When unicorns roamed the seas

I recently consulted as one of the ‘unicorn experts’ for a lovely article in The Observer by Alice Fisher, ‘Why the unicorn has become the emblem for our times’. It got me thinking about unicorns, and I came up with a piece of a very different sort to that the Observer published, but I’ll keep that under wraps for now. I was reminded of a wonderful episode in unicorn history, where they took a dip in the Arctic oceans in the 17th century.

When people think of unicorns, they imagine sparkly horse-like creatures prancing gaily around rainbows, or of the medieval tapestries depicting unicorns and maidens. Most people know that several hundred years ago, the spectacular spiralled narwhal horns were passed off to aristocratic collectors as genuine unicorn horns by savvy salesmen. These horns, one or two metres long, were prized in curiosity cabinets and Wunderkammern, as valuable for their aesthetic beauty as their purported origins.

There was also a roaring trade in powdered ‘unicorn horn’, which had been valued as a medicinal panacea for hundreds of years, reinforced by authoritative classical texts and Biblical imagery. Aristocrats had long had tableware made of unicorn horn to avoid the risk of being bumped off through poision in food and drink, and the powder could cure a case of poisoning. It was also a powerful aphrodisiac, and used for all sorts of other ailments too.

The powder sold by apothecaries was usually either narwhal tusk, elephant tusk or walrus ivory, and it was usually pretty pricey. Some experts could tell ivories apart: one apothecary argued that narwhal ‘Horn… may be distinguished from [elephant] Ivory by the threads or fibres which are more subtle’ and in being ‘more solid and more heavy’. But it was a fine distinction. One French doctor commented upon the difficulty of knowing ‘the right Unicorn… there being several Animals the Greeks call Monoceros, and the Latines Uni-Cornis’, from myriad terrestrial quadrupeds and ‘serpents’, to ‘fish’ like the ‘sea-elephant’. Chopped up into chunks, or ground down completely, few people except the hunters and dealers could know where the horn really came from.

People weren’t quite as gullible as they seemed, though. Expanding zoological exploration in the Arctic through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought to light that the narwhal, a strange spear-headed fish, was the source of some horns that had been said to be unicorn horn. The first formal description of the narwhal was produced by William Baffin in the late sixteenth century. This brought the horns’ medicinal value into question. If they were not unicorn, then were they really medicinally valuable? The association with the magic of unicorn horn was still of value for all horn-like products – walrus tusk was even said to be more powerful than that of the unicorn horn in some texts – but it diminished the sheen of the image of unicorn horn on the market. Scholars in 16th century Southern Europe began to question whether ‘unicorn horn’ was really all that.

So, eager to prevent the decline of the lucrative market for narwhal tusk as a result of loss of consumer faith, one family of scholars, the Bartholins, decided to do a bit of marketing. Examining the unicorn horns present in collections around Europe, Caspar Bartholin has concluded that they were not antelope or horse-derived appendages. They must be marine. Coming from Denmark, he was too familiar with the narwhal not to notice the similarity. But avoided creating the direct link. His brother in law, Ole Worm, went on to systematically affirm this identification with the narwhal.

Print from Ambroise Paré’s ‘Discourse on the Unicorn’ (1582)

There had been some discussions of the difficulty of identifying the ‘real unicorn’ in books such as French physician, Ambroise Paré’s Monstres et Prodiges (1585), the 1582 Latin edition of which contained a ‘Discourse on the Unicorn’. Caspar’s Son, Thomas Bartholin, took it one step further. He provided a complete synthesis in Observationes novae de unicornu (1645), that not only proved that unicorn horns were narwhal tusks, but proved, unsing classical texts and Old Icelandic sources that narwhals were unicorns. He invoked the wisdom of the ancient Icelanders, and conducted some experiments reaffirming the efficacy of narwhal-unicorn horn for curing ailments. He was willing to concede that the textual references to terrestrial unicorns also had real-life counterparts in exotic locales, but the medicinal, potent and valuable unicorn, well, that could only be procured from the Arctic marine mammals. And only from Iceland.

So, for a short while in the 17th century, unicorns really did exist. Not our sparkly one-horned horses from magical lands, or the ferocious beasts from classical texts that probably referred to rhinoceroses or Oryxs. The ‘sea-unicorn’ was an important marketing gimmick, one of the changes in the meaning of ‘unicorn’ that have happened ove time. For a while, the unicorn that produced wonderful spiralling tusks really was the strange northern sea-creature that few Europeans had seen, with an obscure hoofed cousin in Asia somewhere.

These images of marine unicorns lasted until pharmacists became disenchanted with the horn in the 18th century after experiments proving that the powder was not all that useful for curing disease or protecting against poison. Thomas Browne also discussed the mis-selling of unicorn horn and its many mistaken identities in his polemical 1646 Pseudodoxia Epidemica. The ‘Greenland Unicorn’ was eventually rejected by the most prominent taxonomist in history, Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae. But, briefly, unicorns existed in both the sea and land, before retreating to the world of fable. The narwhal retained the name ‘Unicornu groenlandicus’, but the magic of its horn had been dispelled.

Though, the link was hard to entirely break…..

Pl.XV from An account of the Arctic regions with a history and description of the northern whale-fishery, by W. Scoresby (1820). p.588, vol.II.


[This article owes much to Bernd Roling’s great piece on the topic:

Roling, Bernd. ‘Der Wal als Schauobjekt: Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680), die danische Nation und das Dens der Einhorner’. In Karl A. Enenkel and Paul J. Smith (eds.), Zoology in Early Modern Culture, Intersections of Science, Theology Philology and Political and Religious Education. Intersections, vol.3, 172-196. Leiden: Brill, 2014.]


Brechth rose

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