Along with mermaids and dragons, unicorns are among the world’s best-known mythical creatures. From early artistic representations by Albrecht Durer and medieval tapestries to kitschy New Age posters and kids’ T-shirts, unicorns are universally beloved. We all recognize the striking image, but the story behind the magnificent beast is equally enchanting.
The unicorn did not spring fully formed in the popular imagination; instead, it gradually evolved from numerous early sources. First reports of the unicorn date back to the fourth century when Greek physician Ctesias recorded exotic tales he’d heard from travelers: “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 horn, he added, was said to be white, red, and black.
The legends spread, and different cultures spawned various versions of the unicorn. The ki-lin of Chinese lore — which had a 12-foot-long horn on its head and a coat of five sacred colors — was renowned for bringing good luck. Though modern images tend to assume unicorns are horse-sized, the Physiologus (a 12th-century bestiary) described it as “a very small animal, like a kid.” The comparison is to a baby goat instead of a preteen human, but in either event the unicorns described wouldn’t stand much above knee height.
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