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Definition: unicorn from Philip's Encyclopedia

In mythology and heraldry, a magical animal resembling a graceful horse or young goat with one thin conical or helical horn on its forehead.

Summary Article: unicorn
From Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

A fabulous beast resembling a horse, but with one long spiral horn growing from its forehead; often used as a symbol of strength and purity and in heraldry.

Travellers throughout the centuries have made claims of sightings of the fabulous unicorn and have given conflicting descriptions of this beast. There have been accounts of unicorns in China, Mongolia, the Middle East, Egypt, North Africa, India, Japan, Europe and America. The Indian unicorn, it was said, was like a horse in form, but was a much swifter beast, and had a white body, a red or purple head, blue eyes and a long horn about 45 centimetres (18 inches) long growing in the centre of its forehead. This horn was white at the base, black in the middle, and red at the tip. The European version of the unicorn is usually depicted as being pure white and having the head and body of a horse, the hind legs of an antelope or stag, the whiskers of a goat, the tail of a lion and a white or pearly spiral horn.

In folklore, unicorns are said to be very aggressive toward their own kind, except at mating season, when they become gentle. The colts are born without horns, and stay with their mothers until their horns are fully grown. All the medieval bestiaries which give accounts of unicorns agree that they are attracted to virgins, and that the only sure way to capture a unicorn is to use a virgin as bait, when the unicorn will come and lay its head in her lap. It therefore became a symbol of purity, and came to be depicted with various female saints and the Virgin Mary, and in its role as a willing sacrificial victim, it was also used as a symbol of Christ. The horn, called an alicorn, was highly prized in the Middle Ages for its properties; it was said that it could purify water and protect against poison and disease. For this reason, prudent monarchs drank from a supposed unicorn horn, which was said to sweat in the presence of poison and neutralize or reduce its effects, and the poor would beg to be given water into which a unicorn horn had been dipped, as this was believed to cure all maladies. The horns were much sought after in the 16th and 17th centuries and were a popular ingredient for sale in apothecaries’ shops, where it may be assumed that many narwhal and rhinoceros horns were passed off as unicorn horns. In addition, a magical ruby or carbuncle was said to grow at the base of the horn, and this also had powerful healing properties, especially against the plague.

Because they are seen as a symbol of strength and nobility as well as purity, unicorns frequently appear as heraldic beasts, and when James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, he chose one lion and one unicorn as the supporters of his royal shields.

See also unicorn, living.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

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