10 Fantastical Facts About Unicorns

One of the scenes from the famous Unicorn Tapestries.
One of the scenes from the famous Unicorn Tapestries. / Gift of John Davison Rockefeller, Jr./The Cloisters, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unicorns may not be real, but they've still managed to have a pretty lasting cultural impact. According to legend, these beautiful horned beasts have done everything from saving India from being conquered by Genghis Khan to purifying water. Learn more about unicorns with these 10 facts about the mythical, magical creatures.

1. People have been imagining unicorns for a really long time.

The first known depiction of a unicorn—found in the Lascaux Caves of modern-day France—dates to around 15,000 BCE. Or so people thought, until they realized that the so-called Lascaux unicorn had two horns, drawn confusingly close together.

2. A Greek historian once described a unicorn.

The earliest record of unicorns in Western literature belongs to Greek historian Ctesias. Around 400 BCE, he wrote that the beast had a white body, purple head, blue eyes, and a multicolored horn—red at the tip, black in the middle, and white at the base.

3. Marco Polo called unicorns ugly.

In his travels, Marco Polo believed he stumbled across unicorns. He wrote, “They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe unicorns.” That’s because they were actually rhinoceroses.

4. Unicorns influenced India’s fate.

Genghis Khan reportedly decided not to conquer India after meeting a unicorn, which bowed down to him; he viewed it as a sign from his dead father and turned his army back.

5. Young women were believed to have power over unicorns.

An early 17th-century painting of a young woman and a unicorn.
An early 17th-century painting of a young woman and a unicorn. / Palazzo Farnese, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During the Dark Ages, when science famously took a back seat to illogical hunches, collections known as bestiaries listed the biological properties and medicinal use of known animals, which at the time included unicorns. It’s in these collections that virgins were first described as having great power over the creatures.

6. Unicorns are mentioned in the Bible.

The King James version of the Old Testament contains nine references to unicorns, thanks to a mistranslation of the Hebrew word re’em. The original word was likely the Assyrian rimu (auroch), an extinct species of wild ox.

7. Unicorn legends had a negative effect on narwhals.

The legend that unicorn horns could counteract poison and purify water was bad news for narwhal populations, as the single tooth protruding from the front of the whale’s head made for a popular counterfeit. The Danes even had a throne made of narwhal horns.

8. Unicorn horns were really, really valuable.

At its height, “unicorn horn” was literally worth 10 times its weight in gold. In 1560, German merchants sold a unicorn horn for an astronomical 90,000 scudi—then about £18,000—to the pope. Pharmacies in London sold powdered unicorn horn as late as 1741.

9. The unicorn is the national animal of Scotland.

You'll find unicorns at Edinburgh's Palace of Holyroodhouse.
You'll find unicorns at Edinburgh's Palace of Holyroodhouse. / Patrick Mackie, Geograph // CC BY-SA 2.0

Early unicorn heraldry can be found on the ancient seals of Babylonia and Assyria, but it’s most famously attached to Scotland’s King James III in the 1400s. Two gold coins of that era were even known as the unicorn and the half-unicorn! Today, the unicorn is still the national animal of Scotland.

10. You can get a permit to hunt unicorns.

If you’re looking to hunt a unicorn, but don’t know where to begin, try Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Since 1971, the university has issued permits to unicorn questers. Anyone embarking on such a search is advised to carry a flask of cognac and a pair of pinking shears.

This story originally ran in Mental Floss magazine in 2013.