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279

unicorn

OLogy Series
anthropology
card
279

unicorn

OLogy Series
anthropology

Today, unicorns are creatures of fairy tales. But thousands of years ago, people believed these creatures were real, living animals. In Europe, Greek travelers told tales of unicorns, and naturalists described them in the books they wrote. Thousands of years earlier, Chinese were telling their own tales of the unicorn. In both Asia and Europe, people believed the unicorn was an elusive, powerful, and peaceful creature.

It was once believed that unicorn horns were magical, able to:

make people invisible

cure an illness

produce fire

Are you right?

Correct!

In Europe, people believed that unicorn horns had magical healing properties. It was thought that unicorn horns could cure illnesses, counteract poisons, and even prolong youth.

In the Middle Ages, unicorn "horns" were sold in many European markets. These horns were actually:

tusks from African elephants retrieved by explorers

marble rods carved by local craftspeople

tusks from narwhals, a kind of Arctic whale

Are you right?

Correct!

The tusk of the male narwhal is long, pearly white, and spiraled--which is why they're sometimes called "sea unicorns." The tusks were brought to markets by Danish sailors and other merchants from the North.

Laurel Kendall, anthropologist

Marco Polo thought he saw a unicorn in what is now Indonesia. But he was disappointed because it was large and dirty. We know from his description that what he saw was a rhinoceros.

In Asian mythology, the unicorn has shining, colorful scales like a dragon.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fact

This unicorn varies from the European unicorn in other ways, too. It has the body of a deer, a wolf-like head, and the tail of an ox. Sometimes it's shown with two or three horns.

Unlike the European unicorn, the Asian unicorn is aggressive and dangerous.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fiction

Both the European and Asian unicorns were believed to be kind creatures. The Asian unicorn is said to be so kind, that it walks so softly it will not crush a blade of grass.

Distinct characteristic: Long horn protruding from forehead
Other physical features: In Europe, the body of a white horse, beard and cloven hooves of a goat, tail of a lion. In Asia, the body of a deer, head of a wolf, tail of an ox, with scaly, multi-colored coat in blue, black, red, white, and yellow.
Significance: Symbol of power, peace, magic
First stories: About 4,700 years ago (Asia); over 2,000 years ago (Greece)

Image credits: Sean Murtha; Laurel Kendall: courtesy of AMNH.