Monoceros (μονόκερως), in the language of Indians also known as cartazon (καρτάζωνος) or perhaps more correctly carcazon (καρκάζωνος), is a unicorn described by Pliny. It lives in the huge mountains in the interior of India (likely Himalayas), where innumerable wild animals abide not bothered by man. Monoceros has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant and the tail of a boar. Its mane is like that of a horse and its coat is tawny. In the middle of its forehead sprouts one black horn, not smooth but shaped in rings or spirals, two cubits in length and so sharp that whatever it strikes, it will surely pierce. It utters the loudest and most discordant bellowing.

The monoceros is an extreme recluse. When other animals approach it, it is gentle, but will fight any members of its own species, even females, and so great is its ferocity, that it will prolong the combat until one side is dead. The only exception is the season of rut, when the male and the female tolerate each other and even feed together. But when the season is over and the female pregnant, both return to their solitary habits.

The young are sometimes caught and presented to kings. Adult specimens are too strong to be captured alive.


Monoceros was first named by the Greek explorer and ambassador to India, called Megasthenes, who lived in the IV century B.C. His work Indica (not to be confused with earlier Ctesias's book under the same title) is now unfortunately lost. Pliny the Elder quoted it in his Historia Naturalis, as well as Strabo, who mentions him by name, but they did not supply much detail. Later writer, Aelian, provided much more complete summary of Megasthenes's description.

De nieuwe en onbekende weereld unicorn

American monoceros

When Europeans finally established contact with India, they were disappointingly unable to verify Pliny's and Aelian's account on monoceroses (see: Garcia de Orta). Girolamo Merolla, relaying a testimony of a Theatine missionary, who in turn learned it from the Chinese, claimed that they all died at the very same day Jesus Christ was crucified. Interestingly, Arnoldus Montanus reported a creature exactly resembling the monoceros in North America, in the forests on the border of Canada, thus enormously expanding the unicorn's range.


The name μονόκερως comes from combined Ancient Greek words: μόνος (monos, single) and κέρας (keras, horn) and means "single-horned". The standard method of Latinization results in "monoceros" or "monocerus". A variant μονοκέρατος (monoceratos) also saw some use.

The name καρτάζωνος was used by Aelian and it is generally accepted to come from Sanskrit khaḍgadhenu (खड्गधेनु) and is connected with Arabic "karkadann". Scholars theorized for a while about a possible intermediary in the form of Akkadian "kurkizannu", but that connection has been disproved.[1] Odell Shepard in "The Lore of the Unicorn" claims the etymology to be Sanskrit "kartājan" which is supposed to mean "the lord of the desert", but that statement is dubious and Sanskrit dictionaries do not support it.

The Latinization "cartazon" is only one variant of this word and there are countless more. One may preserve the ending and arrive at "cartazonos" or "cartazonus". Some render the omega (long o) as "oo" and get "cartazoon". Many authors (including Aelian) write the Greek word in accusative case καρτάζωνον and that generates a mistaken form "cartazonon". Lastly, sometimes K is used instead of C to replace Greek kappa, creating the word "kartazon".


The feet of an elephant and the tail of a boar from Pliny's description strongly suggest the origin of the creature to be a pachyderm animal, such as the rhinoceros, also supported by its solitary life and a reputation of extreme pugnacity (when the rhinoceros senses danger, it leaps forward in flight, trampling everything in its way). The described body of a horse is somewhat inaccurate, but passable if only as a rough sketch (let us recall that "hippopotamus" literally means "river horse"). However, one might question the eyesight of someone claiming the head of the rhinoceros to be similar to a stag. Aelian further complicates matters by describing the animal to have a horse's mane and a yellow coat. The horn of two cubits is also definitely too long. We suspect therefore that the monoceros is a compound animal, merging features of several real species.

A good candidate for another inspiration is the Tibetan antelope, also known as chiru, which has a reddish yellow coat. Chiru's horns are black, a bit flat on the sides, covered in rings in the front and measure 54 to 60 cm (21 to 24 in), which is one and a half of a Roman cubit. The animal is held by sacred by the Tibetan monks and its horns were used as charms and in medicine, similarly to the horns of rhinoceroses. When two merchants advertise their goods in same way, each with a bag of horns, one of chiru, the other of rhinoceroses, it is understandable that two creatures could be mixed up by their clients.

The Russian traveler Przhevalsky described mating rituals of chiru, much resembling ones attributed to the monoceros, saying the males form harems of 10–20 females and jealously guard them from competitors. When a male is faced by a challenger, they will fiercely fight with their horns, dealing deep wounds that often end in death of both antagonists.



  1. Antonio Panaino, "Between Mesopotamia and India: Some Remarks about the Unicorn Cycle in Iran"

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