Doubting Unicorns and their Horns

Thomas Browne was an English physician and author. In 1646, he wrote a book entitled Pseudodoxia Epidemica which he subtitled Inquiries in Vulgar and Common Errors where he tackled topics ranging from nature, geography, and the universe. These topics were discussed over the course of six books within the larger Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

Book Three titled “Of divers popular and received Tenets concerning Animals, which examined prove either false or dubious” had a chapter called “Of Vnicornes hornes.” Using both ancient and contemporary texts, common sense, and empirical evidence, Browne laid out a seven-point argument against the medical efficacy of unicorn horn and the existence of unicorns.

1. There are many animals that match the general description of the unicorn including quadrupeds, fish, and insects.

2. Descriptions of the unicorn’s temperament and physical body vary. Some claim it to be fierce, other tame. Some say it has the head of the horse, others the head of a deer. Some say cloven hooves, other say whole feet. Descriptions of size vary from that of a horse, to a heifer, to slightly smaller than an elephant.

3. Description of the unicorn horn varies. Some descriptions claim it is black, other say white, and others say it has a reddish tint.

4. Pieces of what contemporaries accept as unicorn horn do not resemble each other. Some are curved (“wreathed”), some are not. Two famous examples of unicorn horn housed in cathedrals in Paris and Venice look nothing alike. Some unicorn horns resemble the description of the horn of the Indian Ass, while others resemble that of the sea unicorn (probably a narwhal) from Iceland and America.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 1.55.02 PM
Title Page of the 1650 edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica

5. What some people claim to be unicorn horns aren’t even horns. They are probably fossils of teeth, bones, and wood. They do not react like other horns do by becoming soft and gelatinous when heated, particularly the horns of goats, sheep, cows, rhinos, and deer. Furthermore, ivory from the “Morse or Sea-Horse” (walruses) is falsely passed off as unicorn horn.

6. The description of medicinal virtues of the unicorn horn have changed over time. The one common link is that both ancients and contemporaries describe it being good against poison – but their description of the horn is different so are they even talking about the same horn? And if they are different horns, do they really possess the same medicinal virtues?

7. Only some of the medicinal qualities of unicorn horn are accurate, while other claims of its efficacy are not supported by empirical evidence. It is unwise to rely on unicorn horn as a cure.

Browne ended the chapter with this succinct debunking of the unicorn horn:

“Since therefore there be many Unicornes, since that whereto wee appropriate a horne is so variously described, that it seemeth either never to have beene seene by two persons, or not to have beene one animall; Since though they agreed in the description of the animall, yet is not the horne wee extoll the same with that of the Ancients; Since what hornes soever they be that passe among us, they are not the hornes of one but severall animals: Since many in common use and high esteeme are no hornes at all: Since if they were true hornes, yet might their vertues be questioned: Since though we allowed some virtues, yet were not others to be received, with what security a man may rely on this remedy, the mistresse of fooles hath already instructed some, and to wisdome (which is never too wise to learne) it is not too late to consider.”

There is a webpage about Thomas Browne run by James Eason at the University of Chicago. I recommend you check it out – it’s a great site.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.