What is a unicorn? How the legend of the mythical animal came about

The unicorns are loose! At least since the animated film “I – Simply Despicable” from 2010, the unicorn has been back in fashion. But where does the legend of the mythical animal actually come from? And why are unicorns so popular?

The unicorn owes its "existence" a translation error in the Bible – Shutterstock / Marben

The unicorn owes its “existence” to a translation error in the Bible – Shutterstock / Marben

When little Agnes discovered a plush unicorn in a booth at the fairground in the film “I – Despicable Me” with shining eyes, it was all over her. “It’s so fluffy, I’m going insane!” she squeaks delightedly – and thus starts a new hype about unicorns.

Nowadays, there’s hardly anything that can’t be sold once a unicorn has its hooves involved: stuffed animals, slippers, socks, pink smoothies, candy and even sausages and toilet paper. Here you can find out what the myth was originally all about.

What is a unicorn? Magical properties of the mythical being

The unicorn is now represented as a type of horse, sporting a long, coiled horn on its forehead. In the past, the unicorn could also come in the form of a young goat with a horn. Its fur is mostly silvery-white, it looks graceful and beguilingly beautiful. Unicorns usually symbolize goodness and are said to have magical powers. The horn in particular is magical and is said to be able to heal diseases. Those who drink from the horn are said to become immune to poison and fire.

In Europe and Western culture, the unicorn represents purity, innocence, and chastity. The shy, kind creature hides in forests. According to legend, unicorns can only be tamed by virgins. In Japan, the unicorn is called “Kirin” and is a brave creature who tracks down criminals and pierces them with his horn. The Chinese unicorn is called “Qilin” and is pacifist through and through. The peaceful mythical animal does not harm a fly and its presence is always a good omen.

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The Unicorn in the Bible: A Translation Error?

The myth of the unicorn probably has its origins in a translation error. In the third century BC, the Old Testament of the Bible was translated from Hebrew into Greek. In the process, the translators kept coming across a mysterious animal called “Re’em” in Hebrew. They puzzled for a long time what kind of creature it could be.

They finally agreed on the term “monókerōs”, in English: “one horn”. In Latin, the creature was referred to as “unicornis,” which Martin Luther later translated as “unicorn” when translating the Bible into German. However, the horse-like mythical animal with the magic horn was not meant, but the aurochs. Although it has two horns, it was depicted from the side on ancient Babylonian reliefs and wall paintings. In profile, however, one horn covers the other, so that it appears as a single horn on the forehead.

The translation error was only discovered in the 18th century – when the unicorn had long since had its place in the world of mythology. In addition, throughout history, influential figures such as Marco Polo have repeatedly sworn that they had seen a unicorn. In truth, they’d probably only heard of it, mistook the rhino for the unicorn, or seen an antelope with a broken horn. It’s also possible that they saw an ungulate that just happens to have one horn on its forehead due to a mutation, like the one-horned deer in Italy in 2008 from the video:

The unicorn trend today: mythical creatures in literature and film

The beautiful, lovable mythical animal is now an integral part of pop culture. Films like “The Last Unicorn” (1982), which is based on the book trilogy by Peter S. Beagle, seem to touch people’s longing for peace and goodness. Various fantasy novels mention unicorns, which have magical powers but at the same time are very shy and often lonely.

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