Unicorns In Asian Myths And Legends
Myths from Asia are filled with stories of magical beings that are very similar to the western concept of unicorns. Often these creatures are kind and benevolent beings with the 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 the unicorn was the first creature that was created and it was the most magnificent and purest creature to wonder on 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 into the mystical other realms until the day would come when mankind would give up on its evil ways. Only then would unicorns appear to men and would allow themselves 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 ahead of a dragon. Its body is also covered with shiny green scales like a fish. There are descriptions that say that Qilin has wings or at least that it has the ability to fly and it has clouds in its feet. Qilin has a single horn growing from its forehead but it is not a straight spiral-shaped horn. Qilin´s horn curves backwards. 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 prophecy.
From Japanese mythology, we find two types of unicorns; Kirin and Sin-You. Kirin is a kind and shy creature. Sin-You has a tendency to be more judgmental. Legend tells that Sin-You has the power to detect those who lie and it possessed the ability to tell right from wrong. If Sin-You found the wrongdoer guilty it would kill them by impaling its horn to the person´s heart.
Unicorns in Vietnam
In a Vietnamese folklore, unicorns are known as qué ly or lan. First mentions of these creatures income 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 usually was depicted to have a dragon´s head and a horse´s body. There are more detailed imaginative descriptions that say that it also had a mouth of a crocodile, a dog´s ears, the nose of a lion and a horn of a deer. It also may have scales covering its body and the moustache of a catfish. Qué ly was able to shapeshift its appearance so it would have appeared in different forms to people. It was a symbol of good luck, happiness and longevity.
The 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.
The ancient Kingdom of Persia also had its own stories of the unicorn but unlike its other Asian counterparts, Persian Kardakann was a 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 shapeshifter who could change its shape at will. Most impressive was its horn which was told to be pure gold. Kardakann was told to be an aggressive beast who intimidated all the other animals except the ringdove. Stories tell that Karkakann had a particular fascination with 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 its aggressive nature was simply a reflection of the Persian military power. There is also a 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 the ability to purify water simply by immersing its horn into a stream, lake or 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. The most famous of them is rsya. A creature that looks like an antelope or a water buffalo who has one singular horn rising from its forehead. Ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata even mentions a human-like being called Rsyasrnga who also had a horn on his forehead.
Origins of the Legend
In all of these countries and cultures, artists were fond 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 species some animals can drop their horns/antlers after mating season, coming of age or lose 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
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