A unicorn is a mythological creature that resembles a horse with a narwhal-like horn protruding from its forehead. The classic creature also has a billy goat's beard, cloven hooves, and a lion's tail. It is generally believed to be benevolent, and its blood and horn are said to have healing and purifying properties.
Belief in the unicorn is ancient, and prehistoric paintings in Lascaux, France; Lago Posadas, Argentina; and Namaqualand in southern Africa feature similar creatures. It is also mentioned in a version of the Bible and in ancient Greek and Roman works of natural history and folklore. However, no scientific proof of the existence of unicorns has ever surfaced. A few alleged skeletons have been displayed throughout history, but they are widely believed to be hoaxes. The word translated in the King James Version of the Bible as "unicorn" is re'em, which many scholars believe referred to an extinct type of cattle called the aurochs.
The unicorn is most often associated with medieval Europe, in which it became a powerful and ubiquitous symbol of purity, Christ, and the incarnation. Conversely, it also became a symbol of courtly love and later of faithful marriage, and its pulverized horn was considered to be an aphrodisiac. The spiral horn of the narwhal, a marine animal, was often sold as a unicorn horn during the medieval era. In medieval lore, the horn was said to possess the ability to neutralize poison. In addition, many legends held that the creature could only be caught or mounted by a virgin.
The unicorn is prevalent in much medieval art, most famously in two tapestry series. The Hunt of the Unicorn, a series of seven tapestries on display at the Cloisters in New York City, depicts noblemen who hunt and kill a unicorn with the help of a maiden. The creature is presented at a royal wedding feast, and the final tapestry shows it resurrected but tamed, sitting inside an enclosure under a pomegranate tree, a symbol of fertility. The series is rife with symbolism regarding both Christianity and marriage. The Lady and the Unicorn, a series of six tapestries on display at the Cluny museum in Paris, depicts each of the five senses along with "love." Unicorns appear in each tapestry in the series.
The unicorn is also an important symbol in heraldry, or coats of arms, where it represents purity, strength, and freedom. It was not widely used until the 15th century, but it became very popular around that time. It is sometimes shown collared, but more often with a broken collar, symbolizing its untamable spirit. It notably appears in the Scottish and British royal arms.