While many animals in the tattoo symbolism bestiary, both real and mythical, have quite varied meanings throughout time and across cultures, the unicorn is a pleasant exception. Overwhelmingly interpreted as a symbol of goodness, it is unique in many other respects as well.
Appearing originally in Mesopotamia and then in India and Greece, the unicorn was also celebrated in ancient China. Because China’s history is so deep and well documented, we can turn yet again to this seemingly limitless source of insight into ancient thought. Known as the Chi lin (or qilin), meaning yin and yang, the unicorn is one of the four sacred animals of China, the others being the phoenix, the dragon, and the tortoise. The unicorn comes from heaven, appearing at times of prosperity, when an emperor is ruling wisely, and also to signal that good fortune is about to appear. Benevolent and gentle, his skin is white, red, yellow, blue and black, his voice is like the tinkling of bells, and his horn has a tip that is fleshy, making it impossible for him to fight. Although the phoenix and dragon are well known in the lexicon of asian tattoo symbols, the unicorn as a tattoo almost always follows the visual forms first employed in the early western cultures.
It was reportedly the Greeks who first described the unicorn, as we know it today, in a document known as the Physiologus, a compendium of natural science knowledge that included animal descriptions. Although the original has been lost to time, several medieval Latin manuscripts survive, in whole and part, that were almost surely based on or taken completely from it.
“The Unicorn is a very small animal like a kid, exceedingly swift, with one horn in the middle of his forehead. No hunter can catch him. But he can be trapped by the following stratagem. A virgin is led to where he lurks, and there she is sent off alone into the wood. He quickly leaps into her lap and embraces her, and hence he gets caught.” (from T. H. Whites The Book of Beasts, his translation of a 12th century Latin bestiary at Cambridge).
In their day, bestiaries were second only in popularity to the Bible. Within their covers, animals both real and mythical were described, illustrated, and also interpreted in terms of where they fit into the moral scheme of things.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ is also a unicorn spiritually. That it has just one horn on its head means what He Himself said: “The Father and I are One.” He is very swift because neither principalities, nor powers, nor thrones, nor dominions could keep up with him, nor could Hell contain him, nor could the most subtle devil prevail to catch or contain him; but, by the sole will of the Father, he came down into the virgin womb for our salvation.” (The Book of Beasts)
However, the most prevalent pictorial counterpart to the descriptions of the bestiaries are not found within their pages. Instead, our contemporary visualizations of the unicorn are drawn from the tapestries of the later Middle Ages. Of particular importance are a series of seven tapestries which have come to be known as the Unicorn tapestries or Cloisters tapestries, woven about 1500 A.D., which integrates the story of the unicorn with the regular procedures followed in a stag hunt.
While the first tapestry shows the usual preparations, the second show the fabulously beautiful unicorn, with its milk white skin, spiraled horn, and curly beard (like a goat), dipping its horn into a rivulet, thereby removing serpent venom from the water so that all the rest of the beasts of the forest may drink safely. In tapestries three and four, the hunt of the unicorn gets underway, but the unicorn defends itself. As Ctesias, a Greek physician who live around 400 B.C., wrote: “They fight with thrusts of horn; they kick, bites, and strike with wounding force both horses and hunters.”
By tapestry number five, which is only fragmentary, the hunters have given up and now a maiden appears on the scene, delicately caressing the unicorn’s mane. Ultimately, though, the unicorn is brutally slain by the hunters in tapestry six, and brought to the castle. However, in the most well known of the tapestries, number seven, the unicorn is miraculously restored to life, resting in a circular wooden enclosure, wearing a beautiful collar that is chained to a tree by the chaine d’amour or love chain.
A fantastical creature of myth, though once believed to be quite real, the unicorn now embodies many of the same noble virtues with which it has been associated throughout time: magnificence, purity, strength, trust, and also magic. From symbols of kingship and Christianity to the embodiment of mysterious knowledge, the unicorn signals the advent of goodness, especially when it emanates from something pure.