Concerning the Real UnicornEdit

English originalEdit

In a certain issue of Science (February 2, 1906, Vol. XXIII., p. 195) Mr. C. R. Eastman contributed an exceedingly interesting article under "Notes on the History of Natural Science," on "The Real Unicorn." In setting forth the facts as to the origin of this fabulous animal, brought to the notice of the western world by Ctesias, Mr. Eastman concludes that the source of this strange creature of the medieval mind is to be traced to certain relief profiles described by Ctesias as graven on the walls of the Persian court at Persepolis and figuring some "Asiatic ruminant new to the Greeks, with the two horns appearing in side-view as one." To the animal so depicted Ctesias gave the name of "unicorn" or "monoceros."

Unquestionably Mr. Eastman's view as to the unicorn's zoological position is probably close to the real facts. It remains to determine, if possible, what species of "Asiatic ruminant" can stand sponsor for the fabulous creature. Some horned beast known to the ancient Persians, the horns of which would appear as a single horn in profile and would point forward when the animal's muzzle was held downward as in the defensive attitude or when grazing, could be the only one so pictured as to give rise to the idea of a "unicorn" or "monoceros." Such a beast, I think, may be seen in the male Nilghai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), an Indian antelope, ranging at present from the southern foothills of the Himalaya to beyond Mysore, though most abundant in the central parts of Hindustan. Any one standing alongside of a Nilghai can see at once how the spike-like horns spring straight upward, bending slightly forward, and how the near horn hides its fellow.

The knowledge of this animal would undoubtedly have reached the ancient Persian civilization from the trans-Indus region, and the artists of the period would very naturally have graven but a single horn in bas-relief profile. Further evidence that this animal was known to the ancient Persians is to be found in the name itself—"Nilghai," or "Nylghau," being of Persian origin and meaning "blue bull." The species first became known to the modern world of Western Europe about 1745, and was described and figured in Philosophical Transactions for that year by Dr. Parsons, in a paper entitles "An Account of a Quadruped brought from Bengal and now to be seen in London." In Philosophical Transactions for 1770 Dr. William Hunter published a very full account of this animal from living specimens brought to England, and bestowed upon it the native name "Nylghau."

As the unicorn of Ctesias failed to materialize in the fauna of any country, it was relegated to the land of fabulous creatures, and became concentionalized in the art of the ancient and medieval world. If, as Mr. Eastman points out, its origin is to be found in the bas-reliefs on the walls of Persepolis, then, undoubtedly, it must have been a figure from some living prototype, and this prototype could, it seems to me, be none other than the Nilghai, the only Asiatic ruminant with horns so placed as to give rise to such a conception.

Spencer Trotter
Swarthmore College

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