Chap. XXIII.

Of Unicorns horn.

GREAT account and much profit is made of Unicorns horn, at least of that which beareth the name thereof; wherein notwithstanding, many I perceive suspect an Imposture, and some conceive there is no such Animal extant. Herein therefore to draw up our determinations; beside the several places of Scripture mentioning this Animal (which some may well contend to be only meant of the Rhinoceros)1 we are so far from denying there is any Unicorn at all, that we affirm there are many kinds thereof. In the number of Quadrupedes, we will concede no less then five; that is, the Indian Ox, the Indian Ass, the Rhinoceros, the Oryx, and that which is more eminently termed Monoceros, or Unicornis. Some in the list of fishes; as that described by Olaus, Albertus and others: and some Unicorns we will allow even among Insects; as those four kinds of nasicornous Beetles described by Muffetus.[2]

Secondly, Although we concede there be many Unicorns, yet are we still to seek; for whereunto to affix this Horn in question, or to determine from which thereof we receive this magnified Medicine, we have no assurance, or any satisfactory decision. For although we single out one, and eminently thereto assign the name of the Unicorn; yet can we not be secure what creature is meant thereby; what constant shape it holdeth, or in what number to be received. For as far as our endeavours discover, this animal is not uniformly described, but differently set forth by those that undertake it. Pliny affirmeth it is a fierce and terrible creature;[3] Vartomannus a tame and mansuete Animal:[4] those which Garcias ab Horto described about the cape of good hope, were beheld with heads like horses;[5] those which Vartomannus beheld, he described with the head of a Deer; Pliny, Ælian, Solinus, and after these from ocular assurance, Paulus Venetus affirmeth the feet of the Unicorn are undivided, and like the Elephants:[6] But those two which Vartomannus beheld at Mecha, were as he describeth, footed like a Goat. As Ælian describeth, it is in the bigness of an Horse, as Vartomannus, of a Colt;[7] that which Thevet speaketh of was not so big as an Heifer;[8] but Paulus Venetus affirmeth, they are but little less then Elephants.[9] Which are discriminations very material, and plainly declare, that under the same name Authors describe not the same Animal: so that the Unicorns Horn of one, is not that of another, although we proclaim an equal vertue in all.

Thirdly, Although we were agreed what Animal this was, or differed not in its description, yet would this also afford but little satisfaction; for the Horn we commonly extol, is not the same with that of the Ancients. For that in the description of Ælian and Pliny was black: this which is shewed amongst us is commonly white, none black; and of those five which Scaliger[10] beheld, though one spadiceous, or of a light red, and two enclining to red, yet was there not any of this complexion among them.

Fourthly, What Horns soever they be which pass amongst us, they are not surely the Horns of any one kind of Animal, but must proceed from several sorts of Unicorns. For some are wreathed, some not: That famous one which is preserved at St. Dennis near Paris, hath wreathy spires, and chocleary turnings about it,[11] which agreeth with the description of the Unicorns Horn in Ælian. Those two in the treasure of St. Mark are plain, and best accord with those of the Indian Ass, or the descriptions of other Unicorns:[12] That in the Repository of the electour of Saxonie is plain and not hollow, and is believed to be a true Land Unicorns Horn.[13] Albertus Magnus describeth one ten foot long, and at the base about thirteen inches compass: and that of Antwerp which Goropius Becanus describeth, is not much inferiour unto it; which best agree unto the descriptions of the Sea-Unicorns; for these, as Olaus affirmeth, are of that strength and bigness, as able to penetrate the ribs of ships.[14] The same is more probable, because it was brought from Island, from whence, as Becanus affirmeth, three other were brought in his days: And we have heard of some which have been found by the Sea-side, and brought unto us from America. So that while we commend the Unicorns Horn, and conceive it peculiar but unto one animal; under apprehension of the same vertue, we use very many; and commend that effect from all, which every one confineth unto some one he hath either seen or described.

Fifthly, Although there be many Unicorns, and consequently many Horns, yet many there are which bear that name, and currantly pass among us, which are no Horns at all. Such are those fragments and pieces of Lapis Ceratites, commonly termed Cornu fossile, whereof Bœtius had no less then twenty several sorts presented him for Unicorns Horn.[15] Hereof in subterraneous cavities, and under the earth there are many to be found in several parts of Germany; which are but the lapidescencies and petrifactive mutations of hard bodies; sometimes of Horn, of teeth, of bones, and branches of trees, whereof there are some so imperfectly converted, as to retaine the odor and qualities of their originals: as he relateth of pieces of Ash and Walnut. Again, in most if not all which pass amongst us, and are extolled for precious Horns, we discover not an affection common unto other Horns; that is, they mollifie not with fire, they soften not upon decoction or infusion, nor will they afford a jelly, or mucilaginous concretion in either; which notwithstanding we may effect in Goats horns, Sheeps, Cows and Harts-horn, in the Horn of the Rhinoceros, the horn of the Pristis or Sword-fish. Nor do they become friable or easily powderable by Philosophical calcination, that is, from the vapor or steam of water, but split and rift contrary to other horns. Briefly, many of those commonly received, and whereof there be so many fragments preserved in England, are not only no Horn, but a substance harder then a bone, that is, parts of the tooth of a Morse or Sea-horse;[16] in the midst of the solider part containing a curdled grain, which is not to be found in Ivory. This in Northern Regions is of frequent use for hafts of knives or hilts of swords, and being burnt becomes a good remedy for fluxes: but Antidotally used, and exposed for Unicorns Horn, it is an insufferable delusion; and with more veniable deceit, it might have beene practised in Harts-horn.

The like deceit may be practised in the teeth of other Sea-animals; in the teeth also of the Hippopotamus, or great Animal which frequenteth the River Nilus: For we read that the same was anciently used instead of Ivory or Elephants tooth. Nor is it to be omitted, what hath been formerly suspected, but now confirmed by Olaus Wormius, and Thomas Bartholinus and others, that those long Horns preserved as pretious rarities in many places, are but the teeth of Narhwales; to be found about Island, Greenland, and other Northern regions; of many feet long, commonly wreathed, very deeply fastned in the upper jaw, and standing directly forward, graphically described in Bartholinus,17 according unto one sent from a Bishop of Island, not separated from the crany. Hereof Mercator hath taken notice in his description of Island:[18] some relations hereof there seem to be in Purchas, who also delivereth that the horn at Windsor, was in his second voyage brought hither by Frobisher.[19] These before the Northern discoveries, as unknown rarities, were carried by Merchants into all parts of Europe;[20] and though found on the Sea-shore, were sold at very high rates; but are now become more common, and probably in time will prove of little esteem; and the bargain of Julius the third, be accounted a very hard one, who stuck not to give many thousand crowns for one.

Nor is it great wonder we may be so deceived in this, being daily gulled in the brother Antidote Bezoar;[21] whereof though many be false, yet one there passeth amongst us of more intollerable delusion; somewhat paler then the true stone, and given by women in the extremity of great diseases, which notwithstanding is no stone, but seems to be the stony seed of some Lithospermum or greater Grumwell; or the Lobus Echinatus of Clusius, called also the Bezoar Nut; for being broken, it discovereth a kernel of a leguminous smell and tast, bitter like a Lupine, and will swell and sprout if set in the ground, and therefore more serviceable for issues, then dangerous and virulent diseases.[22]

Sixthly, Although we were satisfied we had the Unicorns Horn, yet were it no injury unto reason to question the efficacy thereof, or whether those virtues pretended do properly belong unto it. For what we observe (and it escaped not the observation of Paulus Jovius many years past[23]) none of the Ancients ascribed any medicinal or antidotal vertue unto the Unicorns Horn; and that which Ælian extolleth,[24] who was the first and only man of the Ancients who spake of the medical virtue of any Unicorn, was the Horn of the Indian Ass; whereof, saith he, the Princes of those parts make bowls and drink therein, as preservatives against Poyson, Convulsions, and the Falling-sickness. Now the description of that Horn is not agreeable unto that we commend; for that (saith he) is red above, white below, and black in the middle; which is very different from ours, or any to be seen amongst us. And thus, though the description of the Unicorn be very ancient, yet was there of old no vertue ascribed unto it; and although this amongst us receive the opinion of the same vertue, yet is it not the same Horn whereunto the Antients ascribed it.

Lastly, although we allow it an Antidotal efficacy, and such as the Ancients commended, yet are there some vertues ascribed thereto by Moderns not easily to be received; and it hath surely faln out in this, as other magnified medicines, whose operations effectual in some diseases, are presently extended unto all.[25] That some Antidotal quality it may have, we have no reason to deny; for since Elks Hoofs and Horns are magnified for Epilepsies, since not only the bone in the heart, but the Horn of a Deer is Alexipharmacal,26 and ingredient into the confection of Hyacinth, and the Electuary of Maximilian; we cannot without prejudice except against the efficacy of this. But when we affirm it is not only Antidotal to proper venoms, and substances destructive by qualities we cannot express; but that it resisteth also Sublimate,[27] Arsenick, and poysons which kill by second qualities, that is, by corrosion of parts; I doubt we exceed the properties of its nature, and the promises of experiment will not secure the adventure. And therefore in such extremities, whether there be not more probable relief from fat oyly substances, which are the open tyrants over salt and corrosive bodies, then precious and cordial medicines which operate by secret and disputable proprieties; or whether he that swallowed Lime, and dranke down Mercury water,[28] did not more reasonably place his cure in milk, butter or oyl, then if he had recurred unto Pearl and Bezoar, common reason at all times, and necessity in the like case would easily determine.

Since therefore there be many Unicorns; since that whereto we appropriate a Horn is so variously described, that it seemeth either never to have been seen by two persons, or not to have been one animal; Since though they agreed in the description of the animal, yet is not the Horn we extol the same with that of the Ancients; Since what Horns soever they be that pass among us, they are not the Horns of one, but several animals; Since many in common use and high esteem are no Horns at all; Since if they were true Horns, yet might their vertues be questioned; Since though we allowed some vertues, yet were not others to be received; with what security a man may rely on this remedy, the mistress of fools[29] hath already instructed some, and to wisdom (which is never too wise to learn) it is not too late to consider.


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}. Ross defends the unicorn and the medical efficacy of its horn at great length (and tells us how to discern true from false unicorn's horn, a useful skill) Arcana Microcosmi, Book II, Chap. 6; the bezoar stone in Chap. 7. Wilkin supplies a note giving us "some information on this much-debated subject". See also Timbs for more speculation on the unicorn, Jonston for some fence-sitting on the question, and pictures, Fuller, Belon, and Ambrose Paré on unicorns' horns; Paré is particularly interesting.

1 Some doubt to be made what ראם signifieth in Scripture. [In Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, where the beast is said to be very strong; in Deut. 33:17, where he is said to have horns; in Job 39:9-10 strong and untameable [the Biblia Sacra notes (its numbering slightly differing from KJV): "tertium exemplum commune ferarum omnium, ab immansueta eorum natura quam solus moderatur Deus; quo in genere duo singularia exempla adducit, onagri, usque ad V. 12 & unicornis, ad. V. 16."]; in the Psalms, 22:1, 29:6 , young "unicorns" leap, and 92:10, "but my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil"; Isa. 34:7, they shall come down with the bulls in the day of the Lord's vengeance. Probably, say the commentators, the aurochs, now extinct; some commentators prefer oryx, Oryx leucoryx, which is both horned and native to the area. The Hebrew seems to mean something along the lines of "a beast that leaps up" or "gets up"? The suggestion, repeated in the note by Wilkin, that it is the rhinocereos scarcely fits with the leaping of the young in Psalms 29:6, unless young rhinoceroses do leap; it is not a subject on which I pretend to any level of expertise, or even the paltriest knowledge. Was the rhinoceros common in the Holy Land, for that matter? Stafford notes without citing a source that remains of the white rhinoceros have been found in "the London clay".]

2 [Muffetus (or Moufetus): Thomas Moffett (1634) Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum, pp. 152-53, describes four "nasicornium".]

One of Moffet's "nasicornium"

3 [Pliny, HN viii.76 (englished by Holland, Book VIII, Chap. XXI); note that there are two single-horned beasts, the "unicorn", Holland's "boeuf", with solid hooves, and the "monoceros", Holland's "Licorne or Monoceros", with feet like an elephant, which is the creature in question here.]

4 [Vartomannus, Lodovico Barthema, who described the unicorns of Mecca in his 1510 Itinerario. It is by no means clear whether he saw the beasts himself or not, although he leaves the impression that it is an eye-witness account. In Eden's translation, the unicorn is described as fierce, "yet tempereth that fiercenesse with a certain comelinesse"; the Latin of Madrignani (1511) has "veram ferotiam nescio quo comitare condivit." They came, as was frequently the case, from Ethiopia.]

5 [Garcias ab Horto (1589), Dell'Historia de i semplici aromati, I,xiv (p. 58), after informing us that though he has never seen a rhinoceros, he knows perfectly well what one looks like, continues: "Dicono, fra il Promontorio di buona speranza, & un'altro Promontorio, detto uolgarmente Currentes, di hauer ueduto una certa sorte di animali terrestria, auenga che in mare ancora si riparino, i quali haueano il capo, e i crini di cauallo, ma non era il cauallo marino, & un corno lungo due palmi, & era mobile, uoltandolo hora alla destra, & hora alla sinistra; & hora l'alzauano in alto, & hora l'abbassauano, ilquale animale ferocemente combatte con l'elefante, & il corno è lodato per rimedio contra veneno, del quale n'è già stata satta sperienza, hauendone dato à due cani uenanti; uno de quali hauea a doppio peso beuuto il ueneno, con hauer beuuta con acqua la poluere di questo corno esser guarito, e l'altro, alquale poca quantità di ueneno era stato dato, non hauendo beuuto il rimedio di questo corno, esser morto." The mobility of the unicorn's horn, a feature no longer prominent in the unicorn fable, is remarked on by a surprisingly large portion of its describers.]

6 [Pliny, as above; Ælian (who can be very confusing about unicorns), xvi.20, in the translation of the Jacobs edition (1832):

In iis unicornem, quem vocant cartazonon, numerrant, eumque magnitudine ad confirmatae aetatis equum accedere dicunt, jubaque praeditum et pilis fulvis esse, pedum bonitate et totius corporis celeritate excellere, atque similiter ut elephantos pedibus inarticulatis esse, apri caudam habere; inter supercilia cornu unum, idemque nigrum exsistere, non laeve quidem, sed versuras quasdam naturales habens, atque in acutissimum mucronem desinens, omnium maxime animalium absonam vocem et contentam mittere, et ad alias quidem bestias ad se accedentes mansuescere, cum suis vero gregalibus pugnare.

Solinus, 52; in the translation of Golding (1587), chap. 63:

But the cruellest is the Unicorne, a Monstar that belloweth horriblie, bodyed like a horse, footed like an Oliphant, tayled like a Swyne, and headed like a Stagge. His horne sticketh out of the midds of hys forehead, of a wonderfull brightnesse about foure foote long, so sharp, that whatsoever he pusheth at, he striketh it through easily. Hee is never caught alive: killed he may be, but taken he cannot be.]

7 [Barthema says that one was the size of a colt, the other of a horse of 30 months.]

8 [André Thevet (1575) Cosmographie universelle.]

9 [In the 1579 edition of The most noble and famous travels of Marcus Paulus, Chapter 111:

Going from Ferlech you come unto the realme of Bassyna, wher the people are without law, living as beastes, being subject at their will under the great Cane, although they do give him no tribute, saving, that at sometimes when it pleaseth them they do sende unto him some strange thing. In this realme there be Apes of diverse sorts, and Unicornes, little lesse than Elephants, having a head like unto a swyne, and alwayes hanging it downward to the grounde, and standeth with a good will in Cieno or miery puddel. They have but one horne in their forehead, wherby only they are called Unicornes, theyr horne is large and blacke, their tong is rough and full of prickles long and thicke.]

10 [1672: Scalager. In his Exercitationes (de Subtilitate ad H. Cardanum), No. CCV; arguing against Cardan's identification of the rhinoceros with the unicorn.]

11 [1646: awfractuous spires, and chocleary turnings, i.e., "anfractuous spires and cochleary turnings". According to Sieur de Combes, as translated in 1684, this horn of about six and a half feet was kept in the treasury along with the "Talon of a Griffen of so prodigious a bigness, that in its cavity it holds a pint of the measure of St. Denis, which is very great. This piece and the precedent [i.e., the Talon and the Unicorn's Horn] were sent to Charlemagne, An. 807, by Aaron King of Persia, and since given to St. Denis by Charles the Bald." It was the horn of a narwhal. See The Treasures of St Denis. The "wreaths" of the unicorn's horn are a matter of some dispute (Fuller, borrowing Browne's language, attributes the "anfractuous spires, and cochleary turnings about it" to age: they are the Unicorn's wrinkles), but have become part of the standard representation. Ctesias does not describe rings (and makes the horn tricolored), but Ælian says that the horn has "certain spirals or rings" (οὐ λεῖον, ἀλλὰ ἑλιγμοὺς ἔχον τινὰς χαὶ μάλα αὐτοφεῖς, latinized "non laeve quidem, sed versuras quasdam naturales habens").]

12 [Described by Belon in Les Observations de plusieurs singularitez & choses memorables, I.15.]

13 [This is among the very many unicorns' horns and items made thereof seen by Edward Browne in his travels in Germany. He describes it, An Account of Several Travels through a Great Part of Germany, p. 131: "An Unicorns-horn, which they will have to be of a Land Unicorn, being neither wreathed nor hollow." Other horns are described earlier (pages 19-20), along with a discussion of unicorns' horns in general, of pieces of unicorn horn owned by Sir Thomas and of their provenance, and of the throne of the King of Denmark, made of unicorns' horns.]

14 [See Olaus Magnus XXI. cap. 14.]

15 [On this and the rest of this paragraph, see Anselmus Boethius de Boodt, Gemmarum et Lapidarum Hist. CCXLI-CCXLIV.]

16 [Morse or Sea-horse: i.e., the walrus. An unusual borrowing from the Lapp morssa (probably via French); compare the French and obs. English "rosmarine" (Italian and Spanish rosmaro, Danish rosmar), where morse marine seems to have reshaped the ending.]

17 De Unicornu. [Thomas Bartholinus (1645) De Unicornu Observationes Novae, provides a convincing drawing of the skull of the narwhale. He is the son of Caspar Bartholinus, author of De Unicornu, and the father of the second Caspar, who expanded Thomas's tome on unicorns.]

18 [Gerhard Mercator (1613) Atlas. In the translation of Henry Hexham (Amsterdam: 1636) p. 46: "There are also seen Nahuai, whose flesh whoso eateth, dieth presently; having a tooth in the inner part of the head, standing out seven cubits; this, some have sold for Unicornes horne: it is supposed to resist poyson. This beast is fourtie els in length."]

19 [Samuel Purchas (1625) Purchas His Pilgrimes, VIII.iii:

They found a great dead fish, round like a Porpus, twelve foot long, having a Horne of two yards, lacking two inches, growing out of the Snout, wreathed and straight, like a Waxe Taper, and might bee thought to be a Sea Unicorne. It was broken in the top, wherein some of the Saylers said they put Spiders, which presently dyed. It was reserved as a Jewell by the Queenes commandement, in her Wardrobe of Robes, and is still at Windsore to bee seene.

To which there is a marginal note:

Such a horne was brought home two yeeres since, found on shore in Greenland by the Carpenter of Ionas Pootes ship 7. foote & a halfe long & sold since at Constantinople, reported to be good against poysons: and such a one was typen up Anno 1588 in the Coast of Norfolke; and sold by an ignorant woman for 18 pence, which was also said to be efectuall against poysons, as I was told by M. Rob. Salmon of Leegh, who had a piece of it.]

20 [Sheppard (1930) Lore of the Unicorn, pp. 253-254, gives an instance of the gathering of horns for trade:

Near the end of an exceedingly dull history of Iceland {Specimen Islandiæ Historicum, by Arngrimt Jonsson, Amsterdam: 1643, p. 155} I find a vivid passage relating how Arnhald, the first Bishop of that country, was wrecked off the west coast of it in the year 1126, barely escaping with his life. There is a marsh on the mainland, the narrator tells us, near the spot where the shipwreck occurred, and this marsh was in his time still called the Pool of Corpses because of the many bodies of drowned sailors washed ashore there after the disaster. "And there were also found, afterward, the teeth of whales (dentes balenarum,) very precious, which had gone down with the ship and then been thrown on shore by the motion of the waves. These teeth had runic letters written on them in an indelible red gum so that each sailor might know his own at the end of the voyage, for they had apparently been tossed into the hold helter-skelter as though intended merely for ballast."

21 [An antidote, usually a calculus formed in the stomachs of ruminant animals, something like a pearl. The Persian goat which was a source of the "stone" came to be called bezoar as well; some writers mistake beezer-bezoar for beaver, leading to further complications. See Acosta on the bezoar of the new world (and a bit of the old); Boodt, Liv. II, Chaps. CXCI-CXCIV on bezoar.]

22 [On false bezoars, see Primerose: "it is a very difficult thing, yea I think it altogether impossible, certainly to discern the naturall from the artificiall, such a notable craft have some of these Impostors. I saw a fellow at Paris, who made them so cunningly, that he himselfe could not distinguish them from the other, but by certaine marks which he set on them. Saxonia confesses that he could never finde an infallible token whereby to know this stone." Boodt, in giving methods to test bezoar, refuses to describe specifically the false bezoars, not wanting to encourage their manufacture.]

23 [Paolo Giovio (1550) Historia sui temporis lib. xviii, describes some of the alleged properties of the unicorn's horn and continues: "Caeterum de vi tantae dotis in hac animante nihil plus affirmaverim, quam quod evulgata fama credentibus suadet: quum antiquorum authorum nemo, quod legerim, praeter unum Helianum Graecum, quicquam de hac monocerotis admiranda potestate memoriae prodiderit." (Aelian was not Greek, but never mind.)]

24 [Aelian, in his "Indian ass" version of the unicorn (a very colorful, not to mention in some ways healthful, beast, he has a purple head, blue eyes, and a tri-colored horn): IV.52]

25 [A London doctor's poster, now in the Bodleian, widely reproduced in unicorn books, illustrates some of these claims: it "doth effectuall cure these diseases: Scurvy, Old Ulcers, Dropsie, Running Gout, consumptions, Distillations, Coughs, Palpitation of the Heart, Fainting Fits, Convulsions, Kings Evil, Rickets in Children, Melancholly or Sadness, The Green Sickness, Obstructions, and all Distempers proceeding from a Cold Cause". It also acts as a preventative by preventing disease and infection, "fortifying the Noble Parts", and expelling "what is an Enemy to Nature, preserving the Vigour, Youth, and a good Complextion to Old Age", and so on. And that is just from drinking water passed through the horn. The poster can be found, for example, in Beer's Einhorn: Fabelwelt und Wirklichkeit, (englished by Stern, Unicorn Myth and Reality, ill. 154, p. 184); Sheppard, plate XI.]

26 Expulsive of Poisons.

27 [Mercuric chloride, a corrosive poison]

28 [OED: "a preparation of aqua regia and corrosive sublimate". Such a diet is not likely to be improved even by glasses of milk.]

29 [I.e., Experience.]

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