The way to kill a unicorn was once simple: you found a virgin who would sit quietly in a glade until the creature made its way to her and put its head in her lap. Then the hunters could come and kill it.
The sadder 21st-century method of dispatching the beast is to reinvent it, either as an asinine children’s character or as a metaphor for business. The capitalist “unicorn” is a term used in the venture capital industry to describe a privately held start-up company with a value of over $1 billion (why?). The children’s version is My Little Pony with a horn, a winsome white creature with a striped horn and rainbow tail. Recently there was a twist to that version when a children’s author got a huge, six figure advance to write about bad unicorns … bloodthirsty ones.
This is obviously a travesty of a proper unicorn, the kind that features, say, in the tapestry series The Lady and the Unicorn in the Cluny museum in Paris. That unicorn has the most expressive face, especially when he contemplates it in the mirror. Unicorns are essentially mystical, including the heraldic creature who appears in the nursery rhyme where the lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown until they were seen off with bread and plum cake. (The two of them surface later in Alice in Wonderland.)
Where did unicorns come from?
The earliest European to write about the unicorn was a Greek, Ctetias, physician to Darius II, king of the Persians. In 398 BC he wrote a book about India where he describes:
[W]ild asses as big as horses. Their bodies are white, their heads purple, their eyes a dark blue colour. They have one horn in their foreheads about a cubit in length. The lowest part of the horn is white, two handsbreadths’ up it is flaming crimson, but in the centre of this, quite black … they say that whoever drinks from this horn is free of incurable disease.”
Ctetias was, crucially, quoted by Aristotle. He was in turn quoted by Pliny in his Natural History, which mentions a fierce Monoceros, who has a black horn in his forehead. None of the authorities here claimed to have seen the creature itself: he is born of hearsay and perhaps of images.
Into this mix we get another, more potent unicorn, the Reem or Remu of the Old Testament. This is the name of a horned creature which appears in the Book of Deuteronomy (35:17); Numbers (24:8); Psalms 22 and 29; in Isaiah (34:7); in Daniel (with a lion); and crucially in the Book of Job, where God asks Job: “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?”
Of all of them, it is only in Daniel that we learn that the creature is categorically one-horned and that it may be figurative.
The creature then surfaced in the Greek-speaking world, when the authors of the Septuagint translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek in Alexandria. They used the Greek term from the natural histories, Monoceros (one-horn), and when St Jerome translated the Septuagint into Latin, he adopted the word unicornus, or sometimes rhinoceros. The unicorn was born. Gregory the Great’s commentaries on Job brought it into even wider currency.
The unicorn’s legend takes on another aspect from the Physiologus, or natural history or bestiary, by (probably) Didymus of Alexandria. The crucial edition is a Syrian version from around AD 300, where we first learn how to catch a unicorn: the huntsmen must bring out a young virgin whom the animal will fall upon and suckle her breast. The girl must seize its horn, at which point the animal can be captured and brought to the king.
This unicorn was transformed further by the biblical exegetes who never took anything at face value. Tertullian writes that the unicorn of Deuteronomy in fact was the type of Christ. St Ambrose agrees. Gregory the Great, in his commentary on Job, observes that the creature who “will only allow itself to be coaxed by a pure virgin, signifies Christ, who only consented to be born of a virgin”. In the early 12th century, Honorius of Autum went further and identified the huntsmen who capture the animal. They are good Christians: “He was found in human form by those who love Him.”
The Virgin and the Unicorn, then, has a long lineage, and underlying the medieval images of courtly love featuring unicorns we find Christ and his mother. A far cry from billion pound businesses, isn’t it?