Based largely on Odell Shepard's "Lore of the Unicorn"

Across the long millenia, in every land and time,
The Unicorn is present, in book, and art, and rhyme.

Though written accounts of Unicorns date back only two and a half millenia, depictions of the one-horned beast can be found as far back as Humankind's history goes. He was known and worshipped in ancient Babylon, the very crucible in which civilisation was born. Two of the guiding powers in these times were the Sun and Moon, represented by the Lion and the Unicorn. The Lion, golden yellow, ruling through strength and dominating all, constantly chases the Unicorn, silver white, who rules through harmony and strength of cooperation. Seldom does the Lion ever catch his prey, yet when he does, it is the Sun and not the Moon that is obscured.

From Greece the written word came first about the one-horned beast;
Ctesias wrote of many things, the Unicorn not least.

In 416BC, the physician Ctesias set out from his native town of Cnidus to attend the Persian King Darius II. There he stayed for eighteen years, and learned of many wonderful things during his time at court. Upon returning to Cnidus, he wote a book of his experiences which he called the Indica. In it is the earliest surviving written account of a Unicorn:

"There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads are dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about eighteen inches in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs."

Some mighty scholars lent weight to the infant legend then;
The Elder Pliny, Aelian, and Aristotle's pen.

The great philospher Aristotle, whose words were taken so seriously that they were widely held as gospel truth a thousand years later, could have destroyed the infant legend with a sentence, whatever the truth of the matter. However, he confirms its existence by a passing comment, which, though flawed in content, proved that this great man of learning clearly believed there was such a creature.
"We have never seen an animal with a solid hoof and two horns, and there are only a few that have a solid hoof and one horn, as the Indian Ass and the Oryx."

The "Indian Ass" is none other than Ctesias' Unicorn.
Pliny the Elder, in the first century AD, mentions Unicorns, saying of them that there is:

"...An exceedingly wild beast called the Monoceros, which has a stag's head, elephant's feet, and a boar's tail, the rest of its body being like that of a horse. It makes a deep lowing noise, and one black horn two cubits long projects from the middle of its forehead. This animal, they say, cannot be taken alive."

There are some indications here that he was confusing the creature with a rhinoceros, a creature known to his race but often confused because the rhino was a known animal and the Unicorn was not! It never crossed the minds of many scholars that they might be talking of one and the same creature!

The same mistake has been attributed to the Roman scholar Aelian, who lived some five hundred years after Aristotle. He wrote a book about animals that mentioned the Unicorn quite frequently. In one passage he states:

"I have found that wild asses as large as horses are to be found in India. The body of this animal is white, except on the head, which is red, while the eyes are azure. It has a horn on the brow, about one cubit and a half in length, which is white at the base, crimson at the top, and black between. These variegated horns are used as drinking cups by the Indians.
...It is said that whosoever drinks from this kind of horn is safe from all incurable diseases such as convulsions and the so-called holy disease, and that he cannot be killed by poison."

Elsewhere he says,

"They say that there are mountains in the interior regions of India which are inaccessible to men and therefore full of wild beasts. Among these is the Unicorn, which they call the kartajan [Sanscrit: Lord of the desert]. This animal is as large as a full-grown horse, and it has a mane, tawny hair, feet like those of an elephant, and the tail of a goat. It is exceedingly swift of foot. Between its brows there stands a single black horn tapering to a very sharp point.
Where other animals approach it it is gentle, but it fights with those of its own kind. It seeks out the most deserted places and wanders there alone."

Other notable Greeks and Romans have noted the unicorn: Julius Caesar for example, who said they could be found in the Hercynian Forest. However, for all the weight these mighty scholars and writers wielded in the literary world, the Unicorn was not well known among the ordinary people. It was yet a beast of books and libraries, and there it might have dwindled into obscurity and never been known to us. For the legend to grow it needed more than dry Science.

It needed... Religion!

To teach the mighty Word of God, the Seventy assembled,
And finding no translation found the one it most resembled!

In 300BC on the isle of Pharos met the Septuagint: seventy Jewish scholars, assembled to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, a feat they reputedly managed in seventy two days. Finding an obscure reference to a beast called the Re'em, the Seventy were unable to identify the beast. They had a description however:

"Fleet, fierce, indomitable and especially distinguished by the armour of its brow."

It seemed to these learned men that no beast quite fit this description so well as the Unicorn, and thus it made its way into the Bible. From here, the Unicorn made rapid advancement: obviously if his name was mentioned in such a weighty Book, his existence could not be denied!

This was not in itself enough to ensure the Unicorn's primacy among legendary beasts, but the foundation stone was laid. Then, not long after in the then-Christian city of Alexandria, a new book was compiled which became known as the Physiologus. This massive tome contained descriptions of every beast known to walk upon the Earth, and complex allegories tying them to their rightful place in Creation. Though considered heretical by official Christendom, this influential book was taken seriously for the next thousand years.

It has this to say about Unicorns:

"He is a small animal, like a kid, but surprisingly fierce for his size, with one very sharp horn on his head, and no hunter is able to catch him by force. Yet there is a trick by which he is taken. Men lead a virgin to the place where he most resorts and leave her there alone. As soon as he sees this virgin he runs and lays his head in her lap. She fondles him and he falls asleep. The hunters then approach and capture him and lead him to the palace of the king."
The allegorical associations are many and complex, for the Christian writers of the Physiologus chose the unicorn to represent Christ. His horn signifies the unity of Christ and the Father. The inability of the hunter alone to subjugate him is a reminder that the Will of the Messiah is not subject to any earthly authority. The unicorn's small stature is a sign of Christ's humility, and his likeness to a kid a sign of His association with sinful men. The virgin represents the Virgin Mary.

Here we can see a classic unicorn myth evolving: the well-known belief that a unicorn may only be tamed or captured by a virgin unicorn. The precise definition of an acceptable virgin is subject to much interpretation however: according to various sources she must be a nun, or she must be of noble birth. She must be physically attractive. She must be a total innocent without sin; she must be pure of heart; or she must be a virgin in the purely sexual sense of the word. Some insisted that she must be unclothed: either symbolic of innocence or a product of the fevered imaginations of scholars who didn't get outside enough. It was held that the unicorn could tell if a maiden was a virgin or not. Some believed it could see the difference; some insisted it was a matter of scent. Many agreed that there were dire consequences for any girl unfortunate enough to be found wanting!

Knight and Noble sought a beast whose attributes would sign
that they were men of virtue, courage, righteous, true and fine.

The unicorn was now fast approaching the beast we know today, but folk were confused: was it horse-like or goat-like? Following the lead of one Thomas Aquinas, it was thought that the unicorn probably had attributes of both: thus he was pictured as being a goat with a horse's head, or having cleft hooves before and solid hooves behind. Eventually he came to be pictured as somewhat equine though his hooves were cloven and he wore the beard of a goat. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries artists began to endow the unicorn with a beauty to befit his noble role as an allegory of so many virtuous attributes. He began to figure quite prominantly in church ornamentation, and from here entered into the role in which he was to be most influential: heraldry. A striking device for shield and banner and tabard, he was shown in varying poses, and soon came to be incorporated in family arms. Because of the paramount role of the horse in civilisation, the unicorn's equine aspects were emphasised, and yet he retained his cloven hooves and beard. To further distinguish him, he was given a distinctly leonine tail.

What animal could better symbolise the classic knight? Fierce and an unparalleled fighter, he was also gentle and chaste. Beautiful and proud in his solitude, he was everything a knight might aspire to be! In the seventeenth century, John Guillim wrote in his A Display of Heraldry:

"Some have made doubt whether there be any such beast as this or no, but the great esteem of his horn (in many places to be seen) may take away that needless scruple.
The greatness of his mind is such that he rather chooseth to die than be taken alive: wherin the unicorn and the valiant-minded soldier are alike, which both contemn death, and rather than they will be compelled to undergo any base servitude or bondage they will lose their lives."

With church and nobility thus taken by him, it was only a matter of time until he came to represent royalty too.

King James the Sixth of Scotland became King of England too,
And the unicorn went with him: an ancient foe to woo.

The unicorn had actually long been a Royal Beast associated with kings and rulers. Aelian had said that only great men could own the cups made from his horn, and Philostatus had stated that only the kings of India might hunt them. The Physiologus mentions that the captive unicorn is taken before the King, and the Chinese Ki-lin has always been associated with Emperors. The Bible (Daniel chapter 8) relates the following vision:

And behold, a he-goat came from the West on the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground; and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes."

The goat in question is later interpreted as "the king of Grecia", Alexander the Great, and it is also interesting to note that Alexander was once gifted with a unicorn by Queen Candace as tribute. We know that Caesar also wrote of unicorns. Ghengis Khan, about to invade India, saw a unicorn and took it as an omen that India was not to be his. He turned back immediately.

Arthur too encountered a unicorn. On his maiden adventure, run aground on an unknown shore, he encounters a dwarf who tells him his story: he and his wife were marooned here many years ago. His wife died after giving birth to a son. The baby would have died, but the dwarf chanced upon a female unicorn with young. She adopted the young infant, allowing him to nurse with her own children. Nourished by this magical drink, the child grew to be a veritable giant. Authur soon witnesses the miracle for himself when the unicorn and her adopted son return. The giant helps Arthur and his company drag their ship from the sands.

King James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I when she died childless in 1603, effectively uniting Scotland and England beneath one rule. The Scottish Royal Arms had, up to that point, used two unicorns as shield supporters. The English Arms had used a variety of supporters, but most frequently had included a lion. In a tactful gesture then, he placed a lion upon the left of the new Arms, and a unicorn upon the right. This was a potent bit of symbolism, for both the lion and the unicorn had long been thought to be deadly enemies: both regarded as king of the beasts, the unicorn rules through harmony while the lion rules through might, It came to symbolise a reconciliation between the Scottish unicorn and the English lion that the two should share the rule. The effectiveness of the sentiment, unfortunately, is placed in some doubt by the famous nursery rhyme:
The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the Crown:
The Lion chased the Unicorn all around the town.
Some gave them white bread and some gave them brown,
And some gave them plum cake and drummed them out of town.
And in this we see that we have come full circle, for we have returned to the endless circling of the golden sun lion and the silver moon unicorn of ancient Babylon.

So does the cycle begin anew.