Creature Feature: The Unicorn

by Ken Lymer
The symbol of the unicorn has many guises that have inspired writers and artists since the early Middle Ages. Its name derives from the Latin word unicornis, ‘one horn’, and in early medieval texts it was referred to as a unicorne or vnykorn. Traditionally, the medieval unicorn is goat, ass or small horse with a horn on its forehead, but it was transformed in heraldic iconography into a fierce white steed with a spiral horn, goat’s beard, cloven hooves and lion's tail.

The unicorn came to the fore in medieval times through the popularity of bestiaries: collections of moralistic tales illustrated with strange and fabulous creatures. Though the medieval unicorn was goat-sized, it was a fierce, strong and swift creature, which no hunter could capture. A maiden was used as a lure in the hunt for a unicorn. The unicorn would come to the girl and gently place its head in her lap. Sadly, hunters would then capture it or kill it. This theme is exemplified by the famous Dutch tapestries known as the Hunt of the Unicorn dating circa 1500, which now reside in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Thus, the medieval unicorn became associated with the idea of purity and it was also a popular theme to pair the unicorn with the image of a woman serving as an allegory for qualities of chastity or innocence.

The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry
Another variation on this theme is found in a series of six tapestries known as the Lady and the Unicorn, dating circa 1500, which now reside in Paris. Five of the tapestries are devoted to the five senses of touch, hearing, smell, sight and taste and involve variations of a scene featuring a noble lady with a unicorn to her left and a lion on her right. The sixth tapestry displays the enigmatic words À mon seul désir, ‘to my only desire’, perhaps referring to love or devotion.

The Lady and the Unicorn - Desire
It is important to note that not all unicorns were white. In a famous scene of a hunt for a unicorn from the Rochester Bestiary (circa 1230), the beast is pale brown. Meanwhile, a fragment of a tapestry from Alsace, Germany dating circa 1500 features a beautiful dun coloured unicorn with white spots, which my illustration for this article is based upon.

Since medieval times, the unicorn horn was believed to be a protection against poisons as well as being a cure for a variety of ailments. In Germany, discoveries of fossilised bones were believed to be the remains of unicorns and these were ground up to make such medicines. In 1686 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz visited the Einhornhöhle, ‘Unicorn Cave’, in western Germany which was one of the sources of these bones. A few years later he drew an illustration of a unicorn’s skeleton for his book Protagaea using skull of a woolly rhinoceros and the teeth and bones of mammoth that were found in Einhornhöhle. A narwhal horn was attached to the skull to complete this scientific forgery of the unicornu fossili, fossil unicorn.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's Protagaea Unicorn
The unicorn has also been a heraldic symbol in Scotland since the 12th century, when William I used it as an early form of the Scottish coat of arms. Moreover, during the reign of King James III (1466–1488), gold coins known as ‘Unicorns’ were introduced that featured representations of this heraldic beast.

Scottish Unicorn Coin
During the accession of James I in 1603, England and Scotland were united, and the iconic Royal Coat of Arms of Great Britain was devised that featured the lion representing England and the unicorn as Scotland. Furthermore, the ongoing rivalry between these two countries became satirised in the famous nursery rhyme of The Lion and the Unicorn:

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.

Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
And drummed them out of town.

Lewis Carroll repeats this rhyme in Through the Looking-Glass (1871) and transposes the characters of the lion and unicorn into wonderland. Alice stumbles upon them as they foolishly fight for the crown belonging to the White King. Alice is then handed a plum cake that the lion and unicorn also squabble over. Additionally, Neil Gaiman also alludes to this rhyme in his graphic novel Stardust (1997), which was illustrated by Charles Vess. Gaiman stages a scene beautifully painted by Vess where the protagonists of the novel, Tristran Thorn and Yvaine, witness a lion and a unicorn fighting over a crown in an enchanted forest.

Perhaps, the most celebrated children’s novel about a unicorn is Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse published 1946, which won a Carnegie Medal in the same year. Set in 1842, it features the orphaned teenager, Maria Merryweather, who is sent to live at Moonacre, the manor house of her cousin in the West Country. The novel is full of magical mystery as it is eventually revealed that the ‘little white horse’ is in fact a unicorn. J. K. Rowling has stated this is one of her favourite books and it directly influenced the Harry Potter series.
The Little White Horse

Another notable children’s fantasy novel is Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965). Four children from Manchester become embroiled in the struggle to save the realm of Elidor from the impending darkness. They gather four magical treasures in this task, but they also need a song sung by a powerful unicorn named Findhorn. The children seek out Findhorn and try to enlist his voice to save Elidor.

The director Ridley Scott has also symbolically alluded to unicorns in his films. In Legend there is the special effects laden scene of a unicorn’s horn being cut off by the servants of darkness. Meanwhile, Deckard (Harrison Ford) at the end of Blade Runner finds an origami unicorn left outside his apartment, and in the director’s cut of the film a new enigmatic scene was inserted where Deckard dreams of a unicorn.

Moreover, unicorns have also inspired musicians and songs. The Unicorn was a folk song made famous by the Canadian folk group, The Irish Rovers, in the late 1960s. It tells the tragic story of why unicorns do not exist any longer: they missed Noah’s ark because they were prancing around playing silly games. In more recent times, the Dartmoor based ensemble, The Daughters of Elvin, often perform medieval music with a male dancer dressed in a unicorn mask designed by the famous fairy artist Wendy Froud.

Wendy Froud's Unicorn on CD Cover
All in all, the unicorn has taken on many guises over the centuries which have embodied a variety of different ideas and meanings. Moreover, these different facades still have the power to inspire our endeavours in creating stories, songs, illustrations and movies.

Ken Lymer is an archaeologist and folklore enthusiast with aspirations of becoming a children’s book illustrator and writer. He has designed and illustrated teachers' packs for schools (History Key Stages 1 to 3) ranging on topics from Celtic cauldrons and Roman bath-houses to Benedictine monasteries and the dissolution of Abbeys during late Tudor times. These also feature entertaining games designed by Ken including Dragons & Ladders and Tudor trump cards.


  1. Wow, Ken. Brilliant information. I love the murals. Such amazing detail when zoomed. I went straight to itunes and downloaded The Irish Rovers 'The Unicorn' - brought back youthful happy memories. And of course, 'A Mon Seul Desire' would make a good song title! Watch this space!!

    Thank you for such an inspiring feature. Helen x
    ps love your lifelike self-illustration

  2. lovely article, thank you from Daughters of Elvin

  3. Fantastic Ken.
    I hadn't realised until now that every depiction I've seen of a unicorn has been white so I really like your illustration. Somehow it makes the idea of a unicorn more plausible...

  4. What a wonderful read, Ken! Particularly enjoyed the references to unicorns in a present day context, via films, illustration and performance. And yes the self portrait is very good indeed!

  5. To really get an comprehend of how interesting Please Please Me was when it was published in the UK on Goal 22 of 1963 you have to think about the type of songs that was being performed on the stereo in those days. While it may audio quite control to our hearing 46 decades later, this was definitely "rock n roll" in '63 and far more "hard" than just about anything else out at time. crossword puzzles


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