Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Unicorns are elusive creatures, but they are also inclusive. There are other magical, horse-like creatures that pop up in stories from around the world in addition to creatures that don’t look very horse-like at all, but have a magical horn. They all deserve to be celebrated, too!
ACTIVITY ALERT! Match the descriptions of the unicorn’s magical “cousins” to the correct picture. Once you’re done, write a letter inviting one of the cousins to the party. Be sure to let them know why you think they deserve to celebrate today, too!
Nokk/Kelpie: Known as a Nokk in Germanic cultures (like Norway) or a Kelpie in Celtic communities (like Scotland), this water spirit often takes the shape of a powerful black horse. Sometimes, they gallop along the beaches and drag unsuspecting humans into the ocean or, if they live in a river, they might leap out of the water and trample an oblivious traveler. If a horse approaches you and its mane is wet, then it might be a Kelpie. Their manes never dry, even when on land. Though many people claim the Nokk/Kelpie is dangerous, there are few stories that claim these spirits try to save children from drowning. (Thought Catalog).
Pegasus: Technically, there is only one Pegasus—the Pegasus. He is a pure-white horse with wings that was born from Medusa’s decapitated head. According to Greek legend, everywhere Pegasus stomped his hoof, a fresh water would spring up. Pegasus was caught with a golden bridle by the Greek hero Bellerophon. After many adventures together, Bellerophon fell from the winged horse's back while trying to reach Mount Olympus. Pegasus though kept flying, and Zeus transformed the winged horse into a constellation. If you live above the equator, you can spot him in the summer and autumn. If you live below the equator, you can see Pegasus in a winter/spring nighttime sky. (D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths)
Quilin / Kirin
First mentioned in written stories around 2700 BC, qilin ("chee-lin") are described as creatures of great power and wisdom. They resemble sa deer but with shining scales like a dragon. A single horn grows from their forehead and they have the tail of an ox. Always benevolent, quilin avoid fighting at all costs. Because they never want to harm anything--even a blade of grass-- they often walk on clouds or water instead.
Much like its European cousin, the qilin enjoys solitude and cannot be captured. Their rare appearances are omens, celebrating a just and wise ruler. Legends say that Chinese philosopher Confucius was the last person ever to see an Asian unicorn. The qilin is often seen as a symbol of fertility. Although they were not hunted for their horns, they are often shown in art work as bringing infants to families.
In Japan, the quilin is called a kirin. Today, the word “kirin” is the modern Japanese word for “giraffe.” (American Museum of Natural History)
But wait! The unicorn is also related to a few creatures that may not have magic, but are just as fascinating. Historians believe that the ancient accounts of unicorns we have today are probably exaggerations—or combinations— of a few of the real-life animals below.
Aurochs: This extremely large ox was already extinct before 1 A.D., and as such, legends of giant, horned creatures that was impossible to find was accidentally translated into “unicorn” by biblical scholars.
Arabian Oryx: These antelopes have two horns, but when viewed from the side, they often look like they only have one horn. They are almost as rare as a unicorn. In the 1970s, there were only six left, but today, there are about a thousand that live in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
Giraffe: The giraffe had a direct influence on the Chinese quilin. During the Ming Dynasty, a traveler brought back from Africa a a pair of giraffes. Their little horns and delicate walk led them to be introduced to the court as official quilin.
Narwhal: This small, toothed whale can be found along coasts and in rivers throughout the Arctic. Males possess a long, straight tusk that projects forward from above the mouth—aka a very long tooth. (Read more about Narwhal’s tusks and unicorns here.)
Okapis: The only living relative of the giraffe, these extremely rare animals were unknown to Western scientists until the 1900s. They live in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Ituri Rainforest. About 25,000 still exist today.
Rhinoceros: Like the unicorn, rhinoceroses also have horns (one or two, depending on the species) which could have led explorers to mistaken them for a unicorn. However, in prehistoric times, a fuzzy rhino called a Siberian Rhinoceros lived in Eurasia. For a long time, scientists did not think humans and the Siberian Rhino overlapped, but new research suggests that they only died out about 29,000 years ago. This means modern humans could have spotted them and included them in their oral stories. Learn more at Wired.com.
ACTIVITY ALERT! Create your own unicorn cousin by using a combination of at least two different real-life animals. Make sure to give it a name, describe its magical abilities, and what kind of habitat it most prefers. Then, write or tell a story about your creature meeting its unicorn cousins for the very first time.