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The Weird History of the Unicorn

By Matt Simon

[Snip] If you’re looking to figure out how an ancient myth started to get out of hand, a good place to start is with the great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, whose epic encyclopedia Natural History stood largely as fact for some 1,600 years. Problem was, Pliny wasn’t the most incredulous of writers, and crammed his encyclopedia with pretty much any account he could get his hands on.

“The unicorn,” Pliny wrote, “is the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead. Its cry is a deep bellow.”

The unicorn then shows up in various places in the Bible, at least according to some translations (it’s sometimes instead referred to as the oryx, a kind of antelope whose antlers were indeed sold as unicorn horns in medieval times, or as the auroch, a massive type of cattle that went extinct in the 17th century). Here, its fierceness is affirmed. In Numbers 24:8, for instance: “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.”

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