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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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(Lat. unicornis, for Gr. povOKEpws, having one horn; Fr. licorne; Ital. alicorno), a fabulous beast, usually having the head and body of a horse, the hind legs of an antelope, the tail of a lion (sometimes horse's tail), sometimes the beard of a goat, and as its chief feature a long, sharp, twisted horn, similar to the narwhal's tusk, set in the middle of its forehead. The earliest description is that of Ctesias, who (Indica opera, ed. Baehr, p. 254) states that there were in India white wild asses celebrated for their fleetness of foot, having on the forehead a horn a cubit and a half in length, coloured white, red and black; from the horn were made drinking cups which were a preventive of poisoning. Aristotle mentions (Hist. anim. ii. t; De part. anim. iii. 2) two one-horned animals, the oryx, a kind of antelope, and "the so-called Indian ass." In Roman times Pliny (N.H. viii. 30; xi. 106) mentions the oryx, the Indian ass, and an Indian ox as one-horned; Aelian (De nat. anim. iii. 41; iv. 52), quoting Ctesias, adds that India produces also a one-horned horse, and says (xvi. 20) that the Monoceros was sometimes called Carcazonon, which may be a form of the Arabic Carcadan, meaning rhinoceros (see Rev. W. Haughton, "On the Unicorn of the Ancients," in Annals and Mag. of Natural History for 1862, p. 363). Strabo (lib. xv.) says that in India there were one-horned horses with stag-like heads. The origin of all these statements is probably to be found partly in the rhinoceros, which was well known to the ancients, and partly in the narwhal, specimens of the long tusk of which were probably brought home by travellers. The theory of a one-horned oryx would probably be drawn from the remembrance of a passing glimpse of an antelope in silhouette, or even of one which had broken one horn off short in fighting, and E. Schrader (Sitzungsberichte d. kgl. preuss. Akad. zu Berlin, 1892,1892, pp. 573-5 81, and pl. 5) traces the idea of a one-horned ox to the sculptures of Persepolis and other places, which Ctesias would probably have seen, in which the ox, represented in silhouette, has apparently only one horn. As India became better known, and it was realized that the unicorn was not found there, its place of abode was changed to Africa.

The medieval conception of the unicorn as possessing great strength and fierceness may have been partly due to the fact that in certain passages of the Old Testament (e.g. Num. xxiii. 22; Deut. xxxiii. 1 7; Job xxxix. 9-10) the Hebrew word Rem, now translated in the Revised Version "wild ox," was translated in the Septuagint ,uovexEpws, in the Vulgate unicornis or rhinoceros, and in the Authorised Version "unicorn," though in Deut. xxxiii. 17 it obviously refers to a two-horned animal. The early commentators applied to this beast the classical attributes of the ,uoeo, epws (e.g. Isidore xii. 2, 12 tells how the unicorn has been known to worst the elephant in combat). There is also the passage in Aelian xvi. 20 which says that though as a rule savage and quarrelsome, even with females, the unicorn at mating time becomes very gentle to his mate, which is supposed to have given rise to the medieval idea that the unicorn is subdued to gentleness at the sight of a virgin, and will come and lay his head in her lap, which is the only means by which he can be caught on account of his swiftness and ferocity. This story is illustrated in the tapestry figured in Plate II. Fig. to of Embroidery, also on Pisanello's medal of Cecilia Gonzaga (see J. de Foville, Pisanello et les medailleurs italiens, 'goo, p. 40), on the reverse of which is a young girl with a unicorn lying by her side, the unicorn here being represented as a beautiful long-haired goat, with the long horn in the middle of his brow. The idea was widely spread in the middle ages, and Lauchert (Geschichte des Physiologus, 1889) gives instances of its allegorical use, as typical not only of Christ and the Virgin, but also of the softening influence of love upon the fiercest of men, and a symbol of purity. As a decoration of drinking cups it symbolized the ancient belief in the efficacy of the unicorn's horn against poison, which in England remained even in the time of Charles II., though Sir E. Ray Lankester (Science from an Easy Chair, London, 1910,1910, p. 127) mentions that a cup made of rhinoceros horn was then handed over to the Royal Society for experiment, with the result of entirely disproving the superstition. In the court ceremonial of France as late as 1789 instruments of "unicorn's" horn were still used for testing the royal food for poison. So-called unicorns' horns, or articles made of unicorn's horn, have always been sought after as "curiosities"; some of them, like the cup mentioned above, were of rhinoceros horn; others, like the horn seen at Windsor by Heutzner, a German traveller, in 1598 (see E. Phipson, Animal-lore of Shakespeare's Time, p. 456), were probably narwhals' tusks. Another medieval legend about the unicorn is that when it stooped to drink from a pool its horn, dipping into the water, purified and rendered it sweet. The traditional rivalry of the lion and the unicorn, which is generally considered to date at earliest from the Union of England and Scotland, when the lion and the unicorn appeared as the supporters of the royal arms, is referred to, curiously enough, in Spenser's Faery Queene, ii. 5.

In heraldry the unicorn was sometimes used as a device (see Heraldry, where two English families are enumerated who used the unicorn on their arms), but more frequently as a supporter, and subsists to the present day as the left-hand supporter of the royal arms. This position it assumed at the Union, the Scottish royal arms having previously been supported by two unicorns. The origin of these is uncertain. The unicorn first appears (c. 1480), as a single supporter, on two gold coins of James III. of Scotland, hence known as "unicorns" and "half-unicorns" (see Lindsay, Coinage of Scotland, pp. 135-137 and plate xiii. figs. 22-27). It is represented in a sitting posture, having round its neck a crown, to which is attached a chain and ring, and holding the shield between its front feet. Seton (Law and Practice of Heraldry in Scotland, Edinburgh, 1863, p. 274, foot-note) suggests that the unicorn as a supporter may have been introduced into Scotland by the marriage of James I. with Jane Beaufort, the Beauforts as dukes of Somerset having used it as such.' However this may be, the unicorn became established by the end of the 15th century. J. A. Smith in "Notes on Melrose Abbey" (Proceedings of Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, ii. 257) describes a table dated 1505 on which are sculptured the royal arms supported by two unicorns. The royal arms are also supported by unicorns on the Great Seals of Scotland from the time of Queen Mary onwards (see Anderson, Diplomata Scotiae, plate lxxxviii. xc. xci.). At the Union, when the unicorn became a supporter of the royal arms both of England and Scotland, a royal crown was added on the head of the unicorn, in addition to the crown with chain and ring round its neck (see Great Seal of James I. and VI. in Anderson, pl. xciii.), but this crown was removed after the Hanoverian succession. In England after the Union the unicorn became the left-hand supporter, but in Scotland, as late as 1766, it was still put on the right (Seton, p. 442), and Scotland displayed great reluctance to alter this, or to remove the crown from the head of the unicorn. Seton tells us how in 1853 a petition was made in favour, among other things, of retaining the crown on the unicorn, but without success. The rule, however, that the unicorn is to be the left-hand supporter, uncrowned, is still sometimes ignored, and Seton states (1863) that in the case of seals, such as that of the Board of Manufactures, which bear the Scottish arms alone, the two unicorns are still kept as supporters.


There are many treatises on the unicorn and other fabulous beasts, from the 16th century onwards. Of these, good bibliographies are given by Drexler, s.v. Monokeros, in Roscher's Lexicon, and by Rev. W. Haughton in Annals and Magazine of Natural History for 1862, p. 363, "On the Unicorn of the Ancients." (C. B. P.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Unicorn'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​u/unicorn.html. 1910.
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