The unicorn is one of the most ancient mythological beasts.  Although in modern times it is most often depicted as an ethereal white horse, it has been variously described as an antelope, sheep, goat, or as a composite creature akin to a griffin or sphinx. Then, as later, the unicorn was a symbol of power and virility.

The oldest description of a unicorn occurs in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and in Mesopotamian art it is depicted a a great beast with a ringed neck and long, curving horn.  The earliest mention of the unicorn in the West comes from a Greek account of a fearsome beast with a red head and blue eyes; it’s horn is ascribed the properties later given to the bezoar stone: protection against poisons and disease. Later, Aristotle was to describe the unicorn as a type of antelope.

While the Indian creature was almost certainly a fancifully described Rhinoceros, scholars today believe the Mesopotamian creature to have been a giant aurochs (a now extinct species of buffalo). It is this beast which is described in Old Testament accounts, and probably identical to the mythical ‘Bull’ of Ninevah. A mistranslation of the name (Re’em, ‘horned’) led to the legend of the one-horned beast, to which the strength of God is compared. Jewish legend linked the unicorn to the lion, describing them as fierce enemies, an image carried over in heraldic art.

In the middle ages, the unicorn was described as a small, goat-like creature who was nonetheless very fierce, and whose capture could only be accomplished by a virgin, whose virtue attracted the beast. Although many of these stories tended to be quite adult oriented, the obvious parallels to the legend of Christ and his virginal mother, the virgin who was chosen as the only suitable vessel to contain the incarnation of God.

The virgin and the Unicorn, Leonardo Da Vinci

Gilgamesh and the unicorn

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