The Origin Of The Unicorn Myth – 3 + 1 Little-Known Secrets Behind The Unicorn Myth

the origin of the unicorn myth

The unicorn myth has existed for a long time, that is a well-known fact. But what is the origin of the unicorn myth? Who was the man behind the unicorn myth? He wrote a book, in which the mythical one-horned animal is mentioned for the first time.

Was the mythical one-horned animal a real unicorn, or some other known animal? Many of the conclusions about the mythical animal have been clueless mistakes. The origin of the unicorn has remained a mystery, until recently.

Today, we are going to find out the truth, and reveal the 3 +1 little-known secrets behind the unicorn myth!

The Little-Known Man Behind The Unicorn Myth

The man behind the unicorn myth lived in Ancient Greece, in the town of Cnidus, in the 5th century BCE. He was Ctesias, a Greek physician and a historian.

Exotic peoples and places fascinated Ctesias. He was intrigued about the Persian and Assyrian history. However, there was an exotic country Ctesias found even more fascinating: India.

Not much is known about the life of Ctesias, but he was living in Persia at some point of his life. He never visited India, though. He might have had other duties, or he was simply not an adventurer, but rather a bookworm.

Indica – Nonsense, Zoology – And The First Unicorn!

After he returned to Greece, Ctesias wrote some books. One of them was Indica, a piece of work about Eastern zoology, geography, botany, medicine, anthropology and nonsense.

Some of the topics in Indica include dog-faced people and fountains of liquid gold. Of course, Ctesias had never been to India himself, so you can’t really call him a liar. Maybe he had just heard some strange stories about the country and believed everything.

Not everything in Indica was nonsense, though. In the book, Ctesias describes some real animals, like elephants, crocodiles, tigers and parrots.

Another animal is mentioned in Indica too: the unicorn.

The Vicious One-Horned Wild Ass

In Indica, Ctesias describes wild asses, which are “as large as horses, and larger”. According to Ctesias, these wild asses have white bodies, dark red heads and dark blue eyes. They have a foot and a half long horn on their forehead.

Ctesias even mentions the color of the horn. The base of the horn is white, the middle is black and the top is crimson.

According to Ctesias, if you would drink from such a horn, you would be protected from poison and convulsions.

Sounds familiar, right? The powers of the wild ass horn are the same powers, that have been associated with unicorn horns throughout history.

Ctesias mentions the wild ass can run fast, but it takes time to gain its full speed. This one-horned ass is fierce and strong, and it uses its horn, teeth and heels for fighting. This vicious animal “kills many horses and men” and “they cannot be caught alive”.

Is The One-Horned Ass A Rhinoceros? – A Thrilling Discovery

A Clueless Conclusion: It´s A Rhino.

What is the peculiar one-horned wild ass described by Ctesias? In 1930, an American Pulitzer prize winner and professor of English Odell Shepard tried to explain the mystery in his book The Lore of the Unicorn (London, 1930).

Ctesias described the “wild ass” as an animal with a single horn and capacity for great speed. Because of this, Shepard figured out Ctesias was talking about the Indian rhinoceros. The Indian rhinoceroses have only one horn, unlike the African rhinos that have two horns.

Ctesias explained, how the one-horned ass speeds up gradually, when it starts to run. According to Shepard, this is also a trait of the rhinoceroses. Because of this, he concluded that Ctesias must have been talking about the Indian rhinoceros.

rhinoceros the origin of the unicorn myth

A Thrilling Discovery: It´s Not A Rhino.

However, all animals gradually speed up as they run, right? This is what Chris Lavers points out in his excellent book The Natural history of unicorns. Lavers admits, that large animals like rhinos do take longer to accelerate when they run compared to smaller animals.

Nevertheless, rhinoceroses are not the only large mammals living in India. The slow acceleration of speed when running is not enough to prove the one-horned ass would be a rhino.

Lavers points out, that the speed of the Indian wild ass described by Ctesias doesn’t match the speed of the rhinoceroses. According to Ctesias, the wild ass is as fast or faster or a horse. Rhinoceroses can run at 25-45 km/h. That is far less than the 70 km/h horses and wild asses can reach.

Ctesias also describes the wild ass as a herd animal. According to Lavers, Indian rhinoceroses are solitary animals in general. Even the length of the horn described by Ctesias is wrong; a foot and a half is too long for an Indian rhinoceros’s horn.

Lavers concludes in his book, that the medicinal properties of the wild ass horn is the only thing that matches rhinoceroses. The medicinal properties might have even been added to Indica later.

The Beautiful Tibetan Unicorn – The Hidden Link To The Unicorn Myth?

Odell Shepard seemed to like the idea, that the mythical animal would have been a rhinoceros. However, Shepard needed to explain, why the mythical wild ass had a horn on its forehead, while a rhinoceros had a horn on its nose.

The Tibetan antelope, chiru, is known for its beautiful horns.

Shepard had another option on his mind; maybe the mythical animal Ctesias writes about was the Tibetan antelope, chiru. This legendary animal is also known as the Tibetan unicorn.

Chirus live in the Himalaya, and they are highly valued by local people. A male chiru’s profile looks as if the animal had only one horn. This is probably why they are called Tibetan unicorns.

Do we have the answer here, then? Is it the Tibetan unicorn Ctesias is talking about?

I´m afraid not. We still need to look further, because there´s an obvious clue we still haven’t talked about.

The Obvious Conclusion – What If A Wild Ass Is A Wild Ass?

There is a simple clue Ctesias gave us about the mythical animal. He talks about a one-horned wild ass. What if the animal is a wild ass?

Considering Ctesias’s description of the animal, a horse animal like a wild ass makes sense. Horses use their heels for kicking backwards. Ctesias talks about the wild asses kicking with their heels.

But there are more than one kind of wild asses. If Ctesias is talking about a wild ass, which kind?

The First Alternative – The Fierce Persian Asses Fight With Heels And Teeth.

Odell Shepard realized a horse-like animal was a more likely explanation than a rhinoceros or a chiru. He decided the one-horned animal must be the Persian ass or the onager.

The Persian ass is extremely rare now, but it was common in Ctesias’s time. The onagers are fierce and swift. They fight with their heels and teeth like Ctesias’s wild ass.

Even though the Persian ass sounds like the one Ctesias describes in Indica, Chris Lavers points out there´s a flaw in this theory. Ctesias lived in Persia, so he saw Persian asses every day. The animal he wrote about was one that he had never seen himself.

The Better Alternative – The World’s Largest Wild Ass

According to Lavers, the more likely answer is kiang, the worlds largest wild ass. These magnificent animals are 2.1 meters in length and weigh 240-400 kg.

The kiangs live on the Tibetan plateau, and they are too wild to be domesticated. They even have a red and white color, like Ctesias’s wild ass.

3 + 1 Real Animals That Transformed Into The Unicorn Myth

Now, it seems Ctesias might have collected qualities from different animals, mixing them up into a unicorn.

The horse-like qualities of the one-horned ass are probably adopted from the kiangs. The single horn is a trait of the chiru. While it has two horns, the male chirus’ profile makes them look as if they had a single horn.

The Tibetan wild yaks are known to be ferocious and unpredictable.

According to Chris Lavers, the third animal in the mixture could be another large animal instead of a rhinoceros: the wild yak.

Wild yaks are the largest living cow animals. The huge species is native to Himalayas. In Tibet, the wild yaks are known to be ferocious and unpredictable.

So, the 3 animals that transformed into the unicorn myth seem to be the Tibetan antelope chiru, the worlds largest wild ass kiang and the wild yak. They are all animals of the Himalayas.

Here we have 3 animals of the unicorn myth equation. But what is the +1?

Lavers points out, that the rhinoceros might have been added in the mixture later. After all, the rhinoceros does have a role in the unicorn myth. So, the rhinoceros is the +1, the added element.

Lavers suspects Ctesias was the one who brought the unicorn myth to Europe. However, most likely the Himalayan peoples made up the myth in the first place. Therefore, the actual origin of the unicorn myth would not be in Ancient Greece, but in the Himalayas.

Ctesias – A Man With A Deceptive Reputation

Ctesias, the man behind the unicorn myth, is a very misunderstood characters. Many people consider him just a writer of fairy tales, and don’t take his writings seriously.

It is worth pointing out, that Ctesias was a doctor and he had a significant medical knowledge. He also knew more about animals’ anatomy than any average person today.

The Little-Known Fact About Gall Bladders

Did you know that horse animals don’t have a gall bladder? I can honestly say I didn’t know that, until I just recently read about it.

Ctesias knew horses don’t have a gall bladder. That’s why he was astonished that the mythical one-horned wild ass had gall in its liver. Today, in the era of modern science, it is known that horses produce gall in their livers.

However, in Ctesias’s time this wasn’t known, so people simply thought animals without a gall bladder don’t produce gall at all. It’s a logical interpretation, right?

Savagery And Seduction – Keeping The Unicorn Myth Alive

Ctesias was the one who started the unicorn myth in Europe. His successors in Ancient Greece and Rome kept the myth alive and cultivated it further.

Aristotle mentions the one-horned Indian wild ass in his book History of Animals. Aristotle says on the book, that the Indian ass is solid-hoofed and it has a single horn. This makes the Indian ass special, because normally only cloven-hoofed animals have horns, not the solid-hoofed.

Monoceros – A Horrifying Hybrid

The unicorn myth survived and was further cultivated in Ancient Rome. A Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) is apparently the first one who uses the Latin word for ´unicorn´, monoceros, in his book Natural History.

According to Pliny, monoceros is “the fiercest animal” with a body of a horse, a head of a stag, feet of an elephant and a tail of a boar. The animal has a deep bellow. Its horn is black and three feet long. As you can expect from such a horrifying hybrid, this animal “cannot be taken alive”.

You can notice Pliny is already altering the unicorn myth by adding his own details to it. The horn of his unicorn is longer than the one of Ctesias’s wild ass. Ctesias never mentioned the head of a stag, feet of an elephant or tail of a boar either.

The Painful Voice Of Cartazonus

In his book On Animals, a Roman writer Claudius Aelianus (175-235 CE) further developed the unicorn myth. According to him, in India exists a one-horned beast called Cartazonus. The Cartazonus has “the mane of a horse, reddish hair and is very swift of foot”.

Like his predecessor Plinus, Aelianus claimed the unicorn had the feet of an elephant. Aelianus also preserved the black horn of the animal, but he mentions it´s not smooth but has spirals. According to him, the horn is very sharp.

A noticeable quality of Cartazonus Aelinus mentions is its voice. According to him, the creature has “the most discordant and powerful voice of all animals”.

Just like Pliny, Aelinus describes the unicorn’s voice as horrifying and discordant. According to Chris Lavers, the voice of the unicorn is probably borrowed from chiru, the Tibetan unicorn. It also has a very discordant voice.

Cartazonus’s long horn with spirals also comes from the Tibetan unicorn. The chirus have spirals or ridges on their horns.

Savagery And Seduction

Aelinus describes the Cartazonus as a lonely grazer. When the mating season arrives, the males and females gather to breed. When the job is done so to speak, the male returns to its solitary, savage lifestyle.

Again, Aelinus has associated unicorns with the Tibetan unicorns. Chirus’ breeding habits are similar to those of Cartazonus. The male and female chirus live separately, and only gather in order to breed.

Similar behavior is common to many other animals as well. However, many traits of the Cartazonus are borrowed from the Tibetan unicorns. So, we could assume the breeding behavior is one of them.

The Most Hilarious Unicorn Myth Ever

Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Greek traveler in the 6th century, adds some true fairy tale to Ctesias’s unicorn myth. Seriously, this is the most hilarious unicorn myth I’ve ever heard!

According to Indicopleustes, a unicorn is totally invincible, and its strenght is in its horn. This is something we normally associate with unicorns, so it´s not the funny part yet.

Indicopleuestes continues his theory. When a unicorn is being hunted and in danger of being captures, the unicorn leaps on a clifftop. Next, the brave unicorn leaps itself down from the cliff!

When the unicorn falls, it turns itself upside down. Wait, isn’t it a bad idea? It´s going to hit the ground head first!

See, that´s the point. The unicorn´s horn works as a kind of airbag. The unicorn´s horn hits the ground first, totally cushioning the shock. Tada, the unicorn is safe and escapes from the hunters!

 

hilarious unicorn myth

The Origin Of The Unicorn Myth – Unicorns Roam In The Himalayas.

Ctesias, a physician in Ancient Greece was curious about exotic peoples and places. He heard about a mythical one-horned ass while living in Persia. The odd animal intrigued him, and he wrote the first version of the unicorn myth.

An American professor Odell Shepard tried to explain Ctesias’s work. According to him, an Indian rhinoceros had to be one of the animals that influenced Ctesias’s one-horned ass.

A natural historian Chris Lavers concluded, that 3 animals must be behind the unicorn myth. One of them is the Tibetan antelope, chiru, also known as the Tibetan unicorn.

The animal that borrowed the unicorn its horse-like qualities is worlds larges wild ass, kiang. The third Tibetan animal behind the myth is the wild yak.

According to Lavers, the rhinoceros was probably added in the myth later. This makes rhinoceros the +1 in the 3 + 1 equation of the unicorn myth.

Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome helped keep the unicorn myth alive and transform it into the next generations. Even Aristotle mentioned the unicorn, but didn’t alter the myth.

Pliny the Elder started the transformation of the unicorn. He was the first who used the Latin word monoceros, which means ´one horn´. Pliny provided the unicorn with a head of a stag, feet of an elephant and a tail of a boar.

Claudius Aelianus borrowed many qualities of the Tibetan unicorns, chirus, and associated them with unicorns. According to Aelianus, the unicorn horn had spirals, just like the horn of the chiru. He also gave unicorns the discordant voice of the Tibetan unicorns, as well as their breeding habits.

The trophy of the most hilarious unicorn myth ever made goes to a Greek 6th century traveler Cosmas Indicopleustes. He adds some true fairy tale to Ctesias’s unicorn myth.

According to Indicopleuestes, a unicorn leaps on a clifftop, when it´s being hunted. Then, the unicorn leaps itself down the cliff. When the unicorn falls, it turns itself upside down, so that it hits the ground head first.

The unicorn´s horn works as a kind of airbag, and cushions the shock. Tada, the unicorn is safe and escapes from the hunters!

We have revealed the 3 + 1 real animals behind the unicorn myth. As you can see, the unicorn myth is not just a fairy tale. There´s more or less truth behind every legend.

We have also found the origin of the unicorn. How astonishing, that the spiritual home of unicorns turned out to be in the Himalaya. The unicorn, often associated with spirituality, actually has its roots in the Himalaya, the sacred mountains.

Read more about unicorns and natural history on Are Unicorns Real Animals? – Incredible Unicorn Sightings.

Any thoughts on the origin of the unicorn myth? Did you learn anything that astonished you? Please inspire us with your magical thoughts on the comment section below.

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6 Comments

  1. Oh wow, I have learnt so much from this poat on the origin of unicorns. It’s very interesting the way you could compare the descriptions with other animals I think the first clue gave it all that the horns van be used to heal one from poison. Very typical of what I’ve learnt about unicorns though. Nice post, very thorough.

    1. Oh, you guessed from the first clue already? 🙂 Thanks for leaving your feedback, John!

  2. That’s a really one on the myth of the unicorn. I really like the fact that you can compare what he has said with some other possibilities with other animals but in the end, it all comes down to the unicorn. I love reading your posts on unicorns. It’s very nice to learn from you. Thank you!

    1. Happy to hear you enjoyed this post, Henderson! 🙂

  3. Wow! This is such a cool website. I never really wondered where Unicorns originated, but now I’m glad to know. So, the original unicorns had white, black and crimson horns? Thats interesting, because nowadays I usually see unicorns as pink, purple or with rainbow colors. 

    I could see how they would think he was describing a Rhinocerous. Rhinocerous are a lot like Unicorns, because they have 4 legs, and the one horn. 

    When people are Googling “origins of Unicorns” I hope they find your website. It is written in a very fun and colorful way. Thanks!

    1. I hope so too, that people will find my website on Google. 🙂 Thank you so much for your feedback. 

      You´re right, the original unicorn was quite different from the image of unicorns we have today. The myth has evolved since the early days, but this is where it all started.

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Kirsti

I'm a writer, a unicorn lover and a day dreamer. I want to share the magical world of unicorns with you.

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