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Medieval painting of a unicorn

A Brief Genealogy of the Unicorn


For centuries and even today, humanity has not given up its attempts to recreate this mythical creature.

Various museums of history and medieval art, such as the Cloisters in New York or the Cluny Museum in Paris, have unicorn horns in their collections. They are very long, around two meters, and of a material similar to ivory that follows a spiral pattern to the tip. If one doesn’t read the explanation and remember that in the Middle Ages there was no plastic or 3D printing, it is hard to comprehend the origin of the object. If we try and put ourselves in the mind of somebody medieval, in northern France, for example, it’s almost impossible to not imagine that this is really a unicorn’s horn.

The Natural History of Unicorns, by Chris Lavers, explains how various animals could have given rise to the unicorn myth. In his detective-like work, the author also traces the history of the horns, which are referred to as alicorns (he said that word began to be used to avoid repetition in phrases such as ‘the horn of the unicorn’) Those found in churches and museums are really narwhal tusks, which were very popular in the Middle Ages among nobles and the clergy, for whom the unicorn had a direct relationship with the figure of Christ. It is said that one of those horns could cost the same as an entire city. They were obtained from Arab merchants and Vikings, because narwhals lived in the Arctic at that time, and sometimes traveled as far as northern Germany or England.

Medieval drawings of unicorns.

The alicorn, which from the 16th century began to be sold as powder made with animal bones, was famous for one specific property. It was said that if poison were brought near the horn it would begin to sweat. It is possible, Lavers says, that that idea reached the Europeans from the Arabs, who mentioned the karkadann in their texts, a mythical creature similar to a buffalo but with a single horn on its forehead. Its horn also began to sweat when put close to poison. It is likely that the karkadann described by Al-Biruni, an 11th century traveler, was a rhinoceros whose horn is considered an aphrodisiac in Asia. One theory is that the rhinoceros ate poisonous plants and therefore it was believed that its (poisonous) horn would work as an antidote, under the premise that the same thing cures itself.

But it is also possible that the curative properties attributed to the alicorn had something to do with an ingredient that, it was said, began to sweat in the presence of the venom: khutu. There does not appear to have been consensus in the Middle Ages regarding khutu. There are those who say it is an ingredient extracted from a bull’s horn, and others say that it comes from the horn of a giant snake; others that it is the horn of a fish or of a bird. An ingredient of this mythological soup could be the walrus which, as it spends a lot of time in the water, was for some a fish, and which the Chinese considered to be a millenary snake. Another could be a mammoth’s tusk, which could be found in Siberia and China, and another could be to do with the roc fish, a fantastical creature so fierce that it fed on elephants.

In 1630, Danish professor Ole Wurm revealed that the so-called unicorn’s horn came from a northern sea creature. One might think that that would have diminished the belief in the unicorn, but it only encouraged it. At that time it was believed that many animals had a marine counterpart, and therefore the land unicorn could still be out there somewhere.

Science did not give up on the unicorn until the mid-19th century, when it was explained that animals with trotters had a brain divided into two and therefore it was unable to have two horns. In a translation from a 12th century bestiary by TH White, he relates that he tried an experiment in which the horns were cut off a male calf and transplanted together onto the forehead. The bull grew stronger than normal bulls, became leader of the herd and at the same time was gentle and docile, similar to descriptions of the unicorn.

Faith is a strange beast. Like hope, it adapts to all kinds of adverse challenges. There is something in the symbol of the unicorn that has survived until today and which makes people chase it, follow it and reconstruct it. Unicorns represent purity, magic and kindness while being both wild and impossible to define. Their existence surpasses the limits of the mere animal. The unicorn survives much further beyond that because its archetype survives. Although the origins of the unicorn could be found in other legends and animals, it is possible that their real origin is located within the human mind. As the human psyche has made it possible to invent God it is therefore comprehensible and almost necessary to think that it also invented the unicorn. It is inevitable therefore that we continue to search for it and create it.


 Img 1 / The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries – 1495–1505) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art
 Img 2 / Pie: Engraved plate from Historiæ Naturalis de Quadrupedibus (1657) by Joannes Jonstonus

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