Elyse Waters, who is hosting Unicorns: A Zoological Analysis as part of Scotland’s history festival, first became interested in the subject when she discovered a medieval cookbook that included a recipe for how best to cook the mythical beast.
During her research, the historian found that the Unicorn was believed to be the natural enemy of the lion - a symbol that the English royals adopted around a hundred years before.
According to folklore, the lion and the unicorn hate each other - a tradition going back to the ancient Babylonians in 3,500 B.C.
The second natural enemy? The elephant.
“It was always said that the unicorn would always defeat the elephant, that it had this immense strength to it, even despite its diminished size, it couldn’t be beaten by something as large and powerful as an elephant.
“I think it also had to do with the idea of nobility and purity.
“In the various depictions of the unicorn, the stories that go along with it there’s one in particular, the water cleansing story. A snake would come up to the watering hole and poison it, but then the unicorn would then come along and dip its horn into the watering hole to purify it for all the other animals.
“So it had a combination of this power to dominate, but instead of using the power, it used it to protect and provide other resources for other animals. And in medieval times, when there was this great focus on chivalry, it became the ultimate animal. It could do what ever it wanted because of that power, but it chose to use this power to make better for other things.
“When you combine this with all the other stories about its greatness, its power and its ferocity - you can understand why they wanted it.”
In Western parts of the world, the unicorn was believed to be real for around 2,500 years and was adopted as Scotland’s national animal by King Robert in the late 1300s.
The existence of the mythical creature was only disproved in 1825 by scientist Baron George Covier, who said it was not feasible for an animal that had a split hoof to have a single horn coming from the top of its head. Worldwide, belief in the unicorn lasted well over 4,000 years, particularly in eastern Asia where it was a benevolent bringer of good luck.
“While the theory that a unicorn could not physiologically exist was disproved by Dr Dove in 1900, due to his experiment with a bull calf, by this point, no one really believed that unicorns existed in the first place,” Ms Waters said.
This belief that Europeans held so strongly influenced thousands of years of the elite in society. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about the physical appearance of the unicorn based on Ctesias’ book called Indica, with the first mention in Western literature of India, which described the herd habits of the unicorn.
As the court physician to King Darius II, Ctesias heard stories from delegates from across the world, some of which were tales of the mystical unicorn, which given his position in the palace, was taken to be fact.
It is thought that there were several animals which influenced the unicorn, including the most common - the Indian rhino.
“There are also animals like the Tibetan antelope, the kiang, and the yak, as well as the Persian onager, which contributed various aspects such as personality and colouration.
“When we think about unicorns now, we think of this horse like body, pure white, with a white horn that looks like a narwhal tusk, which is very different from how it was first talked about by the Greek and Romans.
“They believed it to be quite large, with really powerful hooves that were single, like a sheep, and not split like the horse. The horn itself was supposed to be very long and black, so the antelope would have given aspects such as the horn the colouration.
“By the time we get to the European side of things, a lot of people have not been to these places where the other types of animals came from, so they could only work off of what animals they could see in the bestiaries’, or drawings of animals that they knew themselves.
“So you see in these bestiaries’, the drawings of unicorns were given characteristics from animals like greyhounds, sheep and goats. The depiction of the unicorn got smaller and smaller, until it became this very tender, goat like creature.
“Actually in some of the depictions they look as small as mice; in others they look larger, around the size of a boar and they had various characteristics added onto them as stories do over the years. So they might have the body of a boar but the head of a pig and the tail of a horse; or the body of a goat and the tail of a lion.”
In medieval Europe, the unicorn became this highly influential status of power, which impacted every level of society for thousands of years. This only lead to Elyse’s growing obsession with the creature.
“I became very interested in how something that didn’t actually exist, what was it about the unicorn, that became so influential to people?
“Because merchants would sell unicorn horns - they were often gifts for kings or for different religious institutions. And these things would cost tens of thousands of pounds, and that’s before you do the currency conversion into modern money. They were absolutely extravagant.”
The unicorn became so universally believed in because it was so heavily integrated with their daily lives.
“The horn was used as an antidote in medication, so people weren’t just talking about these things as a mythological creature, but were literally interacting with what they thought were unicorns themselves. That personal interaction, that touch - it makes it more than something that’s lofty or an ideal that can’t be touched. It became an ideal that was almost corporeal in a way.”
This was an important aspect as to how people came to believe that the unicorn existed for all those thousands of years.
“There are four main aspects of how to sell a myth.
“It needs to provide for a need, which the unicorn provided through being an antidote to poison.
“It needs to fit into the scientific knowledge of that time - it can’t be this explanation of ‘just because magic’, or ‘the supernatural’. It really needs to fit in with the understanding people had and it needed to be plausible.
“It needs to be something people can interact with - so the importance of touch and the importance of those items which were sold and traded as unicorn horns. Whatever they were used for - whether it was goblets or jewellery or even just table decorations - the importance of that physicality.
“Also how there needed to be tests of authenticity for these things – you couldn’t just give someone something and say that it works, there has to be some sort of confirmation that it works. We can look back at the steps the horn had to go through before it became important to society.”
The way unicorns are now portrayed in society has very much changed from its noble, lofty status, to a very child orientated tale. It’s drawn a lot of characteristics from the Asian depictions of unicorns, this idea of a purely benevolent creature that has been immersed in a lot of modern society, probably due to the spread of media. But the unicorn in medieval Europe could be used of good or for evil. It could represent purity or lust depending on the depictions.
From popular culture to Charlie the Unicorn, or even My Little Pony, it seems that it will always have a place in society.