April 9th is National Unicorn Day, a day designed to celebrate these legendary and fantastical beasts. A unicorn, for the handful of you out there who may be unaware, is a mythical creature that resembles a white horse with a single spiraling horn sprouting from its forehead. They are often depicted as spirits of the forest, representing the purity of nature. While we now know that these animals are legendary (as in, not real), this was not always the case.

Ancient Greeks listed unicorns in their natural history books alongside actual animals, and up until the Middle Ages the supposed horns of “unicorns” would sell for huge amounts of money due to the popular belief that they possessed magical healing properties. Where did this idea that the unicorn was a real animal come from? Nobody knows for sure, and there are many likely possibilities. It’s possible that there’s a bit of truth in all of them. Let’s take a look at some of the proposed sources for the myth of the unicorn!

 

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Unicorn Pink Unicorn Unicorn Baby

 

The Ancient Greeks believed that unicorns lived in India, which to them was a far away land that they believed held many fantastical wonders. However, when looking at descriptions of unicorns by Greek scholars of the time, there are many animals we know of today that could match what they describe. One choice would be the Indian rhinoceros. While it may not look much like a horse, it is a four-legged mammal with a single horn on its face. Another animal that may have been mistaken for the unicorn is the oryx, a type of antelope native to the Middle East that has two long horns sprouting from its head. If travelers saw an oryx from the side and far away, it could have appeared as a one-horned animal. Or, they may have seen an oryx whose second horn had broken off.

 

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Indian Rhinoceros Arabian Oryx

 

The idea that the unicorn was a real creature persisted into the Middle Ages, when supposed “unicorn” horns were kept as prized souvenirs or ground up to make medicine. In these cases, the horns that supposedly came from unicorns were almost certainly the tusks of male narwhals – whales of the north with a single spiraling tooth jutting out of their heads. Vikings who sailed the northern seas would sell narwhal tusks as unicorn horns, which were worth more than their weight in gold. The idea of the unicorn horn as a straight, spiraled horn in artwork was likely based on the narwhal’s tusk.

Though they are often depicted as mostly horse-like, unicorns occasionally feature beards and cloven hooves, which are both traits seen in goats. This, along with a reference in the Bible to a “male goat with a single horn between its eyes” in the Book of Daniel has led some to believe that a single-horned goat could be the source of the unicorn myth. There are other suspects as well, including a type of prehistoric rhinoceros known as the Elasmotherium which had a single giant horn on its forehead. This creature went extinct almost 30,000 years ago, but it likely did encounter humans and its legend may have survived to influence tales of the unicorn.

 

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Narwhal Billy Goat

 

Regardless of how the myth of the unicorn may have got its start, these legendary creatures continue to captivate to this day. Safari Ltd has a number of unicorn toys to help kids create their own fantasy adventures, as well as figures of the real life animals that helped to give rise to the unicorn myth!

You can keep the Unicorn adventures going with these great Unicorn figures from Safari Ltd!

Mythical Realms Unicorn figure

Mythical Reams Pink Unicorn figure

Mythical Realms Unicorn Baby figure

Mythical Realms TOOB (with Unicorn mini-figure)

And for some Narwhal fun, check out these toys:

Monterey Bay Collection Narwhal figure

Whales & Dolphins TOOB (with Narwhal mini-figure)

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