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Selections from Flora + Fauna: The Unicorn Through the Ages

By Erin Chiparo, Teaching and Research Coordinator and Co-Curator of Flora + Fauna

When Isabel Planton and I began making selections for the Flora + Fauna exhibition, I was particularly excited to search for materials to fill the case titled, Fantastical Fauna. I’ve always been drawn to stories involving mythical beasts and legendary creatures, so it was especially thrilling to discover images and descriptions of these fanciful fauna in books and manuscripts from around the world and from throughout history. During my search, there was one creature that stood out, both for its frequent appearance in text and image and for its near-universal adoration – the unicorn.

When Jerónimo Lobo (1595-1678) documented his efforts as a Portuguese Jesuit missionary in Ethiopia, in addition to his descriptions of the geography, people, and nature of East Africa, he includes a detailed account of the unicorn, “the most celebrated among Beasts.”

Book open to a page of description about unicorns
Lobo’s description of the unicorn from A short relation of the river Nile, of its sourse and current; of its overflowing the campagnia of Ægypt, till it runs into the Mediterranean: and of other curiosities: written by an eye-witnesse, who lived many years in the chief kingdoms of the Abyssine empire. This edition was translated into English by Sir Peter Wyche and printed in London in 1669.

Lobo was not alone in his reverence for the unicorn, and he was certainly not the first to describe the graceful and mysterious creature. Depictions of goat or horse-like animals with a singular horn date as far back as the Lascaux cave paintings. The Greek scholar and physician, Ctesias, returned to Greece from Iran in 398 B.C. In his Indica, a treatise on India based on the accounts of Persian traders, Ctesias describes an animal slightly smaller than a horse that sported a multicolored, straight horn that rose from the middle of its forehead. After Ctesias, classical authors often boasted of seeing the unicorn in India. Aristotle mentioned animals with a single horn, and Pliny the Elder described an “exceedingly wild beast called the Monoceros.”. These early descriptions were instrumental in shaping ideas about the unicorn’s fierce and solitary nature as well as its magical qualities.

By the late Middle Ages in Europe, the unicorn had evolved to represent chastity and innocence according to the tradition of medieval bestiaries. These documents explained that a unicorn could only be captured if it was first tamed by a chaste maiden. Illuminations in texts about courtly love and marriage from this period frequently depict the bride in a carriage pulled by unicorns, representing the maiden’s purity. Perhaps this association with innocence explains the unicorn’s prominent placement in this illustration of the Garden of Eden in the Lilly Library’s 1695 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Detail of an engraving of the Garden of Eden, including Adam and Eve, several animals, and a unicorn.
1695 edition of Paradise Lost

The rapid expansion of trade and exploration during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries saw, in turn, an increase in unicorn sightings. Travelers gave inconsistent accounts of the creatures’ appearance. Unicorns were petite and goatlike or according to Marcus of Nizza, “half as big again as an ox.” They were amphibians with cloven hooves or horned pachyderms. One unifying quality of these otherwise disparate reports is the medicinal properties of the unicorn’s horn or alicorn.

When Ctesias described his unicorn in the 4th century B.C., he explained that drinking wine or water from a cup made of unicorn horn could cure or prevent poisoning. The healing properties of powdered alicorn were expounded the world over, with claims that ingesting the horn could cure all manner of illnesses from measles to leprosy to plague. Unicorn horns were worth as much as ten times their weight in gold. Royalty used alicorns to make sceptres, crowns, and even thrones.

But where were all these alicorns coming from? The true source of these exquisite, twisted horns is the elusive but far more substantive narwhal. This Arctic whale became the prized catch of explorers, who returned home with valuable treasure in the form of their tusks.

Engraving of a unicorn with Latin text.
Detail from the frontispiece of Historia navigationis Martini Forbisseri (1675) by Dionyse Settle. The book details explorer Martin Frobisher’s search for the northwest passage.

Protestant physician Ambroise Paré (c. 1510-1590) addresses doubts regarding the efficacy of alicorn in treating disease and on the existence of the unicorn itself in his Discourse on the Unicorn of 1580. The 70-year-old Paré boldly claims that just because people have believed in the magical properties of the alicorn for centuries, does not make these beliefs true. “I reply”, he says, “that mere duration of time is not sufficient to prove the value of the alicorn. Its vogue is founded upon opinion, but the truth depends upon fact. Therefore, it is nothing to the purpose to cite against me the popes and emperors and kings and other potentates who have kept the alicorn in their treasuries, for such men are not competent judges of the properties of natural things.”

Book open to a page with an engraving of a fearsome-looking narwhale with sharp teeth and large fins
Book open to a page with an engraving of a very shaggy unicorn
These woodcut images both appear in Oeuvres D’Ambroise Paré from 1628.

While at this point in history, science and experience has taught us that we are unlikely to find a living unicorn, our fascination with the magical creature continues. One of the newest objects in the Flora + Fauna exhibition is The Unicorn and His Ways, a delightful manuscript miniature book that was created by Mary J. Carmichael in 1980.

A miniature book with a brown leather cover and gold clasps.
The Unicorn and His Ways

The lore surrounding unicorns has also evolved over time. With the rise of children’s popular media such as the animated series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the term “alicorn” has evolved to refer to a unicorn with wings rather than to the unicorn’s horn. I was lucky enough to have a conversation about these changes in terminology with local unicorn expert and enthusiast Nino (age 5). You can read a transcription of our conversation below:

EC: What is a unicorn?

Nino: It’s an actually (sic) magical and mythical creature with a horn, but it’s a horse with no wings, but it’s a magic horse because their horn can be magic.

EC: What is an alicorn?

Nino: It’s a horse with wings and a horn, and its tail like wags. It wags like a dog. But it also has feet, and it’s cute, and it stays a baby forever.

EC: What do you like about unicorns?

Nino: That they can make magic… [29 seconds of magical sounds while waving around a stuffed unicorn named Champion]

EC: Last question: what do you think people should know about unicorns?

Nino: That they can make magic… but they can also disappear!

EC: Oh?

Nino: Because like sometimes… watch this! [magic sounds accompanying Champion as he disappears and reappears from under a blanket]. And they reappear in different places! See, that’s what they can do.

A young white child with blond hair standing in front of an exhibition case displaying rare books. He is smiling and clutching a plush unicorn
Nino and Champion pose alongside the Fantastical Fauna books

I hope you’ll stop by the Lilly Library to see the books and manuscripts on display in Flora + Fauna: A Bounty of Beasts and Botanicals. It’s a chance for you to discover for yourself what unicorns (and all manner of plants and animals) can really do.

Erin Chiparo, Teaching and Research Coordinator, The Lilly Library

I consulted the following sources while writing this blog post:

Gwynne, Penelope. For Unicorn Lovers Only: History, Mythology, Facts, and More. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2020.

Monaci, Fabrizio and Roberta Paganucci. The Library on Display: Imaginary Creatures. Florence: Mandragora, 2007.

Shepard, Odell. The Lore of the Unicorn. New York: Avenel Books, 1982.

Tagliatesta, Francesca. “Iconography of the Unicorn from India to the Italian Middle Ages.”East and West 57, no.1 (December 2007): 175-191.

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