The photo is of a silvery grey fridge magnet given me by a friend who knows my weakness for these mythical creatures. Lovely, isn't it. It raises my spirits every time I see it.
This is one of what we tend to view unicorns as today - all elegant with a sleek racehorse body, flowing mane and tail and a glorious twisted horn in the centre of its forehead - although, unlike this one, they were traditionally white. There were earlier versions, though,where the body was more like that of a goat and it had cloven hoofs.
The most interesting things about the unicorn to me, though, are its universality and its ancient roots.
For example, there's the Chinese quilin which, admittedly, apart from its horn, bears little resemblance to the European unicorn. Then there's the Japanese kirin which is more like the European version.
But if we look back the earliest known image of unicorns (which may, however, just be a side on representation of a bull showing only one horn) is from stone seals found in the Indus Valley and dating from 2500 BC. Moving forward in time the ancient Greeks certainly believed in the existence of one horned animals, recording two quite different creatures both of which they described as living in what to them was the mysterious and exotic country of India.
The European idea of the unicorn came in part from the Biblical descriptions of a fierce and untameable one horned animal, the re'em, and those ancient writings but was also influenced by the Germanic legends of the Einhorn. It changed into something different with the Middle Ages when it took on Christian symbolism on one hand, while also being linked with courtly love on the other.
From the Renaissance on images of the unicorn appeared all over the place. It showed up in heraldry, on royal and national coats of arms like that of the UK, in fakery - narwhale horns were sold as purporting to be from unicorns, in fiction and art and even in this children's nursery rhyme dating from around 1707 which Lewis Carroll used as part of Alice Through the Looking Glass :
"The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown.
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown,
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town."
All this may make us forget that we do still have living unicorns that may well be what the original stories were based on if the extraordinarily inaccurate representations of other creatures during the Dark and Middle Ages are anything to go on. These are the rhinoceros of India and Java and, sadly, it seems that some people still harbour fantastical beliefs about the magical qualities of their horns because they - and their two horned relatives in Africa and Sumatra - are under threat. Poachers slaughter them to take their horns mainly for use in traditional medicine in Asia (something for which there is no scientific evidence that it works) but also for use as dagger handles in Yemen and Oman This has led to three of the five species being critically endangered.
Many ways are being tried like making trade in rhinoceros horn illegal, armed patrols of national parks and game preserves, anaesthetising the animals and removing their horns and captive breeding programs. Most interesting is a new method which comes from research into ways to apply a tick prevention treatment. The horns of live, wild rhinos are infused with an antiparasitic drug to kill ticks and further experiments are being carried out with adding an indelible dye (which is visible even in minute quantities under x-ray). The tick treatment is harmless to rhinos and other creatures in their environment but is toxic to humans, causing nausea, diarrhoea and possible convulsions to anyone who ingests it which, to me, seems only fair in the circumstances.
The truth is that if the current rate of poaching and human encroachment on their habitat continues, the rhinoceros may soon really be gone and forgotten as anything but a myth in only a few years. What a loss that will be.