There is no scientific evidence of the unicorn’s existence, but stories from antiquity abound with tales of unicorns, horse or goat-like creatures (often white) with a single spiral horn emanating from their foreheads. They were depicted on seals dating back to the Indus Valley Civilization 3,300–1300 years ago and ancient Greek travelers and historians wrote about them. Even the Old Testament of the Bible mentions a one-horned beast—the re’em—a word that is sometimes translated as a unicorn.
Unicorns certainly never existed, so how did the folklore around them originate? Maybe it was from paintings and carvings of aurochs. (These now extinct cattle were often represented side-on which gave the impression of having a single horn.) Or could these fanciful creatures actually have been rhinos? Possibly, and in some cases quite probably. For example, the Greek physician Ctesias who served in the Persian court around 404 BCE, described a creature from India that had a “purple head and carried a single horn upon its forehead.” Although Ctesias was given to wild claims and passing on second hand information, his description sounds very much like that of an Indian Rhino.
Maybe the unicorn/rhino association dates back to even earlier times. The last remnant populations of the giant Elasmotherium were still around in Asia about 29,000 years ago, briefly overlapping with the earliest humans known to have lived there. This massive extinct rhino is thought to have carried a huge single horn on its forehead. Did tales of this great beast get passed down from generation to generation? Who really knows.
The qilin of Eastern myth is sometimes referred to as the Chinese unicorn, but this beast of fancy is more dragon-like (a chimera with the body of a deer, the head of a lion, green scales and a long, forwardly-curved horn). The Japanese version is more like the Western portrayal while the Vietnamese representation embodies ancient symbols of wealth and prosperity. Could the current Vietnamese belief in the power of rhino horn have its roots in this lore?