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Though the popular image of the unicorn is that of a white horse with a horn, the traditional unicorn has a billy-goat beard, a lion's tail, and cloven hoofs, which distinguish them from horses. Interestingly, these modifications make the horned ungulate more realistic, since only cloven-hoofed animals have horns. Some unicorns have been depicted otherwise, including giving them zebra-like stripes or other unusual fur patterns and colors. There are unicorn My Little Pony characters, with pastel or brightly-colored bodies and hair as well as symbols.
The qilin, a creature in Chinese mythology, is sometimes called "the Chinese unicorn", but it is not directly related to the classical Western unicorn, having the body of a deer, the head of a lion, green scales and a long forth-curved horn. Currently, the word "kirin", in Japan, written with the same kanji (Chinese ideograms), is used to designate the giraffe as well as the mythical creature. Strangely, the Japanese mythological creature is usually portrayed as more closely resembling the Western Unicorn than the Chinese qilin, even though it is based on the Chinese myth. The myth of unicorns was thought to have been because when people first traveled to africa they described rhinos as creatures as fast as a horse and they had a horn. over the years it simply settled as a horse with a horn.
Modern fantasy fiction tends to perpetuate the medieval notion of a unicorn as a beast with magical qualities or powers.
Unicorns notably appear in:
- Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn
- Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept series
- C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle
- Madeline L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Many Waters
- J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series
- Ridley Scott's Legend and Blade Runner (movies)
- Roger Zelazny's Amber novels
- Bruce Coville's A Glory of Unicorns
- Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage
- Terry Brooks's The Black Unicorn
- Anne McCaffrey's Acorna, The Unicorn Girl series.
Alicorn historically means the substance that a unicorn's horn is made of. It was considered by alchemists to have medicinal properties. Alicorn is also used to define the horn atop the forehead of this creature and unicorns.
Alicorn has also been used as early as 1984 by Piers Anthony in his novel "Bearing an Hourglass" to mean winged unicorn (a concept that had already been existence for decades without being called alicorn), which he defined as the cross between a unicorn and a griffin. In modern times, it is an equine creature which is a cross between a unicorn and a pegasus. This has alternatively been called pegacorn or unisus.
- Dungeons and Dragons used the term to refer to a breed of evil unicorns in one of their source manuals in the early 90s.
- Final Fantasy XI made the Auroral Alicorn a mount for players; it lacked wings.
Actually, there are pictures of the Chinese/Japanese "Kilin/Kirin" where wings are added to the horned creature. The British air force used a horned Pegasus as their logo in World War II. 1983's "Whisper the Winged Unicorn" and 1985 She-Ra's "Swift Wind" predated all the pop culture internet artists.
This did not settle with traditional mythologists, who argued that the unicorn was a wingless creature and that only pegasus had wings. However since the winged unicorn had become such a favorite in pop culture, it became a creature of its own right.
- Beer, Rüdiger Robert, Unicorn: Myth and Reality (1977). (Editions: ISBN 0884055833; ISBN 090406915X; ISBN 0442805837.)
- Chatwin, Bruce. 1977. In Patagonia. New York: Summit.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911: "Unicorn"
- Gotfredsen, Lise, The Unicorn (1999). (Editions: ISBN 0789205955; ISBN 1860462677.) A richly illustrated cultural history.
- Anthony, Piers, Bearing an Hourglass (1984). (Editions: ISBN 0307815625; ISBN 9780307815620.)