t has been theorized that the unicorn could be based on an extinct animal called giant unicorn (Elasmotherium). The relationship between the two animals is uncertain, but a real giant unicorn was once seen and hunted by man.
Elasmotherium, or giant unicorn, a member of the rhinoceros family, was approximately six-feet high and eighteen-feet long, with a single six-foot long horn in its forehead.
Its habitat was the Eurasian steppes in an area south of the range of its relative the woolly rhinoceros. It may have weighed as much as five tons. Its legs were longer than those of other rhinos and were designed for galloping, giving it a gait much like that of a horse. For this reason, it was probably a fast runner, in spite of its size. Its teeth were similar to those of horses, and it probably grazed on low herbs. Because of the lack of fossils, it's generally regarded as having become extinct approximately 10,000 years ago.
Since it's not known exactly when it died out, it's certainly possible the animal survived long enough to be remembered in the stories of the inhabitant's of that region. For example, the Evenks, who are a nomadic indigenous people of Siberia—one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China—have a legend concerning a huge black bull with a single horn in its forehead. There is also some evidence the animal may even have survived into historical times—there is a description of such an animal from the accounts of Ibn Fadlan, a tenth-century Arab who wrote about his travels as a member of an embassy from the Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars.
Ibn Fadlan's accounts and observations have generally been considered a reliable source
of information about this period in history. Here's what he wrote concerning this animal:
There is nearby a wide steppe, and there dwells, it is told, an animal smaller than a camel, but taller than a bull. Its head is the head of a ram, and its tail is a bull's tail. Its body is that of a mule and its hooves are like those of a bull. In the middle of its head it has a horn, thick and round, and as the horn goes higher, it narrows (to an end), until it is like a spearhead. Some of these horns grow to three or five ells, depending on the size of the animal. It thrives on the leaves of trees, which are excellent greenery. Whenever it sees a rider, it approaches and if the rider has a fast horse, the horse tries to escape by running fast, and if the beast overtakes them, it picks the rider out of the saddle with its horn, and tosses him in the air, and meets him with the point of the horn, and continues doing so until the rider dies. But it will not harm or hurt the horse in any way or manner. Then, about a hundred years later, a similar skeleton was unearthed in the Einhornloch at nearby Scharzfeld. Both skeletons were examined by the philosopher and scientist Leibniz. He declared that these bones had completely converted him to a belief in unicorns, whose existence he had previously doubted.
The locals seek it in the steppe and in the forest until they can kill it. It is done so: they climb the tall trees between which the animal passes. It requires several bowmen with poisoned arrows; and when the beast is in between them, they shoot and wound it unto its death. And indeed I have seen three big bowls shaped like Yemen seashells, that the king has, and he told me that they are made out of that animal's horn.
n 1663, a great deal of excitement was generated by the discovery of a large unicorn skeleton in the Harz Mountains region of central Germany.
The skeleton was found among piles of other fossil bones in a limestone cave near Quedlinburg, which is located a little north of the Harz Mountains. Crowds of people soon flocked to the site to view this historic find. In the initial confusion over who owned the cave, many people simply helped themselves to souvenirs. After a fierce legal battle, the Abbess of Quedlinburg took charge. In spite of her supervision of the work at the site, the skeleton was badly damaged during the excavations, emerging as a fragmented pile of bones. Scientific examination of the remains was undertaken by the famous scientist, Otto von Guericke.
Not too surprisingly, the skeleton that emerged from his reconstruction presents a very strange picture in the drawings of the time. It lacked half its spine, and appeared to be completely devoid of hindquarters. Its most interesting feature, the skull, had miraculously survived intact, and firmly attached to it was a single, straight, tapering horn some seven feet in length. There were claims that the so-called "unicorn" skeleton was constructed from the fossil bones of mammoths and other animals; this was contradicted or explained by accounts of souvenir seekers plundering pieces of the skeleton.
Quedlinburg is part of the ancient Hercynian Forest, and bones from there were for a long time sold as "Hercynian Fossil Unicorn". Perhaps proof had at last been found of Julius Caesar's "ox shaped like a stag with a single horn"? The proportions of the skull and bones indicate that the beast would have been about the same size as the Biblical re'em.
And . . . the region's link with unicorns has continued into modern times. In an interview published in Die Ganze Woch magazine in December of 1991, the renowned Austrian naturalist Antal Festetics, a visiting professor at Gottingen University, made a startling claim. He recounted an incident which occurred while he was filming a wildlife documentary in the Harz Mountains. One night, he said, he was out on horseback in the neighborhood of the Einhornhohle with a video camera when, "Suddenly a unicorn came towards me at a gallop. There was a glow of light around the animal. My horse reared and almost threw me. Then, just as quickly, it was gone."
The following April (1992) Festetics repeated his claim in a television interview. What is more, he claims he captured the encounter with the unicorn on video. Even though none of this footage was broadcast in his three-part documentary program, it is reportedly available for viewing in Gottingen.
How serious this claim was is open to question. Festetics neither staked his reputation on it nor admitted to having exercised poetic license.
n this day and age there is no more likely a place to find a unicorn than in the ancient Hercynian Forest. The forest is dominated by the Brocken Mountain, which in the Middle Ages was associated with witches' sabbats, usually the sign of an earlier link with cults of the Moon Goddess, whose creature was the unicorn.
This region of Germany straddles the old border between East and West Germany. For over forty years after World War II, a large section of it was fenced off as a no-man's land and left entirely to its own devices. It is one of the last true wildernesses left in Europe, a slice of the ancient, dark enchanted woods of German folklore and legend. Could this be the last refuge of the unicorn in the modern world? Is it possible some of the magic of the old gods who were said to rule the forests remains, protecting the unicorn from discovery?
I certainly don't have the answers to these questions. But, I do know that there are many areas of our modern world which still remain virtually unexplored. Who knows what wonders we might still find in the years ahead! The unicorn is a marvelous, mystical creature full of hope and possibilities. Belief in the unicorn helps us remember to ask the question, "Why not?"