The most convincing physical evidence of the existence of unicorns came when the tusks of narwhals began to arrive in Europe from the Arctic north. The narwhal (Monodon Monoceros) is a toothed whale which grows a single (usually), long, spiralled tusk that, when taken from the animal’s head, perfectly fits the supposed description of the unicorn’s horn.
|Hunting the Narwhal|
Queen Elizabeth I is said to have bought a narwhal tusk for ten thousand pounds, a price equal to over two million pounds at today’s rates, in the belief that it was a unicorn horn. It was mentioned as the first item of an inventory of the possessions of the Queen, perhaps indicating its importance to her.
|Unicorn from Gesler's Historiae Animalium|
A Florentine physician records that sixteen ounces of ground ‘unicorn’ horn was on sale for 1,536 crowns, when the same weight of gold could be bought for a mere 148 crowns. There were many ‘unicorn’ horns on view in the palaces, cathedrals and churches of Europe, Edward Topsell, writer of a bestiary of his own, records seeing many of them, including two at Venice and another in Paris, and describes the unicorn itself as,
“…a beast, in shape much like a young Horse, of a dusty colour, with a maned necke, a hayry beard, and a forehead armed with a Horne of the quantity of two Cubits, being separated with pale tops or spires, which is reported by the smoothnes and yvorie white-nesse thereof.”
Konrad Gesner, in his remarkable Historiae Animalium (1551-58) includes a woodcut of a narwhal which looks for all the world like a sea-serpent with a great horn rising from its forehead.
|Konrad Gesner - Narwhal|
He also relates the story that the Lion and the Unicorn were the greatest of enemies, and that as soon as the lion sees a unicorn it climbs up the nearest available tree, and the unicorn, observing this, in its fury rushes at the tree and attempts to dislodge the lion, but will eventually get its horn stuck into the tree trunk, whereupon the lion drops down onto its back and kills it (Shakespeare alludes to this legend in Julius Caesar, with the line, “Unicorns may be betray’d with trees.”).
|The Lion and the Unicorn|
The animosity of the lion and the unicorn carries over into heraldry, where the unicorn is sometimes shown wearing a collar, indicating that it has been mastered, but sometimes the collar carries a broken chain, showing that the unicorn refuses to be subdued.
If you are British, there is a good chance that you will have a unicorn in your pocket, as a lion and a unicorn feature as supporters on the Royal coat of arms, which appears on the reverse side of some one pound coins. The lion is traditionally the symbol of England and on the full Royal arms, the unicorn represents Scotland, a combination dating back to 1603, and the accession of King James I of England, who was also King James VI of Scotland.
In the Display of Heraldry (1679), by John Guillim, the existence of the unicorn is called into question,
“It hath been much questioned amongst naturalists, which it is that is properly called the Unicorn; and some have made doubt whether there be any such Beast as this or no.”
Doubts about the unicorn are no better expressed than in the Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Vulgar Errors) of Sir Thomas Browne (first edition 1646), in Book III, Chapter XXIII, Of Unicorns Horn, where he examines the Biblical Re’em (he thinks it was a rhinoceros), Asiatic asses, the Indian ox, the rhinoceros and the oryx, marine fishes and even certain types of beetle.
|Sir Thomas Browne - Of Unicorns Horn|
In turn, he describes the assorted unicorn horns that were displayed across Europe, noting that the one at St Denis, Paris, has ‘wreathy spires and cochleary turnings about it’, whereas another two at St Mark’s, Venice are plain and look like the horns of the Indian Ass, and that belonging to the Elector of Saxony is straight and not hollow, although another at Antwerp appears to be the tusk of a sea creature (a narwhal?), a suspicion strengthened by the fact that it was brought from Iceland.
Browne was an empiricist of the Baconian mould and so, as you might expect, there is not a lot that gets past him. He examines the available evidence and weighs its importance and relevance, looking at the pros and cons, and is very thorough in his deliberations, with his conclusions delivered in a very pleasing, dry, tongue in cheek fashion.
|Horns on a horse|
Just about anything had been put forward as the horn of a unicorn – goat’s horns, cows, sheep and hart’s horns, rhinoceros horn, the horns of swordfish, the teeth of hippopotamus, and the teeth of the narwhal.
“Since therefore, there be many unicorns; since that whereto we appropriate a horn is so variously described, that it seemeth either never to have been seen by two persons, or not to have been one animal; … that horns soever they be that pass among us, they are not the horns of one, but several animals: since many in common use and high esteem are no horns at all.”
Be that as it may, it did not stop people ‘discovering’ unicorns. In 1820, a letter from Major Latter, serving in the British Army east of Nepal, was sent to Adjutant-General Nicol, who forwarded it on the Marquis of Hastings. Latter said that a Tibetan manuscript listed a cloven-hoofed animal – the Tso’po – that had a single horn and a boar-shaped tail, was very fierce and could not be taken alive, conforming to the description given by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (Book VIII), which in turn was taken from Ctesias.
The creature was not a rhinoceros, which was listed separately, not was it a wild horse, which was similarly listed. Latter was convinced that it was the missing unicorn and had written to the Sachia Lama for more information. An entry in the Asiatic Journal (May-August 1830) some ten years later wryly reports that ‘no fact has since transpired … we cannot participate in these renewed hopes’ [of finding the unicorn].