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Eccentricities of the Animal CreationEdit

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Is the Unicorn fabulous?

To this question we may reply, in the words of a writer of 1633, "Concerning the Unicorn, different opinions prevail among authors: some doubt, others deny, and a third class affirm its existence." The question has lasted two thousand years, and is every now and then kept alive by fresh evidences.

Ctesias, a credulous Greek physician, who appears to have resided at the Court of Persia, in the time of the younger Cyrus, about 400 years before the birth of Christ, describes the wild asses of India as equal to the horse in size, and even larger, with white bodies, red heads, bluish eyes, and a horn on the forehead a cubit in length; the part from the forehead entirely white, the middle black, and the extremity red and pointed. Drinking-vessels were made of it, and those who used them were subject neither to convulsions, epilepsy, nor poison, provided that before taking the poison, or after, they drank from these cups water, wine, or any other liquor. Ctesias describes these animals as very swift and very strong. Naturally they were not ferocious; but when they found themselves and their young surrounded by horsemen, they did not abandon their offspring, but defended themselves by striking with their horns, kicking, and biting, and so slew many men and horses. This animal was also shot with arrows and brought down with darts; for it was impossible to take it alive. Its flesh was too bitter for food, but it was hunted for its horn and astragalus (ankle-bone), which last Ctesias declares he saw. Aristotle describes the Indian ass with a single horn. Herodotus mentions asses having horns; and Strabo refers to Unicorn horses, with the heads of deers. Oppian notices the Aonian bulls with undivided hoofs, and a single median horn between their temples. Pliny notices 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 standing out in the middle of its forehead. He adds, that it cannot be taken alive; and some such excuse may have been necessary in those days for not producing the living animal upon the arena of the amphitheatre.

Out of this passage most of the modern Unicorns have been described and figured. The body of the horse and the head of the deer appear to be but vague sketches; the feet of the elephant and the tail of the boar point at once to a pachydermatous (thick-skinned) animal; and the single black horn, allowing for a little exaggeration as to its length, well fits the two last-mentioned conditions, and will apply to the Indian rhinoceros, which, says the sound naturalist, Ogilby, "affords a remarkable instance of the obstructions which the progress of knowledge may suffer, and the gross absurdities which not unfrequently result from the wrong application of a name." Mr. Ogilby then refers to the account of Ctesias, which we have just quoted, and adds:—"His account, though mixed up with a great deal of credulous absurdity, contains a very valuable and perfectly recognisable description of the rhinoceros, under the ridiculous name, however, of the Indian Ass; and, as he attributed to it a whole hoof like the horse, and a single horn in the forehead, speculation required but one step further to produce the fabulous Unicorn."

The ancient writers who have treated of the Unicorn are too numerous for us to specify. Some of the moderns may be referred to. Garcias describes this marvellous creature from one who alleges that he had seen it. The seer affirmed that it was endowed with a wonderful horn, which it would sometimes turn to the left and right, at others raise, and then again depress. Ludovicus Vartomanus writes, that he saw two sent to the Sultan from Ethiopia, and kept in a repository at Mahomet's tomb in Mecca. Cardan describes the Unicorn as a rare animal, the size of a horse, with hair very like that of a weasel, with the head of a deer, on which one horn grows three cubits in length (a story seldom loses anything in its progress) from the forehead, ample at its lowest part, and tapering to a point; with a short neck, a very thin mane, leaning to one side only, and less on the ear, as those of a young roe.

In Jonston's "Historia Naturalis," 1657, we see the smooth-horned solipede, "Wald Esel;" and the digitated and clawed smooth-horned "Meer Wolff," the latter with his single horn erect in the foreground, but with it depressed in the background, where he is represented regaling on serpents. Then there are varieties, with the head, mane, and tail of a horse; another smooth-horned, with a horse's head and mane, a pig's-tail and camel-like feet; the "Meer Stenbock, Capricornus Marinus," with hind webbed feet, and a kind of graduated horn, like an opera-glass pulled out, in the foreground, and charging the fish most valiantly in the water in the distance. Then there is another, with a mule's head and two rhinoceros-like horns, one on his forehead and the other on his nose; and a horse's tail, with a collar round his neck; a neck entirely shaggy—and a twisted horn, a shaggy gorget, and curly tail, are among other peculiarities.

The Unicorn seems to have been a sad trouble to the hunters, who hardly knew how to come at so valuable a piece of game. Some described the horn as moveable at the will of the animal—a kind of small sword, in short, with which no hunter who was not exceedingly cunning in fence could have a chance. Others told the poor foresters that all the strength lay in its horn, and that when pressed by them it would throw itself from the pinnacle of the highest rock, horn foremost, so as to pitch upon it, and then quietly march off not a bit the worse!

Modern zoologists, disgusted as they well may be with fables, such as we have glanced at, disbelieve, generally, the existence of the Unicorn, such, at least, as we have referred to; but there is still an opinion that some land animal bearing a horn on the anterior part of its head, exists besides the rhinoceros. The nearest approach to a horn in the middle of the forehead of any terrestrial mammiferous animal known to us is the bony protuberance on the forehead of the giraffe; and though it would be presumptuous to deny the existence of a one-horned quadruped other than the rhinoceros, it may be safely stated that the insertion of a long and solid horn in the living forehead of a horse-like or deer-like cranium is as near an impossibility as anything can be.

Rupell, after a long sojourn in the north-east of Africa, stated that in Kordofan the Unicorn exists; stated to be the size of a small horse, of the slender make of the gazelle, and furnished with a long straight horn in the male, which was wanting in the female. According to the statements made by various persons, it inhabits the deserts to the south of Koretofan, is uncommonly fleet, and comes only occasionally to the Koldagi Heive mountains on the borders of Kordofan.

Other writers refer the Unicorn to the antelope. The origin of the name of antelope is traced by Cuvier to the Greek Anthalops, applied to a fabulous animal living on the banks of the Euphrates, with long jagged horns, with which it sawed down trees of considerable thickness! Others conjecture this animal to have been the Oryx, a species of antelope, which is fabulously reported to have had only one horn, and to have been termed Panthalops in the old language of Egypt.

In his "Revolutions on the Surface of the Globe." Cuvier refers the idea of the Unicorn to the coarse figures traced by savages on rocks. Ignorant of perspective, and wishing to present in profile the horned antelope, they could only give it one horn; and thus originated the Oryx. The oryx of the Egyptian monuments is, most probably, but the production of a similarly crude style, which the religion of the country imposed on the artist. Many of the profiles of quadrupeds have only one leg before and one behind: why, then, should they show two horns? It is possible that individual animals might be taken in the chase whom accident had despoiled of one horn, as it often happens to chamois and the Scythian antelope; and that would suffice to confirm the error which these pictures originally produced. It is thus, probably, that we find anew the Unicorn in the mountains of Thibet.

The Chiru Antelope is the supposed Unicorn of the Bhotians. In form it approaches the deer; the horns are exceedingly long, are placed very forward in the head, and may be popularly described as erect and straight. It is usually found in herds, and is extremely wild, and unapproachable by man. It is much addicted to salt in summer, when vast herds are often seen at the rock-salt beds which abound in Tibet. They are said to advance under the conduct of a leader, and to post sentinels around the beds before they attempt to feed.

Major Salter is stated to have obtained information of the existence of an animal in Tibet closely resembling the Unicorn of the ancients, which revived the belief of naturalists by adducing testimonies from Oriental writings. Upon this statement, M. Klaproth remarks, that previous to Major Salter's Reports, the Catholic missionaries, who returned to Europe from China by way of Tibet and Nepal, in the seventeenth century, mentioned that the Unicorn was found in that part of the Great Desert which bounds China to the west, where they crossed the great wall; that Captain Turner, when travelling in Tibet, was informed by the Raja of Boutan that he had one of these animals alive; and that Bell, in his "Travels to Peking," describes a Unicorn which was found on the southern front of Siberia. He adds:—"The great 'Tibetan-Mongol Dictionary' mentions the Unicorn; and the 'Geographical Dictionary of Tibet and Central Asia,' printed at Peking, where it describes a district in the province of Kham, in Tibet, named Sera-zeong, explains this name by 'the River of Unicorns,' because," adds the author, "many of these animals are found there."

In the "History of the Mongol-Khans," published and translated at St. Petersburg, we find the following statement:—Genghiz Khan, having subjected all Tibet in 1206, commenced his march for Hindustan. As he ascended Mount Jadanarung, he beheld a beast approaching him of the deer kind, of the species called Seron, which have a single horn at the top of the head. It fell on its knees thrice before the monarch, as if to pay respect to him. Every one was astonished at this incident. The monarch exclaimed. "The Empire of Hindustan is, we are assured, the country where are born the majestic Buddhas and Bodhisatwas, as well as the potent Bogdas and princes of antiquity: what can be the meaning, then, of this animal, incapable of speech, saluting me like a man?" Upon this, he returned to his own country. "This story," continues M. Klaproth, "is also related by Mahommedan authors who have written the life of Genghiz. Something of the kind must, therefore, have taken place. Possibly, some of the Mongol conqueror's suite may have taken a Unicorn, which Genghiz thus employed, to gain a pretext for abstaining from an expedition which promised no success."

Upon this statement, it was observed in the "Asiatic Register," 1839, that "when we consider that seventeen years have elapsed since the account of Major Salter was given, and that, notwithstanding our increased opportunities of intercourse with Tibet, no fact has since transpired which supplies a confirmation of that account, except the obtaining of a supposed horn of the supposed Unicorn, we cannot participate in these renewed hopes."

The Rev. John Campbell, in his "Travels in South Africa," describes the head of another animal, which, as far as the horn is concerned, seems to approach nearer than the common rhinoceros to the Unicorn of the ancients. While in the Machow territory, the Hottentots brought to Mr. Campbell a head differing from that of any rhinoceros that had been previously killed. "The common African rhinoceros has a crooked horn, resembling a cock's spur, which rises about nine or ten inches above the nose, and inclines backward; immediately behind which is a straight thick horn. But the head brought by the Hottentots had a straight horn projecting three feet from the forehead, about ten inches above the tip of the nose. The projection of this great horn very much resembles that of the fanciful Unicorn in the British arms. It has a small thick horny substance, eight inches long, immediately behind it, which can hardly be observed on the animal at the distance of a hundred yards; so that this species must look like an Unicorn (in the sense 'one-horned') when running in the field." The author adds:—"This animal is considered by naturalists, since the arrival of the above skull in London, to be the Unicorn of the ancients, and the same that is described in Job xxxix. 9—'Will the Unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? 10. Canst thou bind the Unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? 11. Wilt thou trust him because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?' Again, Deuteronomy xxxiii. 17—'His horns are like the horns of Unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.'"

A fragment of the skull, with the horn, is deposited in the Museum of the London Missionary Society.

Mr. W. B. Baikie writes to the Athenæum from Bida Núpe, Central Africa, in 1862, the following suggestions:—"When I ascended the Niger, now nearly five years ago, I frequently heard allusions to an animal of this nature, but at that time I set it down as a myth. Since then, however, the amount of testimony I have received, and the universal belief of the natives of all the countries which I have hitherto visited, have partly shaken my scepticism, and at present I simply hold that its non-existence is not proven. A skull of this animal is said to be preserved in a town in the country of Bonú, through which I hope to pass in the course of a few weeks, when I shall make every possible inquiry. Two among my informants have repeatedly declared to me that they have seen the bones of this animal, and each made particular mention of the long, straight, or nearly straight, black horn. In countries to the east, and south-east, as Márgi and Bagirmi, where the one-horned rhinoceros is found, the hunters carefully distinguished between it and the supposed Unicorn, and give them different names. In the vast forests and boundless wastes which occur over Central Africa, especially towards the countries south and east of Lake Tsád, Bórnú, Bagirmi and Adamáwa, are doubtless numerous zoological curiosities as yet unknown to the man of science, and among them possibly may exist this much-talked-of, strange, one-horned animal, even though it may not exactly correspond with our typical English Unicorn."

The factitious horn has been preserved in various Museums. The "Monocero Horn," in Tradescant's collection, was, probably, that which ordinarily has passed for the horn of the Unicorn, namely, the tooth of a narwhal. Old legends assert that the Unicorn, when he goes to drink, first dips his horn in the water to purify it, and that other beasts delay to quench their thirst till the Unicorn has thus sweetened the water. The narwhal's tooth makes a capital twisted Unicorn's horn, as represented in the old figures. That in the Repository of St. Denis, at Paris, was presented by Thevet, and was declared to have been given to him by the King of Monomotapa, who took him out to hunt Unicorns, which are frequent in that country. Some have thought that this horn was a carved elephant's tooth. There is one at Strasburg, some seven or eight feet in length, and there are several in Venice.

Great medical virtues were attributed to the so-called horn, and the price it once bore outdoes everything in the Tulipomania. A Florentine physician has recorded that a pound of it (sixteen ounces) was sold in the shops for fifteen hundred and thirty-six crowns, when the same weight in gold would only have brought one hundred and forty-eight crowns.

From what source we derive the stories of the animosity between the lion and the Unicorn is not clearly understood, although this is the principal medium through which the fabulous creature has been kept in remembrance by being constantly before us in the Royal Arms, which were settled at the Accession of George I. We owe the introduction of the Unicorn, however, to James I., who, as King of Scotland, bore two Unicorns, and coupled one with the English lion, when the two kingdoms were united.

The position of the lion and Unicorn in the arms of our country seems to have given rise (naturally enough in the mind of one who was ignorant of heraldic decoration) to a nursery rhyme which most of us remember:—

"The Lion and the Unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The Lion beat the Unicorn
All round the town," &c.

unless it alludes to a contest for dominion over the brute creation, which the "rebellious Unicorn," as Spenser calls it, seems to have waged with the tawny monarch.

Spenser, in his "Faerie Queen," gives the following curious way of catching the Unicorn:—

"Like as a lyon, whose imperiall powre,
A prowd rebellious Unicorn defyes,
T'avoide the rash assault and wrathful stowre
Of his fiers foe, him a tree applyes,
And when him rousing in full course he spyes,
He slips aside; the whiles that furious beast
His precious home, sought of his enemyes,
Strikes in the stocke, ne thence can be releast.
But to the mighty victor yields a bounteous feast."

Shakspeare, also ("Julius Cæsar," Act ii. scene 1), speaks of the supposed mode of entrapping them:—

"For he loves to hear
That Unicorns may be betrayed with trees,
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils, and men with flatterers."

We have no satisfactory reason for believing that man ever coexisted with Mastodons; otherwise Professor Owen's discovery of the retention of a single tusk only by the male gigantic Mastodon, might have afforded another form of Unicorn.

Whatever the zoologists may have done towards extirpating the belief in the existence of the Unicorn, it is ever kept in sight by heraldry, which, with its animal absurdities, has contributed more to the propagation of error respecting the natural world than any other species of misrepresentation.

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