Scitech  The legend of the unicorn

Exploring myths in science

On September 27, PhD students Emily Bamforth and Eliza Rosenberg presented the first talk of the Freaky Friday series on a common mythical creature known to appear as a white horse with a single horn growing from its forehead – the unicorn. The Freaky Friday lectures are organized by Redpath Museum and aim to examine and debunk myths related to science. In their opening lecture, Bamforth and Rosenberg explored the theology and the scientific perspective behind unicorns.

Mythical creatures are often a result of fear that stems from lack of knowledge – as in the case of sea monsters and werewolves. “The unicorn is interesting because it is one of these mythical creatures that is very similar to animals we know about […] so it is easy to imagine existing,” Bamforth and Rosenberg explained to The Daily. In fact, until the ‘Age of Reason’ – when intellectuals began promoting skepticism toward the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in the late 17th century – many people strongly believed unicorns existed somewhere in the world that had yet to be discovered.

The story of the unicorn commences with the attempt of prominent Greek philosophers to translate the Bible from Aramaic to Greek. During the translation, the philosophers stumbled upon the word Re’em, which was referred to several times throughout the Hebrew Bible and Jewish texts to describe a certain animal that they presumed was extinct (now assumed to be the auroch, a progenitor of cattle). Thus, philosophers made assumptions about the now mysterious animal based on descriptions provided in religious sources while translating the word to Greek.

Eventually, the word Re’em was translated to monokeros (meaning single horned) and was later changed to unicornis in Latin and then to unicorn in the King James Version of the Bible. Based on their understanding of the descriptions provided, the Greek philosophers started to review travel logs and scriptures from other nations in order to find this legendary monokeros. Over time, the concept of the unicorn became a deer- or horse-like creature with a horn, and was believed to be incredibly difficult to hunt due to its speed and strength. Its horn was alleged to have magical healing properties and the ability to purify poisonous waters.

Since unicorns were never found near areas populated with humans, it was assumed that they lived in an unknown part of the world. Yet, with the Age of Reason and increased globalization through trade and expeditions, uncertainty and doubt about the existence of unicorns began to arise. This was in direct contravention with the scripture of the Catholic Church, which soon began to distance itself from the notion of the unicorn. It was concluded during the 16th century that unicorns indeed did not exist. Nonetheless, unicorns continued to inspire art and literature, resulting in their inclusion in many children’s books.

The existence of unicorns, based on the provided descriptions through history, was found to be impossible as scientists discovered that horns must be paired unless manipulated surgically. Unicorns were described as ungulates (hoofed animals) – and more specifically, odd-toed perissodactyls such as zebras and horses that do not have horns of any kind. On the other hand, even-toed artiodactyls – which include goats and antelope – do have horns, though they do not fit the given description of unicorns.

But despair not, for there are ‘unicorns,’ of a sort, in real life. For example, the surgical manipulation of horned animals such as cows and goats resulted in the birth of unicows and unigoats. Unicorns also live on as symbolic figures – the Ottawa House of Commons is guarded by two unicorns to this day.

Throughout history, people have mistaken certain animals for unicorns. These include: the oryx (a species of large antelope), viewed from the side; rhinos, whose horns are actually made of hardened hair; narwhals, who live underwater; and the various multi-horned animals that have formed unicorns in response to mutations. These shortcomings in visual perception could explain the random sightings recorded in various travel logs studied by the Greeks.

These sometimes innocent misconceptions spread through folklore and false interpretations of religious texts have associated the horn of the unicorn with magical properties. This led to the sale of unicorn powder to the wealthy and powerful during the Middle Ages. Bamforth told the audience, “When scientists tested the unicorn powder that was sold, they found anything but unicorn powder.” What was found in these concoctions involved horns of other animals, rocks, and even human bones.

To this day, there are cultures that believe in certain medicinal and aphrodisiac properties of elephant tusks, rhino horns, narwhal horns, and other unicorn-like animals. Through seemingly harmless, a simple misconception can have strong and lasting implications for society and the world.