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Curious Creatures in ZoologyEdit

English originalEdit

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 unicorns.

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 defies,
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 Ælian, 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 says 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 eye-brows, not awkwardly, but with a certain natural twist, and terminating in a sharp point."

Guillim, who wrote on heraldry in 1610, gives, in his Illustrations, 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 names 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, and 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 Mind.

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, cap. 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 growth 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 façun;
Par Pucele est prise; or vez en quell guize.
Quant hom le volt cacer et prendre et enginner,
Si vent hom al forest ù sis riparis est;
Là met une Pucele hors de sein sa mamele,
Et par odurement Monosceros la sent;
Dune vent à la Pucele, et si baiset la mamele,
En sein devant se dort, issi veut à sa mort;
Li hom suivent atant ki Pocit en dormant
U trestont vif le prent, si fais puis sun talent.
Grant chose signifie.

Topsell, of course, tell 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, wherewithal the Unicornes are allured and delighted; for which occasions and 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 spices.

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 your 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 your 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 Ælianus 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 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 6½ feet, valued at ₤10,000. 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 of 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 spires[1]. 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[2] or wreathing versuus. It was very odoriferous (especially when any part of it was set on fire), so that it smelled 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 territorie...

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 horn six foot long,... but that in bignesse, it exceeded the horne at the City 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 horn 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.[3]

Paulus Poæius 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 separated 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 possibly 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 old horn thorough the inconveniences of old age, which they leave unto the Hunters, Nature renewing another 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 such therein, by a certain sweat which cometh 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[4] 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 a smal 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 a Unicorne, especially Ælianus, who only ascribeth to the same this wonderfull force against poyson and most grievous diseases, for he maketh not this horn 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 imbued 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!


  1. Spirals.
  2. Plaits.
  3. Taking the Ducat at 9s. 4½d., it would come to ₤37,000, but if this were multiplied by three, the lowest computation of the value of money then, and now, it would be worth considerably over ₤100,000.
  4. Another name for short—vide Cutty pipeCutty sark.

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