The storage areas of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History are everything you want them to be: rows and rows of jars with specimens suspended in formaldehyde and shelf after shelf filled with bones and casts of long-deceased animals. Among these treasures on the topmost shelf are the unicorn horns — at long last my quest was finished (fig. 1).
I originally set off on this journey after plans were made for the exhibition Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders. This show features beasts both fanciful and real that inspired terror as well as wonder in the medieval imagination. The unicorn was one wonder as well known then as now.
The first account of a one-horned animal in the West dates from 400 BC when a Greek named Ctesias described a creature he saw in India. It was as large as a wild horse with a long white horn on its forehead that tapered to a point. Subsequent writers would continue to write about this unique creature. There is only one animal in nature that has a spiraling white horn, the narwhal, a type of whale also known as the unicorn of the sea (Fig. 2).
The tusk of the narwhal was passed off in the Middle Ages as the horn of a unicorn and was widely traded in medieval Europe. Most originated in the Baltic Sea area where they were harvested from the animals and traded through traditional routes into Western Europe, where these widely coveted items were sold whole as well as in pieces. It was likely because of the narwhal that in lore, unicorns were connected not only with land but the sea.
Narwhals are whales, or more specifically porpoises, found in Arctic coastal waters and related to bottlenose dolphins. They are carnivores who grow to between 13 and 20 feet long and have two teeth. The more prominent tooth grows into a swordlike spiral that can reach lengths of up to nearly nine feet and protrudes straight through their upper lip. Those on older and larger males are likely to be thicker and have a more prominent spiral, as I got to see in the storage area of the CMNH. Those on younger animals are straighter and whiter. Traditionally speaking it is only the male that grows the tusk but occasionally a female will. Research has shown that the tusk has numerous nerve endings and was therefore incredibly sensitive (Fig. 3).
The purpose of these teeth is not known for certain. It is believed that they could detect the pressure, temperature, and even salinity of water, abilities that assist in navigation and the search for habitats. Other theories speculate that it is used for mating rituals, to impress females, or to battle rival suitors.
During the medieval period unicorns were not believed to be fanciful but real creators that inhabited faraway places. They were listed in bestiaries, medieval books with allegorical descriptions of animals, alongside other creatures such as elephants and lions. One such bestiary is on view in the exhibition (fig. 4).
In fact, all the way up until the 1800s educated people were still making serious claims that unicorns existed or had once existed. Ancient and early medieval depictions of unicorns feature straight horns. It was only after Scandinavian sailors began to trade narwhal horns that they began to be depicted as spiraled, like the tusk of the narwhal. Both styles are illustrated in two different manuscripts in the exhibition (figs. 5, 6).
Much medieval lore revolves around the powers of the unicorn’s horn. They were thought to be able to detect poison — if a horn was dipped in a liquid, it would bubble if poison was detected. For this reason, many goblets or cups were made or lined with horn. Queen Elizabeth I, upon hearing that her enemy Mary Queen of Scots had one and greatly fearing assassination, offered an incredibly high reward to whomever could bring her one (fig. 7).
Eventually an explorer, somewhere off the coast of Canada, found a decomposing narwhal washed up on the beach, complete with horn. Determining that it was a “unicorn of the sea” he brought it back and was handsomely rewarded. Although now lost, we know that Elizabeth embellished it with jewels and cherished it. Other famous owners of unicorn horns included Charlemagne, Charles the Bold, Charles VI, Philip the Good, and Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Besides detecting poison, the horn was also believed to be a cure-all for everything from epilepsy, fevers, and plague to numerous other ailments. Given these virtues it is not surprising that a unicorn horn was worth ten times its weight in gold. There was a thriving business around buying and selling unicorn horns through the Renaissance. Besides narwhals, elephant tusks and horns from other animals, including rhinoceroses, were passed off as authentic unicorn horns. They were considered valuable objects of diplomacy and commerce; Pope Clement VII even gave one to Francis I of France.
In the exhibition the narwhal horn from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is shown alongside manuscripts depicting unicorns, including those illustrating a popular tale from the medieval period referred to as the sacred hunt (fig. 8).
A unicorn was believed to have the ability to recognize purity; therefore, the only lure that would attract a unicorn is a young virgin woman. Once attracted, the animal could be captured and its magical horn obtained. Hunting was a major pastime for nobles; it is no surprise that the legend was a favorite of medieval audiences.
This tale also became a beloved Christian allegory and found its way into many sacred books. The young chaste woman was transformed into the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, and the scene itself became an annunciation (fig. 9). In the guise of a hunter, the archangel Gabriel, complete with horn and hounds, ushers the unicorn to Mary who is seated piously reading. It is at the moment the horn touches her womb that she conceives Jesus.
In 1638 a Danish naturalist, Ole Worm, was asked to investigate the true nature of what was selling as unicorn horn (fig. 10).
His verdict was that horns being traded by the Scandinavians were not from unicorns or even horns, but rather tusks from the narwhal. As proof he displayed a complete skull with the horn still attached. With this new evidence and the number of skeptics growing, trade in unicorn horns began to drop as well as its depiction in art. These peculiar and magnificent Arctic whales with their incongruous tooth were simply not as popular as the unicorn. In the last 10 years interest in narwhals has soared. They are now finally in vogue and being ranked alongside the unicorn in popularity (fig. 11).