[Extracted from The Penny Cyclopaedia, 26 (1843), pp. 2-4]
'Concerning the Unicom, different opinions prevail among
authors,' says the author of Thaumatographia Naturalis (1633), and he
adds that some doubts, others deny, and a third class affirm its existence.
Ctesias, the author whom Aristotle followed, describes the Wild Asses of India as equal to the horse in size, and even larger, with white bodies, red heads, bluish ayes, and a horn on the forehead a cubit in length. For the space of two palms from the forehead this horn is entirely white, the middle part is black, and the extremity is red and pointed. Drinking-vessels are made of it, and those who use them are subject neither to convulsions, epilepsy, nor poison, provided that before taking the poison or after they drink from these cups water, wine, or any other liquor. After some other particulars, Ctesias describes these animals as very swift and very strong. When one of them begins to move, its pace is slow, but as it advances the pace increases, and it runs faster. Naturally these animals are not ferocious; but when they find themselves and their young surrounded by horsemen, they do not abandon their offspring, but defend themselves by striking with their horns, kicking and biting, and so slay many men and horses. This animal is also shot withy arrows and brought down with darts; for it is impossible to take alive. Its flesh is too bitter for food, but it is hunted for its horn and astragalus, which last Ctesias declares that he saw. (Ctesias, ed. Bahr, pp. 255, 329, 363.)
Aristotle notices the Indian Ass as a solipede which has a horn, and the only one of the solipedes possessing an astralagus. (Hist. Anim. ii. 1) He adds, in the third book, on the parts of animals, that those beasts which have only a single horn have it in the middle of the head; and evidently speaks of the Indian Ass from the accounts of others.
Herodotus (iv. 191) mentions asses having horns; and Strabo (xv. p. 1009, Oxford, folio) refers to unicorn horses with the heads of deer.
Oppion (Cygneget. ii. line 96) notices the Aonian bulls with undivided hoofs and a single median horn between their temples, whereas the Armenian bulls have two.
Caesar (De Bello Gallico, vi. 26), when referring to the multitude of animals bred in the great Hercynian forest, speaks, probably from hearsay, of an ox with the figure of a deer, from the middle of whose forehead a single horn stands out higher and more direct than any horns known to him. He adds that from the top of this horn branches like palms are diffused, that the nature of the male and female is the same and that the form and size of their horns are similar. He then notices the Elk.
Pliny, who, to be sure, places it in the company of the Mantichora, the Catoblepas, and the Basilisk, notices it as a very ferocious beast (asperriman feram), similar in the rest of 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 (mugitu gravi), and a single black horn two cubits in length standing out in the middle of its forehead. He adds, 'Hane feram vivam negant capi,' 'that it cannot be taken alive' (Nat. Hist., viii. 21); 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. But let us pause to scan it. 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 a boar point at once to a pachydematous 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 one of the species of Rhinoceros.
Our limits will not permit us to follow out in detail the descriptions of the numerous writers who have treated of this subject, among whom are Aelian, Philostratus, and Solinus, Aeneas Sylvius, Marco Polo, Gesner, Cardan, Garzias ab Horto, Andreas Marinus, Andreas Baccius, Bartholinus, Aldrovandus, Jonston, &c. Some however of the modern descriptions of the Unicorn may be excepted. Garcias noted down a description of this this marvellous creature from one who alleged 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, and he describes them 'canecllis obseptos, minime feroces.' Carden describes the Unicorn as a rare animal, of the size of a horse, with hair very like unto 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 legs thin as those of a young Roe (capreolus). But, not to weary the reader, if he wishes to see what our ancestors thought Unicorns like, let him turn to Jonston's 'Historia Naturalis' (1657). There he will behold the smooth-horned solipede, 'Wald Esel;' and the digitated and clawed smooth-horned 'Meer Wolff,' but 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 the smooth-horned 'Monoceros, Unicornu, Einhorn,' with the head, mane, and tail of a horse, and bisulcate feet; and another with a horse's head and mane, a pig's tail, and camel-like feet; the 'Meer Steinbock, Capricornus marnus,' with anterior bisulcate feet, posterior webbed feet, and a kind of graduated horn like a modern flat telescope opera-glass pulled out, in the foreground, and charging the fish most valiantly in the water in the distance; then there is the digitated 'Wald Esel, Onager Aldrovandi,' 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; beneath we find the 'Monoceros, seu Unicorna jubaius—Einhorn mit Mahnen,' with a neck entirely shaggy, a twisted horn, anterior bisulcate feet, the posterior being webbed and a deer's tail; and at the bottom of the plate, 'Monoceros seu Unicornu aliud—Einhorn mit mahnen, ein andr art,' with a twisted horn, mane and shaggy gorget, curly tail, and camel-like feet.
The Unicorn seems to have been a sad puzzle to the hunters, who hardly knew how to come at so valuable a piece of game. Some, as we have seen, 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 its strength lay in its horn, and that when pressed by them it would throw itself from the pinnacle of the highest rocks, horn foremost, so as to pitch upon it, and then quietly march off not a whit the worse.
But, it seems, they found out how to circumvent the poor Unicorn at last. They discovered that it was fond of rarities, and particularly attached to chaste persons; so they took the field with a virgin, who was placed in the unsuspecting admirer's way. When the unicorn spied her, he approached with all reverence, couched beside her, and, laying his head in her lap, fell asleep. The treacherous virgin then gave a signal, and the hunters made in and captured the simple beast.
Modern zoologists, disgusted as they well may be with fables of which we have only given a specimen or two, disbelieve, generally, the existence of the Unicorn, such, at least, as we have above referred to; but the result of M. Guettard's dissertation is an opinion that some terrestrial 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 any thing can be.
The 'Monoceros horne' in Tradescant's collection was probably that which, ordinarily, has passed for the horn of the unicorn, viz. the tooth of the Narwhal. The horn of the Rhinoceros has been supposed to possess the virtue of counteracting poison when made into drinking-cups. Old legends assert that the Unicom, 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 Unicom 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 is 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 except 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.
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 Mastodon giganteus, as a sexual distinction, might have afforded another form of Unicorn.
The Unicorn is a national symbol with us; for it is one of the supporters of the royal arms of Great Britain, in that posture termed by heralds 'saillant.'