Today, unicorns are a symbol for sweet and gentle things, but in the Middle Ages it was a beast that people found impossible to hunt. A being with supernatural powers, strong and perfectly capable of killing with its horn. The unicorn was a treasure trove for alchemists. But it did have one weakness!
The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) described unicorns as animals with a horse-like body, a head reminiscent of a deer, elephant’s feet, and a boar’s tail. He recorded that at the first sight of the woman, the unicorn lost all its fighting spirit.
After the maiden had let her breasts show, the previously untamed creature would approach the virgin and lie down beside her. Then it would place its head in her lap and try to suckle, falling into a daze until it slept, like a baby. This was the time for the hunter to appear and capture the target, taking it into captivity or killing it with a sword.
For the capture of this being, the presence of a virgin was important. This is mentioned in one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, A Maiden with a Unicorn:
The unicorn through its lack of temperance, and because it does not know how to control itself for the delight that it has for young maidens, forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it goes up to the seated maiden and goes to sleep in her lap, and in this way the hunters take it.
Interestingly, many medieval books depict unicorns with blue fur and/or under a red sky.