Columns Culture

More than a Fairytale: Ten Things I hate about U(nicorns)

Okay, I know ‘hate’ is a very strong word. My mum used to tell me that to hate someone is to wish that they were dead, so you really shouldn’t ‘hate’ anyone because that would make you a terrible person. That being said, given that unicorns are not actually real (sorry if I have burst your beautiful bubble of childhood innocence, but come on…) so can’t ever actually be dead, I cannot wish for their death and, therefore, in theory, my hatred for unicorns is completely acceptable. 

You might think – how can you hate a unicorn? What is there to possibly hate in a creature that popular culture perceives as the symbol of purity, innocence, virtue? I probably look like an awful person, but I just don’t care. I hate unicorns, maybe you will too by the end of this. 

(disclaimer: if you don’t see the light, if you don’t see unicorns for what they really are, then at the very least you will enjoy the potted history of this maddening mythical creature)

1. The first unicorn was actually a rhino.

We have unicorns because the Greek historian Ctesias got a little bit confused while describing an Indian Rhino. The only thing he really got right was the animal’s horn, giving the rhino the Greek name ‘μονοκερνος’/’mono-kernos’ meaning ‘single-horned’. But even then think of where a rhino’s horn is located and think of a unicorn’s – they are very very different. Actually, there is no reference to the body of the μονοκερνος beyond descriptions of his horn. 

And boy did Ctesias make a mess of that as well! (he really was pretty useless). According to his writings the rhino/unicorn horn was tri-coloured – red at the tip, black in the middle and white in the base. Maybe the rhino was hunting at the time, I don’t know. To be fair, he did predict the colour scheme of Nike Air Jordans (although this is a good thing or not, I also do not know), but failed miserably at describing a rhino. Not to mention the fact that the μονοκερνος horn was (allegedly) 5 feet long, which is just impractical. 

But it’s okay guys, we don’t have to worry about Ctesias’s description being unrealistic (to say the very very least), he is careful to mention in his journals that these famed μονοκερνοςes are very very very difficult to catch… so we will never be able to prove him wrong. 

2. The Unicorn and his love of virgins. 

According to unicornyard.com (which – given the title – seems to be a very reliable source of information on all things unicorn), a unicorn is the primary symbol of purity and innocence. Yes, yes, it’s all very sweet, but let’s just momentarily consider where such symbolism originated. 

The history is anything but sweet. The ancient Greek bestiaries love to talk about the magnificent and magical unicorn/virgin mating ritual. Alright I came up with the name, but the ritual really did exist. 

It all began when a genius (male, I am sure) tracker came up with an even more genius idea that these mythical creatures could only be caught if lured by a virgin. The bestiaries, of course, neglect to mention that prior to this genius idea a unicorn had never once been sighted – let alone caught – but of course this is a minor detail that pales in the excitement of a group of men finding an excuse to thirst over a naked virginal woman. 

Bestiaries comment on four key steps, 

  1. The virgin is to be stripped naked and tied to a tree in forest’s centre (nakedness needed to enhance her scent, tree-tying so he knows exactly where to find her)
  2. When found by the unicorn the virgin is to offer her breast…for ‘calming purposes’ 
  3. Once the unicorn is suckling sweetly, men surround the virgin and get on with the killing 
  4. The unicorn is taken to the king, the men feast and celebrate, the woman checks herself into trauma therapy. 

Yes, I promised 10 things I hate about unicorns, but this myth alone is enough. Vile. 

3. Our unicorns will never be as cool as Pliny’s 

Potentially, our modern unicorns resemble a horse because Aristotle refers Ctesias’s μονοκερνος as the ‘Indian donkey’ (again rhino/donkey, so so so similar).

I much prefer the account of Pliny the elder, largely forgotten because it is so messed up but awesome all the same, ‘The unicorn, 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.’ 

Here is an artist’s impression of Pliny’s unicorn – drawn by my terrifyingly talented illustrator Chen

I’m not sure My Little Pony would be a billion-dollar franchise if it followed Pliny’s example…

4. It helped further the white-washing of the Bible

Believe it or not, as with most things within English culture, we didn’t invent the unicorn. The mythic horned animal actually originates from ancient Hebrew culture – 500+ years before the Latin word ‘unicernus’ (which became our ‘unicorn’) was first used. 

In the original Hebrew edition you will encounter a single-horned creature known as a ‘re’em’ nine times. The ‘re’em’, believed to be the size of a mountain, is a powerful figure from Jewish folklore, a symbol of God’s authority and connection with mankind. As with all legendary characters, the ‘re’em’ is the subject of many a wild story. My favourite – mainly because it continues Ctesias’s tradition of getting confused when looking at unicorns – being the moment when King David mistakes the ‘re’em’ for a mountain (because a mountain has four legs yes), climbed onto its back and was borne off to heaven. It’s a touching tale. 

As are most of the re’em stories, and yet they have quite literally been ‘lost in translation’. Latin translators of the Bible, instead of keeping the name ‘re’em’, as is practise when translating names, chose to translate it as ‘unicernus’/single-horned. This was a bold move, particularly given that nowhere in the name ‘re’em’ is there any reference to horns. Now, when we see the unicernus in the Bible, the Hebrew mythology is lost, we instead find ourselves thinking of a moment when a Greek historian failed to describe a rhino. 

White-washing…who’s she? 

5,6,7,8 SPEED ROUND wheeeee

5. My Little Pony 

Okay, confession time, I grew up absolutely terrified and traumatised by My Little Pony. The humongous eyes, the weird adult voices speaking in babytalk and superimposed on childlike figures, the words rainbow, sparkle and love being repeated every five seconds. I am surprised more people don’t grow up hating unicorns.

6. Unicorn U-tube

Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows (please God no!), Space Unicorns (please God even more no!). Just listen to the songs…

For your convenience I have linked the ‘24-hour insanity version’ to the first song – I feel it is needed on the night of an essay crisis. You can cower and cry safe in the knowledge that this unicorn is more insane than you are. 

7. The (not-so) inspirational quotes

Here’s my top three (again taken from the fountain of all knowledge that is unicornyard.com), try reading them without metaphorically vomiting. If you have a unicorn quote up in your kitchen, I am ever so slightly concerned for your wellbeing, they are so saccharinely sweet it’s actually kind of scary.

  1. You may have stopped believing in unicorns, but they never stopped believing in you 
  2. Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn
  3. Be a unicorn in a field full of horses

8. Unicorns aren’t dragons 

Alright this might be cheating as it this is sort of like comparing apples with pears. That being said, I do really love dragons and I do really hate unicorns, so I think the comparison is fair. 

Unicorns are equally overused as our scaly friends, and yet they are endlessly much more cringeworthy. I am convinced that no matter how many times you see a dragon, it will never lose its cool, it will always be utterly fascinating and mythic and magical. The more I see a unicorn, the more I am convinced they are massively overhyped. I mean seriously, it’s a white horse with a horn. Can it fly? Can it breathe fire? No, it can literally only do the exact same things as an ordinary horse. 

9. The Unicorn = the symbol for trophy hunting 

Granted, this isn’t actually the unicorn’s fault, they were the creatures actively being pursued for trophies. However, it is still shocking the extent to which the culture surrounding the unicorn propped up the trophy hunting business. It all centred around the unicorn’s horn: if you caught the elusive, notoriously ‘difficult to catch’ unicorn and performed a horn castration you might expect ( absolutely 100% guaranteed) to be cured from conditions such as:  

  • Stomach trouble – ground unicorn horn juice = just the trick 
  • Epilepsy – as promised by Ctesias in his journals
  • Poisons
  • Toxic water – the unicorn horn was a ready-made filtration device. Concerned about what you are drinking, one touch from the mythical horn and your worries will melt away (along with all the bacteria in the water… apparently?)

The unicorn trophy business was one of the largest industries in the medieval age, pretty impressive given nobody actually succeeded in catching a unicorn. Counterfeit unicorns were a different matter: there was quite a black market for these. There are records of powders of these fake ‘unicorns’ being sold to terrified tenants for upwards of a hundred thousand pounds in today’s money. 

10. The Unicorn is actually a psychopath, don’t be fooled by the modern façade. 

You might think that a unicorn couldn’t hurt a fly, you might be thinking of that scene in Despicable Me. You might think they are ‘so fluffy’…but I promise, if you met a real mythological unicorn you absolutely would ‘die’. 

Who would win in a fight between a unicorn and an elephant? An important question that clearly dominated the minds of far too many medieval men and women. This epic showdown is reported in multiple bestiaries. Of course, the elephant didn’t stand a chance when trying to stand strong against the unicorns three-foot horn (yes, their horns have tragically shrunk over the years), it’s just basic physics. I am no physicist; but I am told it’s something to do with pressure. Seriously, one of the only things I learnt in GCSE was that it was easier to stab someone with a stiletto than a trainer (#lifehacks). 

I mean the ability to take down an elephant makes a unicorn pretty incredible, why aren’t our unicorns more like this? Why do we get the sparkles and rainbows, ughhh!

I kind of dislike myself right now, I’ve got to the end of my list and realised that I actually kind of like unicorns, in a very guilty way. I mean I still find the modern unicorn incredibly irritating, I hate hate hate rainbows and sparkles PLUS ‘pink fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows’ is one of the most torturous songs of all time. But, you cannot deny these mythical creatures have a brilliant backstory. 

Jessica Steadman

Jess, one of The Oxford Blue's Columnists, is a first year studying English at Univ. She writes a column inspired by the medieval stories she read to procrastinate her modernism paper. When she is trying to avoid work completely you will find her halfway up a climbing wall.