Among the mythical creatures from different European cultures and folklores, along with mighty dragons, serpents as big as the world or monstrous wolves the size of mountains, the horse occupies a special place. After all, it is one of the first domesticated animals, and has played an important role in human life since ancient times.
Pegasus , in Greek mythology, was the winged horse that emerged from the lifeless body of the monstrous Medusa. Sleipnir , in Norse mythology, was the mighty eight-legged steed, son of Loki and mount of Odin. But the unicorn is, without a doubt, the most abundant figure in European mythologies.
Traditionally described as a white horse, with a long spiral horn, antelope legs, and a goatee and tail, though today it is often depicted as identical in shape to the horse, except for the ever-present single horn on its forehead.
Distinguishing a rhinoceros from a horse seems very easy when the animal is alive. However, the skull of both animals could easily be confused if found by the untrained. If, in addition, we talk about a rhinoceros with its horn located, not on the nose, as usual, but on the forehead over the eyes, the origin of the myth is much more understandable.
Elasmotherium is a genus of huge prehistoric rhinoceros, up to eight feet tall, widely represented in rock art, which lived from Eastern Europe to Central Asia, until 39,000 years ago. Some researchers think that this impressive animal could have served as inspiration for the mythical unicorn.
That the unicorn was originally attributed traits associated with antelopes and goats is no accident. Antelopes and goats belong to the bovid family, which have bony horns with a keratin sheath. Except that unlike unicorns, goats and antelopes have two horns, unless they’ve lost one of them, or even been born without one.
Similarly, male deer usually have a pair of antlers, which grow out from the sides of their heads. In this case, losing them should not be a problem, since they renew their antlers every year. However, there is a chance that some mutation causes you to have only one antler, or, more likely, that trauma during the antherogenic period —the time of year when the previous year’s antler has already shed and begins to grow. the new one—prevents proper development of one of the antlers.
When this happens, the animal, whether it’s a goat, an antelope, or a deer, will have only one horn—or a single antler, if it’s a deer. In most cases, the loss of the horn or antler does not alter the position of the other, which maintains its position on one side of the head. But, if the damage is very significant or occurs during the early stages of growth, the single horn or antler may migrate to a central position on the head .
In fact, cases of oryx or impalas with a single horn have been recorded, and they have even been called ‘cervicorns’ , deer or roe deer with a single central antler.
It is said that during the Middle Ages, a series of properties that bordered on the divine were attributed to the unicorn’s horn. Of course, since it was a non-existent animal, finding real unicorn horns was a futile task.
However, sometimes the sailors brought with them enormous spiral horns, which were offered as unicorns that had been hunted in distant and exotic lands. Very real objects, which are still preserved in museums.
Evidently they weren’t genuine unicorn horns, or even horns, really. They were huge, straight-coiled-looking tusks of a marine animal, the narwhal . A close relative of the belugas, it is an iconic cetacean historically persecuted precisely for its tusks and also for its meat.
Fortunately, the narwhal, which is currently distributed in 12 populations in the arctic glacial ocean, is in a good state of conservation. It is estimated that there are more than 120,000 living specimens. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists it as a species of least concern.
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