Lore of the Unicorn, 
by Odell Shepard


The belief of the Unicorn goes back at least to the fourth century before Christ, and it is probably much older still. This can be said, however, only of India, and the question arises, therefore, when and by what means the superstition came into the Western world. 

 "Beginning doubtfully and far away", there has existed from early times and in many parts of the world a vague notion that horns in general, almost any kind of horns, are somehow prophylactic. For ages the most highly valued drinking vessels, used by kings as well as cow-herds, were made of horn.

One of the earliest beliefs of the unicorn's horn having medicinal properties in Europe is to be found in the writings of Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegarde believed that not the horn alone, but the whole unicorn was medicinal: under its horn, she says, is a piece of metal as transparent as glass in which a man may see his face.

Ctesias gives the length of the horn as one cubit or eighteen inches, Aelian as a cubit and a half, Pliny as two cubits, Solinus and Isidore as four feet, Cardan as three cubits, Rabelais as six or seven feet, and Albertus Magnus as ten feet. At this point the growth of the horn was checked, for the animal that bore it was obviously becoming top-heavy and needed, as several sceptics pointed out, to be "as big as a ship" merely to carry such a formidable bow-sprit. Arabian writers showed less restraint, for Al Damiri, among others, asserts that the unicorn, for all its great strength, is unable to lift its head because of the great weight of its horn. Concerning the length of the alicorn, then, one could think almost whatever one liked. The time was to come when specimens almost if not quite as long as that described by Albertus Magnus were to be seen in Europe, and undoubtedly the respect in which the unicorn was everywhere held was maintained by the effort to imagine a beast to which a horn ten feet in length would be proportionate.

Before the sixteenth century there was general agreement among the learned that the true horn was black, as Aelian had said, but after a long period of vacillation the opinion that it was white or of the colour of old ivory definitely triumphed. Less bookish persons had thought of it as white for a long time, if we may judge from the numerous pictures of the unicorn to be seen in mediaeval manuscripts. Andrea Bacci recalled the assertion of Aelian and Pliny, but had to admit that all the specimens he had seen were not black but more nearly white. 

Thomas Fuller suggests that the differences in colour may be due to age--"white when newly taken from his head; yellow like that lately in the Tower, of some hundred years seniority; but whether or no it will ever turn black, as that of Aelian's and Pliny's description, let others decide." But the most ingenious solution of these discrepancies was the view that the true horn is white within and black outside, on account of the "bark" that covers it, so that the same horn may be described as either black or white according as the bark has been left on or stripped off.
By far the strangest thing in the history of opinion about the alicorn's appearance is the age and persistence of the belief in the natural spiral twistings or striae. These are clearly delineated in every picture of the unicorn that I have seen in mediaeval manuscripts, some of which were drawn in the twelfth century.  This may mean either "rings" or "spirals". Even the horns of the unicorned animals shown in bas-relief on the walls of Persepolis seem to show these twistings. There seems to be no ancient authority for them whatever, and learned writers do not mention them until after the close of the Middle Ages. Erudite Europeans were converted to the "anfractuous spires and cochicary turnings"--to adopt Fuller's charmingly pedantic phrase--at about the time when they admitted a possibility that the horn might sometimes be white, but Arabian writers had accepted them somewhat earlier. Alkazuwin says, for example, that the unicorn has one horn on its head, sharp at the top and thick below, with raised or convex striae outside and hollow or concave striae within.

Arabian notions of the inside of the alicorn are highly interesting. Ibn Khord dhbeh asserts that when the horn is split longitudinally one finds inside of it, on a black background, the white figures of a man, a fish, and a peacock or some other bird. Algiahid, in his Book of Holy Things, makes much the same remark, and Al Damiri affirms in more detail that when one cuts the alicorn lengthwise there are found in it various figures in white on black, as of peacocks, goats, birds, certain kinds of trees, men, and other things wonderfully depicted. Horns with such remarkable interior decorations were more prized, of course, than those without them, and the Arabs tell us that a good one was worth over four thousand shekels of gold and that they were used by the Chinese mandarins on their girdles.

While considering the physical characteristics of alicorns we should not neglect the abundant testimony that they are not always fixed solidly in the skull, but that some unicorns have them "plyable". Garcias ab Horto, rounding the Cape of Good Hope about the year 1550, heard of an amphibian on the eastern coast of Africa that could raise and lower its single horn and swing it to right or left as caprice or necessity dictated, and some years later André Thevet reported another amphibian unicorn--it had webbed feet behind and cloven hoofs before and lived on fish--from the Island of Molucca, with a three-foot horn that waved about like the crest of a cock. In this connection we must not forget the mobile horns observed by Pantagruel upon the unicorns of the Land of Satin. Finally, a consular agent of France writes a long letter in the middle of the nineteenth century to prove that the unicorn of the ancients has been discovered in Central Africa, and that it has a movable horn--"une corne unique, mobile, susceptible d'erection en ce sense qu'elle peut recevoir de la volonté de l'animal une position variable relativement a la surface du front".

There is one more thing, perhaps the most instructive of all, to be said about the physical characteristics of the alicorn. For two or three centuries many learned men, quite as intelligent as those of their kind to-day, measured and weighed and tasted these objects, speculated about them, subjected them to various tests, bought and sold them for great sums, wrote astonishingly erudite books about them--all the while calling them "horns". Not one of these men guessed, until the seventeenth century brought in new habits of thought, that the objects they had before them, ninety-nine times in the hundred, were not composed of horn at all but of ivory.

When the Apothecaries' Society of London was founded in 1617 two unicorns were chosen as the supporters of its arms, and the common sign of the apothecary's shop, both in England and in Europe, during the seventeenth century was the figure of a unicorn or that of its head and horn. 

The belief that all horns have medicinal value and that this value is of a supernatural sort lasted on, demonstrably, into modern times. André Thevet, a man of fine intelligence and wide knowledge, could say at the end of the sixteenth century that "quand tout est diet, il ne se trouve guere beste . . . dont la corne n'ait quelque merveilleux effect pour la sauté des bommes."  As an example he names the pyrassouppi found in the region of the River Plate, large as a mule and with very long horns which the savages use to cure wounds caused by poisonous beasts and fishes. He says also, as do many other early authorities, that if one burns ordinary stag's horn and scatters the ashes on the ground he will rid the place where they are scattered of all snakes.

Powdered stag's horn was commonly prescribed to the poor as a prophylactic during the whole period of the alicorn's popularity among the wealthier classes, and it is still used in China in the same way.  Although all horns whatever were regarded as having medicinal properties, those of the stag were the most important substitute for the alicorn.

Commonly, and for a long time, the alicorn was used to touch the food and drink before the meal began, being carried about the table by an officer of the household detailed for that important trust. When so employed it was called in mediaeval French "une espreuve a lincorne",  and was generally attached to a cord or chain by which it might be hung against the wall when not in use. References to these espreuves are numerous in old inventories, and the descriptions of them often indicate the use to which they were put. Thus we read in an inventory, taken in 1416, of the Dukes of Burgundy: "Une tousche, en quoy a esté mis une piece de lichorne, pour touschier la viande de Monseigneur. Even the inventory of the Emperor Charles V refers to "une touche a licorne, garnie d'or, pour faire essay". This ritual was maintained in the Royal household of France until 1789, when the Revolution made a clean sweep of all such antiquated customs.

Among the objects once belonging to Queen Elizabeth that were given by James I to his queen was "one little cup of unicorn's horn, with a cover of gold, set with two pointed diamonds and three pearls pendent, being in weight 7 ounces". The King of England gave to the Duke of Brittany in 1414: "une grande coupe d'or . . . et y a au fons une licorne et autres choses contre venin". Such citations might be continued indefinitely, but all that one can find show that these cups, like the espreuves and the other objects into which the alicorn was fashioned, belonged solely to the great and wealthy. The unicorn maintained its aristocratic associations almost to the end--and this not merely because of the great price of its horn, but also because only the great fear poison. Seneca had phrased the situation long before in one line: Venenum in auro bibitur.

"Kings and princes and men of wealth all own it, and they should preserve it for the use of future generations. Furthermore, as I know from personal experience, it is highly effective against poisons and all malignant evils." ~ According to Andrea Bacci the proper dose is ten grains scraped from the inside of the hornor a piece might equally well be worn as an amulet. Laurens Catelan warns his readers that the alicorn, whether in the piece or powdered, must never be put into hot water, for this destroys all its virtue, and Conrad Gesner is equally emphatic in saying that only fresh powder can be used successfully. 

When the daughter of Henry II of France fell ill with smallpox in 1557, Anne de Montmorency sent to her nurse a piece of alicorn with directions that it should be "dissolved" in cold water and drunk. The water commonly called eau do licorne and sold under that name throughout Europe was not made in this expensive way, but merely by standing one end of the horn in a vessel of water, as at St. Denis. Sometimes a hole was bored through the length of the horn and water poured through it, but in either case the water was held to be highly beneficial and found a ready sale. In this way it was made possible to "drink the horn". Intelligent people, however, seem to have preferred to take their alicorn in powdered form. 

 Throughout Italy at the present time, and especially in the south, the "comb"--an amulet representing a single horn and made of coral, silver, nickel, bone, and other materials--is used in many ways as a charm against the evil eye. One sees it even as a watchguard and at the end of a chain hung round the neck and on the coat-lapel. Roman and Neapolitan cab-drivers place it on the headgear of their horses, so suspended that it is constantly in motion and pointing forwards; carters and carriers hang a large single horn under their wagons; in Italian shop-windows one often sees fifty or more of these amulets, certainly more popular than those of any other form, exhibited for sale. Old women of the peasant class frequently wear many of them at once, concealed beneath their clothing. 

The unicorn legend had an early and an elaborate development among the Arabs, who dominated European medicine, from the beginning of the thirteenth century to the revival of learning, sending out successive waves of influence from the Court of Frederick II, from Salerno, and from many centres in Spain. 

 Indian physicians are known to have lived at the Court of Bagdad in the time of Haroun al-Raschid, and there is evidence that they added Oriental ideas to those that Arabic medicine owed chiefly to the Greek tradition. Arabic influence is already discernible in Albertus Magnus and it is controlling in Peter of Abano. Can it be a mere coincidence that these two are among the earliest European writers who show full knowledge of the belief in the alicorn? The probability is that this belief, in its popular form, entered Europe with the Mohammedan invasion of Spain, spreading from Bagdad--whither it had been taken by Indian physicians or brought back by Arabian travellers--to Cordova, Seville, Granada, and finally to Salerno, from whence medical theory radiated through all of Europe.

There is evidence of another kind which, lends further support to the theory of an Arabian origin for this belief. In the Italian dialects of the fourteenth century and later the unicorn was variously called licorno, liocorno, leocorno, and leoncorno. In French the name has always been licorne or lincorne. I cannot accept the derivation given by Littré's Dictionnaire in which licorne is traced to the whole Latin word unicoma. A tenable etymology is suggested by Alfred Hoare, according to which the ordinary Romance article was prefixed to the Latin coma "and the resulting word was altered, perhaps under the attraction of Leone, lion". Accepting this derivation, we may draw from it two significant deductions. It seems clear, in the first place, that when the basic word licorno--which could mean nothing but "the horn"--was made, the animal to which the horn belonged was unknown. After the development of the unicorn legend the word was applied, not very appropriately, to the animal, and it has done this double service, both in French and Italian, ever since. We shall find it worth remembering that, if the present argument is sound, then "the horn" was known in Italy and was important enough to name in the most vivid and striking way, before any animal was known or imagined to which it could be fitted. The second deduction is that this horn must have seemed in some way impressive to its namers, else they would not have spoken of it with the simple definite article so as to suggest that it was the horn par excellence.

But these are not the only conjectures that may be based upon etymology. Much more commonly used than any of the Italian names for the unicorn cited above, and outlasting them all, is the word alicorno, backed by the Portuguese alicornio. Hoare explains this form without hesitation by saying that it is due to a prefixing of the Arabic article. He refers, of course, to the definite article al, seen in many English words of Arabic origin such as "algebra" and "alcohol". Alicorno, however, is not of pure Arabic origin; it is a hybrid word. The Arabic article has apparently been prefixed to the Romance word licorno already formed, thus giving the word two definite articles fused together. From these facts I think we may infer rather plausibly that the Arabs found when they came to Europe some sort of horn sufficiently remarkable to have attracted attention, and, secondly, that they took enough interest in this horn and made it sufficiently their own so that their capping of its name with an additional definite article from their own language was generally accepted. It seems to me that these etymological considerations, taken together with the evidence to the same effect presented above, make a "strong case" for my theory that the European belief in the alicorn's magical properties was of Arabian origin.

It may well be that the Crusaders returning from the East did more to spread the faith in alicorn magical properties through Europe than all books put together. This tale became well established among the learned before 1350, and by the end of the same century, accepted by the wealthier classes of Europe and Great Britain. The poor and ignorant were to have no practical interest in the horn's magical virtues for at least two centuries to come. In Venice at the middle of the seventeenth century there was a general belief that the remarkable sweetness of the water in a certain well was due to bits of alicorn that had been thrown into it years before.

  "By reason of the hidden and secret properties of things", says John Baptista Porta, "there is in all kinds of creatures a certain compassion, as I may call it, which the Greeks call sympathy and antipathy, but we term it, more familiarly, their consent and disagreement. For some things are joyned together as it were in a mutual league, and some other things are at variance and discord among themselves; or they have something in them which is a terror and destruction to each other, whereof there can be rendered no probable reason: neither will any wise man seek after any other cause thereof but only this, that it is the pleasure of Nature to see it should be so, that she would have nothing to be without his like, and that amongst all the secrets of Nature there is nothing but hath some hidden and special property; and moreover, that by this their consent and disagreement, we might gather many helps for the uses and necessities of men, for when once we find one thing at variance with another, presently we may conjecture, and in trial so it will prove, that one of them may be used as a fit remedy against the harms of the other."

This idea of "sympathy" and "antipathy" is encountered everywhere in mediaeval medicine, as it is also, of course, in the history of magic. The Consents and Disagreements, as Porta calls them, are often surprising. 

Porta reminds his readers that the lion is afraid of the cock, that the elephant and the mouse are natural enemies--a belief which is still remembered--and then says: "So likewise those living creatures that are enemies to poisonous things and swallow them up without danger may show us that such poisons [that is the poisonous members of the poison-eating animals] will cure the bitings and blows of those creatures. The Hart and the Serpent are at continual enmity: the Serpent, as soon as he seeth the Hart, gets him into his hole, but the Hart draws him out again with the breath of his nostrils, and devours him. Hence it is fit remedies against Serpents. Likewise the breath of Elephants draws Serpents out of their dens, and they fight with dragons, and therefore drive away Serpents. So also the crowing of a Cock affrights the Basilisk, and he fights with Serpents to defend his hens. The Stellion, which is a beast like a Lyzard, is an enemy to the Scorpion, and therefore the Oyle of him, being purified, is good to anoint the place which is stricken by the Scorpion. A Swine eats up a Salamander without danger, and is good against the poison thereof."

The pertinent fact before us is that "the stag by nature hates all poysonous things, and therefore the homes of a stag where no Serpent will enter."  Various parts of the stag are accordingly medicinal, and are especially good against the poison of snakes--either for the reason that the stag is a "natural enemy" of snakes or because he eats them and so becomes poisonous himself. 

Saint Ambrose says explicitly "venenim veneno excludatur". One of the most satisfactory statements of the principle to be found in early writers is that of Antonio Ludovico, who says that nothing except poison can expel poison and that the antidote is not hostile to the poisonous substance, as some suppose, but is "bound to it by invisible chains of everlasting and indissoluble amity."

Coming now to our central question, why the alicorn was supposed to sweat in the presence of poison, we may answer, in accordance with what we have learned from the study of stag's horn and other substances, that it does so either because of sympathy or because of antipathy with that poison. Explanation according to the latter principle was of course the more natural one during the centuries when the unicorn was always thought of as a symbol of Christ, as associated with the Virgin, and as a type of purity, but Arabian influence, based upon Galen, seems to have swung opinion over to the other interpretation--that, namely, according to the principle of sympathy, which required that the alicorn be thought of as highly poisonous.

A clear statement of this view is made by Laurens Catelan, although it is not original with him. Those parts of any animal, he begins by saying, are strongest and fullest of the animal's "virtue" upon which its life depends. In horned animals these parts are the horns. Now it is well known--or so Catelan assumes--that horned animals have a keen appetite for poisonous substances both animal and vegetable, and of course the essence of these substances is drawn into their essential members, their horns. All horns, therefore, are necessarily poisonous in a high degree, for all the poisons that their bearers have eaten is concentrated in them. There is no difficulty in seeing, then, why it is that when all the poison that would ordinarily be distributed through two horns is forced into one it is brought to a very strong focus indeed. The alicorn is clearly one of the most poisonous substances in the world, and with all these facts in mind, Catelan submits, no sensible man can fail to believe the marvels related of it. The alicorn sweats when standing near poison, he thinks, because of a desire to mingle with its like, and when taken as a drug it overcomes and carries off such feebler poisons as arsenic and corrosive sublimate by virtue of its own more powerfully poisonous nature. Why it is that so deadly a substance as this does not kill the patient instantly, how it happens that it can be brought into contact with one's food and drink or worn at one's neck as an amulet with impunity, Catelan and his fellows neglect to inform us.

 This theory is too ingenious and has too much of the mark of the clever apothecary upon it for one to accept it as a product of primitive minds, and yet it may contain some primitive elements. Catelan's confident assertion that the unicorn eats snakes and drinks poisoned water implies an intimate knowledge of the animal's habits such as few other writers have claimed, but the assertion is helpful in suggesting that the whole mystery may rest upon a matter of diet. Even those who think of the unicorn as essentially pure sometimes attribute his virtues to the food he eats. Thus Hildegarde of Bingen says that once in every year the animal goes to that land in which the juices of Paradise abound and there seeks out the best herbs, digging them up with his hoof; from these he derives his medicinal properties. It will be remembered that Hildegarde thought the whole body of the unicorn medicinal, and also that the same belief is held in India regarding the rhinoceros. A belief so constant as this, common to both schools of interpretation, may well derive from a source far back in time.

Andrea Bacci, whose book on the unicorn appeared in the same year as Marini's, abandoned the sympathy-antipathy explanation altogether and fell back upon a pseudo-Aristotelean forma and essentia which really explained nothing. He also accepted a vague Arabian assertion that alicorn somehow "comforts the heart", but the question as to why it sweats in the presence of poison he confuses and avoids as much as possible, finally leaving it unanswered.

John of Hesse, a priest of Utrecht, who visited the Holy Land in 1389 and had the most extraordinary good luck in the things he saw there. "Near the field of Helyon", he says, "there is a river called Marah, the water of which is very bitter, into which Moses struck his staff and made the water sweet so that the Children of Israel might drink. And even in our times, it is said, venomous animals poison that water after the setting of the sun, so that the good animals cannot drink of it; but in the morning, after the sunrise, comes the unicorn and dips his horn into the stream, driving the poison from it so that the good animals can drink there during the day. This I have seen myself."

 Leaping now almost five hundred years we find a traveller of the nineteenth century giving almost the same account of the water-conning trait as that given by John of Hesse. "One evening," says he, "as I was sitting among the rocks with a party of natives, the conversation turned upon flags. A man sitting there said to a stranger, 'Why do the English put the wyheed el win, that is the unicorn, on their flag?' and then related the whole story of it as one well known through the length and breadth of the land. 'The unicorn is found in a vast country south of Abyssinia. There the animals, undisturbed by man, live after their own laws. The water does not flow in rivers, but lives in the bosom of the soil. When the others wish to drink, the unicorn inserts his horn into the earth: with this he scoops a pool, satisfies his own thirst, and leaves what he does not require to the rest. So these English have the privilege of first discovering all things and then the rest of the world may come after.'"

Popular beliefs about the stag have already served us well and may do so again. This animal, it will be remembered, is devoted to a diet of snakes, and in general he seems to thrive upon it, but sometimes, as Pliny informs us, a snake gets on the stag's back and bites him cruelly, whereupon he rushes to some river or fountain and plunges into the water to rid himself of his foe.  Here we have at least a horned animal, a snake, and water brought together. A few sentences from the subtle and fascinating book by Antonio Ludovico will carry us somewhat farther. Stags are accustomed to increase their strength, says he, upon a diet of serpents, but when they are quite saturated with this food, and before they begin to feel the noxious effects of the poison, they go down to the great rivers and there submerge their bodies, leaving only their mouths above the water. They do not drink a drop, however they may suffer with thirst, but remain standing there until the poison is sweated in the form of tears through their eyes, and then they leave. These tears, hardened into balls, fall by the wayside and are gathered by the people of the country, who value them as antidotes for poison. The barbarians call them bezoars.

It may seem that this story, however interesting in itself, leaves us still a long way from the unicorn dipping its horn into the water, but a little reflection will show that the analogy is rather close. We have already learned that the poison in the unicorn's body is not dispersed, as it appears to be in the stag mentioned by Ludovico, but is concentrated in the horn--the single horn. It seems natural, then, whenever the unicorn goes to the water to seek relief from an excess of poison, if that is indeed his motive, that he should dip the horn alone. Furthermore, it would follow naturally from the poisonous quality of the horn that whatever venom there might be in the water would be dispersed. This, at any rate, is the explanation of the water-conning trait that Laurens Catelan seems to have had in mind, for he says that the unicorn's well-known fierceness is caused by the great pain he suffers constantly on account of the poison in his horn, and that he knows no other way of obtaining relief except that of returning to the poisoned stream by which his pain is partly caused.

The cost of "true unicorn's horn" (verum cornu monocerotis) in its best period was a little over ten times its weight in gold when sold in small pieces or in powder, but whole alicorns sometimes brought twice as much as this. 
Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, [1930], at sacred-texts.com


IN the King James Version of the Bible there are seven clear references to the unicorn, all of which occur in the Old Testament. The animal is mentioned twice in the Pentateuch, once in job, once in Isaiah, and three times in the Psalms.
These passages read as follows:--

    "God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of the unicorn."--Numbers xxiii. 22.

    "His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth."--Deuteronomy xxxiii. 17.

    "Save me from the lion's mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns."--Psalm xxii. 21.

    "He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn."--Psalm xxix. 6.

    "But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil."--Psalm xcii. 10.

    "And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness."--Isaiah xxxiv. 7.

    "Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide in thy crib?

    "Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?

    "Wilt thou trust him because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?

    "Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?"--Job xxxix. 9-12.

    One thing is evident in these passages: they refer to some actual animal of which the several writers had vivid if not clear impressions. Although the allusions were made at widely different times, the characterization is consistent, bringing before us a beast remarkable for strength, ferocity, wildness, and unconquerable spirit. Nothing suggests that it was supernatural, a creature of fancy, for it is linked with the lion, the bullock and the calf; yet it was mysterious enough to inspire a sense of awe, and powerful enough to provide a vigorous metaphor.

They did not know what animal the Hebrew seers and poets had in mind when speaking of the Re'em, translated to unicorn, but they found that it was characterized as fleet, fierce, indomitable, and especially distinguished by the armour of its brow. Dim recollections were awakened by these traits, and so the Seventy called the one unknown animal by the name of another. Even from our point of vantage it seems doubtful whether they could have found a closer equivalent for a beast which had been mysterious and awful to the Hebrews than this monoceros or unicorn which was to themselves still strange, remote, and conjectural.

Samuel Bochart, the profoundest scholar who has ever waded these deep waters, a considerable company once contended for the oryx, pointing out that the Arabic name of this animal is still rim; but the value of this discovery was soon destroyed by the announcement of another school that rimu was the Assyrian name of the gigantic aurochs or Bos Primigenius, a species of wild buffalo which became extinct in the sixteenth century. 

 Julius Caesar describes it as indigenous to his prolific Hercynian Forest, and in terms fitting all that is said in the Bible about the Re'em; Layard identified the animal with the majestic sculptured bulls of Nineveh. The Bos Primigenius now holds the field. Its bulk, speed, and savage ferocity are described by Caesar in words that make it clear why the Hebrews always spoke of the Re'em with bated breath.

The Re'em is seen fading into myth, and so it may have been the original of the wonderful ox three times mentioned in the Talmud as the victim of Adam's first sacrifice--an ox with the interesting peculiarity that it had only one horn on its brow.

In Alexandria, during the third century after Christ and under Christian influence, there were brought together a number of animal stories, some of them drawn from the wide-spread "Beast Epic" of the world and others apparently concocted to serve the immediate need, each of them fitted with a "moral" somewhat after the fashion of Aesop's Fables.

 The whole collection, naturally regarded as the work of one author called Physiologus, came to be called by that supposed author's name. In later centuries it was called, in Europe, the "Bestiary".

Official Christianity did what it could to repudiate this collection, for a synod of Pope Gelasius in 496 condemned it as the work of "heretics", although it had been falsely ascribed to Saint Ambrose. In spite of this and other attacks it remained familiar and influential throughout Christendom for over a thousand years, and there are extant texts in Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Latin, Armenian, Old High German, Icelandic, Old French, Provençal, Ethiopic, Italian, and Anglo-Saxon. It was chiefly by means of these Bestiaries that the popular as distinguished from the learned tradition of the unicorn was disseminated. Not Ctesias and not Aelian but this grist of old wives' tales fathered upon an imaginary "Physiologus" was responsible for scattering the image of the unicorn throughout Europe, making him familiar where books were never read, contorting his shapely limbs on corbels and cornices and miserere seats, depicting him in stained glass and on tapestry, lifting him finally to the British Royal Coat of Arms.

Existing texts of the Physiolous vary considerably in minor details, but this is the substance of what they have to relate about the unicorn: He is a small animal, like a kid, but surprisingly fierce for his size, with one very sharp horn on his head, and no hunter is able to catch him by force. Yet there is a trick by which he is taken. Men lead a virgin to the place where he most resorts and leave her there alone. As soon as he sees this virgin he runs and lays his head in her lap. She fondles him and he falls asleep. The hunters then approach and capture him and lead him to the palace of the king.

One may have known this story for years and may have seen it represented a hundred times in Christian art, yet if he has any gift for stubborn wonder he will be surprised at each return by its strangeness, and curious to know by what queer twist of thought or accident of transmission it has taken on its present form. For this tale, absurd though it may be, is not childishly and feebly absurd; there is a suggestion of age about it and a hint of symbolism not wholly due to the fact that it has served for centuries as a Christian symbol. What affinity did the makers of the tale imagine between the unicorn and the virgin? Why should this animal be thought worth so elaborate a ruse? Why is he led "to the palace of the king"? These questions have puzzled a good many acute and learned minds, and they have never been answered.

But these questions arise out of the Physiologus story by itself, without reference to the fact that another unicorn legend was already current in the Mediterranean world. The moment we recall that fact, another set of questions comes into view. What strands of connection can be discerned between the two legends? Instead of the proud beast of Ctesias and Aelian--fierce, shaped like an ass or horse, solid-hoofed, dangerous, indomitable--we have here an animal so small that it is likened to a kid, with a divided hoof and a beard as seen in later Christian art, and chiefly characterized by a propensity to fall asleep in virgins' laps. The only discernible likenesses are that in both legends the animal is said to be fierce and not to be taken by the ordinary arts of the hunter, and that the quarry in both belongs to the king; but these similarities are so slight as to seem hardly worth mentioning. Apparently we must conclude that the unicorn legend has had two independent origins, or, in stronger terms, that there are two legends of the unicorn, one of which we may call the Ctesian and the other that of Physiologus.

The Syriac version is so interesting as to deserve quotation:--

    "There is an animal called dajja, extremely gentle, which the hunters are unable to capture because of its great strength. It has in the middle of its brow a single horn. But observe the ruse by which the huntsmen take it. They lead forth a young virgin, pure and chaste, to whom, when the animal sees her, he approaches, throwing himself upon her. Then the girl offers him her breasts, and the animal begins to suck the breasts of the maiden and to conduct himself familiarly with her. Then the girl, while sitting quietly, reaches forth her hand and grasps the horn on the animal's brow, and at this point the huntsmen come up and take the beast and go away with him to the king."

Conclusive is the emphasis upon sexual attraction, or perhaps, maternal, as the source of the power exercised by the "virgin" over the unicorn. The virgin was always and from the start understood to represent the Virgin Mary by Christians. The Syriac version seems to represent an idea about the right method of capturing unicorns which is older than Physiologus; it suggests a possibility that the origin of the virgin-capture story, if it can be found, will turn out to be non-Christian and will rest more heavily, or at least more obviously, upon sexual attraction than the Christianized form of the story usually does.

Hildegarde of Bingen and Thomas of Cantipré, among others, enlarge upon the animal's skill in detecting a virgin at sight, and in some stories we are told that when the huntress is not really a virgin she is killed by the beast--a fairly obvious intrusion of the virginity-test theme. Furthermore, it was held by some that the hunt was more likely to succeed if the virgin was naked, and several insist that she must be beautiful. Alanus de Insulis, who flourished at the end of the twelfth century, gives a curious explanation of the story in which the sexual interpretation is made in terms of mediaeval science. He concludes that the virgin's power is due to a radical difference in "humours", the calidissima natura of the unicorn being drawn irresistibly to its opposite, the femina frigida et humida. The unicorn, he says, has an excess offervent spirits or humours which dilate his heart, and when he comes into the pure moist air surrounding the virgin he feels such relief and is so delighted by that feminine atmosphere that he lies down in her lap. 

Probably the earliest narration of the tale in literature outside of the Physiologus itself is that in the Commentary on Saint Basil's Hexaemeron, long attributed to Saint Eustathius of Antioch, who died about A.D. 330. This curious work weaves about Basil's poetic account of creation a tissue of popular legend which makes it good hunting-ground for the student of folklore. In most of its discussions of animals it drags a wide net through the sea of Levantine superstition, but the unicorn passage follows Physiologus in every detail, its only importance for our purpose consisting in the fact that here we see the virgin-capture story moving out into literature under its own sail, without assistance from allegory.

Isidore of Seville, who died in 636 ~

 "Rynoceron in grewe [i.e. in Greek] is to meanynge an Home in the nose. & Monoceros is an Unycorne: and is a ryght cruell beast. And hath that name for he hath in the mydull of the forehed an home of foure fote long. And that home is so sharpe & so stronge that he throwyth downe al or thyrleth al that he resyth on . . . . And this beest fyghtyth ofte wyth the Elyphaunt and woundyth & stycketh hym in the wombe, and throwyth hym downe to the grounde: And the Unycorn is so stronge that he is not take with myghte of hunters. But men that wryte of kynde of thinges meane that a mayde is sette there he shall come: And she openyth her lappe and the Unycorne layeth theron his heed, and levyth all his fyerinesse & slepyth in that wyse: And is taken as a beest wythout wepen & slayne wyth dartys of hunters."

 Intimately associated by the Bestiaries with the central mystery of the Christian faith, and corroborated by a document which even the semi-learned regarded as authoritative, the unicorn was at length firmly fixed in the popular imagination of Europe. The fact that no one ever saw a unicorn did not disturb belief in the slightest degree. No one in mediaeval Europe ever saw a lion or an elephant or a panther, yet these beasts were accepted without question upon evidence in no way better or worse than that which vouched for the unicorn. 

The stories everywhere told and believed about these three actual animals were not at all less marvellous than those that recommended the unicorn to popular attention; all were upon exactly the same footing so far as credibility was concerned, and side by side with them stood the griffin, the dragon, the amphisboena--a snake with a head at either end--the basilisk, the salamander that lives in fire, and a score of other beasts similarly spawned in the fertile fancy of man and swept together out of all past time. By virtue of his beauty and beneficence, but chiefly because he had the holiest associations, the unicorn was probably the most important of these, yet he was only primus inter pares. He was not regarded as in any sense or degree a mythical, legendary, or supernatural animal--any more than the horse or cat or cow, the hydra or kraken or were-wolf was so regarded; neither was he thought of as a symbol in any degree in which any other animal might not be symbolic. 

The peculiarity or weakness, call it which one will, which made him so susceptible to the wiles of virgins was merely his "property" or "natura", his idiosyncrasy, exactly analagous to the "property" attributed by mediaeval science to every other creature.

And yet it is probably true that the unicorn attracted more attention during the Middle Ages than any other single beast except the ass. He is the only imaginary animal of Physiologus that passed over into the Renaissance and the most important figure in those menageries of the fancy, gathered for the most part out of Physiologus, that began to swarm in the Cathedrals of Europe during the thirteenth century. From the time of Isidore to the present day he has been more significant to the imagination, and more prominent therefore in literature and art, than any other beast that man has made more or less "in his own image".

The feminine garments of this youth, we are told, must be heavily perfumed, and this reminds one that in fully half of the virgin-capture narratives in which any explanation is vouchsafed of the virgin's powers of fascination she is said to attract her victim by what may be called the odour of chastity--a scent which could be purchased, apparently, like feminine beauty in our own time, of any good chemist. This idea appears subordinately in the elaborate explanation already cited from Alanus de Insulis. John of San Geminiano says that the unicorn, while stepping along through the forest, "smells the odour of a virgin". Philippe de Thaun remarks that the animal is attracted by the odour of the maiden's breast. Richard de Fournival makes his unicorn aware of the maiden "au flair". The list is a long one, extending from Albertus Magnus, who ascribes the whole phenomenon to the unicorn's keen sense of smell--and here again one is reminded of the rhinoceros--to a learned pharmacist of the seventeenth century, Laurens Catelan who decides, after deep thought and expenditure of much erudition, that the maiden can attract her prey only by the odour which is peculiar to virgins.

Laurens Catelan, however, had not the strange mediaeval beliefa belief which endures to-day in some districts--in the attractive and holding power of the eye. The Abbess Hildegarde of Bingen felt quite at home in mysteries such as this, and her explanation is therefore more confident than most. She believes that several virgins wandering together in a wood are much more attractive to unicorns than a single virgin can be. (Considering that almost all other authorities say that the virgin must be left alone, some even asserting that she must be naked and bound to a tree, is it permissible to suggest that the Abbess may have been led to take this view by her responsibilities as head of a houseful of nuns?) Hildegarde makes it clear that these virgins should be no mere rustics but well born, and neither too old nor too young. When the unicorn sees a bevy of such damsels wandering about, gathering flowers or engaged in some other such maidenly pursuit, he stops at once in his tracks and eyes them; they eye him; then he advances very slowly, crouches on his hind legs and looks at them for a long time from a distance. He is surprised at the fact that although they have in general the appearance of human beings yet they have no beards; he loves them because he sees, forsooth, that they are gentle and kind; and while he is gazing at them, all his wild and innocent heart drawn forth in adoration, the hunters steal up behind and slay him and cut off his horn.

The scope of the Holy Hunt allegory may be shown most readily by a paraphrase of an extended passage in an old German book written in honour of the Virgin. A very great king, it is said, had two noble sons. One of them wilfully stabbed himself to death, and the other brought himself so near to death by his misconduct that his life was despaired of. The father, though angry with this second son, was determined to do all that was possible for him, and so sent abroad for the advice of physicians. The wisest of these counselled that no medicine would avail except the blood of a unicorn poured upon the wound. The King therefore inquired how a unicorn might be captured, and he was advised to seek out the most beautiful maiden in his dominions and to seat her in a garden with six other maidens about her; then he should find four swift dogs, set a huntsman over them, bind them two and two together, and cause them to drive the unicorn toward the maiden. This device was successful. In the geistliche auszlegong or spiritual interpretation of this story we are told that the King is God the Father, the first son Lucifer, the second son Adam and his seed; the chief maiden is Mary and those about her are the personifications of her virtues; the huntsman is the Holy Ghost, represented by the Angel Gabriel; the four dogs are strangely identified with the four winds of heaven. In other narrations and frequently in the numerous Holy Hunt tapestries and stained glass windows these dogs are called Veritas, Justitia, Pax, and Misericordia--strange names indeed, considering the purpose the animals serve. The coupling of the dogs, which usually takes place after the unicorn's death, signifies that whereas Mercy and Truth, Justice and Peace, were formerly foes they are now united.

 The Greek Bestiary says that when the animals assemble at evening beside the great water to drink they find that a serpent has left its venom floating upon the surface--a characteristic trick of serpents which is elsewhere vouched for. They see or smell this venom and dare not drink, but wait for the unicorn to dip its horn and cleanse the water ~ known as water-conning.

The two themes of the water-conning and the virgin-capture were seldom brought together in a single account except in contexts professedly erudite, but a remarkable exception to this rule is found in a rather famous poem on hunting written by Natalis Comes in Latin hexameter about the middle of the sixteenth century. Here a large amount of unicorn lore is packed into little space:--

Far on the edge of the world and beyond the banks of the Ganges, 
Savage and lone, is a place in the realm of the King of the Hindus. 
Where there is born a beast as large as a stag in stature, 
Dark on the back, solid-hoofed, very fierce, and shaped like a bullock. 
Mighty and black is the horn that springs from the animal's forehead, 
Terrible unto his foe, a defence and a weapon of onslaught. 
Often the poisoners steal to the banks of that swift-flowing river, 
Fouling the waves with disease by their secret insidious poisons; 
After them comes this beast and dips his horn in the water, 
Cleansing the venom away and leaving the stream to flow purely 
So that the forest-dwellers may drink once more by the margin. 
Also men say that the beast delights in the embrace of a virgin, 
Falling asleep in her arms and taking sweet rest on her bosom. 
Ah! but, awaking, he finds he is bound by ropes and by shackles. 
Strange is the tale, indeed, yet so, they say, he is taken, 
Whether it be that the seeds of love have been sown by great Nature 
Deep in his blood or for some more hidden mysterious reason.

THE unicorn is one of the most beautiful of the "shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses", but he did not attain his beauty all at once. As soon as we begin to inquire how he looked to the imagination of the Ages of Faith we are reminded that his ancestry is mixed, that he descends from the horse and the ass on the side of the Greeks and from the goat on that of Physiologus. The results of this miscegenation were a series of hybrid variations as perplexing as those governed by the Mendelian law. 

Mythical Monsters, 
by Charles Gould, [1886], at sacred-texts.com



A BELIEF in the unicorn, like that in the dragon, appears to have obtained among both Eastern and Western authors, at a very early period. In this case, however, it has survived the revulsion from a fatuous confidence in the fables and concocted specimens of the Middle Ages, and even now the existence or non-existence of this remarkable animal remains a debateable question.

Until within a late period occasional correspondents of the South African journals continued to assert its existence, basing their communications on the reports of hunters from the interior, while but a few hundred years since travellers spoke of actually seeing it or of passing through countries in which its existence was absolutely affirmed to them. Horns, generally those of the narwhal, but occasionally of one species of rhinoceros, were brought home and deposited in museums as those of the veritable unicorn, or sold, under the same pretext, for large sums, on account of their reputed valuable medicinal properties. * The animal is variously described as resembling a horse or some kind of deer; this description - p. 339 - may possibly refer to some animal of a type intermediate to them, now almost, if not quite, extinct. In some instances it is supposed that a species of rhinoceros is indicated.
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