The Origin and Fascinating History of the Unicorn


The unicorn, meaning “having only one horn” in ancient Greek, with its majestic spiral horn and horse-like appearance, has for millennia embodies a powerful symbol of purity, grace and magic. Throughout different eras and cultures, this mythical animal has taken on various meanings, sometimes a prized hunting object, sometimes a symbol of virginity or even divine power. The history of the unicorn is rich and varied, testifying to the importance of fantastic creatures in the collective human imagination.

The Ancient Origins of the Unicorn

The first mentions of the unicorn date back to ancient times, where civilizations such as the Greeks and Persians described one-horned wild animals with magical powers. However, it was not until the Middle Ages that the image of the unicorn we know today began to take shape.

The unicorn in Chinese mythology
Qilin, Chinese chimeric animal

The Unicorn in Mythologies and Cultures

The unicorn has not only been an element of fascination in the West. Cultures across Asia, notably in China and India, have also developed mythologies around similar animals , enriching the collective imagination around this enigmatic creature.

Antiquity: First Evocations

The first traces of unicorn-like creatures date back to ancient times, in civilizations such as India and Persia. In these cultures, the unicorn was often seen as a wild, elusive animal, a symbol of purity and wisdom. The ancient Greeks, through Ctesias, described a donkey-like animal, white, with a distinctive horn on its forehead, residing in India. Although Ctesias was probably talking about the Indian rhinoceros, his story has fueled the Western imagination for centuries.


Unicorns by Ulysse Aldrovandi
Camphur and Pirassoipi painted in watercolor by the Italian naturalist Ulysse Aldrovandi

The Middle Ages: Christian Symbol

In the Middle Ages, the unicorn acquired a strong symbolic dimension within Christianity. It becomes a symbol of purity and chastity, often associated with the figure of the Virgin Mary. The most famous story is that of the capture of the unicorn, where only a pure being like a virgin could approach the creature. This allegory, widely disseminated through medieval bestiaries and tapestries, such as the famous “ Lady with the Unicorn ” series, underlined the belief in the purity and redemptive power of the unicorn.

The Orient: Similar Creatures and Various Meanings

In China, the qilin, often compared to the Western unicorn, symbolized good fortune, prosperity and wisdom. Unlike the Western image of the unicorn, the qilin was depicted with a body covered in scales and a flamboyant mane, incorporating attributes of several animals. In Japan, the kirin shares similarities with the Chinese qilin, also being an omen of good news.

Renaissance and Beyond: Between Myth and Reality

With the arrival of the Renaissance, interest in the unicorn intensified, not only as a religious symbol but also for its supposed horn with healing properties. At a time when medicine was closely linked to alchemy and magic, unicorn horn was believed to offer protection against poisons. This belief has generated a thriving trade in “unicorn horns”, often from narwhals, helping to maintain the mystery around this fabulous being.


Unicorn by The Object
A unicorn created using The Object's generator

The Modern Era: Revival and Symbolism

In the modern era, the unicorn is experiencing a symbolic revival, now embodying difference, uniqueness and sometimes utopia. In popular culture, it is often associated with magical and fairytale worlds, representing an ideal of innocence and magic. The unicorn craze in social media, fashion and contemporary art attests to its status as a cultural icon, symbolizing joy, color and escape from reality

The history of the unicorn, spanning ages and civilizations, illustrates how the same symbol can be interpreted in multiple ways, influencing religion, art, literature and even medicine. This journey through time not only reveals the evolving perception of the unicorn but also highlights our continuing fascination with the marvelous and the unexplained. The unicorn, more than a simple mythical creature, is a mirror of human values, beliefs and aspirations throughout the ages, a bridge between reality and the imagination.


Find here our collection of posters dedicated to this magnificent mythical animal that is the unicorn.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.