Virtual Institute
1 - The unicorn

(last update : 01 November 1998)


The unicorn is a mythical un animal, the symbol of the sexual agressivity.

This fabulous animal was described by Ctesias in his Indica opera (398 B.C.), under the name of monoceros (unicorn). Its description (a four-footed animal living in India, looking like a donkey, possessing a single horn with magic properties : to drink in its horn will immunize against the poison) is consistent with the Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), the horn of which is always used for its alleged aphrodisiac properties, the main reason for the extinction of these mammals.

All the authors who will later allude to the unicorn, will only repeat, although with many distorsions, Ctesias's first description. For instance, the horn will become an ivory "horn", in fact a narwhal's tooth (Monodon monoceros), a boreal cetacean also called, significantly, "unicorn fish" (figure 1) ; so that the representations of the unicorn at the end of the Middle Ages, such as the one on the famous tapestry La Dame à la Licorne (a kind of white horse with a narwhal's tooth on its head) had nothing to do with the Indian rhinoceros (figure 2). Consequently, the naturalists of the 16th century described both these animals in their encyclopedies, without realising they were one and the same species. The unicorn disappeared from the zoological books only two centuries ago.


Figure 1 : the narwhal (Monodon monoceros)

Figure 2 : traditional representation of the unicorn
on a tapestry of the 15th century.


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