WHAT IS A unicorn?
At first glance the answer may seem so obvious that the question itself is silly. Everyone knows that a unicorn is a horse with a horn stuck in the middle of its forehead.
Well, yes-and no. The answer is much more complicated, and considerably more interesting, than that.
What unicorns actually do look like has been a matter of some dispute for several centuries now. Some old accounts give them white bodies and red heads, with a short, three-colored horn. Others give them elephant's feet, a boar's tail and other equally improbable traits.
Oddly, while writers continued to disagree over what unicorns look like, artists kept coming back to the same basic idea: an animal much like a horse, but (in the better pictures) lighter and more graceful, with many goat-like qualities. In particular you should expect a unicorn to have a silky beard and hooves that are split, or cloven, like those of a goat.
But even though we can describe a unicorn as having some of the traits of both these animals, in truth these creatures are far more magical than either a goat or horse could ever hope to be. Even the best descriptions fall far short of what you would see if you actually met a unicorn some moonlit night beneath an apple tree. (Not a bad place to look, by the way. Some unicorns are wisdom personified, and wisdom can, indeed, often be found beneath an apple tree on such a night.)
Unicorns have many strange abilities. But of all the things they can do, it seems we are most fascinated by their power to heal. For the touch of a unicorn's horn can pull us away from death, toward immortality.
Unfortunately for the unicorn, the horn retains its power even without a unicorn attached- which has led people to hunt it rather ferociously.
The basic method for catching a unicorn is fairly simple. A pure young woman is taken into the woods and placed beneath a tree. Since unicorns are irresistibly attracted to such young ladies, if there is a unicorn in the vicinity it will come and lay its head in this maiden's lap. At this point she may sing to it, or slip a golden bridle over its head.
Once the unicorn has been tamed in this manner, the hunters leap out from hiding and either capture or slaughter the beast. When they do, the greatest prize, of course, is the horn itself. (Though some people also believe there is a precious jewel, a "carbuncle," hidden underneath the horn.)
The correct term for the horn is "alicorn," a word some people think was invented simply because "unicorn horn" sounds so awkward.
Alicorns are among the most powerful of magical items. They were prized by popes and kings because they provided protection against all manner of evil, including epilepsy, pestilence and poisoning. A horn set in the middle of a table would begin to sweat, or form a dew, if any of the foodstuffs had been poisoned. Even a little powder filed from such a horn was an antidote to the most toxic substances. Small wonder that in a place like fourteenth-century Italy, where poisoning was a common way to deal with one's enemies, these horns were considered treasures indeed.
As might be expected, an item both so valuable (horns sometimes sold for ten times their weight in gold) and so rare (some legends have it that there is never more than one unicorn on earth at a time) was a great temptation for frauds.
With so many people selling false alicorns, it was necessary to find a way to determine which were real. Some of the tests included:
o Drawing a ring on the floor with the alicorn. A spider placed in such a ring would not be able to cross the line, and in fact would starve to death trapped within the circle.
o Placing the horn in water, which would cause the water to bubble and seem as if it were boiling, even though it remained cold.
o Placing a piece of silk upon a burning coal, and then laying the horn on top of the silk. If the horn was truly an alicorn, the silk would not be burned.
o Bringing the horn near a poisonous plant or animal, which would burst and die in reaction to it.
The trade in alicorns was very real in the Middle Ages, and many noble houses listed one of the mystical horns among its treasures.
However most of us today would agree it is far better to leave a unicorn's horn where it belongs: on top of its head!
With its horn properly in place, a unicorn can do many wonderful things. One of the most well known is purifying water for other animals, a trick known as "water conning." Generally this takes place where there is some venomous animal haunting the water hole. The serpent, or whatever, will slip out at night and poison the water. But at dawn the unicorn comes and dips its horn in the pool. Immediately the water is clean and pure once more.
Three famous warriors have been connected with unicorns-Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Caesar's connection was minor; he wrote of a unicorn that lived in the Hercynian Forest. But of Alexander it is actually said that he rode a unicorn-the famous Bucephalus, who many think was only a horse, but others claim was a unicorn. (Considering the fame Bucephalus gained as a warhorse, he was probably a relative of the kar-ka-dann, which you will meet below.) It is also said that Alexander and his men once had a battle with a tribe of unicorns. As for Genghis Khan, it is written that in the year 1206 he set out with a great army to conquer India. As he was standing in a mountain pass overlooking that great country, a one-horned beast came running up to him and knelt three times in token of reverence. The Mighty Khan took this as a signal from his dead father, and turned his army back.
Clearly, unicorns are known the world over. In addition to the horned horse-like/ goat-like creature we are familiar with, there is the Chinese unicorn, called the K'i-lin, which had a multi-colored body and (some said) a horn twelve feet long.
K'i-lin was very special to the Chinese. It was a creature of great power and wisdom, and its appearance was always a sign of good fortune. The most famous example happened over 2,500 years ago, when the K'i-lin came to a young woman named Yen Chen-tsai. Into her hand it dropped a tablet made of jade, the beautiful green stone used in much Chinese art. On the stone was a message, prophesying that she would become the mother of a "throneless king."
The prophecy was true, for Yen Chen-tsai became the mother of the great Chinese sage Confucius. Confucius never wore a crown or commanded men. Yet his teachings did as much to shape China as the power of many kings and warlords combined.
It was said that K'i-lin walked so softly its hooves made no sound. Some believed that this was because it was so soft-hearted it did not want to crush the blades of grass beneath its feet. It had a voice like a thousand wind chimes, avoided fighting at all costs and lived for a thousand years.
How different was the unicorn of Persia, the fierce and ferocious kar-ka-dann, a terrible beast that could attack and kill even an elephant! The only thing that could tame this savage animal was the ringdove; so soothing did the kar-ka-dann find their gentle calls, that it would lie peacefully beneath a tree where they were singing for hours on end. Though other animals couldn't even graze in the kar-ka-dann's territory, the ringdove was actually allowed to perch on the beast's horn.
Despite its worldwide fame, there are those who believe there are no more unicorns. One reason people give for their disappearance is that when Noah built the Ark, the unicorns didn't make it on board, either because they were too large, or too silly-playing games and frisking about until Noah couldn't wait any longer.
Copyright © 1988 by Bruce Coville
"The Lore of the ...