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Myths and legends


Statue of a unicorn in Bristol, EnglandStatue of a unicorn in Bristol, England The word “unicorn” comes from the Latin, meaning "one-horned”. A unicorn is an imaginary beast that has appeared in legends from all over the world, including China, India, the Middle East and Europe. Since the Middle Ages, the unicorn has often been pictured as a horse, usually white, with a single horn growing from its forehead. Some depictions of unicorns may have been modelled on certain real animals, such as the single-horned rhinoceros or the narwhal, a small whale with a single, long, spiralled tusk that looks a little like a horn.

A unicornA unicorn

Mould of a “unicorn” sealMould of a “unicorn” seal


The unicorn in Western legends originates from the Hebrew (Jewish) Bible. During its translation into Greek for the Christian Bible, the Hebrew word for an auroch, or wild ox, re’em, was mis-translated in some texts as an oryx, a kind of antelope—and in others as an animal thought to exist by some ancient Greek scholars and called a "unicorn". In around 400 BC, the Greek historian Ctesias wrote about a wild beast that was said to have a single horn and fought elephants—he had seen it pictured on ancient seals from the Indus Valley civilization of India. The animal in question was probably a rhinoceros (common in India at the time), though other writers decided that it more closely resembled a horned horse.

Since the Middle Ages, the German word Einhorn (“one-horn”) has become the descriptive word for the various species of rhinoceros.

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