Magical and mystical, unicorns have been the subject of legends and myths for centuries. This legendary creature is described to be a large beast that looks like a horse, only that it has a pointed, spiral horn growing out of its forehead. It was mentioned by the ancient Greeks, throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and even in the bible. European folklore believed the animal to posses strong magical powers that could cure any illness and even bring the dead back to life.
Among the number for prehistoric bones discovered at a site called the Unicorn Cave in the Harz Mountains in Germany, some were taken out and reconstructed Otto Von Guericke, the mayor of Magdeburg. He presented the remains as a unicorn in 1663 and everyone believed that this was the real deal. The reconstructed figure was actually composed of the fossils of a woolly mammoth and the rhinoceros. A narwhal horn was added to the forehead of the skull to give it a realistic look. The remains were later declared as fake but the legend continued.
During an excavation at the Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, major sites of the Indus Valley Civilization, small stone seals were found that has elegant depictions of the animals that we seen in the area. Some of the stones had a unicorn-like figure on them, as well as an Indus script that still baffles researchers and scholars till this day. Mind you, these stones were dated back to 2500 B.C, so it's possible that prehistoric man were already believing in unicorns. The closest interpretation of the unicorn seal was that it was a representation of the aurochs, which is a type of wild cattle which once inhabited North Africa, Asia, and Europe. But this still does not explain why the seals only show one horn on its profile.
Elasmotherium or rhinoceros
Another suggestion for the origins of the unicorn is that it is based on the Elasmotherium, a species of the rhinoceros which is already extinct. This huge Eurasian mammal was a native to the steppers, south of where the woolly rhinoceros of Ice Age Europe lived. The Elasmotherium looked nothing like a horse, but it did have a large single horn growing out of its forehead. This animal were said to have become extinct about the same time as the wooly mammoths and rhinoceros, but some scientist believe that it survived long enough to have been remembered by native European people.
Every now and then, common domesticated animals are born with strange mutations that make them look extraordinary. One of the most common theories about unicorns is that it was actually just a single-horned goat. This theory is supported by the fact that unicorns were also described as goats, not only horses, that had one horn. Some people also produced these single-horned goats by re-modeling the "horn buds" on young goats in a way that their horns would twist and grow together.
During the Medieval and Renaissance eras in Europe, unicorn horns were often found the cabinets of curiosities. However, many of these were proven to be the straight spiral single tusk of the narwhal, which is an Arctic cetacean. They were hunted and their horns taken and bought to the south as valuable trade objects. Narwhal horns are made out of ivory, so many believed that there were legit unicorn horns. And since these horns were considered to contain magical powers, it would sell for a price worth a fortune. Queen Elizabeth I of England was even reported to have kept one, given to her by Arctic explorer Martin Frobisher.
This animal is an antelope that has two, thin, long horns growing from its forehead. Some suggests that the oryx could have passed as a unicorn, although their horns grew towards the back of their heads, unlike the classic description of a unicorn. However, travelers and explorers who would cross Europe to go to the distant lands of Arabia and Northern Africa would tell stories of this unicorn-like creature. The Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, which is a book that describes the pilgrimage to Jerusalem passing Egypt, describes the many animals that you would see throughout the journey, which includes camels, crocodiles, and unicorns (presumably an oryx which is common in these routes).
Southern Africa is known for its many legends and stories of spiritual and mystical creatures, which are often based on real animals. The Eland is a very large antelope that would defend itself against fearsome predators like lions, and even being able to kill them in battle. They're commonly depicted on rock art found in caves and cliffs in the region. People in the area viewed it as a sacred beast, and travelers could have picked up its legend and brought it with them back to Europe. Clan MacLeod in Scotland is reported to have custody of a unicorn horn, which was identified as an eland horn after investigation.
Whether you believe that somewhere out there, a real unicorn is running free in a field, or that this creature is only the stuff of legends, you should know that it had very deep roots in the history and culture of many places in Europe. Scotland even named the unicorn as their national animal.
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