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Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, [1930], at



    ON the table before me there lies a long straight wand of ivory. Cut to the length of a walking-stick, it is somewhat more than two inches in diameter at the top and it tapers evenly to a blunt point. Smooth-backed ridges, not more than a quarter of an inch in height, spiral round it counter-clockwise, making about two turns and a half between one end and the other. As a whole, it is a twisted spear. One can fancy that it has been taken in powerful hands and wrung, as one wrings a wet cloth. Thomas Fuller, having seen another such ivory wand as this, said excellently that to his dim eyes and at some distance it seemed "like a taper of wreathed waxe".

    This walking-stick has been fitted at the upper end with a gilded silver cap which bears the arms of a certain noble house and a motto in Welsh. Four inches below the cap a hole has been bored through the stick--one would say, at first, to receive the cord to which some gentleman of the grand old days attached the silken tassel that adorned his cane. I scarcely think, however, that this particular stick ever tapped its way along Birdcage Walk or through the gardens of Versailles, partly because there are no signs of wear on its point and partly because it weighs something like three pounds. More probably, the cord that went through this hole was used not to carry a tassel but to hang the stick against the wall in some great house of three or four centuries ago.

    And yet I do not doubt that some of the former owners of this wand carried it about with them, but when they did so they carried it neither for comfort nor display; rather, it was their companion on dark nights and in perilous places, and they held it near their hearts, handling it tenderly, as they would a treasure. For indeed it was exactly that. It preserved 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. Small wonder that such a wand as this, in the days when such things were appreciated, sold for twenty times its weight in gold, and that one alone, as Thomas Dekker said, was "worth a city". Small wonder that perfect sticks like this 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. The stick before me, although of ivory, was not cut from an elephant's tusk or even from the tusk of a mammoth or mastodon. It grew as it is, and according to the most learned. opinion of many generations it grew single on the brow of a beast so glorious, so virtuous, so beautiful, that heaven vouchsafed the earth, as in the case of the phoenix, only one specimen at a time. For this is the horn of the unicorn.

    To retrace the devious ways by which this piece of ivory, so reverently handled, has come to lie here on my writing-desk, I shall have to tell a story that ranges back through more "wild centuries" than we can count--a story that begins with a time before cities or agriculture, when barbarous tribes wandered with their herds from summer to winter pasturage and back again, a tale that includes at one end the most primitive myths and the first stirrings of the moral sense and at the other the trickery of the charlatan and the mountebank. Into the web of this tale I shall have to catch up many strands of the history of exploration, of medicine, of art, of commerce, and of scientific thought. The fact is that I cannot explain how this ivory wand came to lie before me--I purchased it not long ago from a London dealer in antiques for about three guineas--without indicating, in one vivid example, the ways by which magic rose into religious dogma and this gradually succumbed, or is succumbing, under the attrition of modern science. But even then, of course, I shall fall short of a full explanation, and any reader of these words who cherishes the few relics of superstition that we have left to us may be assured that this book will not "murder to dissect", will not substitute a dull explanation for one of the most beautiful legends in the world. The remote and solitary strangeness of the unicorn is perfectly safe from me, and I think from any one; for even if I did not prefer to do so I should have to let him stalk away, at the end, into the mystery out of which he comes.

The lore of the unicorn is enormous in range and variety, not only because of the great expanse of time it covers but because it involves so many different departments of knowledge, and the literature dealing specifically with the topic is surprisingly extensive. Like most of my predecessors, I have hunted the unicorn chiefly in libraries, realizing the delightful absurdity of the task quite as fully as any one could point it out to me. A zoologist would have written on my topic a different and probably a shorter book, but for me the unicorn is interesting almost entirely as a denizen of "the Monarch Thought's dominions". Whether there is or is not an actual unicorn--and this is one of the questions upon which I shall merely quote the opinions of others--he cannot possibly be so fascinating or so important as the things men have dreamed and thought and written about him. A dream, if it is no more than that, of such great age and beauty as this of the unicorn, is far more worthy of consideration than the question whether we shall have one species more or less in the earth's fauna. And the dream, at any rate, is an unquestionable fact, a phenomenon of the mind; it has grown like a tree, striking deep roots in thought and spreading huge boughs against our mental sky. This book about the unicorn is a minute contribution to the study of the only subject that deeply and permanently concerns us--human nature and the ways of human thought.

    In view of the fact that I am tracing what has been thought and said about the unicorn and that most of the literature concerned is found in rare and forgotten books, it has seemed necessary to quote more freely than would otherwise have been desirable. After reading hundreds of pages of unfounded and ignorant recent writing on my topic I have no apology to make for the care I have taken to prove my points by exact citation of authority. The lore of the unicorn owes much to the work of accurate scholars, and I have tried to present their opinions with an accuracy they would have approved; but the mere apparatus of scholarship is a scaffolding that should always be kept as much as possible out of sight, and my notes will be found at the back of the book, where they will trouble no one for whom they are not intended.

    Perhaps it would not be inappropriate to explain how I first struck into a footpath so far, at least in appearance, from any of the highways of contemporary research. Some time ago, while reading Petrarch's treatise De Vita Solitaria, I came upon a vivid description of the noon-day meal in the house of an Italian tyrant in the fourteenth century. Like most things in Petrarch's Latin prose, this description is derivative, its main source being St. Ambrose's De Abstinentia, but a sentence or two in the middle of it stood out as a rather startling bit of personal observation. "Among all these yellow and black and livid lumps of flesh", says Petrarch, who was himself a vegetarian, "the diligent taster goes exploring for the suspected and not undeserved bit of poison. But another kind of precaution has been taken against secret plots: between the wines and the viands project the livid horns of serpents skilfully fastened to little gilded trees, so that it is a wonder to see how Death himself stands guard, as it were in the very stronghold of pleasure, against the death of this miserable man."

    What the horns of serpents might be doing on a rich man's dinner table I had no idea, and I determined to find out. A few hours of excavation in the pages of Pietro de Abano, Ardoynus, and Cardinal Ponzetto taught me all that I cared to know about the devices once used in Italy for detecting poison at the table--devices such as that of the cerastes's horn which Petrarch mentions, the vulture's claw, the "sealed earth", the crystal goblet, the eagle-stone, the snake's tongue, and others of the same sort. But while I read, the terror of those evil times when death might lie at the bottom of any cup took hold of me, and, still more powerfully, a sense of pity for the wild and ignorant ways in which the danger was encountered. Gradually, however, I found myself moving out into a purer air along a path not entirely strange even then, for the unicorn's horn was long the chief defence against poison of those who could pay the huge prices at which it was held. And then several other questions arose: How did this horn acquire its great reputation? How was it supposed to act in detecting poison? How could it maintain its prestige while the princes and dukes of Italy who owned it were dying on every hand suddenly and from no apparent cause? Where did these horns come from, and what was the nature of the traffic that purveyed them? Was the belief in their powers a vulgar superstition only or was it held by learned men and perhaps even by physicians? How old was this belief, and what was its origin? These are some of the questions I asked myself and shall try in this book to answer.

Next: Chapter I. The Gorgeous East