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Fantastical Creatures of Greco-Roman Mythology: Hippoi Monokerata

Welcome to the final instalment of our series on lesser-known creatures and monsters in Classical mythology! Over the past year, we’ve looked at everything from ancient dragon-like creatures to ancient vampire-like creatures, and plenty of bizarre things in between.

From the beginning of this series, it has been my hope that both writers and readers alike would find inspiration from learning about the varied monsters of ancient mythology, many of which have been more or less lost to general knowledge with the passage of time. There are so many monsters to draw from that writers don’t need to feel stuck when it comes to choosing the right creature for their hero to battle against—and readers may find it interesting to learn about the history of some of our modern-day monster stereotypes.

In this instalment, we’re going to look at what is arguably the most fantastical of all the creatures we’ve explored to date. While many fantasy writers and readers likely assume the first references to the beast came from Medieval bestiaries, our earliest record actually comes from the 4th-century B.C. in Ancient Greece.

Who is this remarkable creature? The Hippos Monokeras (singular)… better known to us today as a unicorn.

Recognizing an Ancient Unicorn

Hippoi Monokerata - MonocerusKnown as the swift-footed, one-horned horses of the East, the Hippoi Monokeratas were highly distinct in their appearance—not just because of the horn in the middle of their forehead. They’re described by Greek historian Ctesias as being snow-white with a dark red head, blue eyes, and a multi-colored horn.

The horn, “about a cubit in length,” is pure white from the base up to about two hand spans away from the forehead, where it then transitions to black in the middle with a crimson red tip. The body of a Hippos Monokeras is as large as a regular horse, or slightly bigger, with black knucklebones.

This description is similar across a variety of sources, but as you might expect, there’s at least one variation in the historical record. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History from the 1st-century A.D., claimed that the Monokeras had feet like an elephant’s, a tail like a boar, and a completely black three-foot long horn.

Capturing an Ancient Unicorn

Hippoi Monokerata by Unknown ArtistWhile the sources may vary somewhat on the description, there is one thing they all agree on, Pliny the Elder included: It’s impossible the capture one alive. In the same way that unicorns of modern fantasy have a reputation for being skittish, difficult to see or capture, and fierce when approached, the ancient version is known for being strong, swift, and faster than any other animal alive.

This means that the only way to capture a Hippos Monokeras is to sneakily surround it and then kill it, since it can’t be taken alive. Attempts to do so only result in death or serious injury:

“…horsemen dread coming to close quarters with them, since the penalty for doing so is a most lamentable death, and both they and their horses are killed … their bite goes so deep that they tear away everything that they have grasped.” (Aelian, On Animals, 2nd-century A.D.)

Instead, the creature must be shot with javelins and arrows while in the presence of their young—a Hippos Monokeras will never abandon its foals, which means they can be widely surrounded and shot at from a distance. Coming into close contact with one means disembowelment, getting speared through the gut (both horses and men), or being trampled.

Why Kill an Ancient Unicorn?

"Unicorn Horn"If unicorn blood and unicorn horn shavings (or unicorn tears, depending on what you’re reading) are the means to supernatural healing in modern fantasy works, then it’s just as potent in the ancient descriptions—and it provides a preventative element of protection, too.

Despite Hippoi Monokerata flesh being too bitter to eat, when carved into the shape of a drinking vessel, the horn is an antidote to all poisons—and any poison slipped inside of it is immediately rendered harmless. It may also prevent the drinker from being harmed by poisons in the future, and fixes or prevents “incurable diseases” such as convulsions or the “sacred sickness” (epilepsy).

And if you’ve already ingested poison, and are using the horn to cure yourself, the horn apparently induces restorative vomiting. Unfortunately, the ancient sources haven’t told us exactly how this works (do you stick the horn down your throat?) but since multiple sources state the same thing, apparently this cure was widely accepted as 100% effective.

One source also suggests that drinking from the horn of the Hippoi Monokerata makes the drinker immune to fire (but the same source claims that only kings are allowed to hunt the beast and take advantage of the horn’s power, so there may have been an ulterior motive on the part of that particular writer).

The Truth About Ancient Unicorns

Monoceros from the Aberdeen BestiaryModern science has long accepted that unicorns are made-up creatures of fantasy and myth, but it’s certainly worth pondering why we have several eye-witness ancient accounts of the creature’s existence.

Apollonius, a Greek prophet from the 1st-century A.D., claimed that he personally saw and admired a Hippos Monokeras but when pressed about his belief in the claims of the beast’s horn having supernatural powers, he replied:

“I will believe it, if I find the king of the Indians hereabout to be immortal; for surely a man who can offer me or anyone else a draught potent against disease and so wholesome, he not be much more likely to imbibe it himself, and take a drink out of this horn every day even at the risk of intoxication?”

Take note, fantasy fanatics—no one was contesting the existence of the animal in ancient times, just the “fact” that its horn bestowed miraculous healing on those who drank from it!

Ancient History, Ancient Myth

Indian Unicorn by NorthWingLike any historical account, the writing has to be considered from all angles—the bias of the writers, the possibility of the unknown being confused for something else, and the possible loss of meaning in translation. Unlike some of the other creatures of myth we’ve looked at, the Hippoi Monokeratas wasn’t considered mythological at the time, but real! Its entrance into myth seems to have moved forward from there, after its inclusion in Medieval Bestiaries.

So, really, the appearance of a unicorn in your fantasy novel isn’t that cliché after all—at least, no more cliché than a horse or a wild boar. And the next time you’re reading a fantasy novel and find yourself rolling your eyes when a hero sets out on a quest to find a unicorn, perhaps to heal someone…cut the author some slack! Maybe they’re just drawing from the, ahem, historical record.

Title image by Unknown Artist.

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One Comment

  1. Davieboy says:

    Thanks for a (literally) fantastic series. Hope to see a collected edition one day.

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