the unicorn became the symbol of Christ in the early Middle Ages, the demand and price of these fake unicorn horns increased considerably.
Their cost climbed even higher during the Renaissance, when unicorn horns became known as an antidote for poison. By this time, only the wealthiest could afford such extravagant items.
12. Unicorns walk on the earth and do not have wings
In most mythologies, unicorns are depicted as earth-bound creatures that bear a magical horn and no wings. However, flying unicorns do exist in some legends, which describe them as the offspring of a unicorn and a pegasus.
There are various names to describe this mythical species, including alicorn and pegacorn.
13. You can get a Unicorn Hunting License from Lake Superior University
Lake Superior University in Michigan offers a lifetime unicorn hunting license that covers the entire planet. Once you obtain this license, you can hunt unicorns for the rest of your life anywhere in the world!
The university even has some pointers for those planning to capture a unicorn. “When hunting Unicorn, you are advised to take plenty of supplies and something to hunt with,” they say.
Adequate gear and weapons are essential when hunting a unicorn, as they can become quite ferocious when they feel trapped. It’s also nearly impossible to tame a unicorn, just so you know what you’re getting yourself into!
14. Virgins Were Believed To Attract Unicorns
Believe it or not, legend has it that if a virgin sits naked under a tree, a unicorn will shortly appear. Hunters who wished to capture and kill a unicorn even used virgins as bait in an attempt to draw the creature out of the woods.
Unicorns have long been a symbol of purity and innocence, so their association with virgins is not surprising. In the ancient Greek bestiary titled “Physiologus”, unicorns are described as strong and willful animals that can only be captured in the presence of a maiden. According to the bestiary, the unicorn jumps into the maiden’s lap, who suckles it and leads it to the king’s palace (Source: Britannica).
Also Read: 10 Best Unicorn Movies
15. A US patent was granted in 1984 for a surgical procedure to create Unicorns
Bizarre as it sounds, inventor Timothy G. Zell actually acquired a patent to surgically create unicorns in 1984. The document is available on Google Patents, where the inventor describes the background, summary, and details of the procedure.
In the document, Zell speaks of a theory that could explain the origins of the unicorn. One-horned animals might have been developed by herd keepers to protect the herd instead of dogs. A single horn in central position is an effective weapon against predatory species, thus these animals proved to be formidable fighters.
Zell also cites several scientific papers that have attempted to artificially produce unicorns from members of the Bovidae family. These include cloven-hooved ruminants like cattle, sheep, goats, and antelopes.
His own method proposes the transplantation of a horn bud to a central position on the animal’s skull. During the first week after birth, horn buds are only attached to the animal’s skin and don’t have an extensive blood supply. Referring to past work carrying out similar procedures, Zell claims transplantation a viable method of creating unicorns.
The inventor even suggested that such an animal would have higher mental capacity as well as greater physical abilities. We do not know if Zell ever did create a unicorn, although the patent has now expired.
16. Unicorn horn cups were used to test whether a drink contained poison
In the Middle Ages, kings and queens always faced the threat of poisoning by rebels and opposers. As mentioned earlier in this article, unicorn horn cups were used by royalty as protection against poison.
According to Britannica, these cups were most often made by rhino or narwhal tusks and sold for enormous sums by traders.
Queen Elizabeth I, who famously believed in the power of unicorn horns, purchased a great spiral horn for 10,000 pounds. She also drank out of a unicorn horn cup, as she believed if poison touched it, the cup would explode.
On the other hand, her successor King James I was rather skeptical about the healing powers of unicorn horns. He even went as far as to conduct his own experiment after buying a particularly expensive horn.
To see if the horn did protect against toxicity, he gave one of his servants poison, followed by powdered unicorn horn. When the servant died, he concluded the belief is false. (Source: “Unicorns” by Nigel Suckling)
Although his methods were questionable, King James I was among the first to test the efficacy of unicorn horns against poison. As the Enlightenment (1715 – 1789) brought advances in science, people conducted more and more experiments on poison remedies. Soon, the superstitions attached to unicorn horns began to slowly fade away.
17. Denmark’s Royal Throne is made of unicorn horns
In the throne room of Roseborn Castle, Copenhagen, there is a regal chair that is like no other. The Throne of Denmark was constructed in the late 17th century under the reign of Christian V. Guarded by three life-size silver lions, the extravagant wooden chair features an intricate canopy, golden statues, and unicorn horn support structures.
In reality, the chair was of course made of narwhal tusks disguised as unicorn horns. For centuries, the Throne of Denmark had been used for coronation ceremonies and other royal practices.
Although no longer in use, the throne still represents the seat of the Danish monarchy. (Source: Atlas Obscura)
18. Unicorn tears have healing powers
In mythology, unicorn tears are extremely rare and have potent healing powers. It is believed that unicorns only cry a few times in several hundred years when they are overwhelmed by grief.
Although unicorn tears are shed over grief, they can heal both emotional and physical wounds. What’s more, tears and horns are not the only parts of a unicorn that have magical properties. Unicorn blood and hair also possess magical powers, according to some legends.
19. Marco Polo claimed to have seen multiple unicorns on his travels
Famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo firmly believed he saw unicorns on his travels along the Silk Road in the 13th century. However, he was not overly impressed with the creatures and described them as bulky and ugly. Today, most historians suspect what he actually saw was Asian rhinos.
20. Genghis Khan decided not to conquer India after meeting a unicorn there
Arriving at the borders of India, the great Genghis Khan had all the power and resources to invade and conquer the nation. However, according to Persian historian Juzjani, a combination of terrain, climate, and a divine encounter caused the Khan to turn away.
Genghis Khan’s adviser Yelü Chucai mentioned the supernatural encounter in two of his biographies. According to Chucai, the event happened near the Iron Gate Pass in “East India“, which is in modern-day Uzbekistan.
The adviser described the creature as “Shaped like a deer [with] the tail of a horse, green in color and with a single horn.” He also wrote the unicorn could speak human language and told the Khan’s bodyguard “Your lord should return early,” which is exactly what he did. (Source: History Today)
21. The combining of Unicorns and rainbows only started in 2000
In today’s society, unicorns are often depicted riding rainbows or drawing the colorful arcs as they soar though the sky. While you might think this image dates back centuries, the mixing of unicorns and rainbown only started in the early 2000’s because of TV shows like “My Little Pony”.