The Unicorn: On Magical Misunderstandings, Virgins and Jesus Christ

By Julia Fernow (Research Assistant)

A world of glitter and rainbow and a white unicorn with a pink tail leaps in the middle. Where does this creature come from, which has been conquering the playrooms for years, jumping into the water as a pool animal in the summer and captivating children and adults alike – or driving them crazy?

Raphael (1483 – 1520), Dame mit Einhorn (Lady with Unicorn)(Maddalena Strozzi?), Galleria Borghese (Rome), Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte - Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (German Documentation Centre for Art History - image archive photo Marburg) (Rechte vorbehalten - Freier Zugang)

If you look past the world of cotton candy and the contemporary phenomenon, you will quickly notice that the unicorn experienced glorious times even before its current popularity and has been accompanying and fascinating humanity – across continents and cultures – for thousands of years. Using selected objects from Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library), this article traces the unlikely history of the unicorn and collects legends and myths surrounding this peculiar mythical animal. Join us on a journey from antiquity to Greta Thunberg!

Earliest finds and traditions of the unicorn – also a question of perspective

The earliest pictorial evidence of this proud, noble animal, which in the traditions sometimes resembles more a horse or donkey, and other times an ox or deer, can be found in today's northern India. From the Indus culture, which flourished in the 3rd millennium BC, clay seals have been preserved that depict a one-horned, ox-like creature. However, there is no reliable evidence as to its meaning. Because not only is the unicorn itself a mystery, but also the writing on the seals: to this day, no one has succeeded in deciphering the characters of the Indus culture. 

An over 4,000-year-old seal with bull-like unicorn from the Indus culture: seal with unicorn, 2,000 BC, Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Mussen zu Berlin (Museum of Asian Art, Berlin State Museums) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

It may not be a coincidence that the earliest written mention of unicorns that can be read also leads to the Indian subcontinent. In the traditional fragments of the work Indica, a travelogue of the Greek physician Ktesias of Knidos (5th to 4th century BC), the unicorn (ancient Greek μονόκερως monókeros) is mentioned for the first time: A noble animal with a single horn on its forehead, which possesses magic powers and protects against poisoning, which is why Ktesias recommends producing a drinking vessel from the horn. This is how the myth came to be. Ktesias is quoted by subsequent scribes such as Aristotle, Aelian, and Pliny the Elder. Although they all attest only limited credibility to Ctesias and his travelogue of India, they still repeat his statements centuries later and contribute to the spread of the story of a horned animal with healing powers.

Unicorn or bull? On the famous Ishtar Gate there is a one-horned bull. Ishtar Gate of Babylon, ca. 580 BC © Mediathek des Instituts für Kunst- und Bildgeschichte der Humboldt Universität (Media Library of the Institute for Art and Pictorial History at Humboldt University) (Rechte vorbehalten - Freier Zugang)

But unicorn researchers should not only exercise caution in the case of written traditions - even supposedly unambiguous views of a unicorn can also be deceiving and helped to underpin belief in the unicorn as early as ancient times. It depends on the perspective – more on that later!

Researchers who went in search of a real model for the unicorn recognised in the Oryx astonishing similarities to the described appearance of a unicorn: horse-like, with a twisted horn. The profile view confirms the impression, but the antelope has two horns. Hamburg. Zoological garden. Eland (Eland, Taurotragus oryx PALL.), bull lying down, 1930, Erna Mohr (photographer). © SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (SLUB/German Photo Library) (Rechte vorbehalten - Freier Zugang)

What does the Virgin Mary have to do with the unicorn? – Christianity and the Unicorn

The unicorn was categorically disdained by Greek and Roman mythology. Not once does it appear next to numerous ancient mythical animals such as Pegasus or Minotaurus. Nevertheless, the further cultural history of the unicorn owes itself to the Greeks and Romans. In addition to the mention of the unicorn in the Old Testament, the focus is on the Physiologus, a scripture originally written in Greek, which was written in the 2nd to 4th centuries and, in addition to the Bible, represents one of the most important texts of Christianity. Repeatedly copied and translated, the Physiologus is a work that links Greek natural history with Christian teachings.

Physiologus Latinus, 1300 – 1320, page 139 67v, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg (Hamburg State and University Library) Carl von Ossietzky (CC BY 4.0)

In the Physiologus, the unicorn is described as an inhuman being that can only be tamed in the lap of a pure virgin. Furthermore, his magical power to detect poisons in the water is described. In Physiologus' narrative, the unicorn story merges with the virgin birth of Christ: the nameless virgin becomes the Virgin Mary, and the unicorn, tamed in her lap, symbolises Jesus Christ himself. With various national translations of the Physiologus in the 11th century, this type of image emerges in different forms, whereby one representation of the Virgin Mary with Unicorn stands out in particular:

Diebold Lauber, Das Einhorn (The Unicorn), from: MEGENBERG, Das Buch der Natur (MEGENBERG: The Book of Nature), Hagenau um 1442 – 1448, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg (Heidelberg University Library) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Mary sits alone in an enchanted garden, surrounded by wild nature. Mostly coming from the right, a unicorn approaches her and tilts its horned head down to her lap. Virgin and unicorn both symbolise purity and gentleness, the arrival of something good and beautiful. A scoundrel who thinks of others.

Wildweibchenteppich, um 1500, Standort Historisches Museum (Basel) (Wild Woman Carpet, ca. 1500 Historical Museum [Basel]), Illustration: Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte - Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (Rechte vorbehalten - Freier Zugang)

On the healing effects of the horn and clever vikings

The healing miraculous powers of the unicorn are considered general knowledge in the Middle Ages. This is reported over and over again throughout historical pharmaceutical and zoological publications. Hildegard von Bingen (1098 - 1179) also elaborates on the medical peculiarities of the unicorn (lat. unicornus) in her work Physica and mentions which parts of the body of the unicorn are particularly suitable for the treatment of certain ailments. Even Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) is said to have been given a unicorn medicine on his deathbed.

In any case, the demand for unicorn products was high in the Middle Ages and early modern times, and clever Vikings recognised in the tusks of the narwhal an amazing similarity to the descriptions of the unicorn: The spiral rotation of the horn and its length of up to several meters made the tusk appear as a perfect replacement.

Alleged unicorn (narwhal tooth), Kunstkammer Dresden (Dresden Art Chamber), circa 1600, Herbert Ludwig (photographer) © SLUB/ Deutsche Fotothek (Rechte vorbehalten - Freier Zugang)

Around 1200 AD the trade of narwhal teeth, so-called unicorn horns, began from Greenland to Europe. The customers were so greedy for the horn that the value of unicorn horn exceeded the gold value many times over. The most powerful buyers for whole unicorn horns were ruling families, who kept them in their treasuries and chambers of wonders. Many of the horns acquired at the time, provided they were not pulverised and consumed, can now be admired in public collections.

However, the largest trade was with processed horn products: with drinking vessels or ground unicorn horn. Many owners tried to protect themselves from poisonous attacks by their enemies, a real danger in the Middle Ages. 

Monadon Narhval. Blumenb: Le Narhval Ceradoton. The unicorn fish. Narwhal The Unicorn-fish. or Nar-Wal. Published in Naturgeschichte der sämtlichen Wallfischarten, 1780 (Natural History of all Whalefish Species, 1780 (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Various events led to a decline in trade involving unicorn products in the early modern period. Western European seafarers invaded polar waters in the 17th century and discovered the fraud surrounding the alleged unicorn horns. Yet faith in the unicorn wasn't truly shaken until the 18th century when Heinrich Sander (1754-1782) located a translation error accounting for the existence of the unicorn in the Bible.

The error supposedly occurred when the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek. In the third century BC, the 72 Jewish scholars responsible for the translation agreed to translate the mysterious beast “re'em” into Greek as “monókeros”. This was followed by the Latin translation "unicornis", which Luther in turn translated into German as "Einhorn" many hundred years later. However, a Hebrew re'em is an ordinary aurochs, as we know today, and it has two horns. But not on front Asian reliefs like the Ishtar Gate, which show it in profile view (see above!). All this can no longer be proven, but this picture-text misunderstanding unfolds a magical moment due to the unicorn.

Despite the developments in the 17th and 18th centuries, there are still pharmacies in many German cities that call themselves "Einhorn (Unicorn)". Here: Lüneburg: Am Sande, Einhorn an der Ecke, mit Fußgängerstraße (Lüneburg: Am Sande unicorn in the corner with pavement), October 19, 1979, photographer: Willy Pragher, Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg (CC BY 3.0 DE)

Did the unicorn exist after all? Travel reports and special skeletal findings

Time and again, reports have surfaced claiming to prove a true existence of the unicorn. Their authors testify to having truly seen a unicorn with their own eyes. The world traveller Marco Polo (1254 - 1324) was also among them, although it can be assumed that he did not see a unicorn, but a normal rhinoceros. Travelogues such as that of Bernhard von Breidenbach (1440 – 1497) are even less believable with regard to the sighting of a unicorn. Here, the desire for completeness in reporting was probably the driving force behind the records for those who stayed at home.

"These animals are real but counterfeit when we saw them in the Holy Land." Der Palästina-Pilgerbericht des Bernhard von Breidenbach und die Holzschnitte Erhard Reuwichs: die "Peregrinatio in terram sanctam" (The Palestine Pilgrimage of Bernhard von Breidenbach and the woodcuts of Erhard Reuwich: the "Peregrinatio in terram sanctam") (1486), Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

Surprisingly, the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 - 1716) joins the ranks of those wanting to prove that the unicorn actually exists. In his work Protogaea (1749), which was first published posthumously, Leibniz reconstructs the supposed skeleton of a two-legged unicorn. The underlying fossils originate from a gypsum quarry near Quedlinburg and were recovered in 1663. Later research revealed that the fossils are fossils of a woolly rhinoceros and a mammoth. To this day, the city cultivates the history of the special unicorn skeleton and thus attracts tourists to the Harz Mountains.

The Quedlinburger unicorn. Source: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian Ludwig Scheidt, Protogaea, Göttingen 1749, scan page 177 / 184 (Nicht urheberrechtlich geschützt - Keine kommerzielle Nachnutzung)

Greta Thunberg and the Unicorn

The unicorn, so much is certain, is part of our reality and shapes our world as a cultural creature. It used to be based on religious illustrations and books, or as a miracle cure in the medicine cabinet, but today it surrounds us on T-shirts, in the form of plush toys, in films or as memes. 

The attributes pure and chaste as well as the healing effect are no longer in the foreground, visual stimuli dominate today's unicorn appearance: a colourful, glittering Instagram world with a focus on the paradoxical uniqueness and rarity of the unicorn – everbody is a unicorn. But among all special people there are some who stand out. The fashion magazine VOGUE also underscored this when it put Greta Thunberg on its cover and staged her in the typical image of the Virgin Mary with a unicorn in the wild.

Whether Greta Thunberg's proximity to the figure of the Virgin Mary and the unicorn symbolism is conducive to her demands in climate policy is something we will not be able to clarify here. But let us hope for the symbolism of the good! 

The story of the unicorn mythical animal will continue, even if no kitschy unicorn products are sold anymore. It remains part of our cultural memory.

Need some refreshment? Japanese Unicorn Beer

Even in today's Japan there is a fabulous creature with only one horn. It is called "Kirin" (Chinese Qilin). Due to its peace-loving nature, it is referred to as the "animal of goodness and humanity" and announces the arrival of a wise ruler with its appearance. Kirin is also the name of a Japanese beer brand. How about refreshing yourself with a little compassion and kindness at your next sushi or ramen dinner?

Have you always wanted to read a Hanseatic unicorn legend?
Would you like to discover more unicorns in Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek



Lonitzer, Adam und Uffenbach, Peter: Adami Loniceri ... Vollständiges Kräuter-Buch und Künstliche Contrefeyungen der Bäumen, Stauden, Hecken, Kräutern, Geträyde, Gewürtzen etc. mit eigentlicher Beschreibung deroselben Namen in Deutsch- Griechisch- Lateinisch- Frantzösisch- Italiänisch- und Hispanischer Sprache, wie auch deren Gestalt, natürlicher Krafft und Würckung ..., 1770, online unter: (1770 von Peter Uffenbach erweiterte Ausgabe des Kräuterbuchs von Adam Lonitzer (Erstausgabe 1557))

von Bingen, Hildegard: Physica S. Hildegardis, 1533, S. 109 (121). Das Werk finden Sie hier.

Wilson, Horace H.: Notes on the Indica of Ctesias, Oxford 1836, S. 51ff. Das Werk finden Sie hier.

Kraus, Thomas J.: Von Einhorn, Hirsch, Pelikan und anderem Getier. Septuaginta, Physiologus und darüber hinaus, in: Garský, Zbynĕk Kindschi und Hirsch-Luipold, Rainer (Hrsg.): Christus in natura: Quellen, Hermeneutik und Rezeption des Physiologus, 2019, S. 63-79, online unter:

Der Neue Pauly:*-e327420

Wikipedia und popular science articles:


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