Unicorns have appeared in the mythologies of many eastern and western civilizations throughout history. But it's difficult to say whether unicorns ever existed beyond our imaginations. It's important to remember however, that before explorers like Columbus and Magellan discovered otherwise, there was a time when there was no actual evidence that the world was round. So it is possible that fossil remains of unicorns may eventually be found, giving credence to what is now considered a myth? Is there any scientific evidence that unicorns have ever existed? Here's what I've learned.
What are Unicorns?
Unicorn means 'one horn'. Most often unicorns are depicted as a white horse-like creature with a single horn growing from its forehead. Sometimes unicorns are depicted as a deer, ass or goat with a single horn. The horn is often depicted as long and straight, marked with spiral striations along its length.
Unicorns are also often depicted as having cloven hooves like cattle, deer or goats. So while the rest of their bodies may be horse-like, they have the hooves of a biungulate, not the ungulate (single toed) hooves of a horse. They are often depicted with similar coat colors to horses, but most often they are described as being white.
Unicorns have been attributed with many magical qualities. Unicorn tears and blood are said to be healing. Powder of unicorn horse is said to be an antidote for poison and Harry Potter's wand contained a strand of unicorn tail hair. They are difficult to catch (not unlike some horses who don’t like to be caught) and can only be tamed by young maidens in many mythologies. They are a symbol of ferociousness, freedom, power and speed and appear on many coats of arms and emblems.
Unicorns in the Bible
In one of my blog posts readers commented that unicorns were mentioned in the bible. There are nine references to unicorns in the King James Version of the bible, a translation completed in 1611 by biblical scholars.
Numbers 23:22 “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.”
Numbers 24:8 “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.”
Job 39:9 “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?”
Job 39:10 “Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?”
Psalms 29:6 “He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.”
Psalms 92:10 “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.”
Deuteronomy 33:17 “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.”
Psalms 22:21 “Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.”
Isaiah 34:7 “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.”
However, more modern translations do not mention unicorns. Some scholars suspect mistranslations and that the word 'unicorn' which simply meant 'single horned animal', could have been a rhinoceros. Some also believe the Hebrew word 're'em' that has been formerly translated as unicorn, actually means wild bull.
Fossil Remains and Skeletons
I happened to download a book to read called Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier. One of the principal characters is based on the life of Mary Anning. Mary Anning collected fossils and but didn't understand what the fossilized creatures she was collecting were. One fossil, the nautilus, that we now know are cephalopods were thought to be coiled snakes. However, straight cephalopod shells were also found and many thought these were unicorn horns. But there is no fossils of unicorns. Horses, however, have an extensive fossil record.
Several unicorn skeletons have been discovered, but all have also been discovered fakes. In the 1600s a German Scientist and Inventor Otto Von Guericke created a fake unicorn skeleton with bones locals found in a cave, and a sketch based on the model was even included in a book on natural history written in the 1700s. Whether the original fake was created out of fun or the creator thought he was building a real unicorn is unknown. (Von Guericke is also famous for discovering nothing as About.com Guide Mary Bellis explains in Otto von Guericke 1602 - 1686.)
Many people have claimed to have seen and even video recorded unicorns. Austrian naturalist Antal Festetics claims to have seen and recorded a unicorn while horse back riding in Harz Mountains. The Ontario Science Center reports of a unicorn sighting in the Don Valley. Having sat in traffic on the Don Valley Parkway on many occasions, I can't think of a more unlikely spot to view any sort of wildlife. Nevertheless, the video is available for viewing so you can draw your own conclusions. My feeling is that the unicorn's gaits, unlike the flowing gaits of a horse, look a bit 'wooden' as it travels along.
It is possible to manipulate the horn buds of cattle and goats (and probably other horned animals as well) so they twist together creating the look of a unicorn. The Prato Unicorn, a deer with a single, central horn, along with a normal antlered twin, was spotted in Italy in 2008. While rare, these things do happen, perhaps giving rise to the myth of the unicorn.
One animal does come by it's single horn honestly. The Narwhal, or Monodon monoceros which means 'single tooth whale', has what appears to be a long horn projecting from its forehead. In reality, this tooth protrudes through a gap in it's upper lip. So, it's not really horn and it's not entirely clear to scientists what this tusk is for. Oh well.
So while myth and song may be filled with the lore and legend of the unicorn, actual science leaves us little to work with.