Mythical creatures: unicorns

Explore the stories behind the Fantastic Beasts™: The Wonder of Nature exhibition. Meet the natural world's fantastic horned beasts, which may have inspired tales of the unicorn.

The Natural History Museum

Fantastic Beasts bookThe Natural History Museum

Inspired by nature

People have told stories about unicorns for thousands of years, but what inspired these tales?

'The unicorn is a beautiful beast found throughout the forests of northern Europe. It is a pure white, horned horse when fully grown, though the foals are initially golden and turn silver before achieving maturity. The unicorn’s horn, blood and hair all have highly magical properties. It generally avoids human contact, is more likely to allow a witch to approach it than a wizard, and is so fleet of foot that it is very difficult to capture.'
– Newt Scamander, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them™

Theatrum Universale Ominum Animalium (1718)The Natural History Museum

For hundreds of years, unicorns were believed to be real animals. Tusks, bones and fossils were traded as their magical horns.

Millefleur (thousand flower) tapestryThe Natural History Museum

Weaving tales of unicorns

When this tapestry was woven around 500 years ago, many Europeans believed that unicorns were real animals.

In the Late Middle Ages (around 1300–1500), artists depicted unicorns as pure white horse-like creatures with a long, twisted horn.

Unicorns were said to be graceful and elusive, and their magical horns were thought to have healing powers.

Theatrum Universale Ominum Animalium (1718)The Natural History Museum

Many types of unicorn

This encyclopaedia of animals, Theatrum Universale Omnium Animalium by Johannes Jonstonus, was originally published in the 1650s.

Among images of horses, donkeys and zebras, the book includes several types of unicorn. Some have short horns while others have coiled tails or even webbed feet.

These illustrations were based on many different descriptions of the mythical creature written over thousands of years.

LIFE Photo Collection

Unicorns of the sea

We now know that the 'unicorn horns' traded across Europe for centuries actually came from a small Arctic whale called a narwhal.

Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are toothed whales that live primarily in Arctic coastal waters and inlets. They belong to a family called Monodontidae, which contains two species: the narwhal and the beluga (or white whale).

Male and female narwhals only have two teeth, which are both found in the upper jaw. The male's iconic spiralling tusk is in fact a canine tooth, and it can grow up to three metres (10 feet) in length.

Narwhal tuskThe Natural History Museum

It's also possible that the spiral shape played a big part in informing the way unicorn horns have been depicted from medieval times to today.

Carved narwhal tuskThe Natural History Museum

A treasured unicorn horn

This 'unicorn horn' is now known to be the tusk of a narwhal. It was probably used as a candlestick during religious ceremonies.

Decorated with leaves, dragons and human figures, it was carved around 900 years ago, possibly in the workshop of Lincoln Cathedral in the UK.

Carved narwhal tuskThe Natural History Museum

Objects thought to be unicorn horns were once valuable treasures owned by rich and powerful Europeans.

Two-tusked narwhalThe Natural History Museum

Why do narwhals have tusks?

Scientists are still on the fence about the evolutionary purpose of narwhal tusks, however there are a number of theories about their purpose.

Two-tusked narwhalThe Natural History Museum

'It appears that their tusk has some kind of large-scale sensory function. It could be that it allows them to detect changes in water temperature, salinity or water pressure,' says marine mammal expert Richard Sabin.

Other theories are that male narwhals might use their tusks as a kind of pick to break through or create tunnels in the ice, or that the size of the tusk is a visual indicator used by females for mate selection.

A steppe mammothThe Natural History Museum

Healing properties

In the early 1700s pieces of 'fossil unicorn' were thought to have healing powers. Medicines made with powdered 'unicorn horn' could be prescribed by doctors or purchased in apothecary shops to treat fevers, epilepsy or the plague.

Today we know these fossilised bones belong to prehistoric animals such as mammoths.

Draco Malfoy's wandThe Natural History Museum

Wands containing unicorn hair

In the wizarding world of J K Rowling, unicorn horn, hair and blood have magical properties. Wands made with unicorn hair are faithful and produce the most consistent magic.

Remus Lupin, Draco Malfoy™ and Ron Weasley™ each carry wands with a unicorn-hair core.

Credits: Story

For more information and to book tickets to the exhibition, visit the Museum's website.

To find out more about the Wizarding World, visit WizardingWorld.com

WIZARDING WORLD and all related trademarks, characters, names, and indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Publishing Rights © JKR. (s21)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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