The unicorn is a creature of European myth, resembling a small horse with a single long, straight horn emerging from its forehead. In most depicitions it will also have cloven hooves and the beard of a goat.
This beast was said to be extremely wiley and very fierce - untameable and occasionally carnivorous. Since it could avoid any snare or net, the only way to capture one alive was to exploit its one weakness - a love of young virgin women. Apparently in the presence of a suitably innocent young woman the unicorn would become meek and mild and be led about like a tame horse1. Another technique - vying with the first for practicality - was to stand in front of a tree and taunt the unicorn until it was goaded into charging. The hunter would then leap aside at the last moment and the unicorn would imbed its horn in the tree, leaving it helpless2. Why anyone wanted to take the unicorn alive was not well described - other than having it as some kind of prestige pet - the main use for unicorns being their horn (known as alicorn), which was said to be sovereign against all forms of poison (and occasionally disease as well). A cup made from unicorn horn (or even one containing a piece of alicorn) was said to detoxify any drink consumed from it3 and the horn (and other unicorn parts) were said to have a variety of other magical and medicinal properties as well.
Besides the apparent allegory, the unicorn also appears from time to time in coats of arms, either as a symbol of wildness, tame ferocity (if wearing a collar) or wildness overcoming restraint (with a broken collar). Due to the methods of capture a collared unicorn may also represent chastity and similar virtues.
The noble unicorn being captured by a virgin was actually something of a coded myth known to the christian scholars (as well as the alchemists) of the middle ages. The unicorn rests it's head (and phallic horn) in the lap of the virgin, giving itself up to be killed by the hunter who wants its magical alicorn that can be used to save lives… just as god put Jesus Christ in the womb of the virgin, so that he might be sacrificed to forgive mankind's sin and thus open the possibility of eternal life in heaven. In this sense, the unicorn is a stand-in for the Holy Spirit, and a symbol of Jesus.
In modern myth the wildness of the unicorn has been ground off, leaving a rather saccharine creature unambiguously associated with the forces of "good" - and usually with Tolkenian Elves and similar things. Subsidiary myths also create equivalent "black unicorns" for the forces of "evil", and other colour codings for convenience.
A similar creature, known as the Kirin appears in Japanese myth, possibly related to the even wierder Chinese Qilin which had lion parts as well as scales. These are usually creatures of good - or at least cosmic order - but far from needing to be captured by virgins, often present themselves as mounts, companions and advisors to great kings and heroes. Similar creatures are found by similar names throughout South-East Asia.
It is physically possible - although weird - to fuse the horn buds of a variety of animals (such as deer, goats and cattle) so that they grow as a single, centrally mounted horn, and this occasionally happens through natural mutation as well, which may have some hand in creating or sustaining the medieval unicorn myth. Certainly most of the "alicorn" in circulation in medieval Europe was actually Narwhal "horn", although some of it may have come from a different sort of beast, which was identified to Marco Polo as a unicorn. Apparently it was an unlovely thing:
"scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead… They have a head like a wild boar's… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions."
Or, in other words, that which we would call a rhinoceros. By an unfortunate coincidence (certainly unfortunate for the rhinoceri) their horn is also said to have magical and medicinal properties … which can't have helped.
Game and Story Use
- Mythological unicorns would be a hilarious surprise for players overused to the modern, sanitized version.
- If regular unicorn horn is sovereign against poisons, what does black unicorn horn do?
- If unicorns are creatures of ultimate good … what are the implications of hunting one for its horn?
- What happens if someone tries the tree method? Are your players that daft?
- Is there a reliable way of telling counterfeit alicorn from the real deal?
- So your patron wants unicorn horn? This could be interesting… Actually, given the asocial, slaughter-focused lives of so many RPG characters, they may have an entire group of qualifying virgin bait.