Category: Unicorns

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More questions about Vikings in Greenland, the Bishop of Gardar’s Crosier,and Unicorn Horns.

A recent Smithsonian Magazine article explores the decline and disappearance of Viking settlements on Greenland. Previous scholarship argued that the Viking disappearance was caused by a combination of factors including temperature change linked to a volcanic eruption, environmental collapse caused by livestock overgrazing, and cultural inflexibility (Vikings refused to adapt or abandon their Scandinavian farming techniques and diet). However new evidence suggests otherwise.

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The Unicorn in Fabyn’s Cronycle

Robert Fabyan (1455? – 1512) was a draper, sheriff, and author of Fabyans cronycle. The Cronycle recounted English and French history covering the time period from the legendary first king of England Brutus of Troy to the Tudor Henry VII.

A unicorn appears in Fabyans cronycle. The early medieval king of the Salian Franks, Childeric (440-482), was exiled for seducing his followers’ wives. During his eight years in exile, he was taken in by King Bisinus of Thuringia. Over time, lusty Childeric seduced Bisinus’ queen, Basina. Childeric eventually returned to his kingdom and Basina left her husband and accompanied her new lover Childeric to Tournai.

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Unicorns in Shakespeare

William Shakespeare mentioned unicorns three times in his plays: Julius Caesar (1599), Timon of Athens (1605), and The Tempest (1610).

In Julius Caesar, Decius described how a unicorn could be caught by a tree, “That Unicornes may be betrayed with Trees,” – insinuating that a unicorn would charge a hunter who would then sidestep at the last second causing the unicorn to lodge his horn into the tree.
julius-ceasar-shakespeare-unicorn

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Unicorns and the Northwest Passage

In 1576, Humphry Gilbert published A discourse of a discouerie for a new passage to Cataia to drum up the political and economic support he needed to raise a venture from England to China via the yet-to-be-discovered Northwest Passage.

A portion of Gilbert’s book explored an argument about which was the best way to get to China – by the Northeast Passage over Russia, or the Northwest Passage over America. Gilbert recounts a debate he had on the subject with a man he refused to name – which was probably Anthony Jenkinson, an employee of the Muscovy Company and a proponent of the Northeast Passage.

Gilbert Portrait
Portrait of Humphrey Gilbert

According to Gilbert, the argument made by the unnamed proponent (Jenkinson) for the Northeast Passage rested on three points. The second of these points involved a unicorn horn.

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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.

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A surgeon’s advice for what to do when you have a patient to treat but you’re fresh out of unicorn horn.

John Woodall was a surgeon who held a variety of jobs including stocking the medical chests of the ships bound in the service of the East India Company, the army, and the navy. In addition to these jobs, he also was the Surgeon General of the East India

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The Surgeon’s Mate title page

Company, a surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and master of the Barber-Surgeons Company. Woodall is best remembered for publishing a description and treatment for scurvy in a book entitled The Surgeon’s Mate in 1617. The book was reprinted in 1635 and 1655.

It was also in The Surgeon’s Mate that Woodall described an alternative to use if unicorn horn (alicorn) was not available. In the section entitled “Of the vertues and vses of sundry Cordiall Waters,” the entry for Cornu cervi or harts horn read:

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Of the Unicorns of the Temple of Mecca

 

Pomet Histoire genderal des drouges 1694 unicorn licorne

This account arrived to me through a circuitous route –  and it may be best to trace to the path of the account’s publication to contextualize the relation of how unicorns were held at Mecca in 1503.

Ludovico di Varthema (1470-1517) was an Italian who claimed to have traveled across parts of Africa and Asia including Somalia, Egypt, Yemen, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. He wrote about his travels and published them in 1510 in a book called The Itinerary of Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna (Itinerario de Ludouico de Varthema Bolognese). The book was reprinted several times and eventually translated into other languages.

A Spaniard named Peter Martyr d’Anghiera aka Peter Martyr collected travel narratives and accounts and published them over the course of several years. Eventually all of them were collected together and published as one large edition entitled De orbe novo decades. In 1555, Richard Eden translated and published Peter Martyr in a book entitled The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India. In 1577, Richard Willes reprinted Eden’s version of Decades and added some supplementary travel narratives and called the work The history of trauayle in the VVest and East Indies, and other countreys lying eyther way. It was in Willes’ 1577 book that I found the account of the unicorns of the Temple of Mecca.

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The Unicorn in Laurence Andrew’s The Noble Lyfe / Hortus Sanitatis

Cover of Laurence Andrew The noble lyfe and natures of man of bestes serpentys fowles and fishes that be most knoweu

Laurence Andrew (fl. 1510-1537) was a printer and translator active in Antwerp. Not much is known about him and many of the works he translated and/or printed have not survived into present day.

However, one book that did survive was The noble lyfe a[nd] natures of man of bestes, serpentys, fowles a[nd] fishes [that] be moste knoweu published in Antwerp. The date of publication is unknown, but historians of the book regularly date the book to 1527. The noble lyfe is a translation of portions of the Hortus Sanitatis, a natural history published in Germany in 1485.

The entry for the unicorn read:
“Monocheron yt is a vnicorne for it hath but one horne standinge in his forhede & it is so sharp yt what so euer it touchet wt his horn it tereth it a sonder or rõneth it thrugh / & it is a beste wt iiij. fete feringe nothere yron nor stele / & it feghteth oftentymes agaynst ye oliphant & thursteth hym in ye beli wt his sharpe horne & so ouercõmeth hym.”

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The Unicorn in Clariodus

Unicorn at Hampton Court Palace
Unicorn at Hampton Court Palace

Clariodus: A Metrical Romance is a peculiar poem. The author is unknown and the poem was probably based on the French work entitled Cleriadus et Meliadice from c. 1440. The poem is Scottish but written in English. It is full of medieval themes but written after the medieval period sometime in the early sixteenth century. The poem is full of medieval motifs including courtly love, tournaments, fulfilling vows, magical woods, righting wrongs, and fighting pagans.

A unicorn made an appearance in the poem:

Foure syndrie liquoris ran with royaltie, 
From foure beistis in foure nuiks of the hall, 
Whilke was ane sight richt fair and triumphall: 
Ane was ane lyoun, right awfull and terribill, 
At quhois gaiping mouth, full horibill, 
Rane myghtie wyne, right plesant, cleir, and cauld; 
It was ane gude sight him for to behald: 
The uther was ane lustie unicorne, 
Eyne Ipocras did ryn out at his horne: 
The thride ane tyger was, felloun and stout, 
Rose water fearcelie at his nose ran out: 
The fourte ane marmaide was, with traces bright, 
At both her papis mylke ran out on height. 

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Martin Luther and the Unicorn Horn

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Melchior Adam, The Life and Death of Dr. Martin Luther (London, 1643), 109.

Martin Luther, the leading figure of the Protestant Reformation, spent his last three days on earth working. He delivered a sermon that in part encouraged Jews to convert to Christianity or be expelled from German lands. The following day Luther traveled to negotiate for the protection of his family’s copper trade.  Luther fell ill the day after the negotiations were completed and he continued to feel poorly through the day and evening.

According to the sixteenth-century German historian Melchior Adam, that “after supper, when he [Luther] went aside to pray, as was his custome, the paine in his breast began to increase: whereupon by the advice of some there present, he tooke a little Vnicornes horne in wine.”

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Alicorn

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Sea Unicorns from The History of Barados, St. Christophers, Mevis, St Vincents, Antego, Martinico, Monserrat, and the rest of the Caribby-Islands (London, 1666).

One of the first pieces of Anglo-American exploration literature to be translated and circulated to a wider European audience was Dionyse Settle’s 1577 account about Martin Frobisher’s second voyage entitled A true reporte of the last voyage…by Capteine Frobisher. The account was typical of others in the period.  It narrated the path of the ship, described the natural resources found in northern North America, and highlighted English encounters with Native Americans in both trade and war.  Unremarkably for the period, Settle encountered the physical remains of a sea unicorn.  Settle described seeing two shorelines, Asia in the east and America in the west.  On the western shore of America, the men of the Frobisher expedition “found a dead fishe floating, whiche in his nose a horne streight & torquet, of lengthe two yeardes lacking two inches, being broken in the top…we supposed it to be the Sea Unicorne.” The account of this event was casually sandwiched between a straightforward description of icebergs, and an encounter with Native Americans.

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The Unicorn in the Physiologus and Bestiaries

Medieval Christian scholars across Europe read the Physiologus making the book’s circulation second only to that of the Bible.” The Physiologus was based on Indian, Hebrew, and Egyptian legends that later were passed on into Greek and Roman literature, folklore and art. Eventually, these myths were written down in Alexandria, Egypt by an unknown author between 100 and 300 CE. The stories in the book are about plants, minerals, and animals – including the unicorn.

The author fused the ancient tradition of using moral allegories about nature with Christianity to reflect the teaching of the Apostle Paul, echoed in the Bible when Paul said, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). The analogic structure of nature and divinely created symbols described in the Physiologus provided the Christian world with the tools to bridge the visible and the invisible worlds. The unicorn was one such symbol.

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A unicorn being killed in the lap of a virgin. Harley MS 3244, Bestiary, Unicorn, 1236-1250. British Library.
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Ancient Authorities on the Unicorn

 

Many early-modern Europeans believed in the existence of unicorns, in part, due to the writings of ancient authorities.

Ctesias (ca. 400 BCE), the Greek physician who served the Persian ruler Artaxerxes II, examined the unicorn.  In his work entitled On India, Ctesias referenced the unicorn which he called the wild ass of India.  It was roughly the size of a horse and had one horn.  It also had pharmacological benefits because its horn was an antidote to poison, and those who drank from the horn could not be harmed.  The beast could only be killed by bow and javelin. Furthermore, according to Ctesias, unicorn flesh was inedible on account of its bitterness. From roughly 400 BCE onwards, an animal in the shape of a horse with one horn existed in the minds of people, and its horn had the pharmacological benefit of being an antidote to poison.