It's a Rhino, a Narwhal, a Unicorn
from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"

Book: 
Our Fascinating Earth

It's a Rhino, a Narwhal, a Unicorn

In July 1577, Sir Martin Frobisher's ship, seeking shelter from a storm, limped into an inlet at the southeastern corner of Baffin Island. Here the crew found a large dead "fish" with a single horn two yards long growing out of its snout. They believed that they had discovered a marine species of unicorn, the counterpart of the terrestrial magic horse with a single horn.

Few animal products have ever inspired man's imagination as did this tusk of a narwhal. Centuries before the time of Frobisher the tusks of this sea creature were introduced on the European continent by Vikings. They knew the origin of the tusk but kept it a dark secret. The impact was quite dramatic, for many myths of the unicorn were well established, and all that was needed was a good source of "actual" horn. Despite the fact that no one had ever seen a live unicorn, few doubted its existence.

The earliest description of the unicorn comes from the writing of Ctesias, historian and onetime physician to the king of Persia. Upon returning to Greece in 389 B.C. he wrote a lengthy history of the East, including India, a land he had never seen. The single—horned beast he described may have taken shape from tales of the Indian rhinoceros. Embellished by imagination it became fleet and fierce, larger than a horse, with a white body, dark red head, and blue eyes. Its dominant feature was the two—foot horn on the forehead, white at the base and black in the middle portion, with a sharp tip of vivid crimson. A drinking vessel made from one of these horns would protect the owner from epilepsy or convulsions and even poisons swallowed before or after a drink from the beaker.

The unicorn was described by other classical historians, but its survival was ensured by its mention in the Bible, primarily in the Book of Job. This guaranteed it a degree of respectability rather than a "ridiculous monstrosity" classification. Pliny's account of the unicorn, written about A.D. 64, describes it as "a very ferocious beast, similar in its body to a horse, with the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, a deep, bellowing voice, and a single black horn two cubits in length (about four feet) standing out in the middle of its forehead." The forewarning that "it cannot be taken alive" provided the necessary excuse for not exhibiting a living animal in the arena or amphitheater.

As represented by medieval writers, the unicorn had the legs of a buck, the tail of a lion, the head and body of a horse, and occasionally the beard of a goat. The three—color horn in the center of its forehead recalled the description by Ctesias, and most writers reaffirmed that it could be killed but not captured.

Unable to approach this elusive and valuable game, searchers for the unicorn ascribed its power to the horn, which, like a sword, could move in any direction. All attempts to fence with the unicorn were futile, for if it were cornered at the edge of a precipice, it would simply throw itself over the edge, headfirst, so it could land on its magic, invincible horn. Then it could quietly march off, none the worse for the fall.

Eventually those in pursuit of the unicorn were able to circumvent its powers by discovering its weakness — a love of purity and innocence. Therefore, if hunters placed a young virgin in a field, the unicorn would, upon discovering her, approach her with reverence, kneel beside her, lay its head in her lap, and fall asleep. Then the not—so—innocent virgin would signal the hunters, who could capture the enslaved beast.

During the Renaissance the special properties and magical powers attributed to unicorn horn were wildly extravagant. People believed that the horn, as well as being an aphrodisiac, had the power to heal, prevent disease, and above all counter the effects of poisoning. The ivory tusk was worth its weight in gold. Four centuries ago Charles V of England gave two unicorn horns as payment for a debt equal, by modern standards, to $1 million. During the sixteenth to late eighteenth centuries unicorn horn was still a popular though costly ingredient in medicines.

The myth of the unicorn was fast to evolve and took a long time to die. Although scholars exposed its true origin in the mid—1600s, unicorn horn was still used to detect poison in royal foods as late as 1789. In the early nineteenth century anatomist Georges Cuvier declared the unicorn a biological impossibility.

The male narwhal rapidly became more popular as a source for unicorn horn than the rhinoceros, probably because it was less traceable and dealers could guarantee its authenticity. Fortunately for the narwhal, it is so inaccessibly Arctic that it is harvested only by Eskimos, who value it for its meat, blubber, and hide as well as tusks. An unfortunate honor for the imperiled rhinoceros is that its horn could never cast off the unicorn reputation of being both a universal remedy and a powerful aphrodisiac.