The Unicorn’s Horn

[Scotland’s National Animal Contents]

We’ve seen the old descriptions of it being white, black, and red. A solid spear and floppy, like a Cockerel’s comb. This last idea is maintained by a French consular agent who states that the unicorn is in possession of, 

“a single, mobile horn capable of erection in the sense that it can receive from the will of the animal a variable position relative to the surface of the forehead.” – p.105.  

No matter where you go, though, the majority of reports have is as the source of the unicorn’s power. That it was magical, and could be used as a medicine and a destroyer of poison. To this end the “horns” were said to have been made into cups and to have been dipped into the drinks & consumables of monarchs, throughout the ages, in order that they could avoid a horrible death by poisoning. 

The Musselburgh News, 27th June, 1913, tells us; 

“The unicorn,.. said Mr. Frank Stevens, in a lecture before the China Society on Mythical Monsters, was an old conception as the type or myth of a noble hero. For centuries its horn was regarded as an infallible antidote against poison, and the food of the French kings and queens was touched with an object purporting to be a portion of the horn of the animal. Unicorns, added the lecturer, were supposed never to make their appearance save in a well-governed country, and there was no tradition that they had ever been seen in England.” 

It’s worth is given in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, 5th March, 1930; 

“The [unicorn’s] horn was ‘an amulet, a talisman, a weapon, and a medicine chest all in one,’ and a single specimen was ‘worth a city.’ Small wonder that, as the author [of Lore of the Unicorn] says, perfect specimens were to be seen only in the treasure chambers of popes and emperors and kings, or, when some opulent church like St Mark’s of Venice did manage to acquire one, that it should be shown to the public only on gala days and beneath a pall of purple velvet.” 

We’re told by Apollonius’ [3ish-97CE] biographer that;  

“[He] saw the wild asses that were captured near the Hyphasis and was told that cups made from their horns – single horns, which grew from the brow – were used by the kings of India in the belief that those who drank from them were free for that day from sickness and poison.” – p.39.  

Photios [810-893CE] reports, as per Ctesias [500BCE]:  

“There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs. The base of this horn, for some two hands’-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers…” – p.27.  

On page 20 of Shepard’s beforementioned ‘Lore of the Unicorn’ he says; 

“It preserveth a man from the arrow that flieth by day and the pestilence that walketh in darkness, from the craft of the poisoner, from epilepsy, and from several less dignified ills of the flesh not to be named in so distinguished a connection. In short, it was an amulet, a talisman, a weapon, and a medicine-chest all in one… For this is the horn of the unicorn.” 

“In all the range of animal lore there is no other story conceived so completely in the aristocratic spirit as that of the unicorn stepping down to the poisoned water while the other beasts wait patiently for his coming, and making it safe for them by dipping his magic horn.” – p.73. 

“James I of Scotland speaks of  

the lufare unicorne 

That voidis venym with his evoure horne.” – p.122. 

“[The 17th Century author, Laurens] Catelan submits, no sensible man can fail to believe the marvels related of [the unicorn’s horn]. [That it] sweats when standing near poison, he thinks, because of a desire to mingle with its like, and when taken as a drug it overcomes and carries off such feebler poisons as arsenic and corrosive sublimate by virtue of its own more powerfully poisonous nature. Why it is that so deadly a substance as this does not kill the patient instantly, how it happens that it can be brought into contact with one’s food and drink or worn at one’s neck as an amulet with impunity, Catelan and his fellows neglect to inform us.” – p.150. 

Natalis Comes combines the idea of the unicorn being able to purify water with his propensity for being attracted by virgin women in his hunting poem; 

“Far on the edge of the world and beyond the banks of the Ganges, 

Savage and lone, is a place in the realm of the King of the Hindus… 

Where there is born a beast as large as a stag in stature, 

Dark on the back, solid-hoofed, very fierce, and shaped like a bullock. 

Mighty and black is the horn that springs from the animal’s forehead, 

Terrible unto his foe, a defence and a weapon of onslaught. 

Often the poisoners steal to the banks of that swift-flowing river, 

Fouling the waves with disease by their secret insidious poisons; 

After them comes this beast and dips his horn in the water, 

Cleansing the venom away and leaving the stream to flow purely 

So that the forest-dwellers may drink once more by the margin. 

Also men say that the beast delights in the embrace of a virgin, 

Falling asleep in her arms and taking sweet rest on her bosom. 

Ah! But, awaking, he finds he is bound by ropes and by shackles. 

Strange is the tale, indeed, yet so, they say, he is taken, 

Whether it be that the seeds of love have been sown by great Nature 

Deep in his blood or for some more hidden mysterious reason.” – p.61. 

“We find a traveller of the nineteenth century giving almost the same account of the water [purifying] trait as that given by John of Hesse. ‘One evening,’ says he, ‘as I was sitting among the rocks with a party of natives, the conversation turned upon flags. A man sitting there said to a stranger, “Why do the English put the wyheed el win, that is the unicorn, on their flag?” and then related the whole story of it as one well known through the length and breadth of the land. ‘The unicorn is found in a vast country south of Abyssinia. There the animals, undisturbed by man, live after their own laws. The water does not flow in rivers, but lives in the bosom of the soil. When the others wish to drink, the unicorn inserts his horn into the earth: with this he scoops a pool, satisfies his own thirst, and leaves what he does not require to the rest. So these English have the privilege of first discovering all things and then the rest of the world may come after.’ ” – pp.152-153.  

No mention of the fact the English only have the unicorn as an emblem at all by dint of the union with Scotland… Also the fact that, as inventors, the Scots have outdone the English in terms of “first discovering” things. 

In the Edinburgh Evening Courant, 27th July, 1868, we’re told both how unicorns are an unlikely animal within the animal kingdom as well as the ideas given about its poison-detecting abilities; 

“ ‘I may perhaps mention briefly that such an animal is a physiological impossibility, and that the unicorn of the fables was a mere compound of an antelope, a horse, and a narwhal. The tusks or teeth of the narwhal were in former days exhibited as horns of the unicorn, and so precious were they that one of them was laid up in the cathedral of St Denis, and two in the treasury of St Mark’s at Venice, all of which were exhibited in the year 1658 as veritable unicorns’ horns. The physiological difficulty above mentioned seems to have troubled the minds of the old writers, who saw that an ivory horn had no business to grow upon the junction of the two bones of the skull, and yet felt themselves bound to acknowledge that such an animal did really exist. They therefore put themselves to vast trouble in accounting for such a phenomenon, and, in their determination to believe in the animal, invented theories nearly as wonderful as the existence of the unicorn itself… God hath given to horses and asses whole hoofs, because there is greatest use of their legs, but unto unicorns a whole and entire horn, that as the ease of man is procured by the help of horses, so the health of them is procured by the horn of the unicorn.’  

This last sentence refers to the then universal belief that the horn of the unicorn was a panacea for all illness, and an antidote to all poisons. It was thought to be so sensitive that if a poisoned cup were but brought near it a thick moisture would exude from its surface; and if fragments were thrown into the cup they would cause the liquid to swell and bubble, and at last to boil over…” 

“The physician Jordanus in his book De Peste speaks of seeing a Jew[ish man] enclose a spider in a circle drawn on the floor with [a unicorn’s horn], and he says that the spider could not cross the line, and starved to death inside it.” – p.118  

We know from the ‘Northern Scot and Moray & Nairn Express,’ 20th October, 1888, that this was a fallacy; 

“Sir Kelum Digby, who was a great man in his day,.. read a paper before the Royal Society, in which he declared that a horn in his possession, which he asserted was a unicorn’s horn, would, if powdered and sprinkled in a circle round any venomous beast whatever, entirely prevent its escape, as the powder exercised a magical or paralysing effect on the creature. When the paper was concluded, the Secretary of the Royal Society was requested to reduce a portion of this wonderful horn to powder, and the meeting was adjourned for the purpose of making ready for the experiment on a large and venemous spider especially procured for the occasion. Accordingly, on the appointed evening, the learned men assembled, a large quantity of Sir Kelum Digby’s powdered unicorn’s horn was formed into a circle on the table. Sir Kelum himself placed the spider very carefully in the middle, and great was the disappointment when, as the old chronicler of the proceedings of that early scientific meeting quaintly tells us, ‘the spider did immediately walk therefrom.’ ” 

Now, there is the suggestion given that, even if those in authority didn’t believe at all in the ability of unicorns’ horns to act as an antidote to poison, that they were prepared to spread the idea that it could in order to dissuade poisoners from even making the attempt. 

“An inventory taken in 1497 of the possessions of James III of Scotland shows: ‘In unicornis [i.e. in the coins of that name] nyne hundredth and four score. Item a serpent toung and ane unicorne horne, set in gold. Item a covering of variand purpir taster, browdin with thressilis and a unicorne.’ ” – p.113.  

These unicorns, minted in Scotland from the 1480s, and worth 18 shillings each, during the reign of James III., weren’t the first. Apparently; 

“Rabbinical tradition says that Joshua coined money, [BCE] 1440, bearing the head of a unicorn.” – Note, p.280.  

“… given by James [VI.] to his queen was ‘one little cup of unicorn’s horn, with a cover of gold, set with two pointed diamonds and three pearls pendent, being in weight 7½ ounces’.” – p.136.  

There was one interesting use the unicorn made of its horn given on p.206 of the Lore of the Unicorn; 

“… about A.D. 550, Cosmas writes: ‘… When [the unicorn] finds himself pursued by many hunters and about to be taken he springs to the top of some precipice and throws himself over it, and in the descent he turns a somersault so that the horn sustains all the shock of the fall and he escapes unhurt.’ ” – p.192. 

Apparently some myths had unicorns having carbuncles, or rubies, in their horns:  

“We caught the beast called Unicorn 

That knows and loves a maiden best 

And falls asleep upon her breast; 

We took from underneath his horn 

The splendid male carbuncle-stone 

Sparkling against the white skull-bone.” – p.82. 

“Arabian notions of the inside of the [unicorn’s horn] are highly interesting. Ibn Khordâdhbeh asserts that when the horn is split longitudinally one finds inside of it, on a black background, the white figures of a man, a fish, and a peacock or some other bird… Al Damîrî affirms in more detail that when one cuts the alicorn lengthwise there are found in it various figures in white on black, as of peacocks, goats, birds, certain kinds of trees, men, and other things wonderfully depicted.” – p.104.  

This idea comes from their having been prepared and sold as artistic souvenirs, by craftsmen of Eastern countries. 

There were educated people who knew the items purported to be unicorns’ horns weren’t what they seemed; 

“[Professor Wurm (1588-1654)] began with a careful description of the [unicorn horns] to be seen in his time all over Europe, everywhere regarded and highly treasured as horns of unicorns. So far are they from being such, he then says, that they are not horns at all. They have neither the substance, nor the shape of horns and they are not set in the animal’s cranium as horns are. He asserts that they have all the characteristics of teeth and that teeth they must be called. In his third section Ole Wurm declares that the [unicorn horns] of Europe are the teeth of narwhals, citing as evidence the cranium of a narwhal, which he has recently examined… He concludes by saying that in the future those who do not care to deny the authority of witnesses and even of their own senses will be obliged to admit that the [unicorn horn] is really the tooth of the narwhal.” – p.260. 


“the tusk was to be used in the royal household of France for one hundred and fifty years after Ole Wurm’s dissertation was delivered and printed; it was to be kept on the official pharmacopœia of London for more than a century to come; good physicians continued for a long time to speak highly of its medicinal virtues. Ignorance and mental indolence, better known as conservatism, may have been chiefly responsible for this, but they were assisted by these two facts: the disclosure of the marine origin of most [unicorn horns] did not by any means disprove the existence of the terrestrial unicorn; on the contrary, if there was a unicorn of the sea it seemed to follow necessarily that there was one of the land as well.” – pp.260-261. 

Our western ideas of the unicorn appear to have been borne of religion, specifically, Christianity, though it would seem to have had its origin in, the far older, Zoroastrianism.