It’s been almost 18 years since the first film of the Wizarding World franchise, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone, if you’re from the United States) first came out. And while the series features plenty of magical creatures civilization has known for centuries, no one ever seems to remember the scene with the unicorn in the first film.
Sure, it’s just a throwaway scene that shows Voldemort coming face-to-face with Harry Potter for the first time, but something about the scene is just so ominous. It is said that someone who would kill a unicorn and drink its blood can find life-changing properties – but at a price. So, what is there to know about unicorns and its blood in the world of Harry Potter?
What Are Unicorns?
In the Harry Potter universe, unicorns are basically the same thing we know outside of the series’ lore. They are white horses with a single horn sticking out of its neck. According to a snippet in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander, unicorns are one of the worst kept secrets in the wizarding world because even Muggles are roughly aware of what unicorns are and that they are associated with magic. It’s most likely, however, that Muggles (and some wizards and witches) aren’t totally aware of the magical properties a unicorn has.
Unicorns’ Nature in Harry Potter
Unicorns are identified at birth by their color: unicorn foals have a pure gold coat until they reach around two years old, when they turn into silver. By the age of four, they start to sprout their horn until they fully mature by the age of seven. A fully matured unicorn has a bright pure white shade, golden hooves, and a fully grown and sharp horn.
Unicorns in the Harry Potter universe live mostly in virgin forests in Europe, though many of them are known to roam the Forbidden Forest on Hogwarts’ grounds. Matured unicorns are more wary of matured human men, but younger foals are more trusting.
While they are generally peaceful creatures, they are not afraid to fight back with aggression when provoked. When facing dangerous threats, a unicorn is capable of running so fast that it can outrun werewolves easily – let alone a human they deem a threat. Unicorns are classified under “XXXX” under the Ministry of Magic’s Department of Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, which means they are deemed dangerous unless handled by a specialist or skilled wizard who has trained to handle unicorns.
Unicorns in Real Life
In real life, unicorns are mythological animals that date back to old civilizations such as Mesopotamian, Indian, Chinese, and Greek, based on their earliest artifacts. It’s possible that J.K. Rowling got her inspiration from other cultures’ beliefs in the powers of unicorns. It was believed in some cultures that drinking from a unicorn’s horn could prevent stomach upsets, epilepsy, and poisoning.
Unicorn Uses in Harry Potter
Unicorns were often used in the wizarding world for their magical properties. Some parts of a unicorn such as its hair could be taken without killing a unicorn, while other parts like its horn or its blood required a wizard or witch to take it forcibly from a unicorn.
Unicorn tail hairs are considered “Supreme Cores” for wands and are only one of three substances (along with dragon heartstrings and phoenix feathers) that can supposedly create some of the best wands in the market. To keep up with the quality standards, wandmakers like Ollivander only uses these three substances to make his wands.
Wands with unicorn tail hairs were said to produce magic that was more consistent and had fewer fluctuations and blockages compared to dragon and phoenix cores. According to the Pottermore website, wands with unicorn core were loyal to its master and were difficult to use in the Dark Arts. However, the list of people who have confirmed unicorn-core wands includes Quirinus Quirrell and Draco Malfoy, who have at some points in the series sided with Lord Voldemort. It may be possible that their wands did not perform as well as it could have when performing the Dark Arts. Other confirmed witches and wizards with unicorn tail hairs in their wand include:
- Ron Weasley
- Neville Longbottom (second wand)
- Remus Lupin
- Charlie Weasley (first wand)
- Cedric Diggory
- Sybil Trelawney
- Mary Cattermole
Unicorn horns are mostly useful in potions, especially common poisons. It is used to dissolve poisons so effectively that Muggles believed that they had medicinal properties and would trade for it. However, because of the high-value of the unicorn horn, it was highly likely that Muggles only got their hands on fake unicorn horns.
In Diagon Alley in 1991, any witch or wizard would have to spend 21 Galleons (or 357 Sickles or 10353 Knuts) for one unicorn horn. This is extremely expensive. According to J.K. Rowling, the value of one Galleon is around five British pounds. This means a unicorn horn is around £105 or US$135. For comparison, consider this: Harry’s wand is 7 Galleons, and buying Hedwig from the Eeylops Owl Emporium is 15 Galleons.
Potions that use unicorn horns include:
- An antidote to Common Poisons
- Draught of Peace
- Oculus Potion
- Wiggenweld Potion
It is unknown if a unicorn can regrow their horn-like deer can, whether a part or the whole horn is taken. If not, the more humane way of harvesting unicorn horns can be taking it from unicorns that have naturally died (a unicorn’s lifespan is unknown). The cruelest way would be killing a unicorn for its horn.
Unicorn Blood in Harry Potter
Unicorn blood is said to be silver-blue and could shine under the moonlight. The only time we see unicorn blood is when Voldemort presumably kills and then proceeds to drink a unicorn’s blood. It is said that unicorn blood can keep a person within an inch of death alive. To quote Firenze:
“Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something so pure and defenseless to save yourself, you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.”
Unicorn blood is extremely rare since it will require injuring or killing a unicorn. Thus, selling unicorn blood is forbidden and is highly controlled by the Ministry of Magic.
What Does It Mean to Have a “Half-Life” or “A Cursed Life”
It is considered a terrible crime to kill a unicorn because it is such a pure creature. Thus, only a person who has exhausted all options and is not afraid of the consequences of a cursed life would even think about drinking unicorn blood. So, while it can keep a person alive for much longer, they are said to live “a half-life.” While it’s not specified what this means, it can mean one of two things for the series.
First, the “cursed life” for those who kill and drink a unicorn’s blood can be a metaphysical meaning. In the same way, Horcruxes split the soul of the creator in half, a cursed life damages the soul. The only person we see in the series drink unicorn blood is Lord Voldemort, but by that time, his soul has already been split into many parts due to his multiple Horcruxes. So, by the time of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Harry sees Voldemort’s stunted soul in King’s Cross Station, we can’t really tell if this is the work of the unicorn blood’s curse or due to years of making Horcruxes and senseless killings.
Second, it could mean that a person is doomed to suffer a fate worse than death. If this is the case, then Voldemort’s loss to Harry at the Battle of Hogwarts might have been sealed as early as the first book because of his decision to feed on unicorn blood.
We don’t get to see the second instance when unicorn blood is used in the series, but it is mentioned. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Peter Pettigrew used unicorn blood and snake venom to create the rudimentary body potion that could give Voldemort a temporary body allowing him to feed while waiting to return to his permanent body.
Unicorns are majestic magical creatures in the Harry Potter universe that provides both healing abilities for good but can also be abused for evil, which is why I’m surprised it didn’t get as much attention compared to all the other creatures now featured in the new Fantastic Beasts films that are now part of the franchise.