Take a moment to think about some of your favorite Greek myths. Did Bellerephon ride a unicorn? No, he rode Perseus, the obviously fake winged horse. When Heracles (Hercules) was assigned the labor of cleaning the Augean Stables, were they filled with unicorns? No, the stables were filled with a 1,000 immortal cattle (and heroic defecators these cows were), thus ensuring an infinitely humiliating job. (Though Heracles spoiled the fun by rerouting a river through the stables.)
In the vast wine-colored sea of rosy-fingered Greek myth, unicorns do not appear. Why? Because they existed, and Greek scholars wrote about them in their natural histories instead.
The Greeks (correctly) identified the origin of the unicorn in India, and described them as a kind of “fleet-footed ass with a horn a cubit long”. Ctesias said in his history of India, Indica, the unicorn was “fleet as the Western wind and as beautiful as a doe-eyed Athenian boy.” Aristotle thought the unicorn was the “most intelligent beast on the earth, save man,” while the philosopher Bungosias said the unicorn was “impossible to capture alive without the aid of a willing and guileful virgin, of which there are few in Hellas.”
Hunters had also been unable to bring down a unicorn with the use of stone- or bronze-tipped arrows, and it was not until the advent of iron that humans in Europe were able to kill the canny creatures. (The method that ancient Vedic cultures used to kill unicorns is lost to history, but the Greek loony historian, Kookooplas, suggested that ancient Indians had a surplus of female virgins, which were used to lure unicorns into a variety of clever traps.) Many philosophers engaged hunters to kill unicorns so they could be studied.
Though he is best known for his advances in mathematics, Pythagoras was also a believer in metempsychosis, or reincarnation. He thought it possible that human souls could be reborn in “higher animals” and naturally, as the most intelligent animal, unicorns would be an ideal receptacle for human sapience. Thus, Pythagoras thought it immoral to kill a unicorn, and formed an advocacy group, Philosophers for Honorable Unicorn Devotion (PHUD), to stop the slaughter.
Pythagoras apparently wrote a long treatise about the beasts called Unicornica; no doubt this was burned by disfigured and prurient monks in the dark ages. However, in one of Xenophanes’ surviving writings he spoke of Pythagoras’ belief:
“Pythagoras insists the Unicorns are intelligent and can speak in their fashion, communicating with flowers of differing color and species as we use the alphabet to form words. He has told them to leave our Hellas or to risk being hunted into extinction for their remarkable organs, and tasty, tasty flesh. That is why his PHUD-men wear the horn on their foreheads.”
This latter point is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Pythagorian unicorn worship, and explains the coin pictured above. Xenophanes then goes on to tell a rather boring story about attending a dinner party in which unicorn was served according to an ancient Vedic recipe.
And so it was the unicorns were driven further west, attempting to find someplace where they would be safe from the predatory humans. But word was out in Europe of their general deliciousness, and unicorns would not be safe again until the Middle Ages.