Entry from the #WhitworthBestiary. Unicorns: Not All Glitter and Rainbows.

In this latest entry from the #WhitworthBestiary, Steph takes an in-depth look at unicorns. It seems they’re not all glitter and rainbows…

Unicorn detail from an altar frontal depicting the Tree of Jesse. The altar frontal is thought to be German in origin, from the Cologne area. Altar frontal dates back to 1470-79 CE. Source: the Whitworth

Here at the Whitworth we have a few unicorns hiding in our collection, including the rather tiny unicorn pictured above.

Belief in the existence of unicorns goes back a long way. It was reinforced in Europe by men like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder. Aristotle spoke of the existence of an ‘Indian ass’ that had a single horn on its head in his History of Animals and Pliny the Elder spoke of the ‘monoceros’ of India. Monoceros is Greek for ‘one horned’, much like ‘unicorn’ (which comes from the Latin unicornis) also refers to something that has one horn. Pliny claimed that the animal he was describing had feet like an elephant’s, a head similar to a stag’s, a body like a horse and a tail similar to a boar’s. The animal was also said to be incredibly strong, so much so that it was impossible to capture one alive.

The beast Pliny describes sounds similar to a rhinoceros and India is home to the Indian rhinoceros, also known as the greater one-horned rhino, which is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The species is not just present in India; it can also be found in Nepal. A recent viral video shows a rhino walking down the almost empty streets of a town in Nepal during a lockdown last year. Thanks to conservation efforts in India and Nepal, the animal is doing well for a species that was very close to going extinct during the early 20th century.

The greater one-horned rhino and its African counterparts were displayed in Rome on multiple occasions. They continued to be brought to Rome even up to the reign of Vespasian, with whom Pliny the Elder enjoyed a friendship. Could the various species of rhinoceros, particularly the Greater one-horned rhino be the origin of chubby unicorns memes?

Stamp seal and modern impression: unicorn and incense burner (?) C. 2600-1900 BCE. Indus Valley. Source: The Met Museum. Open access image courtesy of The Met Museum.

Seals from the Indus Valley or Harappan civilisation such as the one pictured above, which dates back to around 2600-1900 BCE, sometimes depict what looks like a one-horned creature but may be a two-horned creature with one horn hidden. This ‘unicorn’, as some refer to it, looks rather bovine in appearance. The rhinoceros is not necessarily the only explanation in the natural world for accounts of unicorns but the connections Greek and Roman writers made between the rhinoceros and the unicorn are certainly interesting. Perhaps this connection and the internet memes equating rhinos with unicorns could have a positive impact; some small, ethical businesses produce products which encourage people to ‘save the chubby unicorns’ and they donate a portion of their profits to wildlife conservation and reforestation schemes.

Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut print of a greater one-horned rhino, produced in the year 1515, illustrates how different this species looks from its African counterparts but it is also a work of fiction in some ways; it’s believed that Dürer had never seen this animal in person and some of the features are, well, off. The rhino almost appears as though it is wearing a suit of armour, which is not too dissimilar from the reality of the appearance of this particular species of rhino but some of the features present in the print are clearly incorrect. This work became a standard setter in terms of how the rhinoceros was depicted in images for a priod lasting nearly two hundred years, odd (and incorrect) horns on the shoulder and all. For all its faults, however, the skillful attempts to try to create as realistic a representation of the animal as possible from very little source material are evident. The artist had not viewed this animal in person.

Dürer’s work is believed to have potentially been inspired by a description or an illustration from someone who had seen the animal in person. King Manuel I of Portugal was gifted a rhinoceros by the sultan of what is now Gujarat during the early 16th century. Manuel in turn gifted the rhinoceros to Pope Leo X but the ship the animal was being transported on sank before it could reach Rome. Prior to almost receiving a live rhinoceros from King Manuel, Pope Leo X had received a live elephant named Hanno. The elephant became a firm favourite of the pope. Hanno, unfortunately, died young and after his death he was depicted by the artist Raphael in a life-sized memorial painting.

Albrecht Dürer, The Rhinoceros, c.1515. Source: National Gallery of Art. Open Access image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The rhinoceros is not the only candidate for the inspiration behind stories of unicorns. Chris Lavers’ book The Natural History of Unicorns does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak; the book tracks the natural history of the unicorn, or perhaps that should be unicorns of all varieties, in historical texts. It’s a great read which examines the animals people could have been describing centuries ago and how these might have ended up becoming the unicorn in various texts, including Judeo-Christian scriptures. Yes, that’s right; thanks to the scholars who would become known as the Septuagint scratching their heads about something called the ‘reem’ and how best to translate the word for a Greek translation of the Bible they were working on for Ptolemy II, the monoceros or one-horn has ended up in some odd places.[1]

Altar frontal with Tree of Jesse. Cologne area. C.1470-79 CE. Tapestry woven in linen, silk, wool and gold and silver thread. Source: the Whitworth.

The way the unicorn was depicted during the Middle Ages ranged from a small, goat-like creature to the more familiar equine incarnation we usually see today. The altar frontal pictured above, dating back to around 1470-79 CE, features a large Tree of Jesse; the family tree of Christ, starting with Jesse (the father of King David.) This was a popular motif in medieval art. The unicorn stands underneath the throne, along with stags, what appears to be a lamb, and some rather grumpy-looking rabbits. In each of the four corners you can see there is a symbol of the Four Evangelists; Matthew (the winged man or angel), Mark (the winged lion), Luke (the winged ox) and John (the eagle).

What does the unicorn have to do with Christ and God specifically and why is it depicted on such a tapestry? A 12th century bestiary in the Cambridge University Library compares the unicorn to Christ and claims that the unicorn’s horn is symbolic of the unity of the Father and the Son. The bestiary cites different Psalms in which God is associated with unicorns on account of the strength a unicorn was believed to have or because of the precious nature of the unicorn. King David himself, who also appears on the tapestry, was thought to be the author of many Psalms. Thus comparisons between Christ, God and the unicorn may account for the inclusion of one on the altar frontal at the Whitworth.

Although one passage in this 12th century bestiary says that the unicorn is supposed to be small and kid-like, it still seems to pack a real punch. The translated entry also says that it is known as the rhinoceros to the Greeks.[2] Far from the glitter and rainbows many associate unicorns with today, the bestiary’s entry ends by claiming that the unicorn fights elephants and guarantees his victory by hurting their belly. This sounds decidedly less cute than My Little Pony and rather more like some sort of awful endangered species fight club to me! The raw power of the unicorn is juxtaposed against its purity and gentleness in his encounters with virgins; the bestiary claims that a unicorn can be caught by using a virgin to lure in and tame the animal, as the otherwise ferocious unicorn will willingly put himself in the lap of a virgin and behave like a tame animal. Encounters between unicorns and ladies have been depicted on a number of famous tapestries. Unicorns are also sometimes depicted on textiles, particularly tapestries, as being surrounded by plants which may all have their own meaning. These plants are sometimes herbs, perhaps a link to the supposed medicinal properties and purifying powers of the horn?

Lacis border depicting unicorns and floral motifs. Italian. C. 1550-1649. Source: the Whitworth.

The 12th century bestiary at Cambridge contains a separate entry on the monoceros, which T.H. White, the translator, linked to the entry on the unicorn in his footnotes because it’s not quite clear exactly which animal either one horned creature is supposed to be in some bestiaries. The entry on the monoceros follows a very similar vein to what Pliny the Elder had to say about the creature, down to the physical description and the idea that it cannot be caught alive.

You might be tempted see beautifully illuminated bestiaries as being the natural history books of their day but it’s important to remember that, although we might laugh at the idea of animals being compared to figures such as Christ or the Devil, they explained what was thought about certain creatures within the framework in which the (often anonymous) authors lived and the way in which they believed the world to be ordered by God. They were not really meant to be textbooks on nature, although some of the ideas contained within them had an influence on the natural sciences. They gathered information from a variety of sources, such as; Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, Classical sources concerning the natural world (such as Pliny the Elder’s Natural History) and religious sources such as the Bible.

Descriptions of animals were placed within a moral and religious framework. So the 12th century bestiary at Cambridge University Library draws parallels between certain aspects of a lion’s behaviour (or perceived behaviour based on stories the author may have heard) and the life of Christ, for example. These parallels can seen quite humorous at some points in the entry which refers to the lion’s supposed merciful qualities, such as the alleged sparing of women and children except for when he is very hungry, but the entry on lions also includes what we might view as observations of a slightly more scientific or secular nature to our minds. The genre of the bestiary seems to have been quite broad; some scholars have noted that bestiaries were adapted to more secular audiences as time went on and they emphasise the entertainment value bestiaries had for various audiences. Although a book may be classified as a bestiary, individual bestiaries can contain some entries and other features which make them quite different to one another.

We’re still not entirely free of some of the notions present in bestiaries and older texts; we often see animals being presented in certain ways in the stories we tell and retell. The fox, for instance, is still often regarded as cunning. He was historically often presented in this way not only in bestiaries but also in stories of Renard, which became so popular that renard eventually replaced goupil as the French word for fox.

Unicorn detail from Royal Coat of Arms wallpaper, produced by C and JG Potter. C.1887 or 1897 (before). Gift ofThe Wallpaper Manufacturers Ltd, 1967. Source: the Whitworth

It’s not just in Judeo-Christian teachings that we see the unicorn being used as a symbol of formidable or purifying power. As previously stated above; the horn was believed to have purifying and medicinal properties. Historically narwhal tusks in particular were sold and gifted to the rich and powerful in Europe and so monarchs might possess one and even, in the case of one monarch, have a throne made with them. It was believed these ‘unicorn horns’ could protect one against poison. Before you scoff at such an idea, it’s worth remembering that beliefs about rhino horn possessing medicinal properties still persist, despite evidence to the contrary. Deeply entrenched beliefs are hard to erase completely. It’s also worth noting that the idea of ‘unicorn’ horn having magical and medicinal properties did not go completely unchallenged in the past; during the early modern period the likes of Andrea Marini and Ambroise Paré expressed their doubts on the medical efficacy of unicorn horn. In the case of Paré, we know his doubts extended to the supposed the medical efficacy of mummies too. Paré even went so far as to write a ‘Discourse on the Unicorn’, which was published in 1582.

The unicorn was employed in heraldry, too; Scottish kings adopted the unicorn as a symbol which they used to support Scotland’s Royal Coat of Arms. The unicorn is, in fact, Scotland’s national animal. A unicorn can be seen supporting the royal arms of the United Kingdom alongside a lion, symbolising England today. You may have noticed that the unicorn is chained in such heraldic depictions; this is thought to be because of the formidable nature it was thought to possess and not due to the historical conflict between England and Scotland.

That conflict is, however, believed to be the subject of the English nursey rhyme The Lion and the Unicorn. The rhyme goes as follows:

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.

Walter Crane (1845-1915), Tracing of Illustration for ‘The Merrie Heart’: ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. Source: the Whitworth.

Looking at Walter Crane’s illustration it’s hard not to feel sorry for the poor unicorn. Looking at Walter Crane’s illustration it’s hard not to feel sorry for the poor unicorn. In Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice encounters the lion and the unicorn from the nursery rhyme fighting for the crown of the White King. The White King admonishes the Unicorn for having run the Lion through with his horn but the Unicorn claims the Lion is unhurt. They have both been knocking each other down for quite some time. As soon as he spots Alice, the Unicorn claims that he always believed children were fabulous monsters and thought they did not exist. Alice claims that she thought the same of unicorns and they both strike a bargain; the Unicorn will promise to believe in her if she will believe in him.

So, do you believe in unicorns?

1 Chris Lavers, The Natural History of Unicorns (London, 2010), pp. 50-51.

2 T.H. White (translator) and Alan Sutton (ed.), The Book of Beasts (Gloucester,1984), pp. 20-21.







Una Roman D’Elia, Raphael’s Ostrich (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015).

C. J. Duffin, ”Fish’, fossil and fake: medical unicorn horn’, in C. J. Duffin, C. Gardener-Thorpe and R. T. J Moddy, Geology and Medicine: Historical Connections, Geological Society Special Publication 452, (London, 2017), pp. 211-261.

Larissa Grollemond, ‘Beasts at Court: Reading the Bestiary in the Late Thirteenth Century’, in Elizabeth Morrison and Larissa Grollemond (eds.), Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, (Los Angeles, 2019), p. 156-164.

Linda Kalof, Looking at Animals in Human History (London, 2007).

Sarah Kay, ‘The Textual Kaleidoscope of the Bestiary’, in Elizabeth Morrison and Larissa Grollemond (eds.), Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, (Los Angeles, 2019), pp. 31-39.

Donald F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe: Volume II, University of Chicago Press, (London, 1970).

Chris Lavers, The Natural History of Unicorns (London, 2010).

Elizabeth Morrison, ‘The Medieval Bestiary: Text and illumination’, in Elizabeth Morrison and Larissa Grollemond (eds.), Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, (Los Angeles, 2019), pp. 3-13.

Elizabeth Morrison, ‘Animal Tales: Stories and Images from the Bestiary’, in Elizabeth Morrison and Larissa Grollemond (eds.), Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, (Los Angeles, 2019), pp. 13-31.

Estelle Paranque, ‘The doctor who challenged the unicorn myth’, article on The Wellcome Trust website, accessed here: [https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/X8aA3xIAACMAiQuD].

Patricia Terry (translator), Renard the Fox (Oxford, 1992).

T.H. White (translator) and Alan Sutton (ed.), The Book of Beasts (Gloucester,1984).

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