The Unicorn, a wild donkey from India?

The early description of Unicorns from the ancient Greek writers differs significantly from that of a pristine white horse with a long horn. Take for instance this description by Ctesias, a Greek philosopher writing in the 4th century BC.

“In India there are wild asses as large as horses, or even larger. Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and they have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length. The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red.” [ref] excerpt of Ctesias by Byzantium scholar Photius reproduced in Indica, translation J.H. Freese [/ref]

The ancient Greeks thought the Unicorn came from India, just like they thought the Griffin did. This was a place a little too far away for a person to verify the details themselves, so they had to rely on second hand information.

There is a theory that the idea of the unicorn came from stories of the Indian rhinoceros. Ctesis was travelling in Persia when he heard travellers’ stories of the creatures of India, and it is believed that the stories mixed up several creatures into one. [ref],8599,1814227,00.html [/ref]

On left, Indian Rhinoceros or Greater One-horned Rhinoceros or Great Indian Rhinocero Rhinoceros unicornis photo by Dr. Raju Kasambe. On right, Unicorn, oil on oak panel, by Maerten De Vos (1532-1603) licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Now it would be easy to put this myth down to problems with distance and communication, and that the myth of the unicorn would diminish as knowledge of rhinoceros in Asia would grow. But even on Marco Polo’s travels in the 13th century, Marco Polo himself believed he came across a unicorn in Java (modern day Indonesia), although he thought it was quite an ugly one.

“There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick. They do no mischief, however, with the horn, but with the tongue alone; for this is covered all over with long and strong prickles [and when savage with any one they crush him under their knees and then rasp him with their tongue]. The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud.” [ref] Rustichello da Pisa, The Travels of Marco Polo, Book 3, [/ref]

Marco Polo wonders about how wrong the stories of the unicorn were that he heard back in Europe, though he does not doubt that he has come across a unicorn.

Ironically, the scientific name for the Indian rhinosceros is Rhinoceros Unicornos, Uni coming from the Greek word for one, and cornis meaning horn. [ref] Partridge, E. (1983). Origins: a Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House. [/ref] So perhaps in the end, the Indian Rhinoceros became the true unicorn.

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