Legends of the unicorn are numerous, spreading from China, India, across the Middle East and into Europe, and extending back into Persian and Babylonian history. These creatures have been variously described and depicted, culminating in medieval European lore as a composite animal that could be caught only by a virgin with bared breasts.
The demand for unicorn horns during the middle ages was such that the elongated teeth of narwhal whales was sold throughout Europe as being unicorn horns:
As recognized wards against poisoning, one of the functions of these objects [narwhal teeth taken as unicorn horns] may have been to discourage assassination attempts (Faidutti 1996), indeed Olivier de la Marche refers to the duke’s habit of keeping a piece of unicorn horn close by at meals to test dishes for poison (Cartellieri 1929:68).
Sometimes unicorn horn was used as a raw material – an inventory of the duke records a small piece of unicorn horn carved with the image of the Virgin holding Christ (Faidutti 1996). But the only unicorn products acquired by the duke to have survived are a single narwhal tusk and the duke’s ainkhürnschwert or ‘unicorn sword’ – the hilt, pommeland scabbard incorporating plates of narwhal tusk:
Detail of the narwhal plates incorporated into the hilt and scabbard of the ‘unicorn sword’, Imperial Treasury (Schatzkammer), Vienna. © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. source. Pluskowski-Narwhals or Unicorns (reference below)
Such confusions between unicorn horns and narwhal teeth have figured into analyses of fable ‘versus’ zoology, as suggested here:
It is often difficult to distinguish between the animals of fable and those of zoology. The sphinx, the chimera, the centaur and the hippogriff belong, and always have belonged to the first category. But animals such as the unicorn have long been catalogued and described in works of natural science.
In the seventeenth century, a catalogue such as John Johnston’s A Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts, written in Latin, translated into English and published in London in 1678, still distinguishes eight different types [of unicorns] with corresponding illustrations.
Indeed, a unicorn is no more improbable than a narwhal, whose horn, incidentally, was long thought to be the unicorn’s.
And as mentioned above, legends of the unicorn are found throughout asia and the middle east:
In Persia, the unicorn is the total animal of the Bundahish (Ch. XIX). A three-legged ass living in the middle of the ocean,it has six eyes, nine mouths, two ears and one horn. It is as large as Mount Alvand. Its single horn is hollow and like gold. A thousand branches grew from it, large or small, appropriate for the camel, the ass or the cow. With this horn the animal dissolves and eliminates all evil corruption coming from harmful creatures. Its tiniest movement or softest cries have cosmic effects. Its excrement is grey amber.
According to the Talmud, the unicorn is also a colossal animal. It could not fit in the ark and escaped the Flood by being tied to the outside of the vessel. It is apparent that this word denotes any animal of fantastic proportions and growing a single horn. This latter quality is not even always guaranteed or specified.
In the Bible, in fact, the unicorn is a monstrous creature, related to Behemoth or Leviathan. The words monoceros or unicornis used to translate the Hebrew word allow for a wide margin of interpretation.
The unicorn legend that I want to explore further is that found in the Talmud, where in spite of (or perhaps because of) etymological difficulties a legend was developed that depicted the unicorn of great size being ridden by a giant:
The Talmud has for “re’em” or , which etymologically recalls the Arabic “ghazal” (= “gazel”), but is said to be the name of an animal of such size that it could not enter the ark of Noah, but had to be fastened thereto by its horn (Zeb. 113b; comp. B. B. 74b; Shab. 107b; Yalḳuṭ Shim’oni, ii. 97d, where it is said that the re’em touches the clouds)…
Source: The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.
A charming story, published in 1919, telling of the procurement of a giant unicorn for the ark and of Og (the giant who captured and rode him), together with details on the voyage of the ark and aftermath, is given here:
The Giant of the Flood
Just before the world was drowned all the animals gathered in front of the Ark and Father Noah carefully inspected them.
“All ye that lie down shall enter and be saved from the deluge that is about to destroy the world,” he said. “Ye that stand cannot enter.”
Then the various creatures began to march forward into the Ark. Father Noah watched them closely. He seemed troubled.
“I wonder,” he said to himself, “how I shall obtain a unicorn, and how I shall get it into the Ark.”
“I can bring thee a unicorn, Father Noah,” he heard in a voice of thunder, and turning round he saw the giant, Og. “But thou must agree to save me, too, from the flood.”
“Begone,” cried Noah. “Thou art a demon, not a human being. I can have no dealings with thee.”
“Pity me,” whined the giant. “See how my figure is shrinking. Once I was so tall that I could drink water from the clouds and toast fish at the sun. I fear not that I shall be drowned, but that all the food will be destroyed and that I shall perish of hunger.”
Noah, however, only smiled; but he grew serious again when Og brought a unicorn. It was as big as a mountain, although the giant said it was the smallest he could find. It lay down in front of the Ark and Noah saw by that action that he must save it. For some time he was puzzled what to do, but at last a bright idea struck him. He attached the huge beast to the Ark by a rope fastened to its horn so that it could swim alongside and be fed.
Og seated himself on a mountain near at hand and watched the rain pouring down. Faster and faster it fell in torrents until the rivers overflowed and the waters began to rise rapidly on the land and sweep all things away. Father Noah stood gloomily before the door of the Ark until the water reached his neck. Then it swept him inside. The door closed with a bang, and the Ark rose gallantly on the flood and began to move along. The unicorn swam alongside, and as it passed Og, the giant jumped on to its back.
“See, Father Noah,” he cried, with a huge chuckle, “you will have to save me after all. I will snatch all the food you put through the window for the unicorn.”
Noah saw that it was useless to argue with Og, who might, indeed, sink the Ark with his tremendous strength.
“I will make a bargain with thee,” he shouted from a window. “I will feed thee, but thou must promise to be a servant to my descendants.”
Og was very hungry, so he accepted the conditions and devoured his first breakfast.
The rain continued to fall in great big sheets that shut out the light of day. Inside the Ark, however, all was bright and cheerful, for Noah had collected the most precious of the stones of the earth and had used them for the windows. Their radiance illumined the whole of the three stories in the Ark. Some of the animals were troublesome and Noah got no sleep at all. The lion had a bad attack of fever. In a corner a bird slept the whole of the time. This was the phoenix.
“Wake up,” said Noah, one day. “It is feeding time.”
“Thank you,” returned the bird. “I saw thou wert busy, Father Noah, so I would not trouble thee.”
“Thou art a good bird,” said Noah, much touched, “therefore thou shalt never die.”
One day the rain ceased, the clouds rolled away and the sun shone brilliantly again. How strange the world looked! It was like a vast ocean. Nothing but water could be seen anywhere, and only one or two of the highest mountain tops peeped above the flood. All the world was drowned, and Noah gazed on the desolate scene from one of the windows with tears in his eyes. Og, riding gaily on the unicorn behind the Ark, was quite happy.
“Ha, ha!” he laughed gleefully. “I shall be able to eat and drink just as much as I like now and shall never be troubled by those tiny little creatures, the mortals.”
“Be not so sure,” said Noah. “Those tiny mortals shall be thy masters and shall outlive thee and the whole race of giants and demons.”
The giant did not relish this prospect. He knew that whatever Noah prophesied would come true, and he was so sad that he ate no food for two days and began to grow smaller and thinner. He became more and more unhappy as day by day the water subsided and the mountains began to appear. At last the Ark rested on Mount Ararat, and Og’s long ride came to an end.
“I will soon leave thee, Father Noah,” he said. “I shall wander round the world to see what is left of it.”
“Thou canst not go until I permit thee,” said Noah. “Hast thou forgotten our compact so soon? Thou must be my servant. I have work for thee.”
Giants are not fond of work, and Og, who was the father of all the giants, was particularly lazy. He cared only to eat and sleep, but he knew he was in Noah’s power, and he shed bitter tears when he saw the land appear again.
“Stop,” commanded Noah. “Dost thou wish to drown the world once more with thy big tears?”
So Og sat on a mountain and rocked from side to side, weeping silently to himself. He watched the animals leave the Ark and had to do all the hard work when Noah’s children built houses. Daily he complained that he was shrinking to the size of the mortals, for Noah said there was not too much food.
One day Noah said to him, “Come with me, Og. I am going around the world. I am commanded to plant fruit and flowers to make the earth beautiful. I need thy help.”
For many days they wandered all over the earth, and Og was compelled to carry the heavy bag of seeds. The last thing Noah planted was the grape-vine.
“What is this—food, or drink?” asked Og.
“Both,” replied Noah. “It can be eaten, or its juice made into wine,” and as he planted it, he blessed the grape. “Be thou,” he said, “a plant pleasing to the eye, bear fruit that will be food for the hungry and a health-giving drink to the thirsty and sick.”
“I will offer up sacrifice to this wonderful fruit,” he said. “May I not do so now that our labors are over?”
Noah agreed, and the giant brought a sheep, a lion, a pig and a monkey. First, he slaughtered the sheep, then the lion.
“When a man shall taste but a few drops of the wine,” he said, “he shall be as harmless as a sheep. When he takes a little more he shall be as strong as a lion.”
Then Og began to dance around the plant, and he killed the pig and the monkey. Noah was very much surprised.
“I am giving thy descendants two extra blessings,” said Og, chuckling.
He rolled over and over on the ground in great glee and then said:
“When a man shall drink too much of the juice of the wine, then shall he become a beast like the pig, and if then he still continues to drink, he shall behave foolishly like a monkey.”
And that is why, unto this day, too much wine makes a man silly.
Og himself often drank too much, and many years afterward, when he was a servant to the patriarch Abraham, the latter scolded him until he became so frightened that he dropped a tooth. Abraham made an ivory chair for himself from this tooth. Afterwards Og became King of Bashan, but he forgot his compact with Noah and instead of helping the Israelites to obtain Canaan he opposed them.
“I will kill them all with one blow,” he declared.
Exerting all his enormous strength he uprooted a mountain, and raising it high above his head he prepared to drop it on the camp of the Israelites and crush it.
But a wonderful thing happened. The mountain was full of grasshoppers and ants who had bored millions of tiny holes in it. When King Og raised the great mass it crumbled in his hands and fell over his head and round his neck like a collar. He tried to pull it off, but his teeth became entangled in the mass. As he danced about in rage and pain, Moses, the leader of the Israelites, approached him.
Moses was a tiny man compared with Og. He was only ten ells high, and he carried with him a sword of the same length. With a mighty effort he jumped ten ells into the air, and raising the sword, he managed to strike the giant on the ankle and wound him mortally.
Thus, after many years, did the terrible giant of the flood perish for breaking his word to Father Noah after the flood.]
Source: Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, by Gertrude Landa. 1919
A few other depictions of the unicorn and of the ark: The story of Noah’s ark and its animals has been celebrated in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
Babylonian unicorn-type beast. Source: eld3wah.net
16th century Mogul miniature giving a Moslem interpretation of Noah and the Flood. Source: Wikipedia
Noah having arrived at Mt. Arafat. Islamic miniature. Source: guide-martine.com
Narwhals tusking. Called unicorns of the sea, their ‘horns’ (actually, teeth) were often sold as unicorn horns during the middle ages and later. Source: Wikipedia