Timbs on Unicorns
A note to Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Book III, chapter 23

From John Timbs (1856) Popular Errors Explained and Illustrated , "The Unicorn", pp. 335-337.


The most famous among the Fabulous Animals of the ancients, was the Unicorn, whose real existence has been obstinately asserted, even in the present day; or, at least, proofs of its existence have been eagerly sought for. Three several animals are frequently mentioned by the ancients as having only one horn placed on the middle of the forehead, viz. the Oryx of Africa, having cloven hoofs, the hair placed reversely to that of other animals, its height equal to that of the bull, or even of the rhinoceros, and said to resemble deer and goats in its form; the Indian Ass [Equus hemionis khur], having solid hoofs; and the Monoceros properly so called, whose feet are sometimes compared to those of the lion, and sometimes to those of the elephant, and is, therefore, considered to have divided feet. The horse-unicorn and the bull-unicorn are, doubtless, both referable to the Indian Ass, for even the latter is described as having solid hoofs. We may, therefore, be fully assured that these animals have never really existed, as no solitary horns have ever found their way into our collections, excepting those of the rhinoceros and narwal. Again, in all cloven-footed animals, the frontal bone is divided longitudinally into two, so that there could not possibly, as very justly remarked by Camper, be a horn placed upon the suture; a conclusion fatal to the identity of the Oryx and the Monoceros.

It has, however, been suggested that the straight-horned Antilope Oryx of Gmelin1 may have furnished the idea of the Unicorn being an Oryx. Supposing an individual of this species to have been seen which had accidentally lost one of its horns, it may have been taken as a representative of the entire race, and erroneously adopted by Aristotle, to be copied by all his successors. All this is quite possible, and even natural, and gives not the smallest evidence for the existence of a single-horned species of antelope.

One of the most eminent zoologists of the day, however, refers the Unicorn to the Indian Rhinoceros: and his explanation is at once brief and satisfactory. He observes: "The Indian Rhinoceros 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. This animal, to whose horn the superstition of the Persians and Arabs has in all ages attributed peculiar virtues,2 became known to the Greeks through the description of Ctesias, a credulous physician of that nation, 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. His account, though mixed up with a great deal of credulous absurdity, contains a very valuable and perfectly recognizable 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, such as it appears in the Royal Arms of England, and such as it has retained its hold on popular credulity for the last two thousand years."3 We suspect that Heraldry, with its animal absurdities, has contributed more to the propagation of error respecting the natural world, than any other species of misrepresentation.

It should be added, that the Rev. John Campbell, in his Travels in South Africa (vol. ii. p. 2944), 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 the traveller a head different from that of any rhinoceros that had previously been 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 they brought, 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 British arms. It has a small thick horny substance eight inches long, immediately behind it, and which can hardly be observed on the animal at the distance of 100 yards; so that this species must look like a Unicorn (in the sense 'one-horned') when running in the field." The author adds: "the animal is considered by naturalists, since the arrival of the skull in London, to be the Unicorn of the ancients, and the same that is described in Job. xxxix." A fragment of the skull, with the horn, is deposited in the Museum of the London Missionary Society.



1. Oryx leucoryx.

2. Timbs here refers us to an earlier article in his book, "The Rhinoceros Horn", which concentrates chiefly on the horn's alleged ability to detect poison.

3. Mr. Ogilby; Dr. Royle's Natural History of the Himalayan Mountains. [I.e., J. Forbes Royle's (1839) Illustrations of the botany and other branches of the natural history of the Himalayan Mountains, and of the Flora of Cashmere.]

4. London: 1822. The passage in question is in the first, not the second, volume, pp. 294-295. The "fragment of the skull" was all that Campbell returned with; a footnote explains (along with a bit of ethnology; the pointing is classic English 19th century): "The head being so weighty; and the distance to the Cape so great, it appeared necessary to cut off the under jaw and leave it behind; (the Mashow who cut off the flesh from it had ten cuts on his back, which were marks for ten men he had killed in his life time.) ... The part of the head brought to London, may be seen at the Missionary Museum; and, for such as may not have the opportunity of seeing the head itself, the annexed drawing of it has been made.

Campbell's Rhinoceros
Campbell's Rhinoceros, or "Unicorn". The horn is 3 feet long.

This page is maintained by James Eason.

Valid XHTML 1.1