Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, , at sacred-texts.com
ALTHOUGH men have often been uncertain where unicorns were to be found, there has never been the same difficulty with regard to unicorns' horns. These have never been plentiful and they have usually been very dear, but they have been known. Almost any well-read or widely travelled European of the sixteenth century would have been able to name eight or ten whole horns kept in cathedrals, monastic houses, or kings' treasuries, not to mention the innumerable smaller pieces to be found in the hands of the wealthy. The study of these horns, of their distribution, origin, and use, leads into the centre of unicorn lore.
"Come we now", in the words of Thomas Fuller, "to the fashion and colour of the Horn, conceiving it no considerable controversy concerning the length and bignesse thereof, quantity not varying the kind in such cases." It is hard to know just what Thomas Fuller, who lived victoriously and contentiously through the English Civil Wars, may have understood by a "considerable controversy", but this one has been long and earnestly waged. Ctesias gives the length of the horn as one cubit or eighteen inches, Aelian as a cubit and a half, Pliny as two cubits, Solinus and Isidore as four feet, Cardan as three cubits, Rabelais as six or seven feet, and Albertus Magnus as ten feet. At this point the growth of the horn was checked, for the animal that bore it was obviously becoming top-heavy and needed, as several sceptics pointed out, to be "as big as a ship" merely to carry such a formidable bow-sprit. Arabian writers showed less retraint, for Al Damiri, among others, asserts that the unicorn, for all its great strength, is unable to lift its head because of the great weight of its horn. Other Arabian authorities inform us that he often carries about on this horn the bodies of several elephants which he has "perforated". Although the spoils went to the victor in these contests, they were frequently--as in human affairs--quite as lethal as defeat, for Alkazuwin says that when once the unicorn has gored the elephant he is unable to remove the corpse from his horn, so that he either starves to death or else dies of the putrefaction. (Here was material for a powerful pacifistic allegory, if the Arabs had been given to such things.) The end comes when the roc, seeing the unicorn with one or more elephants impaled upon his horn, swoops down and bears the whole mass of flesh away as a titbit for its young.
Concerning the length of the alicorn, then, one could think almost whatever one liked. The time was to come when specimens almost if not quite as long as that described by Albertus Magnus were to be seen in Europe, and undoubtedly the respect in which the unicorn was everywhere held was maintained by the effort to imagine a beast to which a horn ten feet in length would be proportionate.
Before the sixteenth century there was general agreement among the learned that the true horn was black, as Aelian had said, but after a long period of vacillation the opinion that it was white or of the colour of old ivory definitely triumphed. Less bookish persons had thought of it as white for a long time, if we may judge from the numerous pictures of the unicorn to be seen in mediaeval manuscripts. Andrea Bacci recalled the assertion of Aelian and Pliny, but had to admit that all the specimens he had seen were not black but more nearly white. His dilemma was really distressing, for he had, on the one hand, the Renaissance scholar's profound respect for ancient authority and, on the other, he felt obliged to avoid saying anything that would cast a doubt upon the genuineness of the horn, a white one, belonging to his patron, Don Francesco di Medici. He does the best he can in saying that "niger" does not necessarily mean pure black, but with all his learning he cannot make the word mean anything like white. Thomas Fuller suggests that the differences in colour may be due to age--"white when newly taken from his head; yellow like that lately in the Tower, of some hundred years seniority; but whether or no it will ever turn black, as that of Aelian's and Pliny's description, let others decide." But the most ingenious solution of these discrepancies was the view that the true horn is white within and black outside, on account of the "bark" that covers it, so that the same horn may be described as either black or white according as the bark has been left on or stripped off.
By far the strangest thing in the history of opinion about the alicorn's appearance is the age and persistence of the belief in the natural spiral twistings or striae. These are clearly delineated in every picture of the unicorn that I have seen in mediaeval manuscripts, some of which were drawn in the twelfth century. It is possible that Aelian meant to describe them in his phrase xxxxxx xxx Kai xxxx xxxxx for the word xxxxx may mean either "rings" or "spirals". Even the horns of the unicorned animals shown in bas-relief on the walls of Persepolis seem to show these twistings. There is nothing said about them, however, in Ctesias, Pliny, Solinus, Isidore, or Physiologus; aside from the mysterious passage in Aelian, there seems to be no ancient authority for them whatever, and learned writers do not mention them until after the close of the Middle Ages. Erudite Europeans were converted to the "anfractuous spires and cochicary turnings"--to adopt Fuller's charmingly pedantic phrase--at about the time when they admitted a possibility that the horn might sometimes be white, but Arabian writers had accepted them somewhat earlier. Alkazuwin says, for example, that the unicorn has one horn on its head, sharp at the top and thick below, with raised or convex striae outside and hollow or concave striae within.
Arabian notions of the inside of the alicorn are highly interesting. Ibn Khord‰dhbeh 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. Algiahid, in his Book of Holy Things, makes much the same remark, and Al Damiri 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. Horns with such remarkable interior decorations were more prized, of course, than those without them, and the Arabs tell us that a good one was worth over four thousand shekels of gold and that they were used by the Chinese mandarins on their girdles.
This whole belief is certainly one of the most curious confusions of art with nature. Michelangelo seems to have found it helpful to imagine that his statue already existed in the stone block before him, so that his task was merely to strip away the superfluous material. Arabian travellers in the Orient could understand the work of the Chinese ivory carvers in no other way.
While considering the physical characteristics of alicorns we should not neglect the abundant testimony that they are not always fixed solidly in the skull, but that some unicorns have them "plyable", as Arthur Golding says in speaking of the one-horned bulls of Inde, "to what purpose they liste". There was the best authority for movable horns in general, Aristotle having ascribed them to the Indian bull and Solinus asserting that the Erythian ox could raise and lower its horns at will. The same advantage was enjoyed by the Yale, whose horns normally projected one forward and one backward, but who could switch them about to suit the exigencies of the moment in fighting. Cosmas Indicopleustes informs us that the rhinoceros's horn is normally so loose that it shakes and rattles when he walks, but that when he is in a rage it is suddenly tightened to such a degree that he can tear up rocks and trees.
The unicorn does not suffer in this comparison. Garcias ab Horto, rounding the Cape of Good Hope about the year 1550, heard of an amphibian on the eastern coast of Africa that could raise and lower its single horn and swing it to right or left as caprice or necessity dictated, and some years later André Thevet reported another amphibian unicorn--it had webbed feet behind and cloven hoofs before and lived on fish--from the Island of Molucca, with a three-foot horn that waved about like the crest of a cock. In this connection we must not forget the mobile horns observed by Pantagruel upon the unicorns of the Land of Satin. Finally, a consular agent of France writes a long letter in the middle of the nineteenth century to prove that the unicorn of the ancients has been discovered in Central Africa, and that it has a movable horn--"une corne unique, mobile, susceptible d'erection en ce sense qu'elle peut recevoir de la volonté de l'animal une position variable relativement a la surface du front".
There is one more thing, perhaps the most instructive of all, to be said about the physical characteristics of the alicorn. For two or three centuries many learned men, quite as intelligent as those of their kind to-day, measured and weighed and tasted these objects, speculated about them, subjected them to various tests, bought and sold them for great sums, wrote astonishingly erudite books about them--all the while calling them "horns". Not one of these men guessed, until the seventeenth century brought in new habits of thought, that the objects they had before them, ninety-nine times in the hundred, were not composed of horn at all but of ivory.
By the year 1600 Europe and England contained at least a dozen famous alicorns that were known to all travellers, were frequently exhibited on state occasions to the people, and were carefully described again and again. Most of these were kept in great churches or monasteries. They were regarded as sacred objects, and were sometimes used as pontifical staffs.
Best known of all was the horn of St. Denis, near Paris, seven feet long and weighing over thirteen pounds. This was included in the monastery's inventory of its treasures, together with other sacred relics, and was one of the "worthies" of Europe. Even John Evelyn speaks of seeing it--"a faire unicorne's horn, sent by a K. of Persia, about 7 foote long". The popular belief was that it had been presented to the monastery by André Thevet, the famous traveller, who was thought to have had it from the King of Monomotapa with whom he was said to have gone unicorn hunting; but this opinion was groundless, for Thevet speaks of having seen the horn of St. Denis "en ma grand' jeunesse", he never went unicorn hunting with the King of Monomotapa, and in fact he did not much believe in unicorns. How this alicorn was acquired we do not know, but it was lost during the general looting of old treasures, particularly those of the Church, during the Revolution of 1793. It was kept in a dark vault of the sanctuary, one end of it resting in water. We hear that "this water is given to drink to those that go under the hollow arch; and so soon as they have drunk they suddenly fall into a great sweat".
Cardan has left a careful description of the St. Denis alicorn which he saw during a visit paid to the monastery in company with the monks' physician. "After we had seen the sepulchres of the kings", he writes, "and the statues and other marble ornaments, I studied very closely the unicorn's horn hanging in the sanctuary. It was so long that I could not touch the top of it with my hand, but its thickness was slight in proportion to its length, for it was easily possible to surround it with the thumb and first finger . . . . It was smooth all over, but was marked by bands running from end to end as on a snail-shell . . . . Nature makes nothing else that I know of like this."
Almost equally celebrated were the two horns of St. Mark's in Venice, said to have been taken at the fall of Constantinople in 1204 as part of the Venetian share in the spoil. It is true that many of the treasures of St. Mark's were thus acquired, and the two horns have long been associated by tradition with the blind Doge Enrico Dandolo who, although ninety-seven years of age when Constantinople was taken, is said to have been the first man over the wall; but against this romantic and persistent tradition stand certain awkward facts. On the silver-gilt handle of one of these alicorns is the inscription: xxxxxx xxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxxx. (John Palaeologus, Emperor. Alicorn good against poison.) Now the first Emperor of the East named John in the Palaeologus dynasty was John V, who ruled 1341-1391; the only other, ignoring the non-dynastic John Cantacuzenus, was John VI, 1425-1448, and there are several reasons for believing that the alicorn in question belonged to him. For one thing, the Greek inscription upon it, although crude in several ways, is comparatively modern in lettering. It bears on the handle the familiar design of the double-headed eagle--probably Hittite in origin and perhaps brought into Europe by the Crusaders--which was adopted in the arms of the Emperor of the Romans not earlier than 1414. Finally, this John VI made a famous visit to the West, and especially to Venice, to seek aid for his crumbling empire, and we are told by the chronicler Phrantzes that when he appeared in St. Mark's Basin the Venetian galleys went out to meet him adorned with the design of the double-headed eagle--a gracious courtesy on the part of the city that had caused most of his distress. It seems to me more than possible that the alicorn bearing his name was brought to Venice by him on this occasion, although it is hard to see how it could have fallen, as it must have done, into the hands of the wealthy jewel merchant Giorgio Belbava. At any rate, St. Mark's Library contains a record that in 1488 this alicorn was given by the son of Belbava to Doge Barbarigo, and that the Doge at once handed it over to the Procurators of the Cathedral, "ut illud in Thesauris Sanctuarii in Celebritatibus portandum curarent".
The second alicorn of St. Mark's, like the first about one metre in length, is made of three pieces joined together. This also has a Greek inscription, but one that gives no hint of the horn's origin, so that one can believe, if one likes, that it was brought back by Doge Dandolo in 1204. Both of these alicorns have been coloured with vermilion for several inches from the points, and on this colour have been written various devotional ejaculations in Arabic, of no present interest except as they serve to indicate once more that the objects were regarded as sacred. Clearly, however, the Greek and Arabic inscriptions alike would be felt to increase the alicorn's magic power, and the phrases xxxx xxxxx xxxxxx xxxx xxxxxx on one of them were probably intended as a charm.
These two alicorns are still shown to visitors as they were when the hero of The Cloister and the Hearth saw them centuries ago, and when properly understood they are among the most interesting relics of the past to be seen in Europe. One's guide asserts that they were formerly used by admirals of the Venetian fleet as batons of office, and this, whether true or not, shows that they have long been popularly regarded as symbols of supreme power and leadership. The spiral ridges of both have been smoothed away to such an extent that Andrea Marini thought them not genuine, but the grain of the ivory may still be seen to run in counter-clockwise spirals, leaving one in no doubt as to their nature. This smoothing was not done, as some have surmised, to improve their appearance, but to get medicinal powder, and there exists a highly interesting, not to say amusing, decree of the august Council of Ten: "That the Procurators are to have the Alicorns decorated with silver from the points to the silver-gilt handles so that the marks of former scrapings may be concealed, and they are to prohibit any further scrapings except in cases allowed by unanimous vote of the Council of Ten."
There is in the St. Mark's Treasury still another alicorn, more than twice as long as the other two, unscraped, and without inscriptions. The history of this one can be traced accurately for a long period, although it is probably not so old as the others. In the year 1597 Francesco Contarini, ambassador from Venice to the Court of France, wrote to the Council of Ten advising the purchase from the Maréchal de Brissac of his alicorn, held at thirty thousand ducats. Francesco argued, like a Venetian, that in this way the Republic could get back some part of the debt owed to it by France. Venice seems to have offered the sum demanded, but for some reason did not get the alicorn until 1668, when it was sold to a descendant of Francesco Contarini by the Brissac family. In his will, dated 1684, Alessandro Contarini left it to the Treasury of St. Mark's, adding the information that it had been taken by the French in the sack of Turin. When given to the Treasury this alicorn stood on a pedestal of wrought silver, which gave it the appearance of a gigantic candle, but about the middle of the nineteenth century the pedestal was put to other uses.
Milan Cathedral also had its famous alicorn; the church at Raskeld somehow acquired several; St. Paul's in London and Westminster Abbey each had one or more before the Dissolution, when they were probably either taken into the royal treasury or else sold to the highest bidders. The inventory taken by order of Cromwell in 1536 of the property owned by the tiny Church of St. Swithun at Winchester shows: "One Rectors staf of Unicorns horn"--a proud possession indeed for one of the smallest churches in England at a time when the alicorn was still "worth a city". Chester Cathedral still keeps its alicorn, but I am told by the Dean that it has been in the Chapter's possession only since the eighteenth century.
The long association of the unicorn with Christianity and the Church is amusingly illustrated by an attempted act of vandalism in which the beast fully justified the ancient belief that he could not be captured. In a forgotten book of travels I find this passage: "Our leader having taken a great fancy to the unicorn which stands on one side of the great entrance to the Church of Saint John in Malta, wishing to place it as a figure-head to his brother's yacht, he resolved to have the animal, and his refractory crew were desired to be in attendance the next night . . . . The rope was placed round the unicorn's neck, and all of us began, with a true sailor-like 'one, two, three, haul!' to dislodge our victim. It was, however, so well fastened on its pedestal that we did not succeed."
A feeling that the horn had some vague sanctity, due perhaps to the symbolism of the unicorn, must certainly be assumed to explain the possession of these objects by so many churches and monasteries and the veneration in which they were held; but a quite different feeling lay behind the eager quest of them by popes and kings and emperors during the Renaissance. Andrea Bacci says that in his time--the second half of the sixteenth century--there was not a prince in Italy, to say nothing of those outside of it, who had not at least a piece of the horn in his possession. He describes in detail the alicorn belonging to the Grand Duke Francesco Medici, which he seems to have had before him while writing his book, and others belonging to the Pope, to the Duke of Mantua, to Ruberto Ricci of Florence, and to the King of Poland--this last a very famous specimen. Echoing Bacci, J. F. Hubrigk asks rhetorically: "Is there any Prince, Duke, or King in the world who has not either seen or possessed, and regarded as among the most precious of his possessions, a unicorn's horn?" Such men there may have been, but if so it was not for lack of desire but of funds.
Among the earliest references to the alicorns of kings' treasuries are those in the royal accounts of France. There we find recorded, for the year 1388, the sum paid to a goldsmith "pour avoir atachie une espreuve de lincorne et mise sur une chayenne d'argent doré et enchaconée." This was early indeed, for the alicorn was not to reach the height of its reputation for more than a century to come. Just eighty years after the King of France paid for the decoration of his horn, Edward IV of England gave a sumptuous dinner to his sister, the Princess Margaret, on the occasion of her wedding to the Duke of Burgundy, and in the contemporary description of the furniture prepared for the dinner we read: "In the myddis a copeborde, in triangle of IX stagis hight. On every corner unnycorns horns, the poyntes garnysshid, and othe thre in other places, accomplissinge the coopborde." One of the most amusing glimpses into remote history afforded us by unicorn lore is the possibility that at least one of the numerous alicorns at this wedding dinner was brought over from France by the bridegroom himself. This we may perhaps infer from the inventory of the Dukes of Burgundy made in 1467, the year before the wedding, for there we find described: "Une licorne garnye autour du bout, par dessoubz, d'or, a la devise de MS., et a la pointe garnie d'argent doré et depuis l'un des boutz jusques a l'autre garnye de plusieurs filetz d'or." Perhaps the Duke felt even on his wedding journey and while sitting beside his bride that he preferred to trust his own horn, for the times were troubled and one did not know how English alicorns might act. However this may have been, these people were certainly much interested in the alicorn. In September of 1472 Louis de la Grantehuse came to England as ambassador to Edward IV from the Duke of Burgundy. The highly interesting account of this visit records that "When the masse was doon, the Kinge gave the sayde Lorde Granthuse a Cuppe of Golde, garnished wt Perle. In the myddes of the Cuppe ys a greate Pece of Vnicornes horne, to my estimacyon, VII ynches compas." Somewhat after this, Commines relates that de Ballassat, plundering the palace of Pietro de' Medici in 1495 "took, among other things, a whole unicorn's horn worth six or seven thousand ducats, and two large pieces of another". D'Aubigne, also, narrating the exploits of one of his noble ruffians, says that he found in a villa he was plundering "pour butin principal une licorne estimée a quatrevingt mille escus".
These, however, were the alicorns of subjects, and comparatively humble things. The gorgeous popes of the Renaissance acquired a number of horns by one means and another, descending when necessary even to outright purchase, and they were accustomed to have them set with appropriate splendour in silver and gold. In his account of how he worsted his rival Tobbia, Benvenuto Cellini enables us to see how carefully this work of the goldsmith was done. He says that Pope Clement VII commanded him and Tobbia "to draw a design for setting an unicorn's horn, the most beautiful that ever was seen, and which had cost him seventeen thousand ducats: and as the Pope proposed making a present of it to King Francis, he chose to have it first richly adorned with gold: so he employed us both to draw the designs. When we had finished them we carried them to the Pope. Tobbia's design was in the form of a candlestick: the horn was to enter it like a candle, and at the bottom of the candlestick he represented four little unicorn's heads--a most simple invention. As soon as I saw it I could not contain myself so as to avoid smiling at the oddity of the conceit. The Pope perceiving this, said, 'Let me see that design of yours.' It was a single head of an unicorn fitted to receive the horn. I had made the most beautiful sort of head conceivable, for I in part drew it in the form of a horse's head and partly in that of a hart's, adorned with the finest sort of wreaths and other devices; insomuch that no sooner was my design seen but the whole court gave it the preference. However, as some Milanese gentlemen of great authority were witnesses of this contest, they said: 'Most Holy Father, if you propose sending this noble present to France, you should take it into consideration that the French are an undiscriminating tasteless people and will not be sensible of the excellence of this masterly piece of Benvenuto's. But they will be pleased with these grotesque figures of Tobbia's, which will be sooner executed; and Benvenuto will in the meantime finish your chalice.'" Whether for the reasons given or not, this advice was accepted: in 1553 Pope Clement met François I at Marseilles and there gave him the horn which had been decorated by Tobbia, the occasion being the wedding of the Pope's niece, Catharine de Medici, to the son of François, the later Henry II of France.
Temporal princes were not less eager purchasers than Pope Julius III, who bought a horn for ninety thousand écus for the Vatican museum. At the coronation of the Emperor Theodore Ivanovitch in Moscow, 1584, he wore "a bejewelled robe--worth two hundred pounds, his staff imperial in his right hand of an unicorn's horn of three and one half feet in length beset with rich stones bought of merchants of Augsburg by the old Emperor in 1581, and cost him seven thousand marks sterling." We hear also that the Sultan of Turkey sent twelve alicorns as a gift to Philip II of Spain, feeling, no doubt, that Philip needed them as much as any man in Europe. (This story was doubted by Caspar Bartholinus, who could not believe that even the Sultan was rich enough to own twelve horns at a time.)
One might write an entire book, and not a dull one, about the alicorns of kings' treasuries; but the present book has a longer road to travel, and I can only mention a few of the horns that have been owned by British sovereigns.
In 1303, while King Edward I of England was fighting far in the North, he learned that a large part of the immense treasure which he had hidden, before setting out, under the Chapter House at Westminster, had been stolen. As soon as he could return to London he set on foot a strict investigation, and the trial that followed proved the guilt of some of the Westminster monks. Under the bed of one of the chief culprits, the keeper of the palace gate, there was discovered a unicorn's horn which had been stolen from the treasury, and for centuries thereafter the skin of a fair-haired and light-complexioned man was to be seen nailed to the place in the wall where the entrance had been made--intended, no doubt, "to encourage the others".
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 hundreth and four score. Item a serpent toung and ane unicorne home, set in gold. Item a covering of variand purpir taster, browdin with thressilis and a unicorne."
But by far the most famous of all British alicorns was the great "Horn of Windsor" which the German traveller Hentzner saw in 1598 and valued, if his Latin text is to be trusted, at one hundred thousand pounds. We know exactly when and where this horn was discovered; it was picked up on the twenty-second of July, 1577, on an island in Frobisher's Strait, and we are told that when it reached England it was "reserved as a jewell by the Queen's Majesty's commandment, in her wardrobe of robes." We have also a dark hint as to what became of it, for Thomas Fuller, speaking of it and of the Tower Horn, both of which he had seen in his youth, remarks: "It belongs not to me to inquire what became of them", and then somewhat later he says that a unicorn's horn has been presented to his Majesty "to supply the place of that in the Tower which our Civil wars have embeseled". We may infer that the Horn of Windsor was "embeseled" at the same time.
Fuller's words imply that the Tower Horn also belonged among the Crown jewels, and it deserved a place there if contemporary estimates of its value were not exaggerated. "In 1641 the Marquis de la Ferte Imbaut, Marshal of France, saw in the Tower of London a unicorn's horn covered with plates of silver and estimated at the enormous sum of forty thousand pounds." Such an estimate as this, at so late a date, must have been due largely to the goldsmith's work, for the value of alicorns fell away rapidly after 1625. The one belonging to Charles I and kept by him at Somerset House was valued at only five hundred pounds, although it was an exceptionally fine specimen. Pierre Pomet tells us that it was seven feet long and weighed thirteen pounds, so that it equalled the famous horn of St. Denis.
The cost of "true unicorn's horn" (verum cornu monocerotis) in its best period was a little over ten times its weight in gold when sold in small pieces or in powder, but whole alicorns sometimes brought twice as much as this. The inventory of Lorenzo the Magnificent, recently opened to the public in the new Medici Museum at Florence, shows that the most precious of his possessions after the famous Tazza Farnese was his alicorn, three and one-half braccia in length and valued by him--probably on the basis of what it cost him--at six thousand gold florins. About the year 1560 a group of German merchants offered an alicorn for sale in Rome and other Italian cities for ninety thousand scudi--the scudo being then worth about four shillings--and finally sold it to the Pope. We are told that the King of France refused one hundred thousand icus for the horn of St. Denis, although we are not told how it came to be in his control. A horn picked up on the coast of Wales in 1588 by a poor woman was sold for a great but unspecified sum. Edward Topsell could say in 1607 that "the price of that which is true is reported at this day to be of no less value than gold". The famous alicorn belonging to the city of Dresden was valued at seventy-five thousand thalers. Ordinarily it was kept on display, strongly protected, in the museum which was known to the more leisured classes as the exotikothaumatourgematatameion, and there was a strict municipal regulation that whenever raspings were taken from it for medicinal uses two persons of princely rank should be present in the room. Pierre Pomet tells us that a horn given to the King of France in 1553 was said to be worth twenty thousand pounds sterling. The Republic of Venice in 1597 offered for a whole horn the sum of thirty thousand ducats--ten times the price of Shylock's pound of flesh--and did not get it.
Many things in the history of commerce are less interesting than the curve of market quotations on unicorns' horns. The means that were taken to increase and then to maintain the price of them we can only infer from a number of minute details, but the reasons why that price rather swiftly declined are more open to examination. By 1734 a well-informed writer could say that horns which formerly brought many thousands of dollars could then be had for twenty-five; yet this same writer makes it clear that even in his time there was still an active sale, and it is certain that long after the wealthy had lost all interest in alicorns the poor continued to buy them. Something of this commercial history is indicated by the fact that the Book of Rates for the first year of Queen Mary, 1531, gives the import duty as "cornu unicorni ye ounce 20 shillings", and that in 1664 the French duty on unicorn's horn was fifty sous per pound.
There is something delightfully humorous, to the modern view, in the idea of adulterating and "faking" the unicorn's horn. The rewards of success were enormous, and human nature was almost as prevalent in the sixteenth century as it is to-day, so that one finds in all the more responsible and socially minded writers upon our topic bitter complaints about the frequency of counterfeiting, warnings that purchasers must be constantly suspicious, and tests by which the true horn may be known from the false. Andrea Bacci makes it clear that fraud was very common in his time, though he thinks it can only be practised in the sale of powdered horn and of fragments, for which, he says, various kinds of horn and pounded stone were sold; but even this would be impossible, he reminds his readers, if only the public would realize that the true horn is rarer than precious stones, so that none but great princes can hope to possess even a large piece. Bacci does not show his usual knowledge and acumen, however, in saying that the horn cannot be imitated in the whole piece, for there is evidence that the wicked knowledge of how this could be done was possessed and used in his time all over Europe. Amatus Lusitanus, following Dioscorides, says that if ivory is boiled for six hours in a decoction of mandragora it becomes soft so that one can bend and work it as he likes, and Cardan tells us that elephants' tusks were often so treated. One source of the supply of alicorns is revealed by Hector Bothius in his Histoty of Scotland, where he asserts, after a grotesque account of walrus hunting, that the tusks of the beasts are straightened artificially and sold in Europe as unicorns' horns. André Thevet affirms that he has actually seen this artificial straightening performed by clever Levantine artisans on an island in the Red Sea, a distributing station for both East and West. Antony Deussing admits that such fraud is possible, and he suspects that it is a good deal practised. Andrea Marini, always a sceptic, goes so far as to imply that even the sacred horns of St. Mark's, in his own city, are not above suspicion. For powdered alicorn the common substitutes seem to have been burnt horn, whalebone, various kinds of clay, the bones of dogs and of pigs, lime-stone, and, most important of all during the later history, stalactites and the bones of fossil animals. Edward Topsell, with all these facts in mind, advises that alicorn be bought "out of the whole horn if it may be done, or of greater crums, and which may describe the figure of the home".
Under these deplorable circumstances there was an obvious need of tests by which the true horn might be known and counterfeits detected. The scientist set himself once more to his ancient and endless task of outwitting and exposing the charlatan, with the result that we may study the nascent "experimental method", as applied to the alicomn, in examples much earlier than Francis Bacon. In these tests we see the fumblings of infant science: it does not ask what seem to us the fundamental questions; for a long time the effort was not to find out whether unicorns existed, nor yet, supposing that they did, whether the magical properties attributed to their horns really belonged to them. Unicorns and magical properties were assumed, so that the only question for scientific investigation was the practical one: is this particular horn genuine cornu monocerotis? Nevertheless, groping and childish as these experiments seem to us, it is with them that the unicorn legend enters its final phase. It had come through the "theological" period, to adopt Comte's famous generalization, and through another which we may perhaps call, by a somewhat violent wrenching of the term, the "metaphysical"; now it slowly emerges into the "positivistic" period, into the modern scientific world in which, after a long time and many hesitations, it was to be forgotten. Thus the history of human thought, so far as we have yet gone, is implicit and epitomized in the lore of the unicorn.
A full account of the alicorn tests would fill many pages, and I must choose a few examples that seem typical of their respective periods. One of the most curious passages concerning them is that given by one David de Pomis, who describes himself with no false modesty as "a Hebrew physician and philosopher of the Tribe of Juda, and a member of the noble family of Pomaria which the Emperor Titus led captive from Jerusalem to Rome." His book is at first sight somewhat bewildering. The fact that it is written in three languages--Hebrew, Latin, and Italian--contributes something to this effect; it is paged backward, the indexes run backward, and the title-page stands at the end; David uses the full-stop only when he is quite through with a topic, to mark a period in the exact sense, and he employs the comma for all other punctuation. All this is darkened rather than illumined for me, in the only copy I have seen, by the numberless marginalia in the hand of Isaac Casaubon, who improves upon his polyglot author by adding a vocabulary in Arabic. But it is precisely in such "quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore" as this--how Edgar Allan Poe would have loved it!--that we have to delve for unicorn lore, and David of the Tribe of Juda does not disappoint one.
"The unicorn", says he, "is a beast that has one horn in its brow, and this horn is good against poison and pestilential fevers. But one is to observe that there is very little of the true horn to be found, most of that which is sold as such being either stag's horn or elephant's tusk. The common test which consists in placing the object in water to see whether bubbles will rise is not at all to be trusted, and therefore, wishing to benefit the world and to expose the wicked persons who sell worthless things at great prices, I take this occasion to describe a true test by which one may know the genuine horn from the false. The test is this: place the horn in a vessel of any sort of material you like, and with it three or four live and large scorpions, keeping the vessel covered. If you find four hours later that the scorpions are dead, or almost lifeless, the alicorn is a good one, and there is not money enough in the world to pay for it. Otherwise, it is false."
A series of alicorn tests is given by Laurens Catelan: the true horn, when thrown into water, sends up little bubbles, "like a pearl"; the water seems to boil, though cold, and one can hear the boiling; the horn gives out a sweet odour when burned; poisonous plants and animals, when brought near it, burst and die; it sweats in the presence of poison. This Catelan, we are to remember, was an eminent pharmacist of the seventeenth century, and he had a whole "true horn" of his own, yet he names these five tests in apparent good faith. The physician Jordanus in his book De Pe.cte speaks of seeing a Jew enclose a spider in a circle drawn on the floor with an alicorn, and he says that the spider could not cross the line, and starved to death inside it. Basil Valentine, in his Triumphal Chariot of Alchemy, specifies that the circle should be drawn, not with the horn, but with the flesh of the animal; and Ambroise Pare relates that the test was sometimes made by soaking the horn in water, dipping a finger in this water, and then drawing a circle with it on a table. This was something like the test that John Webster had in mind in the lines:--
These tests were not always accepted, however, by more thoughtful writers. Atnbroise Pare, like Andrea Marini, says that he has tried all of them and that those that cannot be explained on natural grounds do not work. Cardan gives his own set of tests, according to which the true horn is always striated, is extremely hard, very heavy, of the colour of boxwood, and able to save the life of a pigeon poisoned with arsenic. In the last of these tests we approach modern methods. It was used more and more frequently as time went by and gradually supplanted all rivals. Thus Andrea Bacci tells us that the Cardinal of Trent had an alicorn richly adorned with gold and gems which he used very generously--"and I am able to affirm that on one occasion, several signors being present, he put it to this test: he gave arsenic to two pigeons, and then to one of them he fed as much as it would take of powder scraped from the horn. This one, after a few symptoms of sickness, revived and lived; the other died in two hours." And again we read that on the 3rd of October, 1636, the Professors and College of Physicians of Copenhagen were present at an experiment made by a pharmacist of that city named John Woldenberg. He gave arsenic to two doves and two kittens, and then administered scrapings of alicorn to one of the doves and one of the kittens. According to Ole Wurm, who was present, the test was "not entirely unsuccessful", for the dove to which the alicorn was given survived, but both kittens died.
This brings us to the most interesting, the strangest, and the central belief about the unicorn--that its horn has a mysterious alexipharmical or prophylactic "virtue". It was supposed to be a detector of the presence of poison. Opinions varied concerning the mode of its operation and the causes of its power, but that power itself was seldom questioned or subjected to intelligent investigation. The faith in it rested upon authority, tradition, and common consent, which have always been and are still the strongest influences governing belief; destruction of this faith took a century and a half of time and the gradual substitution of new habits of thought for old.
For a clear English statement of this faith we may go to John Swan, an unquestioning though late believer. "Monoceros", he writes, "is a beast with one horne, called therefore by the name of an unicorne . . . which hath naturally but one horne, and that a very rich one, which groweth out of the middle of his forehead, being a horne of such virtue as is in no beast's horne besides; which, while some have gone about to deny, they have secretly blinded the eyes of the world from their full view of the greatness of God's works. . . This horne hath many sovereign virtues, insomuch that being put upon a table furnished with many junkets and banqueting dishes, it will quickly descrie whether there be any poyson or venime among them, for if there be the horne is presently covered with a kind of sweat or dew."
For two full centuries at least, roughly speaking from the final decades of the fourteenth century to those of the sixteenth, this belief was almost universal and unchallenged throughout Europe; but even in the fourteenth century it was already ages old, for one sees at a glance that it must be closely related to the belief reported by Aelian about the beakers used by Indian potentates. After the sixteenth century it lingered on, in spite of repeated attacks, almost into our own time. At present we may focus attention upon the period of its undisputed sway.
As one would expect, considering the constant search of mediaeval medicine for a panacea, so remarkable an object as the alicorn was not allowed to remain a mere detector of poisons. To the basic faith in its supernatural properties there was added the belief that it had a more general prophylactic power, and at length, invading the other great department of medicine, it was widely accepted as a powerful therapeutic agent. Before the sixteenth century closed the alicorn had an important place in materia medica, for we learn from an accurate and scholarly physician of the time that it was then prescribed as a cure for all poisons, for fevers, for bites of mad dogs and scorpions, for falling sickness, worms, fluxes, loss of memory, the plague, and prolongation of youth. Charlatans were even known to assert that it could raise the dead.
One of the earliest indications that this superstition was beginning to form in Europe is to be found in the writings of Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179). A most remarkable woman--by no means a saint, though often called so, and scarcely a "mystic", proper regard being had to her pathological condition--Hildegarde lays strong claim to the respect of those who can be just to brilliant reasoning based upon false premises. The centre of her encyclopaedic interests was medicine, so that she could scarcely have ignored the alleged virtues of the alicorn if she had ever heard of them. I find no mention of them in her works, but I do find discussion of other matters closely allied. Hildegarde believed that not the horn alone of the unicorn, but the whole animal was medicinal: under its horn, she says, it has a piece of metal as transparent as glass in which a man may see his face; she tells us how to make an unguent of the yolks of eggs and powdered unicorn's liver, which unguent is a sovereign cure for leprosy--"unless the leper in question happens to be one whom Death is determined to have or else one whom God will not allow to be cured". (As Hildegarde is the only woman who has ever written anything important about the unicorn, the suggestion of the cook-book in her "yolks of eggs and powdered unicorn's liver" is the more welcome.) A belt made of unicorn's skin, she says, will preserve one from fevers, and boots of the same material assure one of sound legs and immunity from plague. All this is good to know, and it comes with the authority of one who, as head of a large religious house, had the health of a whole community in her keeping.
Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), as mighty in his influence as in learning, a cautious and even thoughtful writer considering his times, makes little of the horn's magical virtues and thinks they should be investigated further. Peter of Abano (c. 1250-1318), who carried on the work of Albertus in "conciliating" the remains of Aristotelianism with Aristotle's Arabic commentators, was a man of different stamp. Generally regarded as a magician, he seems to have saved himself from the stake only by an opportune death. During his exploration of Arabic lore he acquired a firm faith in the alicorn which he transmitted to many others, and indeed if one were asked to name a single writer to whom the European belief might be attributed with least exaggeration, one could not do better than to choose this Peter. The fact is, of course, that no single writer was even largely responsible, for the belief grew up at a time when no scholar ever expressed an original idea if he knew what he was doing. It may well be that the Crusaders returning from the East did more to spread the faith in the alicorn through Europe than all the books put together, but at any rate that faith was well established among the learned before 1350, and by the end of the same century it was accepted by the wealthier classes of Europe and Great Britain. The poor and ignorant were to have no practical interest in it for at least two centuries to come.
Detached expressions and indications of the belief are almost innumerable. The writer known as "Dame Juliana Berners" says that "venym is defended by the home of the Unycorne", and James I of Scotland speaks of
We hear that the inquisitor Torquemada always kept a piece of alicorn on his table as a precaution against the wiles of his numerous enemies; it was carried by Spanish and English explorers of America as conscientiously as quinine is carried to-day by travellers in tropical countries; Cabeza de Vaca writes that during his journey down the Paraguay River in 1543 there were three attempts made to poison him with arsenic, but that he foiled them all with a bottle of oil and a piece of alicorn. When the Elizabethan adventurer, Edward Webbe, was at the point of death from poison administered to him by "some lewd gunners"--one sympathizes with those gunners, for they were probably worn out by the man's outrageous lies.--"his phisitian gave him speedily Unicorne's home to drinke", with the deplorable result that he lived on. A whole ship's company of Englishmen was poisoned in Elizabethan days "by the roots of Mandioca, but by a piece of Unicornes home they were preserved". It seems probable that even Francis Bacon, reputed "father of the experimental method", shared the belief of his time in the alicorn, although he admits that the general confidence in it was in his day declining. When the Apothecaries' Society of London was founded in 1617 two unicorns were chosen as the supporters of its arms, and the common sign of the apothecary's shop, both in England and in Europe, during the seventeenth century was the figure of a unicorn or that of its head and horn. Laurens Catelan lists the names of a dozen foremost medical authorities who had not only used the alicorn in their practice but had praised it in their writings. Conrad Gesner, a zoologist of great influence, says that the horn, especially that "ex novis insulis allatum", works miracles against poison. Even at Venice and in the middle of the seventeenth century there was a general belief that the remarkable sweetness of the water in a certain well was due to bits of alicorn that had been thrown into it years before. In 1639 James Primerose of Hull said that the horn was still more trusted than the bezoar-stone, although less common. But there is no need to extend this catalogue farther in order to show that the belief in the alicorn's magical properties was at least as general as the contemporary belief in witchcraft. I may end it by quoting the words of one of the most learned and witty of Englishmen. Thomas Fuller, having at one time doubted the stories of the horn's virtue, reconsiders his doubts, and concludes delightfully: "It is improbable that the vigour of Nature should extrude that so specious to sight which is not also sovereign to service."
Long before Fuller's time there were of course disbelievers abroad, as the Reverend Edward Topsell makes clear--"A vulgar sort of Infidels who scarcely believe any herb but such as they see in their own gardens, or any beast but such as is in their own flocks, or any knowledge but such as is bred in their own brains . . . so that of the true Unicorn, because of the nobleness of his horn, they have ever been in doubt: by which distraction it appeareth unto me that there is some secret enemy in the inward degenerate nature of man which continually blindeth the eyes of God his people from beholding the greatness of God his works." We shall have to hear from several base heretics of this kidney in their turn, but in the meantime there is no doubt what was the orthodox belief.
The rapid development and spread of this belief and the correspondingly rapid increase in the prices paid for alicorns synchronize curiously--one cannot help thinking, significantly--with another equally swift development, that in the art or profession of poisoning. Working upon the few poor hints left them by ancient writers, and urged on by the peculiar needs created by their political institutions, the Italians of the Renaissance carried this art and profession to wonderful heights. When every possible allowance has been made for the exaggeration caused by contemporary fear and by the romantic fancies of a later age, it remains clear that, during just those two centuries in which the interest in alicorns culminated, poison was a tool of social and political ambition very commonly used in Italy, always to be considered and provided against, never to be ignored. We need not believe in all the alleged crimes of the Borgias in order to recognize in the very nature of the Italian tyrannies a direct incitement to this basest and most cowardly form of murder, for the violence and crime and subterfuge by which the tyrant frequently gained his power often gave the suggestion, sometimes almost the excuse, for the insidious violence of his taking off, and there can be no doubt whatever that many of the noblemen of Italy lived in constant fear. The "poison-rings", the amulets and charms against poison, the crystal cups and the goblets of Venetian glass that have come down to us would alone show that. Between the early years of the fourteenth century, when Peter of Abano wrote his treatise De Venenis, and the appearance in 1586 of Andrea Bacci's book of similar title, scores of Italian scholars and physicians, most of them in the pay of great lords, pitted their learning and wits against the secret skill of the poisoner. The pharmacopceia was ransacked, ancient texts were searched, superstitions older than civilization were revived--but nothing would serve; the dukes and counts and captains and cardinals of Italy continued to die suddenly, mysteriously, and, at least in one sense, prematurely. Medical science could not then detect the nature of the poison by which a man had died, and could not even make certain that he had been poisoned at all; but this uncertainty did not mitigate the fear. If suspicion outran the facts, this did not slow down the search for antidotes and precautions.
Francis Petrarch, who lived for many years in the palaces of cardinals and dukes and who knew their hunted lives at first hand, left a vivid picture of one of them at his noon-day meal to which I have already referred. There is exaggeration in that picture, but the facts were terrible enough. Those who think that our northern ideas of Italian poisoning are chiefly due to misinterpretation of Machiavelli and to diseased fancies, such as those of Webster, Tourneur, and Beddoes, may be recommended to study the career of the Milanese poisoner Aqua Toffana, who although she lived long after what may be called the best period of her art, is said to have disposed of more than six hundred persons during her half-century of practice, before she was publicly strangled at the age of seventy. When cases of poisoning were traced to her, she took refuge in a convent--as her only dangerous rival, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, also did in like straits--and from that point of vantage, the convent authorities refusing to give her up, she went on selling her Acquetta di Napoli for twenty years more. And on every bottle of this deadly poison--tasteless, odourless, without colour--there was painted the image of a saint.
French poisoning on a grand scale is usually supposed to have come, like most of the other arts, from Italy--or such, at any rate, is the opinion of French scholars who trace it confidently to the advent of Catharine de' Medici and her crowd of Italian retainers. Her family had been remarkable even in Italy for its frequent resort to poison and for equally frequent deaths from poisoning--one reason for the equality being, perhaps, the fact that the family had a way of practising upon its own members. The famous "laboratory" in the palace of Cosmo I, which none but he ever entered, has often been supposed to have been devoted to the manufacture of poisons. Cosmo's son, for whom Andrea Bacci wrote his book on the unicorn, died in agony of unascertained cause, followed in fifteen hours by his wife, and it was observed at the time that his brother, Cardinal Ferdinand de Medici, made what seemed undignified haste to divest himself of his robes so as to succeed him. The handsome alicorn mounted in gold which, as we have seen, was given by Pope Clement VII to the bridegroom's family when Catharine de' Medici married the Dauphin, was therefore a most appropriate wedding gift, all these things considered, for it might certainly have been taken as a graceful intimation that Catharine was not expected to practice her family's talents upon her husband's kin--or that, in case she did so, they might be prepared. However this may have been, rumour was still kept busy with her name; she was often charged with the poisoning of the Queen of Navarre in 1572 and even with the death of her own son, the Duke of Anjou, who died very suddenly in 1585, just after his valet had "forgotten" to test his wine with an alicorn.
All the arts blossomed somewhat later in France than in Italy, and it was not until after the middle of the seventeenth century that the Marquise de Brinvilliers, by slaying with poison, and chiefly for money, her father, her husband, her sister, and her two brothers, threatened Italy's "bad eminence". With better luck, or if she had not stolen out of her convent to meet the "lover" who was really an officer of the law, she might have gone as far as Aqua Toffana. The steady increase of criminal poisoning led Louis XIV to establish a committee, the so-called Chambre Ardente, which sat for three years investigating what had become almost a major social problem. But France has never rivalled the secret society of women, mostly young, discovered at Rome in 1659, the sole purpose of which was to kill by poison the husbands of all the members. These women are said to have met regularly at the house of one Hieronyma Spara, who found the drugs and gave directions for the dosing. An archaic touch in the story of this quaint sisterhood, which takes it quite out of the atmosphere of our more chivalrous modern times, is that twelve of the lot were hanged and most of the others were publicly whipped through the streets of Rome.
England was still more backward than France at the time of the Renaissance. The art of poisoning was not one of those brought back by the "Italianate Englishman", although it was among those that Roger Ascham feared, and if it had been it would have found scant encouragement at home. An Act of Parliament passed in 1531 made poisoning treason, and provided that those proved guilty of it should be boiled to death. The first person to suffer this penalty was a certain cook named Richard Roose, convicted of trying--unsuccessfully--to poison the Bishop of Rochester, and two other persons at least were executed in this way at Smithfield before the Act was repealed in 1547. Even in England, however, rumours of poisoning in high places were always flying about. There were several such tales of attempts upon the life of Elizabeth; James I was suspected of having poisoned Prince Henry, and Charles I of having poisoned his father; it was thought by many that Cromwell had done away with the Princess Elizabeth, and Cromwell himself was supposed to have died of poison. Several of the fourteen physicians who waited upon Charles II gave the opinion that he had been poisoned, and many tales were current as to the culprit.
One has no difficulty in understanding, therefore, how the demand for the alicorn, as for several other articles used to detect the presence of poison, was built up and maintained, and the prices paid for alicorns no longer seem incredible when we think of them with the history of poisoning in mind. All a man hath will he give for his life, and it is a safe inference from what we know that more than one Italian city already groaning under taxation had to melt its silver spoons in order that its lord might pay some northern merchant the sum he asked for an alicorn. The na•ve device of employing pregustators or "tasters" which had been sufficient for the ancient Romans had to be abandoned in a time when, according to general belief, a clever poisoner could compound a drug that would kill in an hour, a week, or a month, as pleasure and convenience might dictate. Belief in the poisoner's powers reached fantastic heights. So sensible and well-trained a man as Ambroise Pare, trusted physician to the Court of France--and, it must be said, to Catharine de Medici herself--thought that it was possible to kill a man by placing poison under the saddle on which he habitually rode. Pope Clement VII, who owned several alicorns and gave away as many more, was thought to have been killed by the odours of a poisoned torch. Poison might be hidden in flowers, in gloves, in rings and bracelets, in cosmetics. How could it be escaped? Almost all the old writers on poisons and their antidotes--an important department of the "Advice to Princes" type of literature--begin by saying that the best security a prince can have is found in living a righteous life and in making no enemies; but this counsel was felt to be unworldly and the practice of it too onerous. There was no real security unless one could find a means of detecting poison the instant it was brought near one, and upon this task, therefore, huge erudition and great sums of money were for a long time expended.
Besides the alicorn, about a dozen different substances and objects were used during the Renaissance in the halls of Italian princes and elsewhere for the detection of poison. These were, in something like the order of importance: the bezoar-stone, the cerastes's horn, snake's-tongue, griffin's claw, terra sigillata, vessels of crystal and of Venetian glass, a‘tites or eagle-stone, snake-stone or ophite, the stone called "stellio", the toad-stone, the vulture's or raven's claw hung over a burning candle, rhinoceros horns, walrus tusks, parrots, and various limestone formations having the appearance of horns. Although a consideration of these may seem a digression, it will help to clarify the central problem of the alicorn.
The beaoar-stone was a calculus, composed of calcium phosphate and hair, found in the intestines of certain Oriental sheep, goats, monkeys, and hedgehogs. Similar concretions might have been found, of course, in European animals, but either this fact was not known or else objects found near at hand were not valued. Hunters and plainsmen of the western United States still believe in the magical properties of the "mad-stone", an object of the same kind found in deer and put to similar uses, and there seems to have been an active belief in such objects in Peru before the Spanish conquest. Long known in the Orient and still used there, these stones were brought to Europe in large quantities by Portuguese traders from India and were often sold for ten times their weight in gold. They were usually enclosed in delicately wrought baskets of gold filigree hung on chains so that they might be dipped into wine. There are frequent references to the bezoar owned by Queen Elizabeth and to many others belonging to European monarchs. During the great plagues in Lisbon bezoar-stones were hired out to sufferers for ten shillings per day.
The cerastes is a small poisonous serpent of the Sahara and Mesopotamia which has two very short protuberances, vaguely like horns, above its eyes. The belief of the ancients was that it buried itself in the sand, leaving only these "horns" above it, and that with them it killed instantly any creature that stepped upon it. The passage quoted above from Petrarch illustrates the use of these horns in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when they were set in elaborate goldsmith's work and placed on the dining-table where all might see them, in the belief that when poison was brought near them they would break into perspiration. The similarity between this belief and that regarding the alicorn is obvious, and a contemporary writer has even ventured to assert that the cerastes gave the original suggestion for the whole unicorn legend--thus solving at a stroke to his own satisfaction a problem which, as he accurately says, "has long perplexed humanity".
Albertus Magnus himself had spoken without complete incredulity of the "virtue" of the cerastes, Peter of Abano gave it his full support, and all later writers on poisons and antidotes echo in chorus, the belief spreading from book to book without the slightest reference to actual experience. The prevalence of the superstition is illustrated by the belief that the gates of Prester John's palace were composed of sardonyx mixed with cerastes' horns, so that no poison could be brought through them undetected.
Even more commonly used than the horns of the cerastes, probably because they were more easily obtained, were snake-tongues. These tongues were suspended, to the number of thirty or more, on elaborate and often costly dining-table ornaments, usually in the form of golden trees, and such languiers or "tongue-stands" are sometimes seen to-day in museums. It was thought that these also perspired in the presence of poison, and because of the belief that they should be kept as dry as possible they were usually placed near the salt--and therefore near the master of the house. In many instances, indeed, the salt-cellar itself was covered with snake-tongues. Powdered snake-tongue was sold in all the apothecaries' shops of Europe during the sixteenth century as an antidote and a protection against poison.
One of the axioms of magical belief everywhere in the world is that an object bearing a close resemblance to another object has the "virtue" or "property" of that other. A curious illustration of this is seen in the use of the stone called "Glossopetra" or "tongue-stone", really the petrified tooth of a shark. "This stone", writes Bo‘thius de Boodt, "is so like a tongue in shape that the vulgar not only call it snake's tongue but actually think it is that. . . Many people make much of it for its supposed power against poisons and for keeping off the evil eye. They say that when poison is brought near to it a sweat or dew breaks out upon it, thus revealing the intended crime."
This recalls the very ancient and still existing belief of the East Indians in a stone with similar properties, sometimes vaguely called in Europe the "Smaragdus", to be found in a serpent's head. Phiostratus relates in his life of Apollonius that the snake-charmer lures the snake out of its hole by incantations, lulls it to sleep, cuts off its head with a hatchet, and then extracts the jewel. This stone or jewel is said to contain "a thin crescent-like fibre which oscillates unceasingly in the centre." In other words, the fibre resembles a snake's tongue, and the resemblance has suggested, in the first place, that it is powerful against poison, and, in the second place, that it is to be found in the head of a snake.
From these stones of the Indian snake the transition is easy to the toad-stones of Europe, commonly worn in finger-rings as amulets and prophylactics. No doubt because of the representations made by those who had them for sale, most of the poison-detecting agents were thought to be very difficult to obtain unless one knew the magic formula, and just as there was only one way of capturing unicorns so there was only one quite correct way of securing toadstones. There were a number of books produced in the late Middle Ages, many of them attributed to Aristotle, which divulged these magic formulae, and in one of these books those who wish to secure a toad-stone are instructed to "put a great or overgrown toad (first bruised in divers places) into an earthen pot, and put this same in an ant's hillock, and cover the same with earth, which toad at length the ants will eat. So that the bones of the toad and stone will be left in the pot." And the test of the toad-stone, to determine whether it was genuine, was equally simple. "You shall know whether the toad-stone called Crapaudine be the right and perfect stone or not. Hold the stone before a toad so that he may see it, and if it be a right and true stone the toad will leap toward it and make as though he would snatch it from you, he envieth so much that a man should have the stone." Most of the toad-stones in actual use seem to have been greenish-brown objects about the size of a large pea, and some were certainly the fossilized teeth of the sting-ray. Finger-rings containing them are still not uncommon.
Similarly used but more difficult to obtain was the "griffin's claw"--in reality the horn of an ibex or a buffalo. There seem to be few exceptions to the rule that when we can trace back the history of a griffin's claw to the time when it came into human possession we come to a saint or some dignitary of the Church, and it is safe to assume a belief that these claws could be secured only by some holy man who cured a griffin of a grievous disease and claimed a claw as his fee. Such a story, which has more than one parallel in folklore, is told of Pope Cornelius in relation to the claw now kept at Cornelimunster on the Inde. In the old Cottonian Library there was a claw inscribed "Griphi unguis divo Cuthberto Dunelmensi sacer", and the supposition is that Saint Cuthbert acquired it in the regular way. Until the French Revolution the monastery of St. Denis had a claw which seems to have had a similar history. All three of those mentioned, and most of those to be seen in various parts of Germany, have been made into drinking-horns. They were thought to act like the beakers mentioned by Ctesias and Aelian when poisoned liquor was drunk from them.
The old belief concerning cups of crystal and of Venetian glass, that they would crack when poison was poured into them, is too familiar to require more than mention. It is a well-known fact, also, that the carbuncle or ruby--the names were commonly interchangeable in the Middle Ages--was thought to have an unerring faculty of detecting poison. More interesting than these was the a‘tites or eagle-stone--so-called because, according to Pliny, it was to be found only in the eagle's nest, and was therefore exceedingly rare. The eagle placed it there, as she also sometimes did the amethyst, to watch over her young while she was absent, and it was able to do this because of the great antipathy felt toward it by all serpents. We are told that if a plate containing poison was placed over this stone no man would be able to eat the food upon the plate.
Another belief which carries us far back into primitive magic is that concerning the vulture's foot, an object that seems to have been in common use on the dining-tables of the Middle Ages, perhaps because of its comparative cheapness. The foot was hung in such a way that the claws surrounded the flame of a candle, and it was supposed that whenever poison was brought upon the table it would clutch and extinguish the flame.
Perhaps the most important of all these amulets and prophylactics, considering its great age and universal dispersion, is the terra sigillata, "stamped earth", or earth of Lemnos. This was originally a red clay dug from a certain hill in the isle of Lemnos on the 6th of August in every year, with appropriate ceremonies performed by priests in honour of Diana. Dioscorides informs us that after the clay was dug it was mixed with goat's blood and stamped with a seal bearing the image of the goddess. When properly prepared and sent forth with this hall-mark, the little cakes of clay, a quarter of an inch in thickness and ranging from the diameter of a sixpence to that of a half-crown, were regarded by the ancients, and by the people of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance as well, as perfect antidotes for all kinds of poison. The clay was also made into cups, which were thought to render harmless the most deadly drugs. This earth was one of the seventy-three ingredients of the theriaca, altogether the most famous and the most astonishing concoction of ancient and mediaeval pharmacy. As the Christian centuries wore on the image of the heathen goddess was displaced by other emblems--among them I have seen the figure of the unicorn--and other clays, even some from England, were found to be quite as effective as those of Lemnos; the pagan ritual and the goat's blood were felt by all good Christians, one need hardly say, to have less than no value; yet, with all these changes, the general faith in the substance held on with surprising tenacity. Writers of the sixteenth century who have only contempt for toad-stones and vultures' claws retain a deep respect for terra sigillata. They had never known it to do the slightest good, but it was mentioned by Dioscorides and it came out of that ancient Greek world which was still regarded, and quite rightly, as the source of almost all sound medical theory.
The two substances remaining to be mentioned, the walrus tusk and the horn of the rhinoceros, point back in the direction of the alicorn. Among the many different objects passed off by charlatans as verum cornu monocerotis, probably the most common was the tusk of the walrus, usually called the "morse" or the "rohart" in old books. I have already mentioned an amusing passage in Hector Bo‘thius about the hunting of the walrus among the northern isles. This great fish, he says, swims about for a long time without taking any sleep, but at last, overcome with drowsiness, he turns to the shore, finds a convenient bush or tree, hooks his down-curving teeth over a bough, and falls into a deep slumber. Then the hunters approach and bind him with ropes, and after cutting off his teeth, set him free to grow another pair. The tusks are then straightened artificially and sold as alicorns. Again, we are told by Dr. Giles Fletcher, writing in 1598, that the fish-tooth which is called in Russia the Riba-Zuba is used there, and among the Persians and Bougharians as well, to make the knife and sword-hafts used by noblemen. "Some use the powder of it against poison, as the Unicornes horn. The fish that weareth it is called a morse, and is caught about Pechora." André Thevet asserts that he has actually seen the conversion of walrus tusks into alicorns performed by charlatans of the Red Sea district, and the shrewdest of sixteenth-century writers on the unicorn suspects that the "horns" bought in his day are really marine in their origin.
The walrus tusk was not regarded as a substitute for the alicorn but as the thing itself, and the rhinoceros horn owed much of the vogue it had in Europe to the same estimation. Andrea Marini asserts, indeed, that the rhinoceros horn had no reputation whatever in his time except that which it owed to the unicorn--a situation not without ironic humour for one who realizes how much the legend of the unicorn, and especially the belief in the magic virtues of the horn, owes to the rhinoceros. It seems certain, however, that Marini exaggerates, and that the rhinoceros cup was rather frequently used in Europe by those who had heard of its Oriental reputation. Portuguese merchants would not neglect so attractive a commodity. There is still preserved in the Copenhagen Museum a rhinoceros beaker which Rudolph II of Germany (1575-1612) had prepared for his own use; another was owned by the Medici family, and another still, I believe, by the Visconti of Milan. Many more there probably were, but one cannot distinguish them in the records because they were one and all described as alicorns.
The description of the furniture used at the wedding dinner given by Edward IV for his sister and the Duke of Burgundy illustrates one method of using the alicorn. Like the horn of the cerastes, the snake's tongue, the a‘tites, and other objects, it was simply set upon the table, or near it, so that any change in its appearance might be instantly seen. We may imagine that the gaiety of mediaeval feasts was somewhat sobered by the necessity of keeping the eyes fixed upon such objects, and that the grisly suggestions of the vulture's claw might somewhat impede the flow of soul, but the Middle Ages seem to have liked strong contrasts. More commonly, and for a much longer time, the alicorn was used to touch the food and drink before the meal began, being carried about the table by an officer of the household detailed for that important trust. When so employed it was called in mediaeval French "une espreuve a lincorne", and was generally attached to a cord or chain by which it might be hung against the wall when not in use. References to these espreuves are numerous in old inventories, and the descriptions of them often indicate the use to which they were put. Thus we read in an inventory, taken in 1416, of the Dukes of Burgundy: "Une tousche, en quoy a esté mis une piece de lichorne, pour touschier la viande de Monseigneur. Even the inventory of the Emperor Charles V refers to "une touche a licorne, garnie d'or, pour faire essay"--certainly an interesting article to find in the possession of a man who seems to have eaten himself to death.
One can readily imagine that there was a stateliness in this old ceremony of testing the great man's food and drink that would cause it to be kept up long after the belief in its magical efficacy had been abandoned by intelligent people, and one is not surprised, therefore, to learn that it was maintained in the Royal household of France until 1789, when the Revolution made a clean sweep of all such antiquated customs. To what extent those who saw this ceremony performed at the end of the eighteenth century believed in its supernatural value, and to what extent it was for them merely a graceful ritual, interesting because it was old, we cannot say. Most of them, probably, could not have said themselves. The question, however, is an attractive one because it reveals a situation common to all periods of dying beliefs--and this is to say all periods whatsoever, "for each age is a dream that is dying". Even here, almost at the end of its history, the unicorn continues to illumine the ways of human thought. The ceremony of touching the king's food and drink, in its various effects upon different minds, was closely analogous, we may be sure, to the celebration of the Mass or of any other Christian sacrament. By some, that is, it would be accepted at "face value" and without question; the more sophisticated would feel that although they themselves could not believe in it, yet it would have a wholesome effect upon the simple-minded and would tend to keep them in order; others would think that it ought to be abolished because it had no foundation in fact; a few, the most sophisticated of all, would wish to see it preserved simply because it was old and dignified and had aesthetic charm. As we look out across the Christian world of to-day, are not these the chief varieties of religious opinion that we discover?
Two hundred years before the ceremony was abandoned--with the heroic assistance of Madame Guillotine--Chapelain, physician to Charles IX of France, had said "that he would willingly take away that custome of dipping a piece of Unicorn's home in the King's cup, but that he knew that opinion to be so deeply ingrafted in the minds of men that he feared it would scarce be impugned by reason." Many physicians, he continued, who had themselves no belief in the alicorn felt obliged to prescribe it because, if they did not do so and their patients died, they never had any peace from the surviving relatives. And besides, said he, any man who undertakes to discredit opinions that have been long accepted puts himself in the position of an owl that shows itself in daylight in some prominent place and is persecuted by every other kind of bird. Chapelain and his numerous kind therefore held their tongues, and those who think that the beliefs of the people should never be disturbed will no doubt be charmed with the results--two hundred years were added to the alicorn's lease of life.
Unicorn lore provides an exact parallel also for the feeling of a certain group, well represented in every age, that orthodox belief has a salutary and stabilizing effect upon the public at large, tending to make it patient of conditions that agnostics and free-thinkers might not so quietly tolerate. There is reason to suspect that even in the sixteenth century the more enlightened tyrants of Italy maintained the use of the alicorn, not because they themselves had any faith in its direct action, but rather because they wished others to have such faith, thinking that it would tend to discourage poisoners. This assertion is definitely made by Andrea Marini, who wrote freely in Venice, expressing his own mind; it is strongly implied even by Andrea Bacci, who wrote under the patronage of the Medici and therefore without any freedom whatever. Bacci's pen was hired, and his book on the unicorn is a vivid example of what can happen to a man of sense and learning who is pulled one way by his respect for truth and another way by what he takes to be his interests.
According to Aelian, as the erudite were sure to know, the unicorn's horn was properly used only in the form of a drinking-vessel. Here arose a difficulty, for the alicorns of Europe were seldom more than two inches and a half in diameter at the base, so that it was impossible to shape satisfactory beakers from them. The difficulty was evaded by making cups in which a few slices of the horn were inset, or slabs of it were fitted together to form a tankard. Among the objects once belonging to Queen Elizabeth that were given by James I 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 7 ounces". The King of England gave to the Duke of Brittany in 1414: "une grande coupe d'or . . . et y a au fons une licorne et autres choses contre venin". Such citations might be continued indefinitely, but all that one can find show that these cups, like the espreuves and the other objects into which the alicorn was fashioned, belonged solely to the great and wealthy. The unicorn maintained its aristocratic associations almost to the end--and this not merely because of the great price of its horn, but also because only the great fear poison. Seneca had phrased the situation long before in one pregnant line: Venenum in auro bibitur.
Slices of the horn were fitted into the handles of table-knives and salt-cellars, they were shaped into "test-spoons" and sunk in the silver of table dishes, but in all these forms the alicorn was known only to the wealthy. Poorer men used it in powdered form and as a therapeutic. Pharmaceutical ideas were so loose and so uncontrolled by scientific tests that there was no difficulty whatever in this transfer from one department of medicine to the other. Such a transfer, indeed, was inevitable, for the set of beliefs underlying the faith in the alicorn's supernatural properties were just such as would lead to the acceptance of it as a valuable antidote and drug. If it was "indicated" as an antidote against poison, then it seemed to follow that it would be equally good against the so-called "poisonous diseases". Of these the most important was the Plague or Pest.
There is no more pitiful record in the world than that in the scores of books composed during the Middle Ages on methods of avoiding and curing the Plague. It is a record both disgusting and ludicrous, but one's prevailing mood in reading it is that of compassion. Unicorn's horn is certainly the most pleasing of the materia medica mentioned in it, and it is as effective as most. I take up the Monumenta Sinoptica de Peste Preservanda et Curanda, written long after the Middle Ages had closed by John Collis, and published in 1631. This book names thousands of drugs sold over the counters of England and Europe less than three centuries ago as the best means known to science of saving the lives of one's family and friends from the pestilence that never quite died out. Many of these drugs are too foul to name and others too ridiculous to believe in. Hoofs of asses and elks, horns of wild goats and of stags, viper's flesh and Mathiolus's celebrated oil of scorpions, dust of scorpions, powdered swallow's heart--one hardly knows whether to laugh or to weep. For the thought will emerge as one reads that although these people held views about materia medica which we have abandoned--quite recently--yet they loved their children somewhat as we do ours. It was by such means as these that they tried to keep them.
"Noble and powerful against all poisonous and pestilential diseases is the unicorn's horn", says a physician of the time when the Plague took its toll of thousands every year. "Kings and princes and men of wealth all own it, and they should preserve it for the use of future generations. Furthermore, as I know from personal experience, it is highly effective against poisons and all malignant evils." Powdered alicorn was recommended as a specific against the Plague by many of the best physicians of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the English version of Johann Schršder's important Pbarmacop'ria Medico-Chymica we are told of the "Vertues" of the horn that "it is Sudorifick, Alexipharmacal, and Cordial, hence it is commended good against Poysons, infectious diseases, etc. It is also accounted profitable in the Epelepsie of Infants. The Dose from 4 grains to half a scruple, sometimes a whole scruple and more." According to Andrea Bacci the proper dose is ten grains scraped from the inside of the hornor a piece might equally well be worn as an amulet. Bacci also says that the Cardinal of Trent, a most "public-minded" man, often gave away filings from his alicorn "in cases of suspected poisoning, mushrooms, fever, and pest, for the most part with excellent success". Laurens Catelan warns his readers that the alicorn, whether in the piece or powdered, must never be put into hot water, for this destroys all its virtue, and Conrad Gesner is equally emphatic in saying that only fresh powder can be used successfully. When the daughter of Henry II of France fell ill with smallpox in 1557, Anne de Montmorency sent to her nurse a piece of alicorn with directions that it should be "dissolved" in cold water and drunk. The water commonly called eau do licorne and sold under that name throughout Europe was not made in this expensive way, but merely by standing one end of the horn in a vessel of water, as at St. Denis. Sometimes a hole was bored through the length of the horn and water poured through it, but in either case the water was held to be highly beneficial and found a ready sale. In this way it was made possible to "drink the horn". Intelligent people, however, seem to have preferred to take their alicorn in powdered form. How intelligent these people were may be inferred from a certain illuminating fact of medical history: the English Royal Society of Physicians was required to issue, at intervals, lists of the drugs to be carried by every registered pharmacist in London, and all of the twelve or fifteen lists issued thus officially between 1651 and 1741 named the unicorn's horn. The general editor of the last issue including this drug was no less a person than Sir Hans Sloane. In the edition of 1746 it was tacitly dropped. At about the same time that the Royal Society of Physicians decided to abandon the horn, Hogarth expressed his layman's attitude toward it by placing it in a prominent position in the shop of the quack doctor presented in the series Manage a la Mode.
It must be admitted that the English Society was "not the first to lay the old aside", for Italian and French physicians had been protesting against the alicorn for almost two centuries before this. Andrea Marini had ridiculed the whole belief as early as 1566; Christofle Landré had done all that a courageous and clear thinker could do to kill it even eight years before that; Ambroise Pare, one of the most influential physicians of all time, attacked it repeatedly; Laurent Joubert, another physician to the Court of France, had classed it contemptuously with powdered pearls and potable gold; even Pierre Pomet, a foremost authority, had spoken of it in 1694 as entirely out of date. Decidedly, England did not err on the side of precipitation.
How much responsibility for this lingering of the drug should be attributed to the apothecaries we can only guess. One of the more interesting phases of medical history is that of the relationships between apothecaries and physicians. Often the two parties have been at league, "for ech of hem made other for to winne", but quite as often they have been at strife, and both league and strife might be illustrated, probably, if we knew enough, from the history of the alicorn. One cannot help thinking it significant that forty years after Pare's Discours and almost sixty years after Marini's Falsa Opinione dell' Alicorno, the French apothecary Catelan, who had certainly read both of these opponents of the whole superstition, brought out his Histoire de la Licorne, arguing with apparent conviction not only for the real existence of the animal but for the medical value of its horn. Considering that he was an intelligent man and a leader in his profession, it seems fair to recall that he had alicorn powder to sell and also that he owned a whole alicorn of which he was very proud--though not to such a degree that he would have refused to part with it for a suitable sum of money. All the early opponents of the alicorn were physicians, and no apothecary spoke against it until the time of Pierre Pomet, who had something "just as good" to offer in its stead.
Whatever the apothecaries of Europe may have done to foster the belief we have been tracing, they certainly did little or nothing to establish it, for we have seen that the belief goes back at least to the fourth century before Christ, and it is probably much older still. This can be said, however, only of India, and the question arises, therefore, when and by what means the superstition came into the Western world. Ctesias had made no such assertions about the horn of his onager as those quoted above from European physicians concerning the alicorn. Aeian had spoken only of the beakers made from the horn of his "cartazon". The ancient physicians upon whose works, for the most part grossly misunderstood, mediaeval medicine was chiefly based, had said nothing of this marvellous drug. There is no mention of it in Physiologus, in the patristic writers, in Isidore, or in the Bestiaries. Hildegarde of Bingen, although she seems not to have heard that the alicorn had any peculiar medical value, was apparently the first European writer who thought of the unicorn as possessing magical properties. To her, as I have pointed out, its entire body was medicinal, as that of the rhinoceros was thought to be in India.
From what source is Hildegarde most likely to have derived an idea of this kind? I should say from the Arabian writers whose influence was beginning to be felt, through the medium of Latin translation, in just her time. The unicorn legend had an early and an elaborate development among the Arabs, who dominated European medicine, both for good and for ill, from the beginning of the thirteenth century to the revival of learning, sending out successive waves of influence from the Court of Frederick II, from Salerno, and from many centres in Spain. Adding little to Western surgery, anatomy, or nosology, their chief contribution lay in the field of materia medica, and even this was made possible chiefly by their contacts, direct and indirect, with the Orient. Indian physicians are known to have lived at the Court of Bagdad in the time of Haroun al-Raschid, and there is evidence that they added Oriental ideas to those that Arabic medicine owed chiefly to the Greek tradition. Arabic influence is already discernible in Albertus Magnus and it is controlling in Peter of Abano. Can it be a mere coincidence that these two are among the earliest European writers who show full knowledge of the belief in the alicorn? The probability is that this belief, in its popular form, entered Europe with the Mohammedan invasion of Spain, spreading from Bagdad--whither it had been taken by Indian physicians or brought back by Arabian travellers--to Cordova, Seville, Granada, and finally to Salerno, from whence medical theory radiated through all of Europe.
If this seems no more than a conjecture, it is strengthened, at least, in the definite ascription of the whole belief, by a man who should have known the facts, to Arabian physicians. Andrea Marini makes the charge, with anger and contempt, that the use of the alicorn in medicine was due to the setta de gli Arabi. We should, of course, remember that by 1566 the "arabistes" were in low repute throughout Europe, so that anyone who wished to condemn a medical theory would naturally attribute it to them; but Marini's charge, if that is the right word, is too plausible to be set aside for such reasons, and it is supported by the not infrequent references to Arabian authorities made by European writers on the alicorn.
There is evidence of another kind which, although not conclusive by itself, lends further support to the theory of an Arabian origin for this belief. In the Italian dialects of the fourteenth century and later the unicorn was variously called licorno, liocorno, leocorno, and leoncorno. In French the name has always been licorne or lincorne. I cannot accept the derivation given by Littré's Dictionnaire in which licorne is traced to the whole Latin word unicoma. A tenable etymology is suggested by Alfred Hoare, according to which the ordinary Romance article was prefixed to the Latin coma "and the resulting word was altered, perhaps under the attraction of Leone, lion". Accepting this derivation, we may draw from it two significant deductions. It seems clear, in the first place, that when the basic word licorno--which could mean nothing but "the horn"--was made, the animal to which the horn belonged was unknown. After the development of the unicorn legend the word was applied, not very appropriately, to the animal, and it has done this double service, both in French and Italian, ever since. We shall find it worth remembering that, if the present argument is sound, then "the horn" was known in Italy and was important enough to name in the most vivid and striking way, before any animal was known or imagined to which it could be fitted. The second deduction is that this horn must have seemed in some way impressive to its namers, else they would not have spoken of it with the simple definite article so as to suggest that it was the horn par excellence.
But these are not the only conjectures that may be based upon etymology. Much more commonly used than any of the Italian names for the unicorn cited above, and outlasting them all, is the word alicorno, backed by the Portuguese alicornio. Hoare explains this form without hesitation by saying that it is due to a prefixing of the Arabic article. He refers, of course, to the definite article al, seen in many English words of Arabic origin such as "algebra" and "alcohol". Alicorno, however, is not of pure Arabic origin; it is a hybrid word. The Arabic article has apparently been prefixed to the Romance word licorno already formed, thus giving the word two definite articles fused together. From these facts I think we may infer rather plausibly that the Arabs found when they came to Europe some sort of horn sufficiently remarkable to have attracted attention, and, secondly, that they took enough interest in this horn and made it sufficiently their own so that their capping of its name with an additional definite article from their own language was generally accepted. It seems to me that these etymological considerations, taken together with the evidence to the same effect presented above, make a "strong case" for my theory that the European belief in the alicorn's magical properties was of Arabian origin.
That belief was given considerable impetus, centuries later, by the reports made by Portuguese traders returning from India. The Portuguese were the chief carriers of bezoar-stones--according to contemporary belief because the people of their nation were more afraid of poison than others, but really because they found a huge profit in the trade. They also brought back most of the rhinoceros horns to be found in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so that they would find it to their interest to spread and deepen the superstitions already existing about horns. Furthermore, they had been, without realizing the fact, in the very land where that superstition had its largest early development and where it was still accepted most widely. There is abundance of contemporary testimony regarding the influence of these traders: "The men of our Portuguese nation", writes Amatus Lusitanus, "who have penetrated the interior of India, are unable to tell us anything about the unicorn itself, but they say that its horn is greatly prized by the Indian kings; and also those who have practised medicine for some time in that country and have then returned home say that in India there is no stronger or more dependable antidote against poison than the horn of the unicorn."
Merely to understand how this idea may have come into Europe gives one a little satisfaction, but one would rather know how so strange a notion ever entered the human mind, and why, once it had found entrance, it was not instantly thrust forth again. Questions of this kind, involving the mental habits of men who lived thousands of years ago, one does well to handle with the least possible suggestion of dogmatic finality. One can only gather all the facts that seem pertinent, enter into those facts imaginatively, strive to think as much as possible in the way of primitive peoples, and then make his conjecture--cautiously, tentatively, as who should say "How will this do?" But whatever the difficulty and danger, the question lies too squarely across our way and is too near the centre and source of unicorn lore to be evaded now.
"Beginning doubtfully and far away", I should like to point out that there has existed from early times and in many parts of the world a vague notion that horns in general, almost any kind of horns, are somehow prophylactic. For ages the most highly valued drinking vessels, used by kings as well as cow-herds, were made of horn, and it is possible that the belief in the medicinal value of such vessels arose in part from what was said of the wholesomeness of their contents. I have myself encountered in western America the idea that nothing drunk from a cow's horn can ever harm the drinker. Lying even behind this belief there was, and is, the almost world-wide use of horns as charms and amulets, into which I need not go because the subject has been recently treated with ample though somewhat too audacious scholarship. Throughout Italy at the present time, and especially in the south, the "comb"--an amulet representing a single horn and made of coral, silver, nickel, bone, and other materials--is used in many ways as a charm against the evil eye. One sees it even as a watchguard and at the end of a chain hung round the neck and on the coat-lapel. Roman and Neapolitan cab-drivers place it on the headgear of their horses, so suspended that it is constantly in motion and pointing forwards; carters and carriers hang a large single horn under their wagons; in Italian shop-windows one often sees fifty or more of these amulets, certainly more popular than those of any other form, exhibited for sale. Old women of the peasant class frequently wear many of them at once, concealed beneath their clothing. From this ancient superstition some suggestion and support, one cannot say how much, was derived by the notion before us. For the sake of clarity one may allow himself to say that all horns came to be regarded as medicinal because they were vaguely associated with beneficent supernatural powers, although in reality there was no relationship of cause and effect but merely an overlapping. Such overlapping and confusion is unmistakable when one looks, for example, at the pharmacopceia of a Zulu medicine man, which consists usually of nothing but fifteen or twenty short antelope horns tied together by thongs. With this outfit the savage physician attacks all devils and diseases alike, making no distinction between the one group and the other. These horns are charms and medicines at the same time, and they are medicines because--for one can scarcely avoid the word--they are also charms or devil-fighters.
The belief that all horns have medicinal value and that this value is of a supernatural sort lasted on, demonstrably, into modern times. André Thevet, a man of fine intelligence and wide knowledge, could say at the end of the sixteenth century that "quand tout est diet, il ne se trouve guere beste . . . dont la corne n'ait quelque merveilleux effect pour la sauté des bommes." As an example he names the pyrassouppi found in the region of the River Plate, large as a mule and with very long horns which the savages use to cure wounds caused by poisonous beasts and fishes. He says also, as do many other early authorities, that if one burns ordinary stag's horn and scatters the ashes on the ground he will rid the place where they are scattered of all snakes.
Thevet's mention of stag's horn brings us nearer to the centre of our problem, for many writers about the alicorn asserted, during the period when faith in it was breaking down, that the horn of the stag was really quite as effective. Powdered stag's horn was commonly prescribed to the poor as a prophylactic during the whole period of the alicorn's popularity among the wealthier classes, and it is still used in China in the same way. Although all horns whatever were regarded as having medicinal properties, those of the stag were the most important substitute for the alicorn. Now there is no great difficulty in tracing the process by which the stag's horn acquired this reputation, and the knowledge gained in tracing it will provide a clue to the solution of our main problem.
In reading the old zoologists one finds a great deal made of "natural enemies", and what is said of them rests upon one of the fundamental conceptions in the mediaeval and ancient theories of nature. Lucretius, to take the most familiar example, tries to explain the material universe as a system of sympathies and antipathies. There was no attempt to get behind the assumed loves and hates of primordial atoms and of all that they composed; no one thought to inquire whether such loves and hates actually existed; they were axiomatic. One assumed that every object in the world had its natural friends and foes, and a main task of science and of magic, during the long period when the two were scarcely distinguishable, was to find out what these were, for one had control over an object and could use it for human ends when its sympathies and antipathies were known. This belief is familiar, yet it is so important for the present discussion that I venture to emphasize it by a quotation.
"By reason of the hidden and secret properties of things", says John Baptista Porta, "there is in all kinds of creatures a certain compassion, as I may call it, which the Greeks call sympathy and antipathy, but we term it, more familiarly, their consent and disagreement. For some things are joyned together as it were in a mutual league, and some other things are at variance and discord among themselves; or they have something in them which is a terror and destruction to each other, whereof there can be rendered no probable reason: neither will any wise man seek after any other cause thereof but only this, that it is the pleasure of Nature to see it should be so, that she would have nothing to be without his like, and that amongst all the secrets of Nature there is nothing but hath some hidden and special property; and moreover, that by this their consent and disagreement, we might gather many helps for the uses and necessities of men, for when once we find one thing at variance with another, presently we may conjecture, and in trial so it will prove, that one of them may be used as a fit remedy against the harms of the other."
This is somewhat to our purpose, but what follows is more so. Porta reminds his readers that the lion is afraid of the cock, that the elephant and the mouse are natural enemies--a belief which is still remembered--and then says: "So likewise those living creatures that are enemies to poisonous things and swallow them up without danger may show us that such poisons [that is the poisonous members of the poison-eating animals] will cure the bitings and blows of those creatures. The Hart and the Serpent are at continual enmity: the Serpent, as soon as he seeth the Hart, gets him into his hole, but the Hart draws him out again with the breath of his nostrils, and devours him. Hence it is that the fat and the blood of Harts, and the stones that grow in their eyes, are ministered as fit remedies against the stinging and biting of Serpents. Likewise the breath of Elephants draws Serpents out of their dens, and they fight with dragons, and therefore the members of Elephants, burned, drive away Serpents. So also the crowing of a Cock affrights the Basilisk, and he fights with Serpents to defend his hens, hence the broth of a Cock is a good remedy for the poison of Serpents. The Stellion, which is a beast like a Lyzard, is an enemy to the Scorpion, and therefore the Oyle of him, being purified, is good to anoint the place which is stricken by the Scorpion. A Swine eats up a Salamander without danger, and is good against the poison thereof."
This idea of "sympathy" and "antipathy" is encountered everywhere in mediaeval medicine, as it is also, of course, in the history of magic. The Consents and Disagreements, as Porta calls them, are often surprising. In addition to those that he mentions, the goat and the partridge were so sympathetic that they could be prescribed as medicine interchangeably; the ram and the elephant were so antipathetic that elephants always ran away from rams, bellowing with terror; the panther and the hyena were so uncongenial that the mere skin of a dead hyena could put the panther to precipitate flight, and if the skins of the panther and the hyena were hung upside by side the former would soon lose all its hair.
But we must not be drawn aside into these arcana. The pertinent fact before us is that "the stag by nature hates all poysonous things, and therefore either the feet or skin or the homes of a stag, nayled uppon a doore, no Serpent will enter in." Various parts of the stag are accordingly medicinal, and are especially good against the poison of snakes--either for the reason that the stag is a "natural enemy" of snakes or because he eats them and so becomes poisonous himself. To the modern mind these two "reasons" seem quite distinct, as they probably were in origin, but I am not aware that any writer who believed the superstition ever disentangled them; it was not only possible but easy for really acute thinkers to accept both reasons at once, stressing either as occasion served. When the medical action of the stag's horn is explained on the principle of natural antipathy, we have to think of the horn as extremely pure; but when, on the other hand, the principle of sympathy is invoked we are forced to regard it as extremely poisonous in nature. The physicians of four centuries ago could not agree upon the rather fundamental question whether the stag's horn and similar substances were essentially poisonous or essentially pure, but the members of both schools of opinion continued to administer those substances in their medical practice with perfect confidence and probably with good results. When a modern reader first encounters this absurd situation he is moved to what Hobbes calls "a sudden glory" and is tempted to exult a little over the childish fumbling past--but then he recalls the still unresolved conflict between allopathy and homceopathy, which is in essentials the same conflict as that waged in the Middle Ages, and he decides not to laugh.
Medical action by sympathy, as many of the old writers on materia medica explain, requires that the alexipharmical or therapeutic agent shall be of a stronger and more concentrated "virtue" than the thing or condition to be affected, so that it will be active and the other passive. This explains the choice of such supposedly powerful and highly concentrated poison-cures as viper's flesh, the ingredient added to the theriata by one of Nero's physicians. It explains, also, most of the prophylactics and poison-detectors of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that I have named above. The cerastes was thought to carry its poison in its horns; these horns were therefore regarded as exceedingly poisonous, and it was believed that they would have power over any poison less potent and concentrated than that which they contained. Snakes were thought to "bite" with their tongues--a belief held by most people to-day--and therefore snake's tongue, whole or powdered, could detect and cure poison. The vulture's entire body was considered poisonous, and its foot particularly so; all toads were thought venomous, and the stones in their heads, like the snake-stones of India, were held to be concentrated venom. The poisonous nature of the eagle-stone was not so easy to detect or explain, but the eagle does not leave this stone in her nest to guard her young against snakes for nothing; her instinct may be trusted.
In all this mountain of error there was, of course, a grain of sound and precious truth, and no one can fail to do honour to the long struggle of thought which finally isolated the principle similia similibus curantur. This principle, to be sure, was well understood by the ancients and was taught by Galen, who said explicitly that certain poisons attract poison as the magnet does iron. Aristotle pointed out that poisonous reptiles seem immune to poison and can eat one another without suffering harm. Saint Ambrose says explicitly "venenim veneno excludatur". One of the most satisfactory statements of the principle to be found in early writers is that of Antonio Ludovico, who says that nothing except poison can expel poison and that the antidote is not hostile to the poisonous substance, as some suppose, but is "bound to it by invisible chains of everlasting and indissoluble amity."
The principle, then, was sound, and it had long been familiar, but the applications of it are often highly diverting. Thus there was a general belief, lasting until at least 1700, that the elk is a chronic sufferer with vertigo and that he has been able to discover only one thing that will give him any relief. The inconvenience of this will be imagined when one is told that whenever he is pursued by hunters and dogs he has to sit down and place his left hind foot in his left ear to cure himself of dizziness before he can run away. But this infirmity of elks was simply another proof of Emerson's dictum that "Nature is ancillary to man" and also of the proverb: "God works in a mysterious way his wonders to perform." The left hind hoof of the elk was prescribed for centuries as an unfailing specific for vertigo, epilepsy, falling sickness, mal de mer, and dipsomania, with careful directions for distinguishing the left hind hoof from the right. Amulets of this material are still worn in Italy as protection against the falling sickness and the evil eye.
Coming now to our central question, why the alicorn was supposed to sweat in the presence of poison, we may answer, in accordance with what we have learned from the study of stag's horn and other substances, that it does so either because of sympathy or because of antipathy with that poison. Explanation according to the latter principle was of course the more natural one during the centuries when the unicorn was always thought of as a symbol of Christ, as associated with the Virgin, and as a type of purity, but Arabian influence, based upon Galen, seems to have swung opinion over to the other interpretation--that, namely, according to the principle of sympathy, which required that the alicorn be thought of as highly poisonous.
A clear statement of this view is made by Laurens Catelan, although it is not original with him. Those parts of any animal, he begins by saying, are strongest and fullest of the animal's "virtue" upon which its life depends. In horned animals these parts are the horns. Now it is well known--or so Catelan assumes--that horned animals have a keen appetite for poisonous substances both animal and vegetable, and of course the essence of these substances is drawn into their essential members, their horns. All horns, therefore, are necessarily poisonous in a high degree, for all the poisons that their bearers have eaten is concentrated in them. There is no difficulty in seeing, then, why it is that when all the poison that would ordinarily be distributed through two horns is forced into one it is brought to a very strong focus indeed. The alicorn is clearly one of the most poisonous substances in the world, and with all these facts in mind, Catelan submits, no sensible man can fail to believe the marvels related of it. The alicorn 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.
This theory is too ingenious and has too much of the mark of the clever apothecary upon it for one to accept it as a product of primitive minds, and yet it may contain some primitive elements. Catelan's confident assertion that the unicorn eats snakes and drinks poisoned water implies an intimate knowledge of the animal's habits such as few other writers have claimed, but the assertion is helpful in suggesting that the whole mystery may rest upon a matter of diet. Even those who think of the unicorn as essentially pure sometimes attribute his virtues to the food he eats. Thus Hildegarde of Bingen says that once in every year the animal goes to that land in which the juices of Paradise abound and there seeks out the best herbs, digging them up with his hoof; from these he derives his medicinal properties. It will be remembered that Hildegarde thought the whole body of the unicorn medicinal, and also that the same belief is held in India regarding the rhinoceros. Now we learn from Linschoeten's Voyages that the horns of the rhinoceros are valued in India according to the flora of the district from which they come. "All Rhinocerotes", says the traveller, "are not alike good, for there are some whose homes are sold for one, two, or three hundred Pardawes the piece, and there are others of the same colour and greatness that are sold but for three or four Pardawes, which the Indians know and can discerne. The cause is that some Rhinocerotes which are found in certain places in the countrie of Bengala have this virtue by reason of the hearbes which that place only yeeldeth and bringeth foorth, which in other places is not so." A belief so constant as this, common to both schools of interpretation, may well derive from a source far back in time.
The explanation of the alicorn's "virtue" in terms of "sympathy" and "antipathy" was cogent enough for ordinary minds, but it could not stand the scrutiny of a really thoughtful man such as Andrea Marini. He pointed out that poisons are of many kinds, some hot and some cold, some wet and others dry, and that therefore it was absurd to say that one substance could stand in a relation either of sympathy or of antipathy with all of them at the same time. This contention was unanswerable, and it had a deep influence upon later writers. Andrea Bacci, whose book on the unicorn appeared in the same year as Marini's, was forced by it to abandon the sympathy-antipathy explanation altogether and to fall back upon a pseudo-Aristotelean forma and essentia which really explained nothing. He also accepted a vague Arabian assertion that alicorn somehow "comforts the heart", but the question as to why it sweats in the presence of poison he confuses and avoids as much as possible, finally leaving it unanswered.
Such light as I have thus far been able to throw upon the mystery of the alicorn's magical properties may be helpful in an attempt to solve the further mystery of what I have called the unicorn's water-conning. We are fortunate in having a description of this performance by one who claims to have been an eye-witness. This is John of Hesse, a priest of Utrecht, who visited the Holy Land in 1389 and had the most extraordinary good luck in the things he saw there. "Near the field of Helyon", he says, "there is a river called Marah, the water of which is very bitter, into which Moses struck his staff and made the water sweet so that the Children of Israel might drink. And even in our times, it is said, venomous animals poison that water after the setting of the sun, so that the good animals cannot drink of it; but in the morning, after the sunrise, comes the unicorn and dips his horn into the stream, driving the poison from it so that the good animals can drink there during the day. This I have seen myself."
One may point out in passing the strange coincidence that John of Hesse should have seen this rare spectacle at just the spot made famous by the miracle of Moses to which it provides so striking a parallel. For the bitter waters of Marah in the Bible story we have here the water poisoned at night by unclean animals; Moses and his staff are matched by the unicorn and its horn; the Children of Israel are represented by the clean animals waiting beside the stream. The two stories correspond in every essential detail, so that John's statement amounts almost to a declaration that he saw the ancient miracle re-enacted symbolically upon the spot.--But this is one of those mysteries into which the lay mind may not hope to pierce.
Leaping now almost five hundred years we find a traveller of the nineteenth century giving almost the same account of the water-conning 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.'"
In this late version the trait appears somewhat altered and debased: the unicorn does not purify but merely uncovers the water--one should observe, however, that he does this with his horn rather than with his hoof as another animal would--and his service to other beasts is not so much altruistic as accidental. Yet, for all these changes, the story is recognizably the same as that told by John of Hesse and many others.
Regarding the origin of the water-conning trait I shall make one suggestion here and another, somewhat farther reaching, in a later chapter. Popular beliefs about the stag have already served us well and may do so again. This animal, it will be remembered, is devoted to a diet of snakes, and in general he seems to thrive upon it, but sometimes, as Pliny informs us, a snake gets on the stag's back and bites him cruelly, whereupon he rushes to some river or fountain and plunges into the water to rid himself of his foe. Here we have at least a horned animal, a snake, and water brought together. A few sentences from the subtle and fascinating book by Antonio Ludovico from which I have already quoted, will carry us somewhat farther. Stags are accustomed to increase their strength, says he, upon a diet of serpents, but when they are quite saturated with this food, and before they begin to feel the noxious effects of the poison, they go down to the great rivers and there submerge their bodies, leaving only their mouths above the water. They do not drink a drop, however they may suffer with thirst, but remain standing there until the poison is sweated in the form of tears through their eyes, and then they leave. These tears, hardened into balls, fall by the wayside and are gathered by the people of the country, who value them as antidotes for poison. The barbarians call them bezoars.
It may seem that this story, however interesting in itself, leaves us still a long way from the unicorn dipping its horn into the water, but a little reflection will show, I think, that the analogy is rather close. We have already learned that the poison in the unicorn's body is not dispersed, as it appears to be in the stag mentioned by Ludovico, but is concentrated in the horn--the single horn. It seems natural, then, whenever the unicorn goes to the water to seek relief from an excess of poison, if that is indeed his motive, that he should dip the horn alone. Furthermore, it would follow naturally from the poisonous quality of the horn that whatever venom there might be in the water would be dispersed. This, at any rate, is the explanation of the water-conning trait that Laurens Catelan seems to have had in mind, for he says that the unicorn's well-known fierceness is caused by the great pain he suffers constantly on account of the poison in his horn, and that he knows no other way of obtaining relief except that of returning to the poisoned stream by which his pain is partly caused. (There has never been any lack of allegorical possibilities in the unicorn legend; the difficulty is in avoiding them.)
This is not a completely satisfying explanation of the water-conning trait because it gives no clue to the reason why the water is poisonous and it does not include the other animals which, in nearly all versions of the story, wait beside the water for the unicorn's coming. With these details unaccounted for we cannot feel that we have reached the origin of the story, but the passages quoted do carry us as far back toward that origin as any one in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance ever went, and this must suffice at present. We shall encounter the water-conning trait again, and shall be able, if not to "explain" it, at any rate to set it high among the myths and legends that are so ancient as for ever to defy explanation.