Unicorns in Greece and Rome

Greek and Roman Literary Sources on the Unicorn

When you think of the unicorn, you probably think of the beautiful Renaissance unicorn tapestries hanging in the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tapestries show a white, 1-horned, equine (actual horse or resembling one), tame under the ministrations of the lady. You might notice the unicorn bears some odd features for a horse, like a goat (caprine) beard, some sort of ruminant's head, and, possibly, a lion or bull tail.

If not familiar with the tapestries, you might think of the sad scene from the first Harry Potter movie where a unicorn is killed so the evil Voldemort can drink its magical blood. There are many similar fictional representations of the unicorn; most of the modern ones show the same features: one, long, pointed white or gilded horn coming from the forehead, gentleness, speed, white body, and totally horse in form. Both the Renaissance and modern visions of the unicorn have their roots in ancient history.

Ctesias

One of the earliest written mentions of the unicorn comes from a late 5th century B.C. Greek physician and writer named Ctesias of Cnidus. He may have been appointed to the court of King Darius II of Persia in 416 [according to Lore of the Unicorn] or from 404-398/397, to the court of Persian king Artaxerxes II Mnemon [according to Jona Lendering's Ctesias of Cnidus, from the Suda].

In Ctesias' description you can see the origins of the Renaissance/modern vision.

"Ctesias... reports that the unicorn's body is white, the head is dark red, the eyes dark blue; the base of the horn is white, the upper part crimson, the middle section black. He refers to the animal as the wild ass of India, capable of outrunning the common ass, the horse or stag. He also comments on the healing properties of the horn."
Elmer G. Suhr "An Interpretation of the Unicorn"
Note that in Ctesias' description the horn is tri-colored and the head of the beast is red. The beast's celerity and medicinal properties are already present. Instead of being essentially a horse, the unicorn is the related ass. In "The Association of the Lady and the Unicorn, and the Hunting Mythology of the Caucasus," David Hunt adds that Ctesias' unicorn is large as a horse.

Aristotle

Hunt provides a version of what could be a unicorn from Aristotle (384-22 B.C.):

"... a he-goat [who] came from the west, skimming over the whole earth without touching the ground; it had a prominent horn between its eyes."

Caesar

Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) is credited with describing a 1-horned animal from the Hercynian Forest in Germany, which is "an 'ox, shaped like a stag'" with a long straight horn [Hunt].

In "The Curious Animals of the Hercynian Forest," Hyde says the Romans used the word ox generically for a large beast, for instance, "the elephant was known as the Lucanian ox (Luca bos)."

Pliny

Also according to Hunt, Pliny (23-79 A.D.) describes the unicorn-like animal as having a horse body, stag head, elephantine feet and a boar's tail. The 3-foot horn is black and the beast is too swift to be caught.

By this time, the animal is a composite creature or chimera, but it still has the most salient features, the horn and an equine body.

Apollonius and Cosmas

Suhr says Apollonius of Tyana (1st century A.D.), who may have spent time in India (according to the OCD), reports that he saw the unicorn. In contrast, the Alexandrian Greek Cosmas Indicopleustes (fl. 550 A.D., according to the OCD) denies having seen the actual unicorn but saw brazen images from the palace of the king of Ethiopia. Cosmas Indicopleustes says the beast's strength resides in its horn, which it uses, when escaping pursuit, by somersaulting over a cliff and landing on its shock-absorbing point. Odell Shepard ("Lore of the Unicorn") says the images Cosmas claims to have seen would have been 3-dimensional, so the profile of a 2-horned animal as a unicorn that one would see in a bas-relief view does not apply.

[This article lists Greeks and Romans who wrote about the unicorn and what they wrote; it does not attempt to analyze whether the animal in question might be a real, unknown beast, a rhinoceros, or otherwise; however, one suggestion about the unicorn (or monoceros [Greek]) is that it was actually a normal 2-horned beast, but the viewer was unable to see the second horn.]

Aelian

Another source on the unicorn is the Roman naturalist Aelian of Praeneste (175-c.235). Suhr says Aelian describes the animal as a white-bodied wild ass, with an almost purple head. Aelian says its horn was used as an Indian drinking vessel, which indicates the fiercely kicking and biting animal, with inedible flesh, was not quite so swift as the Plinian version.

Solinus

Another ancient source on the unicorn is Solinus, whom Mommsen dates to mid-third century A.D. Suhr provides Solinus' description of the unicorn:

"the unicorn is a monster, a cruel animal with a horrible bellow, a horse's body, elephant's feet, a swine's tail, a stag's head and a sharp, piercing horn in the middle of his forehead; he cannot be caught alive."
Solinus' unicorn's horn had grown a foot since Pliny's day.

"Physiologus"

The anonymous Physiologus, written between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D., according to the OCD, describes the unicorn as:

"He is a small animal, like a kid, but exceedingly fierce, with one horn in the middle of the head; and no hunter is able to capture him ... he has a beard and the cloven hooves of a goat."
Hunt
The Physiologus' swift, 1-horned, small animal, with caprine beard and hooves sounds a lot like the tapestry version. Well... except for the temperament.

References and Further Reading

  • The Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD)
    • Samuel James Beeching Barnish "Cosmas Indicopleustes"
    • Herbert Jennings Rose, Antony J. S. Spawforth "Apollonius of Tyana"
    • Michael Burney Trapp "Physiologus"
    • Eric Herbert Warmington "Iulius Solinus, Gaius"
  • "The Association of the Lady and the Unicorn, and the Hunting Mythology of the Caucasus," by David Hunt.
    Folklore, Vol. 114, No. 1 (Apr., 2003), pp. 75-90.
  • "Concerning the Real Unicorn," by Spencer Trotter.
    Science, New Series, Vol. 28, No. 722 (Oct. 30, 1908), pp. 608-609.
  • "The Curious Animals of the Hercynian Forest," by Walter Woodburn Hyde.
    The Classical Journal, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Jan., 1918), pp. 231-245.
  • "An Interpretation of the Unicorn," by Elmer G. Suhr.
    Folklore, Vol. 75, No. 2 (Summer, 1964), pp. 91-109.
  • The Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard
  • "Origins from Mythology of Biological Names and Terms: Part III, O-Z," by P. H. Yancey.
    Bios, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec., 1945), pp. 268-282.
  • "The Reliability of Megasthenes," by Truesdell S. Brown.
    The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 76, No. 1 (1955), pp. 18-33.