The Real Influences of Myths: Unicorns

Hannah Elstro, MVC writer

Many people are familiar with mythology. Every single culture in the world has had mythology, all with their own creatures and wonders, and this is for a reason. The people who made and shared mythology lived in a time where natural phenomena, as well as the human condition, were misunderstood. Myths offered a sense of control and of understanding of not only the world, but themselves; their origins, history, and who they, as a people, are.


Since the days when myth was regarded as reality, much has changed. As the world has continued to develop, science has taken the place of mythology when it comes to giving explanations. Myths that were once regarded as sacred fact have slowly turned into stories passed down; widely regarded as untrue, but still a large part of certain cultures. However, many of the tales shared down generations, especially those in which multiple cultures have similar creatures, might actually be rooted in truth. 


It sounds impossible for mythological creatures to exist; and that is because it is. But, even though the stories told around the creatures may not be true, that does not mean that those stories were not based on real events. After all, as the saying goes, in every lie there is a bit of truth, and sometimes myths with creatures in them, such as unicorns, may have a bit of truth in them.


Unicorns, or some variations of them, are found all around the world. From the one or two-horned Kirin/Qilin in the east, who stab the wicked with their horn(s), to the famous European white mare with a magical horn in the west, unicorns have been depicted in several cultures all around the world. 


The oldest depictions of the unicorn date back all the way to ancient Mesopotamia, from drawings, but other myths, artworks, and depictions also appeared close to that time in ancient India and China. But unicorns are actually mentioned in a number of different historical texts throughout the years. From ancient literature to religious texts, unicorns can be found throughout humanity’s early history.


However, the myths of unicorns have not remained in the past. Historians and other myth enthusiasts have collected several of the texts said to be the original myths and matched them with what depictions remain from the past, helping make a cohesive representation of the original depiction of the unicorn. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of several different depictions of the unicorn itself, depending on the culture and location. The main ones, though, that historians had more material on and thus were able to piece together, included the Western unicorn, the Eastern unicorn, and the African unicorn.


First: the Western unicorn. For English speaking countries, this is usually the most familiar depiction, although unicorns have changed so much due to depictions in the culture that the original depictions may not represent the typical image thought of now. In most stories, Western unicorns live deep in the forests, and are rarely spotted by humans. Both Greek and European influences have been said to create the myth, although, unlike in the East, there are no distinct depictions of the Western unicorn depending on region. The Western unicorn is now known for its white coat, but earlier authors have also described the Western unicorn’s coat as yellowish-red or brown. A horse’s body is another defining feature, but once again myths have varied, with some having the body and/or hooves of a goat, the beard of a goat, and the tail of a horse, goat, boar, or lion. More constantly has been the depiction of its horn, long white and spiraled, although this has been contested by some Greek naturalists, and its beard, that of a goat. The Western unicorn is typically seen as a symbol of purity, capable of healing people.


Second, the Eastern unicorn. One of the other most prominent depictions of a unicorn, due to how many countries have a similar form of it. The Eastern unicorn is referred to by different names depending on the country, including the Qilin in China, the Kirin in Japan, the Gilin in Thailand, and the Girin or the Kirin in Korea. The Chinese depiction, the Qilin, is more of a chimera than an animal. It is depicted through a large range of ancient Chinese art, and is a creature with the body of an ox, a deer, or a horse with dragon-like features, including scales and one or two horns. Japan’s Kirin is similar, but more deer-like than the Qilin, with an ox’s tail and backwards curving horns. The Korean Girin is thought to be a form of the Japanese Kirin. Orionally more deer-like, the Girin became more horse-like over time, and is a maned creature with a deer’s torso, an ox’s tail, and horse hooves. Finally, Thailand’s Gilin is thought to have been introduced by a traveler from southern China, and maintains a similar appearance to it. These dragons/unicorns are said to be benevolent to nature and those who do good, but kill those who are evil. They are also seen as a symbol of fertility, some artwork depicting them delivering babies to families.


Lastly, the African Unicorn. The African unicorn, similar to the Eastern one, has been depicted with one or two horns. It is called an Ababda. It is said to be about the size of a donkey, and the tail of a boar. Similarly to the other unicorns, though, the horns are seen as having healing properties and being an antidote to poisons. They are also, like the Eastern one, symbols of fertility.


Although there are several other depictions of unicorns, they are not nearly as prominent as those three depictions, but feel free to look up and discover the other depictions. They are all fascinating to learn about.


Now onto the potential reality-based origins of the unicorn. Most proposed theories of how the myth of unicorns originated, and what from, include animals. This is most likely because the depictions, although similar in key ways, were very different depending on the continent and the region. 


One such of these animals possibly believed to have started the myth is the extinct “Siberian Unicorn.” The Siberian Unicorn was initially believed to have died out 350,000 years ago, until a skull was found to be only 29,000 years old – meaning these creatures did, in fact, roam the earth with early humans. This one horned animal, although closer to rhino, does have horse-like qualities, including similar tails, legs, ears, and bone structure; if the neck and legs were lengthened, and the head slightly less round, it would look very much like a horse. On top of that, the Fuzzy Rhino, another name for the Siberian Unicorn, had a hump that allowed them to run long distances across the plains, like horses, whereas modern Rhinos can only slowly graze. That could explain a mistake on the part of people in features; if early humans had seen a large, horse-like figure with a horn running at them, they may not stop to check if it looked exactly like a horse or not. One other explanation related to this proposes that a Rhinoceros Chronospecies, or a group that evolves with slightly different traits from their parent species over a long period, could have been the start of the myth. Although the legends surrounding the unicorn may be just tales, the actual form of the animal could very well have been inspired from sightings of these prehistoric rhinos.


The next theory is courtesy of goats. Yes, goats. Not exactly what one might think of when picturing the powerful, strong, and majestic unicorn, but a surprisingly strong contender. There have been instances in which goats who have had their horn buds grow too close together have formed a singular, large horn in the middle of their head, and also instances where people have made that happen. A big factor of the theory is that the typical European unicorns have often been depicted with beards and other similar hair pattern features of goats, as well as the goat’s relative similarity to horses when it comes to body shape and structure.


Yet another theory comes from Narwhals. These animals have so much in common with unicorns that it is a common misconception that they are not real, when in fact they could have been the ones to inspire the tale of the unicorn. The theory goes that Narwhal horns were found on land, and the tale was made up from there. This seems to be the weakest theory, though, as it does not explain why the unicorn consistently is an elusive quadruped across mythology in separate regions.


Of course, there is always another explanation. Some believe that travelers could have spotted either an animal with a genetic mutation, such as the one that happened to this one-horned deer nicknamed “Unicorn,” or another animal with either a broken horn, a mutation, or any other type of genetic difference that inspired the look of the unicorn. However, this theory is less plausible than some of the others, due to the similarities in characteristics across continents. It would be both very convenient and very odd for several different civilizations to just happen to have spotted one deer with weird antlers once, and for them to create similar depictions and myths concerning them. However, even though it may not be the correct theory, it could be one piece of the puzzle that is the way in which unicorn mythology was formed.


Another, more plausible theory, comes from the sighting of Africa’s Okapi and/or Gemsbok. Both the Okapi and the Gemsbok are African animals with deer and horse-like features and horns. Their most notable difference is the horns; Gemsbok have two very long horns, whereas Okapi have two small almost nub-like horns. They both have features of unicorns, however the Gemsbok is the more likely candidate for the creature depicted in Africa’s unicorn myths. Their unicorns, named Abada, had two large horns with healing properties, which is why the Gemsbok is more likely to be the basis for the depiction. The theory that all unicorns, not just Africa’s, were based on Gemsbok makes sense on a lot of levels. First, because unicorns are consistently depicted as elusive quadrupeds with deer and horse-like characteristics, and Gembok have very horse-like characteristics and a deer-like face. On top of this, Gemsbok are notoriously elusive animals, which is a prominent aspect of most unicorn myths across many cultures. Secondly, the theory that travelers coming over saw the Gemsbok would explain why unicorns in the east, such as the Kilin/Quilin, are depicted as being able to potentially have two horns versus just strictly one horn. Lastly, in African myth the supposed healing powers attributed to the Abada, especially the horns, are another common trait of the unicorn across the world. Although the descriptions of the Gemsbok do not perfectly match that of the unicorn, especially in the west, the Gemsbok does seem to be a very likely candidate for the origins of the unicorn due to its many physical similarities and similar originating mythological attributes.


 And, finally: a conjunction of theories. The “travelers spotting an animal” theory has actually also been posed in conjunction with the Gemsbok one, with this combination of theories saying that maybe European travelers had seen only one of the elusive Gemsbok, and that that Gemsbok had a broken horn. The combinations of different theories and factors in newly proposed ideas could also lead to the correct ones: like puzzle pieces, all the factors mentioned could have come together or contributed to the myths in some way. Maybe a mix of all the factors led to the depictions of mythological unicorns. Maybe all the different unicorn myths are based on different animals depending on the region. So far, though, no one can say for certain the exact causes and origins of the myth.


It is hard to know whether the mystery of the start of unicorn mythology will ever be understood or discovered, but it is always interesting to take a look back at what ancient humans, our ancestors, may have seen that inspired them to weave the threads of tales that would become the cloth of current mythology. Hopefully, one day, the true answer will be found and a conclusion given to how exactly these magical horned-beings came to be.