The Unicorn

What a curious belief was that of the Unicorn! Yet what mythical animal

is more familiar to Englishmen? In its present form it was not known to

the ancients, not even to Pliny, whose idea of the Monoceros or Unicorn

is peculiar. He describes this animal as having "the head of a stag, the

feet of an elephant, the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body

is like that of the horse: it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a

/> single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two

cubits in length. This animal, it is said, cannot be taken alive."

Until James VI. of Scotland ascended the English throne as James I., the

Unicorn, as it is now heraldically portrayed (which was a supporter to

the arms of James IV.) was almost unknown--vide Tempest, iii. 3. 20:--

"Alonzo. Give us kind keepers, heavens: what were these?

Sebastian. A living drollery. Now I will believe that there are


Spenser, who died before the accession of James I., and therefore did

not write about the supporters of the Royal Arms, alludes (in his

Faerie Queene) to the antagonism between the Lion and the Unicorne.

"Like as the lyon, whose imperial poure

A proud rebellious unicorn defyes,

T'avoide the rash assault, and wrathful stoure

Of his fiers foe, him to a tree applyes,

And when him rouning in full course he spyes,

He slips aside: the whiles that furious beast,

His precious horne, sought of his enimyes,

Strikes in the stroke, ne thence can be released,

But to the victor yields a bounteous feast."

Pliny makes no mention of the Unicorn as we have it heraldically

represented, but speaks of the Indian Ass, which, he says, is only a

one-horned animal. Other old naturalists, with the exception of AElian,

do not mention it as our Unicorn--and his description of it hardly

coincides. He says that the Brahmins tell of the wonderful beasts in the

inaccessible regions of the interior of India, among them being the

Unicorn, "which they call Cartazonon, and say that it reaches the

size of a horse of mature age, possesses a mane and reddish-yellow hair,

and that it excels in swiftness through the excellence of its feet and

of its whole body. Like the elephant it has inarticulate feet, and it

has a boar's tail; one black horn projects between the eyebrows, not

awkwardly, but with a certain natural twist, and terminating in a sharp


indifferently the tail of this animal, as horse or ass; and, as might be

expected from one of his craft, magnifies the Unicorn exceedingly:--"The

Unicorn hath his Name of his one Horn on his Forehead. There is another

Beast of a huge Strength and Greatness, which hath but one Horn, but

that is growing on his Snout, whence he is called Rinoceros, and both

are named Monoceros, or One horned. It hath been much questioned

among Naturalists, which it is that is properly called the Unicorn: And

some hath made Doubt whether there be any such Beast as this, or no.

But the great esteem of his Horn (in many places to be seen) may take

away that needless scruple....

"Touching the invincible Nature of this Beast, Job saith, 'Wilt thou

trust him because his Strength is great, and cast thy Labour unto him?

Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it

into thy Barn?' And his Vertue is no less famous than his Strength, in

that his Horn is supposed to be the most powerful Antidote against

Poison: Insomuch as the general Conceit is, that the wild Beasts of the

Wilderness use not to drink of the Pools, for fear of the venemous

Serpents there breeding, before the Unicorn hath stirred it with his

Horn. Howsoever it be, this Charge may very well be a Representation

both of Strength or Courage, and also of vertuous Dispositions and

Ability to do Good; for to have Strength of Body, without the Gifts and

good Qualities of the Mind, is but the Property of an Ox, but where both

concur, that may truly be called Manliness. And that these two should

consort together, the Ancients did signify, when they made this one

Word, Virtus, to imply both the Strength of Body, and Vertue of the


"It seemeth, by a Question moved by Farnesius, That the Unicorn is

never taken alive; and the Reason being demanded, it is answered 'That

the greatness of his Mind is such, that he chuseth rather to die than to

be taken alive: Wherein (saith he) the Unicorn and the valiant-minded

Souldier are alike, which both contemn Death, and rather than they will

be compelled to undergo any base Servitude or Bondage, they will lose

their Lives.'...

"The Unicorn is an untameable Beast by Nature, as may be gathered from

the Words of Job, chap. 39, 'Will the Unicorn serve thee, or will he

tarry by thy Crib? Can'st thou bind the Unicorn with his Band to labour

in the Furrow, or will he plough the Valleys after thee?'"

Topsell dilates at great length on the Unicorn. He agrees with Spenser

and Guillim, and says:--"These Beasts are very swift, and their legges

have no Articles (joints). They keep for the most part in the desarts,

and live solitary in the tops of the Mountaines. There was nothing more

horrible than the voice or braying of it, for the voice is strain'd

above measure. It fighteth both with the mouth and with the heeles, with

the mouth biting like a Lyon, and with the heeles kicking like a

Horse.... He feereth not Iron nor any yron Instrument (as Isodorus

writeth) and that which is most strange of all other, it fighteth with

his owne kind, yea even with the females unto death, except when it

burneth in lust for procreation: but unto straunger Beasts, with whome

he hath no affinity in nature, he is more sotiable and familiar,

delighting in their company when they come willing unto him, never

rising against them; but, proud of their dependence and retinue, keepeth

with them all quarters of league and truce; but with his female, when

once his flesh is tickled with lust, he groweth tame, gregall, and

loving, and so continueth till she is filled and great with young, and

then returneth to his former hostility."

There was a curious legend of the Unicorn, that it would, by its keen

scent, find out a maiden, and run to her, laying its head in her lap.

This is often used as an emblem of the Virgin Mary, to denote her

purity. The following is from the Bestiary of Philip de Thaun, and, as

its old French is easily read, I have not translated it:--

"Monoceros est Beste, un corne ad en la teste,

Purceo ad si a nun, de buc ad facun;

Par Pucele est prise; or vez en quel guize.

Quant hom le volt cacer et prendre et enginner,

Si vent hom al forest u sis riparis est;

La met une Pucele hors de sein sa mamele,

Et par odurement Monosceros la sent;

Dunc vent a la Pucele, et si baiset la mamele,

En sein devant se dort, issi veut a sa mort;

Li hom suivent atant ki l'ocit en dormant

U trestont vif le prent, si fais puis sun talent.

Grant chose signifie."...

Topsell, of course, tells the story:--"It is sayd that Unicorns above

all other creatures, doe reverence Virgines and young Maides, and that

many times at the sight of them they grow tame, and come and sleepe

beside them, for there is in their nature a certaine savor, wherewithall

the Unicornes are allured and delighted; for which occasion the Indian

and Ethiopian hunters use this stratagem to take the beast. They take

a goodly, strong, and beautifull young man, whom they dresse in the

Apparell of a woman, besetting him with divers odoriferous flowers and


"The man so adorned they set in the Mountaines or Woods, where the

Unicorne hunteth, so as the wind may carrie the savor to the beast, and

in the meane season the other hunters hide themselves: the Unicorne

deceaved with the outward shape of a woman, and sweete smells, cometh to

the young man without feare, and so suffereth his head to bee covered

and wrapped within his large sleeves, never stirring, but lying still

and asleepe, as in his most acceptable repose. Then, when the hunters,

by the signe of the young man, perceave him fast and secure, they come

uppon him, and, by force, cut off his horne, and send him away alive:

but, concerning this opinion wee have no elder authoritie than

Tzetzes, who did not live above five hundred yeares agoe, and

therefore I leave the reader to the freedome of his owne judgment, to

believe or refuse this relation; neither is it fit that I should omit

it, seeing that all writers, since the time of Tzetzes, doe most

constantly beleeve it.

"It is sayd by AElianus and Albertus, that, except they bee taken

before they bee two yeares old they will never bee tamed; and that the

Thrasians doe yeerely take some of their Colts, and bring them to their

King, which he keepeth for combat, and to fight with one another; for

when they are old, they differ nothing at all from the most barbarous,

bloodie, and ravenous beasts. Their flesh is not good for meate, but is

bitter and unnourishable."

It is hardly worth while to go into all the authorities treating of

the Unicorn; suffice it to say, that it was an universal belief that

there were such animals in existence, for were not their horns in proof

thereof? and were they not royal presents fit for the mightiest of

potentates to send as loving pledges one to another? for it was one

of the most potent of medicines, and a sure antidote to poison. And

they were very valuable, too, for Paul Hentzner--who wrote in the time

of Queen Elizabeth--says that, at Windsor Castle, he was shown, among

other things, the horn of an Unicorn of above eight spans and a half in

length, i.e., about 6-1/2 feet, valued at L10,000. Considering that

money was worth then about three times what it is now, an Unicorn's horn

was a right royal gift.

Topsell, from whom I have quoted so much, is especially voluminous and

erudite on Unicorns; indeed, in no other old or new author whom I have

consulted are there so many facts (?) respecting this fabled beast to be

found. Here is his history of those horns then to be found in Europe:--

"There are two of these at Venice in the Treasurie of S. Marke's

Church, as Brasavolus writeth, one at Argentoratum, which is

wreathed about with divers sphires.[30] There are also two in the

Treasurie of the King of Polonia, all of them as long as a man in his

stature. In the yeare 1520, there was found the horne of a Unicorne in

the river Arrula, neare Bruga in Helvetia, the upper face or out

side whereof was a darke yellow; it was two cubites (3 feet) in

length, but had upon it no plights[31] or wreathing versuus. It was very

odoriferous (especially when any part of it was set on fire), so that it

smelt like muske: as soone as it was found, it was carried to a Nunnery

called Campus regius, but, afterwards by the Governor of Helvetia,

it was recovered back againe, because it was found within his


"Another certaine friend of mine, being a man worthy to be beleeved,

declared unto me that he saw at Paris, with the Chancellor, being Lord

of Pratus, a peece of a Unicorn's horn, to the quantity of a cubit,

wreathed in tops or spires, about the thicknesse of an indifferent

staffe (the compasse therof extending to the quantity of six fingers)

being within, and without, of a muddy colour, with a solide substance,

the fragments whereof would boile in the Wine although they were never

burned, having very little or no smell at all therein.

"When Joannes Ferrerius of Piemont had read these thinges, he wrote

unto me, that, in the Temple of Dennis, neare unto Paris, that there

was a Unicorne's horne six foot long, ... but that in bignesse, it

exceeded the horne at the Citty of Argentorate, being also holow

almost a foot from that part which sticketh unto the forehead of the

Beast, this he saw himselfe in the Temple of S. Dennis, and handled

the horne with his handes as long as he would. I heare that in the

former yeare (which was from the yeare of our Lord), 1553, when

Vercella was overthrown by the French, there was broght from that

treasure unto the King of France, a very great Unicorn's horne, the

price wherof was valued at fourscore thousand Duckets.[32]

"Paulus Poaeius describeth an Unicorne in this manner; That he is a

beast, in shape much like a young Horse, of a dusty colour, with a maned

necke, a hayry beard, and a forehead armed with a Horne of the quantity

of two Cubits, being seperated with pale tops or spires, which is

reported by the smoothnes and yvorie whitenesse thereof, to have the

wonderfull power of dissolving and speedy expelling of all venome or

poison whatsoever.

"For his horne being put into the water, driveth away the poison, that

he may drinke without harme, if any venemous beast shall drinke therein

before him. This cannot be taken from the Beast, being alive, for as

much as he cannot possible be taken by any deceit: yet it is usually

seene that the horne is found in the desarts, as it happeneth in Harts,

who cast off their olde horne thorough the inconveniences of old age,

which they leave unto the Hunters, Nature renewing an other unto them.

"The horne of this beast being put upon the Table of Kinges, and set

amongest their junkets and bankets, doeth bewray the venome, if there be

any suche therein, by a certaine sweat which commeth over it. Concerning

these hornes, there were two seene, which were two cubits in length, of

the thicknesse of a man's Arme, the first at Venice, which the Senate

afterwards sent for a gift unto Solyman the Turkish Emperor: the other

being almost of the same quantity, and placed in a Sylver piller, with a

shorte or cutted[33] point, which Clement the Pope or Bishop of

Rome, being come unto Marssels brought unto Francis the King, for

an excellent gift."... They adulterated the real article, for sale.

"Petrus Bellonius writeth, that he knewe the tooth of some certaine

Beast, in time past, sold for the horne of a Unicorne (what beast may be

signified by this speech I know not, neither any of the French men which

do live amongst us) and so smal a peece of the same, being adulterated,

sold 'sometimes for 300 Duckets.' But, if the horne shall be true and

not counterfait, it doth, notwithstanding, seeme to be of that creature

which the Auncientes called by the name of an Unicorne, especially

AElianus, who only ascribeth to the same this wonderfull force against

poyson and most grievous diseases, for he maketh not this horne white as

ours doth seeme, but outwardly red, inwardly white, and in the Middest

or secretest part only blacke."

Having dilated so long upon the Unicorn, it would be a pity not to give

some idea of the curative properties of its horn--always supposing that

it could be obtained genuine, for there were horrid suspicions abroad

that it might be "the horne of some other beast brent in the fire, some

certaine sweet odors being thereunto added, and also imbrued in some

delicious and aromaticall perfume. Peradventure also, Bay by this means,

first burned, and afterwards quenched, or put out with certaine sweet

smelling liquors." To be of the proper efficacy it should be taken new,

but its power was best shown in testing poisons, when it sweated, as did

also a stone called "the Serpent's tongue." And the proper way to try

whether it was genuine or not, was to give Red Arsenic or Orpiment to

two pigeons, and then to let them drink of two samples; if genuine, no

harm would result--if adulterated, or false, the pigeons would die.

It was also considered a cure for Epilepsy, the Pestilent Fever or

Plague, Hydrophobia, Worms in the intestines, Drunkenness, &c.,

&c.,--and it also made the teeth clean and white;--in fact, it had so

many virtues that "no home should be without it."

And all this about a Narwhal's horn!