1 • The Unicorn's Horn

Northern Europe, AD 1427–1618
Size: 2 m, 7 cm long

Before the mid-16th century, everyone knew that horns such as this belonged to unicorns. The existence of unicorns is already stamped on Indus Valley seals of the mid-3rd millennium bc, and continued to be recorded throughout Antiquity, the Middle Ages and beyond, in images, literature and poetry. And then, quite suddenly, belief in their existence faded. A sign of this occurred at the Council of Trent (1545–63), which deemed the representation of the unicorn as a symbol of the Incarnation inappropriate, on the basis that nobody believed in their existence any longer. This is a bit rich considering the myths that the Catholic Church continues to peddle – Virgin Birth, Resurrection, Son of God, etc. – and this reverse-Dawkins-like attitude has certainly returned to bite them in the backside in recent times.

It is axiomatic that you cannot perceive something in which you do not believe. As the unicorn in Alice in Wonderland said to Alice: ‘I’ll try and believe in you if you believe in me.’ And it is typical of the arrogance of modern scholarship to decide to deny the existence of a creature that has been familiar to many for thousands of years, thereby wilfully impoverishing our imagination. There is thus a case to be made that the imagination is more important, and more enduring, than science, and it is our duty to make sure that this is so.

In 1577 Sir Martin Frobisher presented Queen Elizabeth I with the horn of a ‘Sea-Unicorn’, at the time much rarer than the land unicorn, that he brought back from his search for the North-West Passage. According to Herman Melville, this horn hung in Windsor Castle for a long time. The idea that such horns were born of fish had already been promulgated in an illustration by Olaus Magnus in 1555, and further promoted by the Danish zoologist Ole Worm in 1638. Since then the improbable idea that such horns are the teeth of whales has prevailed, and unicorns have gradually disappeared. But Ole Worm also declared that Tradescant was an idiot, so his views can be taken with a few grains of salt.

And this is despite all the historical evidence. Images abound from ancient China and Iran, although the only feature common to the Kylin and the beast represented at Persepolis is the single horn. An Egyptian papyrus from the 2nd millennium bc in the British Museum shows a unicorn playing chess with a lion. The Greeks categorized the unicorn under natural history, not as myth, as the writings of Aristotle, Strabo, Pliny the Elder and others show. The first written description we know dates from c. 400 bc, and the first illustration to appear in Europe is in the margin of a manuscript by Cosmas the India-Farer, the original of which was written c. ad 1000. Thereafter we come across a legion of believers, including Marco Polo, Piero della Francesca, Petrarch and Shakespeare. The Danish Kings sat on the ‘Unicorn Throne’, and bishop’s croziers of unicorn horn can be seen in church treasuries across Europe. Its medicinal properties, still valued in the 18th century, were probably responsible for the shaved tip of this horn. Leonardo da Vinci wrote the following: ‘The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.’ And he knew a thing or two.