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Ctesias of Cnidus (Κτησίας ο Κνίδιος) was a Greek physician serving the Persian king Artaxerxes II Mnemon. He is known from two book written by him: Persica (Περσικά), in which he summarizes the history of Persia, and Indica (Ἰνδικά), describing the customs and wildlife of India. Although the works themselves have been lost, fragments survive in quotes by other authors. Indica is especially notable by virtue of containing the first Western description of a unicorn, endlessly repeated and paraphrased throughout history.


There is very little known about Ctesias's life. He was born in the second half of V century B.C. in the city of Cnidus (Κνίδος) in Asia Minor. He belonged to the Asclepiads, a renowned family of physicians tracing its roots back to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. It is theorized that he arrived on the Persian court sometime around 415 B.C., perhaps as a prisoner of war, during the reign of Darius II, and spent 17 years there. He found a benefactor in the person of Queen Parysatis who made him a court physician. He rose to prominence after the battle of Cunaxa in 404 B.C., a clash between the new king Artaxerxes and his rebellious brother Cyrus, when he successfully healed Artaxerxes’s wounds. In 398 B.C. he returned to his homeland and started working on his books.

About the text[]

The world as Greeks before Alexander saw it.

At the time of Ctesias, India was on the edge of known world; it was a land of mystery and wonder. Greeks were not aware of the existence of the Indian subcontinent; by this name they referred to the valley of Indus river (modern Pakistan), Himalaya Mountains and Tibet. It is important to stress that Ctesias had never ventured into the land he described and no Persian king had ever campaigned in India. Therefore the Greek asclepiad had to rely on the stories of travelers and merchants, especially Bactrian, wandering through eastern kingdoms, or wares they brought to the Persian court. His statements vary from surprisingly accurate (when he saw in person things he described) to complete fables.

The full text of Indica did not survive two and a half of a millennium that have passed since its writing. Fortunately he was frequently quoted and analysed by later scholars. The most complete summary was composed in IX century by Photius I (Φώτιος), the patriarch of Constantinople and avid reader. His Myriobiblon (Μυριόβιβλον) is a collection of 279 abridgments of the books he had in his library. The 72nd concerns both of Ctesias' works.



Greek Summary (Photius, 891)[]

Ὅτι εἰσὶν ὄνοι ἄγριοι ἐν τοῖς Ἰνδοῖς, ἴσοι ἵπποις καὶ μείζους· λευκοὶ δέ εἰσι τὸ σῶμα, τὴν κεφαλὴν πορφυροῖ, ὀφθαλμοὺς ἔχουσι κυανέους. Κέρας δὲ ἔχει ἐν τῷ μετώπῳ ἑνὸς πήχεος τὸ μέγεθος· καὶ ἔστι τὸ μὲν κάτω τοῦ κέρατος, ὅσον ἐπὶ δύο παλαιστὰς πρὸς τὸ μέτωπον, πάνυ λευκόν· τὸ δὲ ἐπάνω, ὀξύ ἐστι τοῦ κέρατος, τοῦτο δὲ φοινικοῦν ἐστιν ἐρυθρὸν πάνυ· τὸ δὲ ἄλλο, τὸ ἐν τῷ μέσῳ, μέλαν. Ἐκ τούτων οἱ πιόντες(κατασκευάζουσι γὰρ ἐκπώματα) σπασμῷ, φασίν, οὐ λαμβάνονται, οὔτε τῇ ἱερᾷ νόσῳ, ἀλλ' οὐδὲ φαρμάκοις ἁλίσκονται, οὔτ' ἂν προπίωσιν, οὔτ' ἂν τοῦ φαρμάκου ἐπι πίωσιν ἢ οἶνον, ἢ ὕδωρ ἢ ἄλλο τι ἐκ τῶν ἐκπωμάτων. Οἱ μὲν οὖν ἄλλοι ὄνοι καὶ ἥμεροι καὶ ἄγριοι καὶ τὰ ἄλλα μώνυχα θηρία πάντα ἀστραγάλους οὐδὲ χολὴν ἐπὶ τοῦ ἥπατος ἔχουσιν. Οὗτοι δὲ καὶ ἀστράγαλον ἔχουσι καὶ χολὴν ἐπὶ τοῦ ἥπατος· τὸν δὲ ἀστράγαλον, κάλλιστον ὧν ἐγὼ ἑώρακα, οἷόν περ βοὸς καὶ τὸ εἶδος καὶ τὸ μέγεθος· βαρὺς δ' ὡς μόλιβδος, τὴν δὲ χρόαν ὥσπερ κιννάβαρι καὶ διὰ βάθους. Ταχύτατον δέ ἐστι τὸ ζῷον τοῦτο καὶ ἀλκιμώτατον· οὐδὲν δὲ οὔτε ἵππος οὔτε ἄλλο τι διωκόμενον καταλαμβάνει. Ἄρχεται δὲ τρέχον βραδύτερον· ὅσον δ' ἂν πλέον χρόνον τρέχῃ, ἐντείνεται δαιμονίως, καὶ μᾶλλον καὶ θᾶσσον τρέχει. Ἄλλως μὲν ἀθήρατόν ἐστι τὸ ζῷον τοῦτο· ὅταν δὲ τὰ τέκνα μικρὰ ὄντα περιάγωσιν ἐπὶ τὴν βοτάνην, καὶ ὑπὸ ἱππείας πολλῆς περιληφθῶσιν, οὐ βούλονται φεύγειν καταλιπόντες τοὺς πώλους, ἀλλὰ μάχονται καὶ κέρατι καὶ λακτίσμασι καὶ δήγμασι, καὶ πολλοὺς καὶ ἵππους καὶ ἄνδρας ἀπολλύουσιν. Ἁλίσκονται δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ τοξευόμενοι καὶ ἀκοντιζόμενοι· ζῶντα γὰρ οὐκ ἂν λάβοις. Τὰ δὲ κρέα, διὰ τὴν πικρότητα ἄβρωτά ἐστιν. Θηρεύεται δὲ τῶν κεράτων καὶ τῶν ἀστραγάλων ἕνεκεν.

English translation (J.H. Freese, 1920)[]

In India there are wild asses as large as horses, or even larger. Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and they have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length. The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red. Those who drink out of cups made from it are proof against convulsions, epilepsy, and even poison, provided that before or after having taken it they drink some wine or water or other liquid out of these cups. The domestic and wild asses of other countries and all other solid-hoofed animals have neither huckle-bones nor gall-bladder, whereas the Indian asses have both. Their huckle-bone is the most beautiful that I have seen, like that of the ox in size and appearance; it is as heavy as lead and of the color of cinnabar all through. These animals are very strong and swift; neither the horse nor any other animal can overtake them. At first they run slowly, but the longer they run their pace increases wonderfully, and becomes faster and faster. There is only one way of catching them. When they take their young to feed, if they are surrounded by a large number of horsemen, being unwilling to abandon their foals, they show fight, butt with their horns, kick, bite, and kill many men and horses. They are at last taken, after they have been pierced with arrows and spears; for it is impossible to capture them alive. Their flesh is too bitter to eat, and they are only hunted for the sake of the horns and huckle-bones.


Ctesias's Indian ass or Indian onager persisted in relative obscurity in scientific books.

Ctesias names the color of the creature's head porphyra (πορφύρα), the Tyrian purple, a dye made by Ancient Greeks from certain shellfish, that ranges in hue from violet to crimson red. One must consider such gaudy coloration highly conspicuous and wonder if art did not help to create it. In another passage Ctesias tells us about dyes the Indians make, maintaining that they are better than the Persian ones. He could have seen the creature on a painting created with such dyes. Knowing how colorful some animals in India tend to be (he describes a parrot in great detail, proving he saw one, and played with, in person), he quelled his doubts about the animal's authenticity.

A Greek cubit or pēchys (πῆχυς) was a length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, i.e. 18 inches or 46 cm.

Three cattle astragali, used as gaming dice.

The huckle-bone, also called knucklebone, talus or astragalus (αστράγαλος), is one of the bones forming an ankle, in ungulates placed in the "reverse knee" about in the middle of the hind leg. Talus bones in ancient times were used in game as ancestors of dice, often polished, painted and adorned with precious metals. Greeks made a distinction between several types of them. Bones of horses and asses are smaller than the ones of the cloven-hooved animals and cannot be used as dice, therefore they were not considered true astragali. But the Indian ass, says Ctesias, noting such an important exception in the animal kingdom, has an astragalus, which he claims he has seen with his own eyes. It looked like a cattle bone (possibly because it really came from a cow, let's say a Tibetan yak for the sake of exoticism), but much heavier and red like cinnabar. It might have been used as a lucky charm or have some religious significance; was painted and weighted. A later writer, Aelian, repeats Ctesias for most parts, but says the astragalus is black, even inside.

Gallbladder is an organ placed right next to the liver, that serves as a repository for bile – a yellowish liquid that helps with digesting fats. When a human eats, it is released into the small intestine. Most vertebrates have a gallbladder, but interestingly there are certain animals that cope without it, like horses, deer and rats; their livers produce bile as it is needed, but it does not gather anywhere. In antiquity animal bile was used in production of soap and medicine. Knowledge which animals have gallbladders was therefore valuable to hunters. Ctesias says that the Indian ass, unlike other asses, has a gallbladder, or literally 'bile on the liver' (χολή ἐπὶ τοῦ ἥπατος), again noting an exceptional nature of the beast.


  • Lavers, Chris; The Natural History of Unicorns; 2010
  • Nichols, Andrew; The Complete Fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus: Translation and Commentary with an Introduction; 2008
  • Shepard, Odell; The Lore of the Unicorn; 1930