What is a Unicorn?
The unicorn is a legendary creature like a horse, but with a slender, usually spiral, horn growing out of its forehead. The popular image of the unicorn is that of a white horse differing only in the horn.
In medieval lore, the spiraled horn of the unicorns was called the alicorn, and was thought to neutralize poisons. In popular mythology, unicorns were hunted for their horns, which were said to protect one against diseases, or, if made into a cup, would protect on eform any poison that might have been added to one's drink. This belief is derived from Ctesias' reports on the unicorn in India, where it was used by the rulers of that place for anti-toxin purposes so as to avoid assassination.
People sold what they purported to be unicorn horns at this time, but were actually selling narwall horns (narwalls are whales with large, horn-like tusks that swim in cold water.)
Traditionally, the unicorn had a billy-goat beard, a lion's tail, and choven hoofs. Ironically, this perception was more realistic, as only cloven-hoofed animals have horns. Unicorns were once thought of as nasty, easily provoked creatures, unlike the gentle perception we have of them today. They were thought to have deep, bellowing voices. As Ctesias, the ancient Greek physician, said:
"The unicorn was native to India, the size of a donkey, with a burgundy head and white body; it had blue eyes, a single horn that was bright red at the top, black in the middle, and white at the bottom; the horn was also eighteen inches long."
Julis Ceasar also described the unicorn, saying, "It had a deer's head, elephant's feet, a three-foot long horn, and a boar's tail." It was not until the middle ages that the unicorn began to take on its present form. Today when you hear about unicorns in books, movies, or mythology classes at military friendly colleges the image you picture is less frightening.
A widespread legend is that, when Noah gathered two of every kind of animal, he neglected to gather the unicorns, which is why they do not exist today.
The quilin, a creature in Chinese myth, is sometimes called "the Chinese unicorn," but is not directly related to the Western unicorn. The quilin has the body of a deer, the lead of a lion, green scales and a long froth-covered horn. In Japanese, the word kirin (written with the same Chinese ideograms) is used to designate both the giraffe and the mythical creature. Although the Japanese kirin is based on Chinese myth, it more closely resembles the Western Unicorn than does the Chinese quilin.