Unicorns, although they are non-existent, are ubiquitous today as symbols. For example, they remain the national animal of Scotland, first added to the Scottish coat of arms in the 1500s to represent the untamable, proud nature of Scotland. Unicorns also intrigued ancient, medieval, and early modern authors who wrote about these imaginary animals and how they interacted with their environments. Long before the Scottish adoption of the unicorn, these writers infused the animal with spiritual meanings similar to those that later appealed to the Scots: the unicorn was proud, fierce, and pure. The deep fascination with the unicorn in European and Mediterranean systems of knowledge then provided the basis for the unicorn to represent the Americas within the Spanish Empire. Artists throughout the Spanish Empire utilized unicorns as a symbol of the Americas to mirror their understanding of Indigenous Americans as innocent and wild. In this way, they incorporated the unknown Americas into a known system of knowledge. Inspired by such Spanish uses of the unicorn, artists in colonial Mexico and the Andes then continued to use this trope.
The Mediterratlantic World
This process is emblematic of Mediterratlantic thought, a term coined by historian and anthropologist Byron Ellsworth Hamann to describe how the culture of Mesoamerica was interpreted through the lens of Mediterranean culture, and how Americans reworked that culture. His work uses Mediterratlantic comparisons to interrogate this transfer, analyzing parallels between Mediterranean and Mesoamerican subjects.1 The cyclical flow of culture between Spain and its colonies facilitated these Mediterratlantic exchanges. Spanish imperial policy created a rigid mercantile system that was designed to keep the Hispanic Atlantic “closed” to outside influences.2 Unicorn knowledge that began in the Mediterranean was used in the Spanish Empire to describe the Americas. Eventually, Americans used it to depict themselves, which reinforced the meaning of the unicorn and contributed to the creation of a Mediterratlantic world.
Unicorns in Mediterranean Culture
Hispanic authors derived their knowledge of the unicorn from several ancient Mediterranean sources, including the sixth-century work Christian Topography by the Byzantine author Cosmas Indicopleustes, in which he described India based on his travels. Concerning unicorns, he claimed that unicorns threw themselves over cliffs to avoid humans who encroached into their remote habitats. They survived by “cushioning” themselves with their horns. That description mirrored how Tibetan antelope leapt down cliffs. This text, alongside other ancient authors such as Pliny the Elder from the first century, constituted a corpus of knowledge that formed the basis of Hispanic conceptions of the unicorn.3 A late antique hagiography of Saints Barlaam and Josaphat utilized malevolent unicorns in a spiritual anecdote about Saint Josaphat, whom it described as combining a unicorn’s aloofness and strength with a terrible roar and a carnivorous desire to consume a man’s flesh. This story was part of a spiritual analogy, with the unicorn being “the type of death, ever in eager pursuit to overtake the race of Adam.”4 This description combined the physical features of an animal to make a spiritual point. Such a combination of meanings continued into the medieval period.
Pierre de Beauvais, an early thirteenth-century Parisian scribe, modified this perception of the unicorn’s fierce nature: a virgin, sitting alone, could lure the unicorn into her lap. He described the unicorn as “a very small animal resembling a goat’s kid.”5 These physical and spiritual changes introduced a controllable unicorn, predicated on knowledge of Asian environments. Importantly, Beauvais cataloged the unicorn alongside European animals like the fox and beaver. This medieval categorization of animals including the unicorn was augmented further by Marco Polo in his accounts of his late-thirteenth-century travels to Asia. Polo described the unicorns he saw, which were likely Sumatran rhinoceroses on Java, as follows:
There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick… 6
Although Polo’s report of imposing unicorns contradicted Beauvais’s description, both were part of the same system of knowledge. Both descriptions demonstrate Europeans asserting their power over the parts of the world they were unfamiliar with by incorporating the unknown into their known knowledge system.
Another source of information about unicorns came from the physical trade of their horns, which were called “alicorns” and inspired confidence in unicorns’ existence. However, natural philosophers in the seventeenth century undermined this certainty. In 1601, Pliny’s first-century account of a unicorn was reprinted uncritically. He had described it as an animal whose “bodie resembleth a horse… he loweth after a hideous manner; one blacke horn he hath in the mids of his forehead.”7 In 1658, however, Thomas Brown attacked Pliny and argued that unicorns had been rhinoceroses all along.8 Brown identified alicorns with narwhal tusks, and this association was essential in proving they did not exist. Holdouts initially dismissed this explanation because it was traditionally believed that animals had aquatic, aerial, and terrestrial counterparts. Within this knowledge system, the narwhal simply mirrored the unicorn, suggesting that a terrestrial form did exist.9 Nevertheless, the discovery that alicorns were narwhal tusks eventually refuted the unicorn’s existence and solidified its symbolic meaning: it was foreign, pure yet violent, and part of the recent European and ancient Mediterranean intellectual traditions. As artists came to increasingly use these meanings in depictions of the American environment, the unicorn became a symbol of the Mediterratlantic.
Unicorns in Hispanic Culture
There are many examples of unicorns playing a role in early modern Hispanic culture. One of the first was when King Joan el Caçador, “the Hunter” of Aragon, who lived from 1350 to 1396, wished to acquire an alicorn. This quest became a symbol of his royal authority, and he leveraged the Aragonese bureaucracy to find and verify possible horns and their fragments.10 Another example occurred in 1539 when the Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza was sent to New Mexico to investigate Zuni pueblos. He encountered Indigenous trade in bison pelts and horns and, due to mistranslation, believed the bison had a single horn on its forehead. Although he differentiated them from unicorns—and subsequent descriptions of bison referenced his distinction between bison and unicorns—his differentiation between them underscored the place of unicorns in their knowledge system.11 As these examples show, the unicorn was firmly embedded in Hispanic culture and subsequently became a useful lens for Europeans' understanding of the Americas and for Americans’ understanding of themselves.
In addition to these textual references, unicorns also appeared in Hispanic art to represent different characteristics, including purity and power. This may have been influenced by the engraver George Pencz, who worked in the Holy Roman Empire, and who was part of the celebrated “Little Masters,” a clique of printmakers whose work spread across Europe and Asia, as far as Mughal India.12 Pencz used unicorns in 1539 as a symbol of purity (see figure 1). Unicorns had been symbols of virginity since the medieval period, and Pencz combined them with a representation of chastity as a woman, who used them to pull her chariot. This depiction further reinforced the meaning of unicorns and inspired later artists, who used a similar structure to personify the continents and their flora and fauna. In this way, knowledge of a fantastical animal associated with India was used to understand the metaphysics of a new continent and to subtly justify Spanish colonization.
Unicorns as a symbol of power appear in Flemish artist Julius Goltzius’s engraving series, produced sometime between 1560 and 1590, which personified the continents as women (see figure 2). Goltzius operated out of Antwerp, which was part of the Spanish Empire, so it contributed to the Hispanic culture. In the sixteenth and especially the seventeenth centuries, Spain imported myriad Flemish prints that artists in Madrid had easy access to.13 That art influenced the wider Atlantic, especially colonial Mexico, where these scenes and forms were recreated in the local style.14 These, in turn, affected perceptions in Europe, so there was an interplay of artistic trends and conventions. This exchange imported and perpetuated both Goltzius’s work as artistic inspiration and knowledge about unicorns. As a result, unicorns were transformed from being animals rooted in European culture and associated with the Orient to a symbol of knowledge about the nature of the Americas.
The Unicorn in American Art and Culture
The personifications of the continents in Goltzius’s work inspired American productions of similar representations of the four known continents. In Goltzius’s depiction, Europe is a crowned, fully clothed woman pulled by horses, with livestock and clashing soldiers behind her. Thus, the environment is civilized but bellicose with Europeans having mastery over nature and man through organized war and agriculture. Asia is also fully clothed and has her chariot hitched to two camels. The artist populated her vistas with shepherds and several armies engaged in battle. Thus, like Europe, Asia controls nature and man. Africa, by contrast, is partially nude, suggesting the continent’s underdevelopment and persistent wildness or seeming lack of sophistication to a European audience. The breasts are exposed and the figure is borne by lions. Behind her are mostly exotic animals, with some impressive but distant buildings near the horizon.
Finally, in Goltzius’s engraving, America is crowned with feathers. She carries an axe and bow and sits in a chariot pulled by two unicorns. In the background, Indigenous Americans build a lumber fortification while others fight with arrows and dismember a human sacrifice. Despite this violence, America alone has unicorns, even though these creatures had previously been associated with the Orient, not the Occident. This was because of the metaphysical knowledge the unicorn implied. Its fearsome nature, like the Indigenous people, concealed an unparalleled naïve purity. The Americas were, thus, shown to be the most violent and innocent continents at the same time. Goltzius’s depiction of America’s unicorns and the scene of sacrifice represent the belief that Indigenous Americans were slaves of Satan who participated in cannibalism. Spanish colonists also believed that their conquest ended this enslavement and saved the pure nature of Indigenous Americans.15 This reinforced the symbolism of the unicorn by highlighting the savage but pure state of the Indigenous people that the Spanish believed could be elevated through their actions, especially through education and conversion.16
Goltzius’s engravings inspired artists in the wider Hispanic Atlantic to associate the Americas with the unicorn. That association aided in creating a Mediterratlantic culture because American artists deliberately connected themselves to an imported symbol. A late seventeenth-century oil painting by an anonymous Mexican artist used Goltzius as a reference (see figure 3). America, as an Indigenous woman, is again depicted holding a bow and axe, with warfare and human sacrifice behind her. Unicorns pull the chariot, which reinforces the dichotomous understanding of the Americas as savage and innocent. This painting is part of a panel for a folding screen and would have been displayed in the home of elites who understood the metaphysical description of the Americas that the unicorns were part of. Their privileged position and education in colonial society meant that their knowledge of the Americas, represented in part by the unicorns, could be acted on through their participation in a colonial and Mediterratlantic culture. The elites, thus, helped tame the unicorn.
Another example of unicorns symbolizing the physical and spiritual qualities of the Americas is present in a panel painting from a desk in eighteenth-century Cusco (figure 4). The artist followed the conventions of the earlier works with the partially clothed woman pulled by unicorns. However, this painting lacks the violent imagery of the first two examples. In place of the warfare and sacrifice are a parrot, a jaguar, and several types of plants representative of the Andes. The absence of human violence is notable but does not detract from the meaning of the unicorn. This personification of America still portrays the untamed purity of the first two personifications of the Americas in the form of wild animals and plants. This change preserved the symbolic meaning of the unicorn as pure but suggested that the Americas could gradually be controlled like a domesticated orchard.
Widespread depictions of unicorns today disguise their absence in the historiography of the Atlantic World, which has mostly ignored them and their role in a Mediterratlantic culture. Scholarly works have reasonably focused on tapestries and the importance of unicorn horns in the economics of medicine and religious devotion. However, as this article has shown, unicorns were also a potent symbol in the Hispanic Atlantic, in published engraving prints and commissioned paintings displayed on furniture. Knowledge of them was part of a centuries-old system of knowledge about the world that did not include the Americas in any capacity. Hispanic colonists attempted to understand these diverse and new regions by applying a symbol from their intellectual tradition. The unicorn embodied spiritual meanings that aided in describing American environments and incorporating them into their knowledge systems. The deliberate adoption of the unicorn in the Atlantic world tied the Americas to the European systems of knowledge after the Spanish imposed these systems on their colonies. The Mediterratlantic culture, in turn, helped continue the association of the unicorn with the Americas, even after people came to understand that unicorns did not actually exist.
Shepherd Aaron Ellis is a Ph.D. student in the history department at the University of Cincinnati. His research focuses on the Atlantic World, especially between the Hispanic and Anglo Atlantic cultures, and the role of the natural environment in early modern history. A previous publication is “Transmutation and Refinement: The Metaphysics of Conversion and Alchemy in Renaissance Spain,” Renaissance Papers 2021.
- Byron Ellsworth Hamann, “The Higa and the Tlachialoni: Material Cultures of Seeing in the Mediterratlantic,” Art History 41 (2018): 625–26, DOI: 10.1111/1467-8365.12357. ↩︎
- Kenneth J. Andrien, “The Spanish Atlantic System,” in Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 56. ↩︎
- Chris Lavers, The Natural History of Unicorns (New York: William Morrow, 2009), 40–42. ↩︎
- St. John of Damascus, Barlaam and Ioasaph, originally c. 676-749 CE, trans. G.R. Woodward, 1914, digitized by Al Haines, 2008, ch. xii, par. 11–12. ↩︎
- Pierre de Beauvais, A Medieval Book of Beasts: Pierre de Beauvais’ Bestiary, originally c. 1218, trans. Guy R. Mermier (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 89. ↩︎
- Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, originally c. 1300, trans. Henry Yule and Henri Cordier (Paris: 1902, E-Bookarama, 2022), 38. ↩︎
- Pliny the Elder, The Historie of the World: Commonly Called the Natural Historie of C. Plinius Secundus, trans. Philemon Holland (London: Printed by Adam Flip, 1601), book viii, ch. xxil. ↩︎
- Thomas Brown, Pseudoxia Epidemica: Or Enquiries into Very Many Received Tenents and Commonly Presumed Truths (London: Green Dragon Fourth Edition, 1658), 202. ↩︎
- Lavers, Natural History, 99–100. ↩︎
- Michael A. Ryan, “The Horn and the Relic: Mapping the Contours of Authority and Religiosity in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon,” Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural 1 no. 1 (2012): 51–52. ↩︎
- Sara Vicuña Guengerich, “The Perceptions of the Bison in the Chronicles of the Spanish Northern Frontiers,” Journal of the Southwest 55, no. 3 (Autumn 2013): 254–56. ↩︎
- Giullia Bartrum, German Renaissance Prints, 1490–1550 (London: British Museum Press, 1995), 12. ↩︎
- Abigail D. Newman, “Juan de la Corte: ‘Branding’ Flanders Abroad,” Netherlands Kunsthistorich Jaarboek 63 (2013), Art and Migration: Netherlandish Artists on the Move, 1400–1750, 275. ↩︎
- Charlene Villaseñor Black, Creating the Cult of St. Joseph: Art and Gender in the Spanish Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 92. ↩︎
- Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 88. ↩︎
- Alfonso de Castro, “On Whether the Indians of the New World Should Be Instructed in Liberal Arts and Sacred Theology,” originally 1543, in Forgotten Franciscans: Works from an Inquisitorial Theorist, a Heretic, and an Inquisitional Deputy, ed. and trans. by Martin Austin Nesvig (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), 28. ↩︎