Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Unicorns are taking over the world! Nowadays, you can find them practically everywhere: on backpacks, notebooks, T-shirts, movies, books and in thousands of other places. But do you know where—and when—humans spotted the very first unicorn?
The relationship between humans and unicorns goes back at least 4,000 years! In what is now modern Pakistan, the people of the Harappan Civilization decorated their clay seals with images of unicorns. The seals were used to tag their property. Archeologists think that the image of the unicorn indicated the person was in a position of high authority.
About 2,000 years later, a Greek historian named Ctesias traveled to Persia, where he heard stories about wild unicorns and wrote them down. These are the first written accounts of unicorns, though Ctesias’ descriptions might surprise you! He described unicorns as untamable donkeys that were incredibly fast, with two-foot long horns in the middle of their foreheads. He wrote, “Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish...The lower part of the horn is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which ends in a point, is a very flaming red.” He also claimed that the horn could be ground down into a powder and mixed into a healing elixir.
But that’s not the only description of unicorns we have from this time! A bit later, another Greek Historian named Pliny the Elder said that unicorns had the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body looked like a horse. Pliny’s unicorn also had a single horn in the middle of its forehead, though this one was 2 ½ feet long and black as night.
Over time, the reports of unicorns spread, and people around the world began to believe in them. In fact, in 300 B.C.E. scholars translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek thought that the Hebrew term re'em (most likely a wild ox with one horn that had already gone extinct) must actually be a unicorn, and so unicorns entered into some translations of the Bible.
ACTIVITY ALERT! Draw what these ancient unicorns looked like according to Ctesias and Pliny. How are they similar to how you think of unicorns? How are they different? Do they look like any real life animals to you?
Over thousands of years, humans continued to tell tales of the elusive unicorns and their healing horns. Slowly, the unicorns in the stories started to look more and more like the unicorns we think of today. Starting around the 5th century, unicorns were often portrayed as a magical white horse or goat-like creature that lived in the woods. They had long, spiraling horns that rose from the center of their heads, and often had cloven hooves, lion-like tails, and a small beard at the tip of their chins. But why did they become so popular? Because of their horns, of course!
Back then, doctors and alchemists believed that a unicorn’s horn—made of a powerful substance called alicorn—could cure many sicknesses, purify water, and act as an antidote to poison. As a result, several kings and queens were desperate to get their hands on a unicorn’s horn in order to prevent an assassination attempt. If they did manage to get alicorn, they would have it carved into ceremonial cups used at banquets to ensure an enemy could not poison them. The King of Denmark and Norway went one step further. He ordered that his entire throne be made of unicorn horn, and if you visit Copenhagen, you can see the Unicorn Throne today.
But wait! You might be thinking. Actual unicorn horns!? But unicorns are supposed to be nearly impossible to catch?! And you would be right! Most of the unicorn “horns” from this time were actually spiraling narwhal tusks. The Europeans weren’t aware of these northern whales, so Scandinavian traders could scam them into paying a lot of gold for the fake unicorn horns. (And the Danish King could claim his throne was really made of alicorn without anyone calling him out!)
Because unicorns were associated with purity, strength and power, the Scottish king adopted the unicorn into his coat of arms in the 1300s. Today, the unicorn is officially the national animal of Scotland! Which leads us to . . . .
TODAY—INTERNATIONAL UNICORN DAY!
To be honest, the origins of this magical day are almost as mysterious as the creature it celebrates. The first mention of International Unicorn Day seems to appear long ago—sometime in 2015. That said, the idea of International Unicorn Day does seem to spring from Scotland. Perhaps this date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Second Treaty of Durham signed on April 9, 1139 that recognized Scottish freedom from England. (England is often represented by a lion, which is why the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom has the English Lion and the Scottish Unicorn on it.)
Now that you are an expert in unicorns and the many descriptions of their horns, you are prepared to make your own alicorn! There’s no need to capture a unicorn, though, just follow the instructions below.
Make Your Own Horn
You Will Need
*Crayons, markers, or colored pencils
*Glitter and stickers (optional)
Step 1. Click on the picture to print out the Unicorn Crown templates by Luke Flowers, the illustrator of Unicorn Day.
Step 2. Decorate the horns and bands any way you'd like.
Step 3. Cut out the horns and bands.
Step 4. Tape one side of the band to the back of the unicorn crown.
Step 5. Hold the unicorn crown on your head, then bring the rest of the band around your end and tape the other end of the band to the unicorn crown.
All dressed? Now it's time to cook!
If you want to read more about the history of unicorns, you can check out the below resources:
What Unicorns Mean to Scotland (BBC article)
The Natural History of Unicorns by Dr. Chris Lavers, published August 11, 2009 by William Morrow.