Unicorns have had a comeback in popular culture lately. The rainbows-and-sparkles version of the unicorn can be found on stationery, beauty products, clothing and even consumables (Unicorn Frappuccino, anyone?) Once again, people have fallen in love with this beautiful creature, and it has become a symbol of “believing in yourself” and embracing the magic in life.
While this colourful version of the unicorn is a bit gaudier than the traditional myth, it all makes sense. Throughout history, people have seen the unicorn as a powerful symbol of things they wish they could attain. Whether that’s innocence, strength or beauty, the unicorn represents all that is special and rare.
So let’s delve into the lore and legend of unicorns, and learn a bit more about this fantastic beast.
Are unicorns real?
If you think about all your typical fantasy creatures - fairies, dragons, mermaids - the unicorn is perhaps the most believable of them all. After all, white horses and animals with horns are both real things - so why not a creature that combines the two?
As we wrote about in our Dragonspace Bestiary post, people did definitely once believe that unicorns were real animals. Ancient Greek writers were the first to note the unicorn in natural history, writing of “wild asses, fleet of foot, having on the forehead a horn a cubit and a half in length”. What were they writing about? Some scholars muse that they might have mistaken another horned or antlered animal - like a rhinoceros, an oryx or an eland - for a magical unicorn. But perhaps they were recording a real creature that has become even more elusive over time.
More recently, the American Journal of Applied Science published a research piece about an ancient animal known as the “Elasmotherium” or, the “Siberian unicorn”. This now-extinct creature was actually a type of rare rhinoceros, but its rarity and horned appearance makes it a close contender for being a “real” unicorn.
But of course, the allure of the unicorn is about more than just its appearance. Much of the unicorn frenzy throughout history comes from the magical powers that the creature - and its distinctive horn - were said to possess.
The Alicorn: a unicorn’s horn
Did you know that a unicorn’s horn is called an ‘alicorn’? This unique feature and its healing attributes are one of the things that make unicorns so special.
Up until the 18th-century, it was widely accepted that that a unicorn’s horn had healing powers, and it was one of the most expensive and sought-after remedies in Medieval Europe. Some of the main medicinal purposes of the alicorn included it being:
- an antidote against poisons
- a treatment for leprosy
- a protection from plague and fever
- a way to purify water
- an aphrodisiac
Alicorns were legitimately sold in apothecaries and distributed throughout royal courts. Queen Elizabeth I reportedly paid a massive 10,000 pounds for a unicorn horn. But were these horns really from the elusive magical horse?
Unfortunately, probably not. The “alicorns” often used in medieval medicine most likely came from narwhals - real marine mammals with a horn similar to that of the unicorn. And as the use of animal horns for human gain is largely unethical, the alicorn is no longer a sought-after medicine.
But just because this element of the unicorn myth turned out to be a fraud, it still doesn’t disprove the existence of unicorns. It just means that these magical beasts wouldn’t easily allow themselves to be captured and turned into a medicinal commodity, of course.
A symbol of innocence and purity
Unicorns have a strong connection with purity, innocence and chastity. Most legends tell that the wild and elusive unicorn could only be tamed by an innocent maiden. In fact, young maidens were said to have been used as “bait” to lure unicorns in, as described by Leonardo da Vinci in his famous notebooks:
“The unicorn…because of its intemperance, not knowing how to control itself before the delight it feels towards maidens, forgets its ferocity and wildness, and casting aside all fear it will go up to the seated maiden and sleep in her lap, and thus the hunter takes it.”
Unicorns are still considered an emblem of purity and innocence. They also represent a beautiful balance between feminine wisdom and masculine strength.
A national icon
Because of its powerful symbolism, the unicorn often appears in royal heraldry. Most notably, the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. Some might think it’s odd that a country known for being quite strong, proud and rugged would have such a “delicate” create as its national animal, but those people obviously don’t understand Scotland...or the unicorn.
The unicorn embodies wildness, intelligence and a fierce determination to be free. As Scotland has a long history of fighting for its independence, the unicorn is in fact the perfect symbol for this proud nation.
Using unicorn energy
Most of us won’t be lucky enough to encounter a physical unicorn in real life, but their strong energy can be called on in your spiritual practice. Understanding the lore and legend of the unicorn will help you known when to call on this energy - in times when cleansing, purity, wisdom and wildness are needed. They’re also a powerful elemental mascot when something is evading you, be it knowledge, wealth or healing. If you can connect with the power of the unicorn, you're a step closer to achieving the unattainable.
We love that these magical beasts are still going strong in popular culture, continuing to inspire our spirits and imaginations. Take a look at our whimsical range of unicorn giftware below, and let us know what unicorns mean to you in the comments.