The tale of the unicorn emerged into literature early in the fourth century before Christ, when Mediterranean civilization was sweeping rapidly up to one of the summits, perhaps the highest, of human achievement.
Even the best and most brilliant minds of Greek civilisation knew little about what went on in the world outside their little sphere, and this intermingling of intellectual brilliancy and ignorance often made them susceptible to information garnered from travellers' tales.
In the year 416 B.C., physician Ctesias went from Greece to Persia. He was an esteemed member of the priestly caste of the Asclepiadai and also a romancer. He wrote books about life in Persia which were later preserved by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople. He overlooked mundane passages, stressing the marvels, and generally romancing the contents.
While he often wrote, confessedly, about districts he had never seen, and depending upon the tales of travellers and the reports of Persian officials, his most remarkable stories have usually some discernible foundation in fact. We do well to keep this assurance in mind when we come to consider his twenty-fifth fragment, the earliest and one of the most important of European documents relating to the unicorn:--
| There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs. The base of this horn, for some two hands'-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. |
Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers.
The animal is exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it."
Whatever else we may think of this passage, we can't call it a baseless fabrication. We can believe that Ctesias recorded what he had heard from men who, in their turn, spoke quite honestly and even accurately of what they had seen and heard.
Although modern authors have the benefit of these ancient writings to base their stories on, writers write about what they know...in their hearts and in their minds. Perhaps that is why the unicorns of fiction vary so much from place to place and person to person. There are a number of books out there, where the unicorn is seen and related from many points of view. The strongest and most powerful strain that seems to run through most of these, is that the unicorn is a symbol of purity and truth in thought word and deed. I believe that, as a symbol of the Christ, it is an allegory for all people to dream of and quest for.