To medieval Europeans, elephants were equally ‘real’ as unicorns, as both existed in texts but were never seen.
Vikings sold unicorn “horns” for centuries.
The dominant story about unicorns in the Middle Ages is that they battle lions, and lions chase them around a tree until the unicorns get their horn stuck in the tree and the lions eat them.
Marco Polo described unicorns as :
“scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead… They have a head like a wild boar’s… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.”
Sounds suspiciously like a …rhinoceros ?
Vikings and the unique-con
Some Medieval Europeans believed narwhal tusks to be the horns from the legendary unicorn.
Explorer Martin Frobisher presented a “sea-unicorn” horn to Queen Elizabeth, who commanded that it be kept with the crown jewels.
The horn itself and the substance it was made of was called alicorn, which supposedly held magical and medicinal properties.
Unicorn horns had circulated around Europe for centuries before Frobisher’s voyage.
Vikings killed the so-called sea unicorns in the North Atlantic, cut off their horns, and sold them at astronomical prices–keeping quiet about their origin.
Unicorn horns were worth many times their weight in gold.
Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory.
The Throne Chair of Denmark is made of “unicorn horns” – almost certainly narwhal tusks.
It was popularly believed that a unicorn horn, should it come into contact with any form of poison, would change colour dramatically.
Mary Stuart (1542–87), Queen of Scots , brought a piece of unicorn’s horn from France and used it to test her food for poison.
Unfortunately it did not prevent her developing rheumatic gout and dropsy later in life, nor did it save her from the executioner’s axe.
Unicorn horn was also an ingredient in a remedy for the bite of a mad dog that was published in 1656:
“Take a handful of Box, and stamp it, and strain it with a draught of milk, put into it a pretty quantity of Lobsters shell beaten to a powder, and some Unicorns horn, if you can get it, and drink thereof and wash the wound therewith.”
William Salmon’s ‘Pharmacopoeia Londinensis or the New London Dispensatory’ of 1678 advises:
It [unicorn horn] potently resists Plague, Pestilence, and Poyson, expels the Measles and Small-Pox, and cures the Falling-Sickness in Children.
The dose to be used was 10 grains to a drachm (60 grains) or more.
In 1695, Nicholas Culpeper observed: “Uni-corns horn resists Poyson and the Pestilence, provokes Urine, restores lost strength, brings forth both Birth and Afterbirth.”
The phrase “restores lost strength” is a reference to its supposed value as an aphrodisiac.
Elizabeth I’s gift from Frobisher, ‘the horn of a unicorn about eight spans in length, valued at pounds 10,000’ is worth approximately pounds 10m in today’s money.
Or the price of a castle.
John Dekker, the early 17th-century dramatist, wrote of ‘the Unicorne, whose Horne is worth halfe a City’ and a Florentine physician observed that it was sold by the apothecaries for £24 per ounce.
In 1553, one belonging to the King of France was valued at £20,000 and the value of one specimen in Dresden in the same century was estimated at 75,000 thalers.
Austrian lore holds that Kaiser Karl the Fifth paid off a large national debt with two tusks. In Vienna, the Hapsburgs had one made into a scepter heavy with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
Ivan The Terrible‘s staff was made of the same stuff, along with the hilt of a sword carried by Charles the Bold.
Narwhal tucks were made in to the staffs of the best crosiers sported by the wealthiest bishops and archbishops.
By the time of the Renaissance, it was the single most precious commodity in the Western world.
The Danish physician Ole Worm determined as early as 1638 that the alleged alicorns were the tusks of narwhals.
As Europeans naturalists became more familiar with the world’s animals, the myth of the unicorn faded.
It became clear that Frobisher’s sea-unicorn was actually a whale–what is known today as the narwhale.
And the “unicorn’s” horn on the narwhale? Just as bizarrely, it’s turned out to be a tooth.