All About Unicorns

East and West

The Eastern Unicorn

The unicorn of Eastern tradition is very different in appearance from the Western unicorn, but they share many characteristics. For example, the Eastern unicorn was depicted as a solitary animal, believed to have sprung from the center of the earth, the first and most perfect of the 360 land creatures. The Eastern unicorn always reached its destination, never falling into pits or traps, so it was honored as a great spiritual guide through life. The unicorn's gentleness prevented it from treading upon an insect or eating fruit. It was said to be so sensitive it could feel the weight of a shadow cast by the light of the moon. All animals became tame around the unicorn. Rain and fire did its bidding, and when it plucked a leaf, two grew in its place. The unicorn's voice was sweet and delicate, with the sound of a thousand wind chimes. In the East they believed that once a unicorn was tamed, no other animal would ever know terror again. And, as long as humans showed greed, anger, and war, and hunger was around, the unicorn would remain elusive, hidden and wild. During evil times it would appear only when a great change was about to occur. In many Eastern cultures, the unicorn is occasionally linked with the tiger and the lioness. Although these relationships are not always considered compatible in Western lore, it is very different in the East. The tiger is a fierce creature in Eastern tradition, its ferocity and courage often unmatched. The tiger is considered a yang (male) creature, as opposed to the yin (female) unicorn and will fight earthly demons which encourage humans to kill the unicorn. Lions and lionesses are very similar, fighting for wisdom and truth and scaring away demons with teeth and claws.

Other Eastern Unicorns

Japan's version of the unicorn, the Kirin or Sin-you was depicted with sinews more like those of a lion. Although the Kirin was normally a shy creature, taking large detours to avoid confrontations, the Sin-you unicorn was not so timid. It was known for its ability to know right from wrong and was often called upon to determine the guilt or innocence of individuals. If an individual was determined to be guilty, the Sin-you would fix its eyes upon him and pierce the guilty person with its horn.

In Taoism and other mystical Eastern cultures, there arose a variety of teachings in art and dance to honor all of nature, including the unicorn and other sacred beasts. In Vietnam, a yearly unicorn dance is held on the full moon of the eighth month, the beginning of the monsoon season. People put on masks and costumes to conceal their identity. When their spirits are high, they tie an effigy of a unicorn to a platform. Archers then shoot at it while singing the effigy song (below). After the song is finished, the rains would begin.

Effigy Song

The unicorn's hoofs!
The duke's sons throng.
Alas for the unicorn!

The unicorn's brow!
The duke's kinsmen throng.
Alas for the unicorn!

The unicorn's horn!
The duke's clansmen throng.
Alas for the unicorn!

The Chinese Unicorn is an ancient creature of great wisdom and power.

The Middle Eastern Unicorn

In Persia and Arabia, the unicorn was called Karkadann, a beast so ferocious it could attack and kill an elephant. It was a violent, warlike unicorn, born in blood and vehement in battle. It had the body of a rhino and a tail like a lion. Each leg had three hooves, one in front and two in back. From its forehead rose a single black horn, curved like a crescent. Unlike the western unicorn, it was dreaded by all living creatures and left alone. The Karkadann could only be tamed by a ring dove. It is said this beast responded so strongly to the dove's gentle call that it would lie beneath a dove's tree for hours and wait for the dove to land on its horn. In other descriptions in Middle Eastern unicorn lore, the Karkadann was a fierce animal with magical abilities. It resembled a stag, horse or antelope, and the elephant was its deadly enemy. It could be mild and tender hearted though, drinking the morning dew from green plants. And when it put its head in water, the water would become pure and fruitful, opposites would unite, and all female creatures in the water would become pregnant. Any evil within the water would die and be cast out upon the shore. As in western unicorn lore, the Karkadann was extremely fond of women, who were used as lures to capture the beast. However, in the eastern tradition, the women did not have to be virgins. Capture of this unicorn was much rarer than in western tradition. This was likely the result of the difficulty in finding women willing to cooperate in capturing such a ferocious beast. The elephant was the deadly enemy of the Karkadann, and there are many tales about their great battles. In the most famous, the Karkadann stabs the elephant in the belly with his horn. Unable to dislodge his horn, the elephant collapses upon the Karkadann. A Roc, a giant mythical bird in Persia, flies by at this moment, diving and grabbing both beasts and lifting them up into the sky. The Roc then flies to its nest and feeds both the Karkadann and the elephant to its young. Allegedly only one human every tamed the Karkadann—Alexander the Great.

The Western Unicorn

The Western Unicorn is the typical unicorn most of us are familiar with.

The German Unicorn

German-speaking peoples have long been strong believers in unicorns. During the Middle Ages their churches and palaces were filled with images of the creature, known to them as Einhorn. In German Marian mysticism (the cult of the adoration of the Virgin), the name given to the mother of God was Maria unicornis (Mary of the unicorn).

The Wise Woman Of Scharzfeld

The Harz Mountains region of central Germany has long been considered a haunt of the Einhorn. In fact, there is a cave in this area which to this day is called the Einhornhohle. It acquired its name from a story which took place in the days when much of Germany was covered with dark, unmapped forests, which were ruled by the old gods. In this forest an old wise woman lived in the Steingrotte Cave near Scharzfeld. People came to her from all over the Harz region for healing and advice. This angered the Christian missionaries in the area and they denounced her as a witch. The missionaries used their influence with a Frankish king, whom they had converted, to send soldiers and a monk to arrest her. As the soldiers were making their way up the steep hill to her cave, the old woman came out and looked down upon them with total disdain and lack of fear. At first the soldiers hesitated, but realizing she was only one old woman, they continued climbing up to the cave. Then a pale Unicorn stepped out of the forest, its horn shining against the gloom cast by the trees. It went up to the woman and knelt before her, she got up on its back and rode away.

The monk and soldiers ran after her, but soon fell behind because of their heavy armor and weapons. The monk was finally able to catch up with the woman, but as he tried to grab her, she raised her arms and made signs in the air—and the monk disappeared. By the time the soldiers reached the spot, all they found was a hole in the ground with the monk lying shattered and lifeless at the bottom. The soldiers buried the monk and named the cave Einhornhohle, a name by which it has been known ever since.