On November 30, 2012, the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s government “news” agency, reported that scientists had “reconfirmed” the existence and location of the final resting place of the unicorn ridden by King Dongmyeong, the founding father of Goguryeo of an ancient Korean kingdom. The unicorn’s grave was located under a rock near the North Korea capital of Pyongyang with an engraving that read “Unicorn’s Lair.”
Like many supposed news reports that comes out of North Korea these days, this reported evidence that a mythical creature like the unicorn once existed was mostly ignored and laughed at by the world’s science community. After all, this was the same news agency that reported former leader Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger and had eleven hole-in-ones the first time he ever hit the links. (What, he wasn’t good enough to get 18 hole-in-ones?) So, it’s fair for this outrageous claim to be taken as such. But unicorns have been discussed and given mythical status for centuries now, in religious texts, travel observations, and even ancient academic papers. Did unicorns, at one point, actually exist? If they didn’t, then where did the legend of this magical horse with one horn come from?
For the uninitiated, unicorns are mythical creatures that possess a single horn protruding from it’s forehead. Legends vary on exactly what powers the unicorn held. Some say it could fly, others said their horns possessed incredible healing power, and still others said that unicorns were immortal.
The first known depiction of a one-horned “unicorn” is commonly said to be found in the ancient Lascaux Caves in France. The drawings date back to 15,000 BCE. In actuality, the creature on the cave walls had two horns, but the original discovers got confused due to the close approximation of the horns in the drawing. More likely, the drawing depicts some sort of bull or antelope.
The first written account of a unicorn in Western literature comes from the Greek doctor Ctesias in the 4th century BCE. While traveling through Persia (modern-day Iran), he heard tales of a single-horned “wild ass” roaming the eastern part of the world from fellow travelers. In his writings (obtained from Odell Shepard’s 1930 research manuel “Lore of the Unicorn”), Ctesias described these creatures as “large as horses” with white bodies, red heads, and blue eyes. Ctesias depicted the horn as multi-colored and about a foot and half in length.
They were so swift and powerful, claimed Ctesias, that “no creature, neither the horse or any other, could overtake it.” According to Time Magazine’s article “A Brief History of Unicorns,” it was likely Ctesias never saw this creature himself, but rather combined the portrayals told to him by his foreign friends. Other well-known figures throughout history reported their own unicorn sightings, including Marco Polo (calling them “ugly brutes”), Genghis Khan (who supposedly decided to not invade India upon seeing the creature), and Pliny the Elder.