Myths from Asia are filled with stories of magical beings that are very similar to the western concept of unicorn. Often these creatures are kind and benevolent beings with purest of hearts.
Stories about unicorns can be found from around the world. Magical deer and horse-like creatures with one horn in the middle of the forehead. In many Asian myths story of the unicorn begins with a statement that unicorn was the first creature that was created and it was the most magnificent and purest creature to wonder in this earth. Asian unicorn was told to be a gentle soul who would not even hurt a fly – quite literally. Unicorns were careful not to crush insects while walking. They did not eat fruits because of the life inside them. Their hooves barely touched the grass when they were running. This might have connections to the concept of ahimsa from Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina religions where one of the main principles is to honour life because all life is sacred.
According to Eastern legends the free and wild unicorn who was also the most gentle of all beings would hide itself into the mystical other realms until day would come when mankind would give up on it´s evil ways. Only then would unicorn appear to men and would allow itself to be tamed.
Qilin's statue in Beijing's summer palace
The Chinese Qilin
In Chinese mythology Qilin is a hybrid creature who has the body of a deer or a tiger, hooves of a horse, tail of an ox and a head of a dragon. It´s body is also covered with shiny green scales like a fish. There are descriptions which say that Qilin has wings or at least that it has ability to fly and it has clouds in it´s feet. Qilin has a single horn growing from it´s forehead but it is not a straight spiral shaped horn. Qilin´s horn curves backward. Qilin was believed to be one of the most benevolent animals who offered protection, comfort, prosperity and guidance for those who respected it. Qilin represents goodness and like other Asian unicorns it is a gentle soul who does not wish to harm any living beings. Attributes such as wisdom, harmony, purity, knowledge and gentleness are connected to Qilin. It was also told to have the gift of prophesy.
From Japanese mythology we find two types of unicorns; Kirin and Sin-You. Kirin is a kind and shy creature. Sin-You has tendency to be more judgmental. Legend tells that Sin-You has the power to detect those who lie and it possessed ability to tell the right from wrong. If Sin-You found the wrongdoer guilty it would kill them by impaling it´s horn to the person´s heart.
Unicorns in Vietnam
In Vietnamese folklore unicorns are known as qué ly or lan. First mentions of these creatures in come from 2700 years ago from the time period of Duong Dynasty where they symbolized prosperity. For Vietnamese qué ly was one of the most sacred animals and many of the temples were decorated with images of it. Qué ly or Qué lan it usually was depicted to have a dragon´s head and a horse´s body. There are more detailed imaginative descriptions which say that it also had a mouth of a crocodile, dog´s ears, nose of a lion and a horn of a deer. It also may had scales covering it´s body and mustache of a catfish. Qué ly was able to shape shift it´s appearance so it would have appeared in different forms to people. It was a symbol of good luck, happiness and longevity.
Story of Kiringul is connected to the ancient kingdom of Kogyryo. According to the legend founder of this ancient Kingdom King Tongmyong rode kiringul. In Vietnam and in Korea it was believed that Kirin and Kiringul lived inside caves and high in the mountains. These myths might have links to the past of these two countries where several of the ancient civilisations lived in caves. Some of the caves had a whole Eco-system with lakes and fountains inside them. They were idyllic places for these magical creatures to live.
Ancient Kingdom of Persia also had it´s own stories of the unicorn but unlike it´s other Asian counterparts Persian Kardakann was frightening and ferocious warrior. According to some descriptions it had six eyes and nine mouths and three hove's on each leg. Kardakann was also a shape sifter who could change it´s shape at will. Most impressive was it´s horn which was told to be pure gold. Kardakann was told to be an aggressive beast who intimidated all the other animals accept the ring dove. Stories tell that Karkakann had particular fascination to the bird´s song and that it was the only thing that could tame the wild beast. It is possible that some of the stories of the wild beastly Kardakann were inspired by Rhinos and it´s aggressive nature was simply a reflection of the Persian military power. There are also milder version of the Kardakann describing it to be a deer, stag, horse or an antelope with one-horn. This kind of Kardakann was a gentle soul and like other western unicorns it had ability to purify water simply by immersing it´s horn into a stream, lake or a pond but the consequences of this would be that all the females would immediately become pregnant.
Unicorns in India
There are lots of unicorn-like creatures in Indian folk tales and legends. Most famous of them is rsya. Creature that looks like an antelope or a water buffalo who has one singular horn rising from it´s forehead. Ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata even mentions human-like being called Rsyasrnga who also had a horn in his forehead.
Origins of the Legend
In all of these countries and cultures artists were found of portraying mythical creatures. Most of the time unicorns are inspired by animals who traditionally grow antlers on each side of their forehead but there are oddities in nature and sometimes one-horned deer's, antelopes and bulls are born. Depending on the specie some animals can drop their horns/antlers after mating season, coming of age or loose them in battles. Could they be the original inspirations to the legend of the unicorn? You decide.
The Natural history of Unicorns by Chris Lavers
Unicorns, the myths, legends and lore by Skye Alexander
I´ve been painting lots of unicorns lately. Unicorn of the enchanted forest is my personal favorite. Watercolors on acid-free watercolor paper. Greeting cards, posters, stickers and other goodies available here.
Here are more details from the painting.
Artist, illustrator, writer and a folklorist. Gryffinclaw. Comes from Finland. Likes cats, tea and period dramas.
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