“The Man who did not Believe in Unicorns”

In previous posts I discussed the belief in the existence of unicorns and the medicinal virtues of their horns, however, there were some people in the early-modern period who did not believe in unicorns including Ambrose Pare (1510-1590), Thomas Browne (1605-1682), and Pierre Pomet (1658-1699).

Pierre Pomet, the druggist to the French king Louis XIV, wrote about the nonexistence of unicorns in 1694 in his The General History of Drugs. It was later translated into English and German in 1712. Pomet concluded that the sea unicorn was not real, rather it was mistaken for the narwhal,  a whale found in northern waters.


Pomet 4

Pomet claimed the “we ought to undeceive those who believe that what we now call the Unicorn’s Horn, the Latins, Unicornis, and the Greeks, Monceros, was the Horn of a Land Animals, whereof mention is made in the Old Testament, since it is nothing else but the Horn of the Narwal” (Poment, 287). According to Pomet, the narwhal is a “large Fish, which some reckon to be a Sort of Whale, that is found plentifully in the Northern Seas, especially along the Coast of Iceland and Greenland” (Pomet, 286).

Pomet argued that the encounters in the French world with unicorn horn were, in fact, encounters with narwhal tusk.  He discussed the famous horn at St. Denis, the horn found in the cabinet of curiosities of the House of Guise, and a well-known encounter with a sea unicorn in Haiti in 1644.

Pomet Sea Unicorn 1In subsequent editions of Pomet’s work, various editors and authors added bit and pieces to the work. In 1712, Nicolas Lemery (1645-1715) discussed the medicinal virtues of the narwhal tusk. When ingested, the tusk made patients sweat. Furthermore, the tusk helped to resist infections and cured epilepsy. Amulets of the tusk were hung about the neck preserved people from infectious air. The usual dosage was from one-half to two scruples.

A Compleat History of Druggs, Written in French by Monsieur Pomet, Chief Druggist to the late French King Lewis XIV. To which is added What is further observable on the same Subject from Mess. Lemery and Tournefort, Divided into Three Classes, Vegetable, Animal, and Mineral; With their Use In Physick, Chymistry, Pharmacy, and Several other Arts. Illustrated With above Four Hundred Copper Cutts, curiously done from the Life; and Explanation of their different Names, Place of Growth, and Countries from whence they are brought; the Way to know the True from the False; their Virtues, &c. A Work of very great Use and Curiosity. Dome into English from the Originals. The Third Edition, London, Print for J. and J. Bonwicke, R. Wilkin, S. Birt, T. Ward and E. Wicksteed, MDCCXXXVII. 286-287.

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