The Cryptid Zoo: Unicorns in Cryptozoology

Unicorns are commonly depicted as one-horned creatures similar to both horses and antelopes, as in the film version of 'The Last Unicorn' by Peter Beagle. This screenshot is copyrighted by those who own the copyright to the film.
In mythology, a unicorn is simply an animal with a single horn. This single horn is supposed to be on the midline of the body, such as the center of the forehead, and it needs to have grown there naturally. Nearly everyone agrees that a two-horned animal with one horn that broke off or failed to grow is not a unicorn.

Beyond this fact, it is hard to define a unicorn. A multitude of different unicorn species populated the mythology of nations in Europe, Asia and Africa. The original unicorn seems to be the one spoken of in myths from India. It was often thought to live in inaccessible, mountainous terrain such as the mountains of Tibet. This animal seemed like a wild ass or antelope with one horn. The unicorn of China combined body parts from several animals and was perhaps the smallest unicorn. Its horn was short, soft and harmless.

Because of its single nose horn, the rhinoceros was often called a unicorn. Technically, it fits the requirement of having a single, natural, centered horn, but it does not look like the general type of unicorn that the largest number of myths have focused on. Despite this, the rhinoceros is often trotted out as an all-purpose explanation for all unicorn sightings, including those in Europe, where Medieval peasants would not have had a chance to see any such creature.

The khara of Persia was a giant donkey with a single horn growing from its forehead. It had only three legs, but six eyes. It had protective powers of much the same sort as unicorns the world over, and it was important in the Zoroastrian religion.

The unicorn of European myth was smaller than a horse and had characteristics combining a horse, goat and deer. It always had dainty cloven hooves, not heavy horse-hooves. The idea that a unicorn looks exactly like a horse except for its horn is an invention of modern fantasy art.

Unicorn sightings from many areas of the world have caught the attention of explorers and scientists for hundreds of years. For a long time, people were generally expecting that unicorns were going to be discovered one of these days. Unicorns always seemed to be just around the corner, and there were many relatively unexplored corners of the world where they presumably might lurk.

Eventually, this expectation faded. Unicorns did not get discovered, and the number of sightings faded too. Yet, there are still some cryptozoologists today who think that so much hoopla could not have been based on nothing.

Once again, we can trot out a presumably extinct animal in order to "explain" a cryptozoological oddity. Europe was once home to an antelope that had its two horns set so close together on its head that paleontologists believe that a single horn-sheath probably covered both horns, thus converting them into a single central horn. There is no fossil evidence for this beast surviving beyond a time that was a million years ago, but this proves little. In the life of a species, a million years is a relatively short time. There are many perfectly real modern antelopes that we have no fossil record for. If this antelope had lived long enough to have been around sometime during the last few thousand years, it could presumably be the inspiration for unicorns. Some researchers have proposed that another cryptid, the Vu Quang ox, inspired the ki-lin, China's unicorn. A presumably extinct prehistoric Eurasian rhinoceros, Elasmotherium, has also been suggested as a basis for the unicorn myth.

You can find out more about the Unicorn from the following sources:

Coleman, Jerry D. Strange Highways: A Guidebook to American Mysteries & the Unexplained. Alton, Illinois: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2003. Pages 185-186

Garland, Linda, Garland, Roger & Nigel Suckling. The Book of the Unicorn.

Johnsgard, Karin & Johnsgard, Paul. Dragons and Unicorns : A Natural History

Leeming, David Adams, ed. Storytelling Encyclopedia. Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1997. Pages 473-475

Netzley, Patricia D. Unicorns.

Newton, Michael. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide to Hidden Animals and Their Pursuers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005. Pages 258, 395-396, 472
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Nigg, Joe. Wonder Beasts: Tales and Lore of the Phoenix, the Griffin, the Unicorn, and the Dragon.

Rose, Carol. Giants, Monsters and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend and Myth. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2000. Pages 207, 374-377

Shepard, Odell. The Lore of the Unicorn.

Shuker, Karl. The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals. New York: Paraview Press, 2003. Pages 198-201

Wikipedia, The. Elasmotherium

Wikipedia, The. Unicorn

Wilkinson, Roy. Are You a Unicorn? The Mission and Meaning of Unicorns..

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The text on this page is copyright 2007 by Jamie Hall. Please use proper citation if you are using this website for research.