The mention of unicorns or winged horses may bring to mind images from children’s stories, but these mythological creatures have a rich history which begins thousands of years ago and arises in cultures all around the world.
Because of our familiarity with Greek mythology, Pegasus is the most well-known of the tales of winged horses. He sprang from the neck of Medusa’s severed head and his father was Poseidon; this is thought to be why he had the power to create courses of running water by stamping his hoof. For a time he belonged to the monster-killer Bellerophon. Eventually Pegasus became part of Zeus’s stable on Mt. Olympus, responsible for carrying the god’s lightning bolts. Upon his death, Zeus made him into a constellation to immortalize him. Pegasus is sometimes used as a symbol of the soul in flight to heaven. The image was also commonly used in historic European heraldry.
Winged horse-like creatures are also deeply rooted in mythology throughout east Asia. In China, the Chollima was such a swift and elegant creature, no mortal man could ever hope to ride it. It was known as “1000 mile horse” and was believed to be able to travel as much as a 1000 miles a day. Islamic lore describes a winged-horse known as al-Buraq. This creature was said to have taken Muhammad to visit the seven heavens and on his renowned Night Journey, in which he traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem and back in one night.The image of Pegasus can still be found today in literature and films as well as in company logos, most notably Mobil fuel.
Unicorns are commonly depicted as white horses and having magical powers, but for much of their history they were considered real animals. The most recognizable image of a unicorn comes down to us from medieval Europe. Early depictions often described the creature as having feet similar to that of an elephant. Many believe the Asian rhinoceros could be the basis for this legendary animal. References to unicorns date back to 2700 BC in what is now India. Unlike Pegasus, they did not populate myths because they were considered real creatures; in fact, up until the 18th century they were considered to be part of the study of natural history.
In Europe the unicorn was most often described as a horse or a goat with a single horn. It was notoriously elusive and difficult to catch and would approach only a pure maiden. During the middle ages, scholars used the unicorn as a symbol for Christ and because of this, its depiction is found in many famous Gothic tapestries.
Unicorns became symbols of purity and grace. Their horns were believed to have the power to detect or repel poison, and monarchs routinely purchased such horns to protect themselves from would-be assassins. These horns fetched vast sums of money but were believed to be commonly harvested from narwhals.
References to unicorn type creatures are found the world over. The ababda in the Congo has not one but two horns. Like the European unicorn, its horns were thought to act as an antidote to poison or disease. The quilin in China has a closer resemblance to a dragon and is believed to appear at the death of a great ruler. In Japan, the kirin are depicted as a more lion type creature and are said to be extremely shy and avoid all confrontations. It takes the form of a calf or a bull in Chile; there, camahueta grow from the ground and their horns are also considered elixirs.
Both the unicorn and Pegasus continue firmly ensconced in our collective imaginations and they are big business too. In children’s literature as well as television and film franchises, they are extremely popular. But it goes beyond that: clothing, household goods and even cookbooks speak to their appeal to adults as well!
Miss Mary’s Take and Make
Mythological Horse Carousel
Pick up the horse creature craft kit from the Library’s curbside pickup this week!