By Conal Morrison

I’m sure we can all agree that when we hear the word unicorn, we think of some form of white horse with a shining white or multicoloured horn, or maybe a My Little Pony character. These creatures are synonymous with magic and mystery. 

Yet, they can be traced back through western myths for millennia all the way back to ancient Rome and Greece. And the unicorn also bears a striking resemblance to the Qilin, a symbol of good luck, longevity and prosperity in China. 

They are even the national animal of Scotland, chosen because their features resonate with the Scottish psyche and because myths say that the only creature a lion is scared of is the unicorn. As England’s national animal is a lion, the Scots sent out a signal to their conquerors that they were not afraid to go to battle. 

So humans, since time immemorial, have told tales of such a creature, and those tales have evolved to become what they are now. This leads us to our biggest question…

What Exactly Is A Unicorn?

I know I just described what a unicorn is. Still, the word and idea of the unicorn are so widespread now that it can mean many different things. In the tech world, a unicorn is a privately owned startup that has grown to be worth $1 billion USD or more.

In the dating world, it is someone who is an absolute catch. Such a diamond in the rough they may seem untouchable. That special someone who everything just seems to click into place with. But it has a second meaning in the polyamorous world. 

A unicorn, in this sense, is somebody who joins a pre-existing relationship as a third party. In some cases, for sex or other intimate relationship reasons. Albeit there are some less pleasant connotations to this term, it can sometimes even be derogatory. So do please be careful of its use.

But it doesn’t stop there! Going back to ancient times, a very wise man known as Pliny the Elder, a Roman philosopher some 2000 years ago, apparently saw a Unicorn! He described it as having “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”. 

Now, if I’m honest, this doesn’t quite fit with what I have in mind when I think of a unicorn, but that description does sound awfully familiar. Rhino’s anybody? 

Slightly later down the track in medieval Europe, there are records of ‘unicorn horns’ being sold as a cure-all elixir! But where did such a magical elixir come from? The answer is about as dream shattering as you expect. Vikings! 

Vikings sold narwhal horns from the northern seas as unicorn horns. This led to many fantastical tales about unicorns. It could be said that is the reason why modern unicorns are depicted with a swirled horn, just like that of a narwhal.

Modern Day Unicorns 

As a boy, personally, I had very little to do with unicorns; I was all about fire-breathing dragons and other weird fantastical monsters like vampires or werewolves at the time. But I vividly remember the girls at my school having unicorn everything. It was nigh on inescapable; they were everywhere; found on lunch boxes, t-shirts, stickers on their workbooks. The whole nine yards. So the unicorn has somehow moved out of the realm of myth and into the realm of a commodity, particularly for girls and young women. 

They have moved into our broader culture and become a symbol of many things. Many fashion brands have clothing or accessory lines centred around them with a rather dazzling amount of sparkles and pink. These sell like hotcakes worldwide to millions of parents wanting to get their daughters the newest unicorn based product to pander to  their obsession. 

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the rainbow unicorn became an icon for some of the LGBTQ+ community. Of course, the rainbow flag itself existed long before this icon was adopted, but now unicorns are a symbol for LGBTQ+ people worldwide. In 2018 this moved to a whole new level, with rainbow unicorn horns being all the rage during Pride parades globally. 

So this mythical creature has become a symbol with many meanings and facets, much like the mystical unicorn itself, which is ever-changing and always running free. I am sure that its symbolism and looks will continue to evolve and change even further in the future. As humans, we love the magical and the mystical, and there is no better symbol for this than the unicorn. It’s safe to say that with a few thousand years of history behind it, the unicorn is definitely here to stay!