Unicorns, West and East

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Unicorn and reptiles, 17th c. engraving
© Mary Evans Picture Library

Are All Mythic Creatures Scary?

While many mythic creatures are man-eating monsters or evil spirits, others, like unicorns, are powerful and peaceful. Both the pearly white unicorn of European lore and the benevolent Asian unicorn avoid contact with humans, preferring to remain unseen. When humans do encounter unicorns, the creatures cause them no harm, a favor that is not always returned. Indeed, countless stories tell of humans hunting European unicorns and luring them into traps.

Mythic Unicorns

In modern fairy tales and other stories, the mythic unicorn looks like a white horse with a single long horn on its head. But in older stories, this fantastic creature had a short, colored horn and the body of a goat.

Woman and Unicorn; illustration (vellum) by Robinet Testard (fl.1470-1523) from the 'Book of Simple Medicines' c.1470
Credit: National Library, St. Petersburg, Russia/The Bridgeman Art Library

European Unicorn

Once upon a time, a hunter in the forest saw a brilliant white unicorn in the distance, emerging from a river and gleaming like the moon. Enchanted by the sight, the hunter called together his friends and gave chase. But the unicorn knew that men could never catch him, so he playfully waited for the hunters to draw close before bounding out of view. After a while, the unicorn came to a stop in front of a beautiful young maiden sitting under a tree. She reached out, combed his curling mane and rubbed his horn until he lay his head in her lap. But it was a trap! Looking up at the maiden, the unicorn saw her brown eyes were filled with tears and realized her deceit too late--the dogs and men suddenly seized him and carried him away. Afterward, the maiden remained in the woods, despondent. As she leaned down to wash away her tears in the stream, a movement in the distance caught her eye: She couldn't be sure, but she thought it was the shining horn of a unicorn disappearing into the night.

--Adapted from medieval European folktales; Greek authors told similar stories over 2,000 years ago.

An Ancient Tale

You may have heard that the one-horned unicorn is so magical that its horn can counteract poisons, and it is so elusive that no person can catch it. But did you know these unicorn stories began in ancient Greece? More than 2,000 years ago, Greek travelers told tales of unicorns living in far-off lands. As the fabulous accounts spread around the Western world, few people questioned that unicorns actually existed. Indeed, in about 300 BC, scholars translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek concluded that the Hebrew term re'em referred to a unicorn. Even early naturalists considered the unicorn to be a living animal: Several ancient catalogues of animals of the world include unicorns and describe them as solitary beasts that often battle lions and elephants.

Unicorn illustration from Topsell, rare book collection
American Museum of Natural History Library

At a Glance: European Unicorn

In stories, unicorns live deep in the forest and are rarely seen by people.

  • White coat--but some early authors and artists described it as yellowish red, or even brown.
  • Usually a horse's body, often with cloven hooves like a goat; sometimes the entire body looks like a goat's.
  • Long, white spiraled horn--but early Greek naturalists described a shorter, blunter horn colored red, black and white.
  • Goat's beard.
  • Tail of a lion--but some descriptions include the tail of a horse, goat, or boar.

The Christian Unicorn

Art historians have long considered the unicorn to be a symbol for Christ, a link seen most clearly in the story of a maiden capturing a unicorn (told above). For instance, the unicorn's placing his head in the lap of the young maiden, or virgin, recalls baby Jesus lying in the lap of the Virgin Mary. In other stories and artworks, the unicorn dips its horn into poisoned water to purify it for the other animals to drink, a reference to the story of Christ's sacrifice to cleanse the sins of mankind.

So They Say

"There are wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single large, black horn in the middle of the forehead... They have a head like a wild boar's and always carry it stooped towards the ground. They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins."

--Italian explorer Marco Polo, c. AD 1300, most likely describing a Sumatran rhinoceros

Royal Respect

Even today, unicorns remain objects of wonder and beauty, often appearing as characters in popular movies and books. But they can also symbolize majesty and power. Strong and powerful unicorns are featured on the Royal Arms of both Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Illustration from Historiae Animalium, Liber I, Germany, 1620, by Konrad Gesner.
American Museum of Natural History Library RF-29-G

Natural History Book

In 1551, Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner wrote Historiae Animalium, a book describing all of the animals that he thought lived on Earth. This 1620 edition includes a description of a unicorn, presumably based on the accounts of travelers to far-off lands.




Horn in Case

The Monastery of Saint Mary in Guadalupe, Spain, gave an African white rhinoceros horn to a dying Pope Gregory XIV in 1590. Like unicorn horns, rhinoceros horns were thought to have magical, curative properties. Though the tip of the horn was cut off and administered to the Pope, it proved ineffective and he died shortly thereafter.


James III, King of Scotland from 1460 to 1488, issued several coins that featured unicorns.

Narwhal tooth: The elongated spiral tooth of the narwhal, a small whale that lives in arctic waters, traded as unicorn horns
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Is This a Unicorn Horn?

No, but it certainly looks like one. This enormous "horn" is the tusk of a male narwhal, a kind of Arctic whale. Before Europeans became familiar with these tusks, unicorns were often described as having horns in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. But in the Middle Ages, Danish sailors and other merchants from the North brought narwhal tusks to European markets, where buyers considered them to be valuable, magical remains of elusive unicorns. From then on, nearly all descriptions of unicorn horns are consistent: They are long, white and spiraled, just like this one.

Fighting male narwhals (Monodon monoceros), Canada
© F. Nicklen/Minden Pictures

A Magical Horn

Many stories of unicorns refer to the magical properties of their horns, a claim first made by a Greek physician named Ctesias nearly 2,000 years ago. Those lucky enough to possess a horn might take advantage of its wide range of healing properties, from detecting and neutralizing poisons and curing fevers to prolonging youth and acting as an aphrodisiac.

Narwhals are small whales from the icy channels of northern Canada and northwestern Greenland.

Narwhals are sometimes called sea unicorns because of the enormous tusk that grows from the upper jaw in males.

Some scientists have speculated that narwhal tusks, which can grow almost as long as three meters (about 10 feet), might be enormous sensory organs that can detect subtle changes in temperature and pressure.

Unicorn apothecary sign
© On loan from Germanisches National Museum; Nuremberg, Germany

A Magical Cup?

In the Middle Ages, narwhal tusks were widely thought to be unicorn horns with magical, curative properties. Indeed, cups made from narwhal tusks were thought to neutralize poisons and were highly valued. Elizabeth I, Queen of England in the 1500s, is said to have owned a tusk worth 10,000 pounds, the price of a castle.

Unicorn Sign

This sign was made around 1750 and hung above the door to a German apothecary, or pharmacy, a continuation of the medieval association of unicorns and medicine. Indeed, in medieval Europe, unicorn horns were thought to be able to cure a range of illnesses, from epilepsy to the plague. This unicorn's horn is actually a narwhal tusk.

Qilin incense burner: Incense burner in the form of a qilin, or "Chinese unicorn," Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Asian Unicorn

Thousands of years ago, the sage Fu Hsi was sitting by a river when he was splashed with water. Raising his eyes, he saw the unicorn, which the Chinese call the qilin ("chee-lin"), wading carefully through the river. The animal resembled a deer but had shining scales like a dragon. A single horn grew from its forehead. Its back was covered with strange signs and magic symbols. As the qilin walked away, Fu Hsi grabbed a stick and traced the symbols as best he could in the dirt.

--Adapted from ancient Chinese stories

An Eastern Omen

Long before the pearly white unicorn of European lore, a one-horned, magical animal was said to roam the Eastern world: the Asian unicorn. First mentioned in written stories around 2700 BC, this unicorn is described as a creature of great power and wisdom. Always benevolent, it avoids fighting at all costs and walks so softly it will not crush a blade of grass. Much like its European cousin, the Asian unicorn enjoys its solitude and cannot be captured. Its rare appearances are omens, celebrating a just and wise ruler.

At A Glance: Asian Unicorn

According to legend, the Chinese philosopher Confucius was the last person ever to see an Asian unicorn.

  • Scaly coat--or multicolored in blue, black, red, white and yellow.
  • Deer's body.
  • A flesh-covered horn--or sometimes two or even three horns.
  • Tail of an ox.
Kirin beer label.
Courtesy of Kirin Brewery of America, LLC, Torrance, CA 90502

Unicorn Beer!

In Japan, the unicorn is called the kirin and is the symbol and name of a popular beer. The word kirin has also come to mean "giraffe" in modern Japanese, perhaps owing to an earlier confusion: In 1414, Cheng Ho, the returning leader of an expedition to Africa, presented to the Chinese emperor a live "unicorn" that was, in fact, a giraffe.

Carved Mask

In Japan, the unicorn is called the kirin. A kirin mask has a hinged jaw and was likely used in festivals.

Incense Burner

A incense burner is in the form of a Chinese unicorn, called a qilin. To some Chinese, burning incense helps to establish a connection between our world and the world of gods and ancestors.

Papier-Mâché Mask

A unicorn mask was made from recycled paper in Hanoi, Vietnam, for the Mid-Autumn Festival, when children wear masks and receive presents.


A netsuke, a toggle or fastener used to attach containers to clothing, is carved in the shape of a Japanese unicorn, called a kirin.