Yesterday the official news agency of North Korea’s communist government announced the discovery of the “lair” of the unicorn allegedly ridden by an ancient Korean king. Allegedly, this unicorn lair is located just 200 yards from a temple in Pyongyang, secured behind a large rock carved in medieval times during the Koryo Kingdom (918-1392 CE). The find supposedly confirms references to a unicorn lair in two early modern Korean texts. It is almost certain that this report is little more than North Korean propaganda, especially since it conveniently “proves” that Pyongyang and not Seoul has priority in claiming a place as the traditional capital of Korea.
Unicorn myths are widespread from Europe to the Near East to East Asia, and they have been attributed to any number of causes. Many writers, like Odell Shepard in Lore of the Unicorn (1930) speculated that such stories emerged from seeing certain species of antelope in profile, with their antlers appearing like one large horn. Shepard also speculated that the Indian rhinoceros, with its single horn, stood behind unicorn myths. The Koreans probably derived their unicorns from Chinese unicorn myths, which in turn may or may not have had influence from India and Persia. The Chinese unicorn, the ki-lin or qilin, had a stag’s body, a horse’s hooves, and ox’s tail, and a twelve-foot horn. Oh, and he is also five-colored and is said to appear when the stars are right—when certain constellations form in the sky.
Among the Greeks, the unicorn was considered a real beast, and Ctesias in his lost History of India (in fragments as preserved in Photius, Biblioteca, codicil 72) describes one as a wild ass of many colors, complete with a horn a cubit long: "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." It lived in India, and Ctesias' description appears to be a conflation of several different animals, including perhaps the rhinoceros.
Unicorns also occur in the Bible, or, more accurately, translations of the Bible. The original Hebrew word re’em, referring to an untamable horned beast of great strength, was translated into Greek as monoceros (one horn) and Latin as unicornis (one horn), yielding the King James “unicorn” of Job 39:9–12; Ps. 22:21, 29:6; Num. 23:22, 24:8; and Deut. 23:17. (Thanks to the Jewish Encylopedia for the list!) Oddly enough, Jewish lore apparently also held that the unicorn had fur of many colors.
What I find interesting is the suggestion that this translation occurred due to an artistic convention from Mesopotamia misunderstood by later peoples. The re’em is apparently cognate with the Assyrian rimu, a great and powerful bull with mighty horns, probably an extinct auroch. The auroch changed colors during life, being born reddish-brown, turning black in adulthood (bulls only), and retaining a large white stripe, a lighter colored “saddle” marking, and tawny fur around the mouth. This probably gave rise to the multi-colored claims for the unicorn, typically expressed today with an association between unicorns and rainbows.
The Assyrians frequently depicted the rimu in profile, so that its two horns were placed one before the other, meaning that the Assyrian images of the horns appeared as a single horn emerging from the bull’s forehead. When the Bible was translated into Greek, somehow this artistic convention got carried over, making verbally explicit the depiction of the auroch in art.
The Indus Valley civilization produced many similar images of bulls in profile that may have influenced Indian and thus East Asian unicorn myths.
Obviously, this can’t be proved conclusively, but it’s an interesting suggestion for an odd myth.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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