Unicorn horns were highly prized in medieval times. The treasuries of St Mark’s in Venice and of Milan cathedral in Italy, as well as those of Queen Elizabeth I of England and James III of Scotland (1497 inventory), each had at least one, as did a number of other wealthy churches and rulers, including members of the Medici family – the acknowledged experts in the use of untraceable poisons.
For several hundred years a very profitable trade was maintained in fake horns for their supposedly medicinal properties and as an antidote to all known poisons – generally in powdered form. It is recognized today that the horns in the great treasuries were the ivory tusks of narwhals or walruses, often called “sea unicorns,” in line with the medieval belief that every land animal had a marine equivalent.
|The Last Unicorn||Dragons, Unicorns, and Sea Serpents: A Classic Study of the Evidence for their Existence||Narwhal Unicorn of the Sea (Smithsonian Oceanic Collection)|
But did the white unicorn with the golden horn depicted in so many medieval manuscripts and tapestries ever exist? Descriptions of this fabulous beast vary from text to text. Ctesias, a Greek physician who visited the Persian court in 416 BC, wrote about a wild animal in India that was larger than a horse, with a white body, dark red head and dark blue eyes, and a horn about 45 centimeters long on its forehead, white at the base, black in the middle and crimson at the sharp tip.
Ctesias’s unicorn is generally thought to be a combination of the wild ass of India, the rhinoceros, and the fleet-footed Tibetan antelope which has long straight horns – viewed from the side these would look like a single horn. Indian rulers had drinking beakers supposedly made from the horns of unicorns but actually from rhinoceros horns. They were painted with bands of rich color and were said to protect users from sickness and poisoning.
Writing in the first century AD, Roman writer Pliny the Elder referred in his Natural History to a wild “monoceros,” which had a long single black horn in the center of its forehead. It was hunted by the Orsaean Indians and could not be taken alive. The unicorn, or re’em, of the Old Testament was probably the European wild ox, or aurochs – a two-horned species, which became extinct.
|Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: The Empire in the Encyclopedia||Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder (Oxford Classical Monographs)|
Medieval writings are concerned more with the symbolism and powers of the unicorn than with its appearance. Traditionally there is only one way to capture one. The sweet smell of a virgin maiden entices the beast to lay its head in her lap, and it can then be taken. The unicorn was interpreted as a symbol for Christ, because of its majesty, purity, and the belief that it could purge any water source of poison by dipping its horn into it; the unicorn’s capture was seen as symbolizing the conception and Incarnation of Christ, the virgin as representing the Virgin Mary.
A belief in unicorns is not restricted to Western cultures – the Chinese ki-lin is said to have a stag’s body, horses’ hooves, and a single horn about 4 meters long growing in the middle of its forehead. Unlike the Western unicorn, which can be fierce and even belligerent, ki-lin is gentleness itself, eats nothing living and will not step on the tiniest insect of blade of grass.