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



    IN the scientific discussion of any animal one of the prime essentials is the determination of its habitat, and we must not proceed farther with the study of the unicorn without naming the places where he has been supposed to be found.

    Ctesias placed the unicorn, as we have seen, in "India", then as for long after a very inclusive term, and this location sufficed for his Greek and Roman followers. The Physiologus does not commit itself on this question, but when we consider that all the other animals it mentions--or all, at any rate, not concocted in libraries, like the ant-lion--were thought to belong to Egypt, we may infer that the unicorn also was regarded as a local species. Few of the Christian echoers of Physiologus have any notion of animal habitat, so that they give us little help.

    Ethiopia had been confused with India even by Virgil, and therefore, if for no other reason, it was so confused during the Middle Ages. The bewildering transfer of "Prester John's Court" from India to Ethiopia, already referred to, helped on this confusion, and the transfer had a definite influence, as it happened, upon the legend of the unicorn. In the first letter supposed to have been addressed by him to one or other of the potentates of Europe, Prester John is made to describe himself as an Indian monarch, and in this letter, furthermore, he mentions the unicorns to be tound in his realm. Fifty years later, that is to say about A.D. 1200, we find him established as a king and priest in Ethiopia, and it was naturally assumed that he had taken his unicorns with him--all the more because later versions of his letter, dated from Ethiopia, continued to mention these animals as prominent in the local fauna. But there were other influences at work to draw the unicorn into North Africa. For one thing, the people of Abyssinia had their own version of Physiologus; for another, the Arabs among them had a well-developed unicorn legend; finally, the Portuguese missionaries and merchants of a later time went into Ethiopia with unicorn lore gathered from India itself, and when they found in this new land much the same legends and beliefs as those with which they had become familiar at Goa it is not strange that they were convinced.

    Fray Luis de Urreta, whose account of rhinoceros hunting in Abyssinia we have already considered, places the unicorn--which he insists is an entirely different animal--in the Mountains of the Moon. He was by no means the first to hold this view. Cosmas Indicopleustes saw four brazen figures of the unicorn at the court of the King of Ethiopia in the sixth century of our era. A Mappa Mundi, made in the fifteenth century and now hanging on the wall of Hereford Cathedral, shows the unicorn, with a horn almost as long as its body, standing in the region of the Upper Nile. The Arabian zoologist Al Damiri testified to the same effect. John Bermudez reported unicorns in Abyssinia. Marmol Caravaial found them "en las sierras de Beht, o de la Lune". An English traveller of the sixteenth century asserts: "I have seen in a place like a Park adjoyning unto prester Johns Court, three score and seven-teene Vnicornes and eliphants all alive at one time, and they were so tame that I have played with them as one would play with young Lambes." Father Lobo handed on an extended account of the Abyssinian unicorn. Job Ludoiphus accepts these earlier declarations. We shall see also that a French consular officer of the nineteenth century corroborates them by a long and judicious letter about the unicorn of Central Africa addressed to a learned society.

    Quite apart from this abundance of testimony, there is a fitness in the association of the unicorn with the enormous mountain ranges of Abyssinia. The Queen of Sheba is supposed to have hidden her treasure somewhere in those terrifying gorges, and they are a good place in which to hide any precious thing. The very name "Mountains of the Moon", which they owe to Ptolemy, makes them seem a proper home for wonderful beasts. If the unicorn does live among the snows held up for ever on the line of the Equator then it is clear why the world should know so little about him. An Arabian writer says that a great king once sent out a host of men to discover the sources of the Nile, but that they brought back no report because when they reached these mountains the heat reflected from their snows was so great that every man was reduced to ashes.

    No sooner has one accustomed himself to think of the Mountains of the Moon as the unicorn's native place, however, than he finds that a case at least equally good may be made out for Tibet. An unknown Chinese traveller of the eleventh or twelfth century informs us that about eighty li from H'lari there is a lake in the vicinity of which unicorns are found in great abundance. Again, we are told by several Eastern historians that when the conqueror Genghis Khan set forth in 1224 to invade Hindustan he was met at the top of Mount Djadanaring by a beast with but one horn which knelt thrice at his feet as though in token of respect. The conqueror fell to brooding over this strange event, and he concluded that the beast was an incarnation of his father's spirit come to warn him against the expedition; therefore he turned his army about and marched down the mountain, leaving Hindustan unharmed. Centuries after this, Captain Samuel Turner, one of the most dependable of the earlier authorities upon Tibet, was solemnly told by the Rajah of Bootan that he had once owned a horse-like creature with a single horn in the middle of its forehead. The most famous of all travellers in Tibet, a learned man of the nineteenth century, was entirely convinced that the unicorn is to be found there. A certain Major Latter of the British Army wrote home in 1820 that he had found the unicorn beyond a doubt in Tibet.

    Next one comes to the numerous reports of the unicorn in South Africa, where Garcias ab Horto heard it described--equipped with a single horn which it could raise and lower at will--on his voyage round the Cape in the middle of the sixteenth century. Somewhat over a century later Father Jerom Merolla da Sorrento, a Capuchin missionary, saw it in the region mentioned by Garcias. Baron von Wurmb writes from the Cape of Good Hope toward the end of the eighteenth century that he expects to see a unicorn any day, as the reports of it are all about him. Sir John Barrow, a well. trained observer, found so universal a belief in the animal among the natives of South Africa that he himself was inclined to believe, and his faith was rewarded by the discovery of a cave-painting, which he reproduced, of a beast with a single horn. Sir Francis Galton is half-convinced by the persistent reports he hears in Africa, and Dr. William Balfour Baikie finds his former scepticism "partly shaken".

    Returning to the Near East, one finds a similar abundance of unicorns, either seen or surmised. One John of Hesse, a priest who visited the Holy Land in 1389, had the good fortune not only to see one but to witness the water-conning performance in actual operation. Felix Fabri, who made pilgrimage to the Holy Land a century later saw, on September 20, 1483, with his own eyes--as did all the members of his company--a unicorn standing on a hill near Mount Sinai, and he observed it carefully for a long time. Lewis Vartoman, regarded for centuries as an exceptionally veracious traveller, gives a careful description of two unicorns that he says he saw at Mecca about the middle of the sixteenth century--but it is to be observed that these two had been sent to the Sultan as a present by the King of Abyssinia. Vincent Le Blanc, who set out on his travels in 1567--at the age of fourteen--saw only one unicorn at Mecca, the other one mentioned by Vartoman having died, but by way of atonement he saw two at the Court of Pegu.

    Not to make too intolerably long a list, there is the unicorn of Tartary reported by a British traveller of the eighteenth century and explained one hundred and fifty years later by Lieutenant-Colonel Prejevalsky. There is the unicorn of Persia, said to have been kept as a pet by the Sophy in his private gardens at Samarkand. There is the unicorn of the Carpathians made known by Antony Scheneberger in a letter quoted by Conrad Gesner. There is the unicorn of India, distinct from the rhinoceros, clearly depicted on a map of the Orient published with the English translation of Linschoeten's Voyages. There is the unicorn of Poland reported by Aldrovandus, the unicorn of Scandinavia of which we learn in the Historia Naturalis of Johnston, the unicorn of Florida made known to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, the unicorn of the Canadian border described by Olfert Dapper, and finally there is the unicorn of China.

    Chinese writers do not assert that the unicorn or ki-lin is a native of their land; on the contrary, they say that it comes from afar, presumably from heaven, and only at long intervals of time. They regard it, so to speak, as an intermittent animal, and its appearance on earth is considered a certain omen of a beneficent reign or of the birth of some great man comparable with a good emperor in importance. According to the testimony of Tse-Tche-t'ong-kien-kang-mou, the ki-lin was first seen in the year 2697 B.C., in the palace of the Emperor Hoang-ti, on which occasion it was a truthful prophet of national felicity. Another appeared to the mother of Confucius just before the sage's birth, holding in its mouth a great tablet of jade on which there was engraven a dithyramb in praise of the man her son was to become. Events of this sort have occurred so many times and the prophecy has always been so unerring that pictures of the unicorn are now pinned or pasted in the women's quarters of millions of Chinese houses in the hope that they may exert pre-natal influence and induce the birth of great men, or at least of boys rather than of girls. They are also affixed to the red chair in which the bride is borne to her husband's house, and the gods that oversee the distribution of desirable babies are often depicted riding upon the ki-lin. To say of any man that a ki-lin appeared at the time of his birth is the highest form of flattery.

    The question is asked in the Li-Ki: "What were the four intelligent creatures?" and the answer is given: "They were the Phoenix, the Tortoise, the Dragon, and the Ki-lin." The last, though not so popular as the dragon, is commonly regarded as the king of beasts. No hunter has ever killed one; and it is seldom captured or even wounded, although we are told that one was injured by a hunter just before the death of Confucius. Like an exceptionally good Buddhist, the ki-lin eats no living thing, either animal or vegetable, so that its diet is severely restricted. It will not even tread upon an insect or a living blade of grass. It has the body of a stag, the hoof of a horse--conforming in these respects to the European tradition--the tail of an ox, and a single horn twelve feet long springing from the middle of its brow, which has at the end a fleshy growth. The most significant thing about the ki-lin's physical appearance, however, is the fact that he is resplendent in the five sacred colours, which are the symbols of his perfection.

    The ki-lin is supposed to spring from the centre of the earth, and perhaps he was originally a representative of the earthy element as the phoenix represents fire, the dragon air, and the tortoise water. All commentators enlarge upon the excellence of his character. He knows good from evil, is reverential towards his parents and piously attached to the memory of all his ancestors; he is harmless, beneficent, and gentle, the fleshy tip of his horn indicating clearly that that otherwise formidable member has only symbolic and aesthetic uses. Like the Western unicorn, he keeps the dignity and the mystery of solitude, never mingling promiscuously even with those of his own kind and never treading upon soil tainted by the human foot unless he comes on a mission. He is not violently haled by hunters into the court of the sovereign, but arrives as one king visiting another. Unlike the Western unicorn, the ki-lin has never had commercial value; no drug is made of any part of his body; he exists for his own sake and not for the medication, enrichment, entertainment, or even edification of mankind.

    We must infer that this Oriental unicorn was conceived on a higher plane of civilization than that which produced the European legend. Our Western unicorn does us credit in many ways, but when we compare him with the ki-lin we see that there is after all a good deal of violence and deceit and calculation implicit in the stories we have told of him. The ki-lin legend was developed by men who had got beyond fear and calculation in their attitude toward wild nature--by men not unlike those who painted the pictures and wrote the poetry of the Sung period in which Nature is loved for her own sufficient self almost a thousand years before the West learned to look at her without terror.

    While speaking of the ki-lin's beneficence I may mention a detail of his legend which, although less firmly authenticated than one could wish, presents a surprising parallel with the legend of the West. The Chinese, we are told, preserve a tradition to the effect that the ki-lin "is to come in the shape of an incomparable man, a revealer of mysteries, supernatural and divine, and a great lover of all mankind. He is expected to come at about the time of a particular constellation in the heavens, on a special mission for their benefit." If this belief really exists--and it corresponds exactly with what we learn from better sources of the ki-lin's nature--then two apparently quite separate unicorn legends have worked out, in regions far apart, the same ultimate symbolism. Both in the East and in the West the unicorn comes to typify a Messiah. Shall we call this an accident, or shall we attribute it to the infiltration of Christian influence? A third possibility, one to which some slight support will be given in later pages, is that the two legends came to similar fruition because they sprang from a single root. It may appear that from the very beginning the unicorn has been conceived as beneficent, holy, in some sense divine, always striving for the healing of the nations.

    Distinct as the ki-lin seems at first to be from the Western unicorn, and especially from the unicorn of Physiologus, it is hardly possible to think of him at last as an entirely independent creation. His different colouring, his more actively humane disposition, even the subtle but significant change in his horn--difficult to reconcile with our notions of physiology, but clear enough in allegorical intent--all these are due to his Chinese environment. On the other hand, he has the body of a stag and the solid hoof of a horse, like the unicorn of Aelian and Pliny and Solinus. Like all Western unicorns, he is solitary, and he cannot be captured. The Chinese are so certain of this last characteristic, indeed, that they never go forth against him even with virgins for bait. It seems likely, therefore, that the ki-lin and the unicorn of the West have a common ancestor.

    Chinese writers enumerate six different sorts of unicorns: the King, the Kioh Twan, the Poh, the Hiai Chai, the Too Jon Sheu, and the Ki-lin; but it seems probable that all six are derived from a single original. The great age of some of the classics in which these animals are described proves that the unicorn legend is old in China, and this fact alone accounts for the existing discrepancies. In spite of these, the ki-lin is more consistent than the Western unicorn; it varies little in appearance and not at all in habits or temperament, being always gentle, beneficent, delicate in diet, regular and stately in pace, and with a call "which in the middle part thereof is like a monastery bell".

    The ki-lin, moreover, does not show the tendency to sink down and fade away into the rhinoceros which is so deplorable in the Western unicorn, for the Chinese know the rhinoceros perfectly well and describe it accurately as a totally different species. From the time of the Han dynasty to our own day they have been the carvers of the rhinoceros horn, and old Chinese writers have much to say of the prophylactic value of this horn. During the T'ang dynasty (A.D. 618-905) the official girdles of mandarins were studded with pieces of it, used as charms somewhat in the way of the Japanese natsuke. Through all the many centuries that the commerce in rhinoceros horns has been going on, however, those who have had to do with it have known that the horns came from the rhinoceros, and the ki-lin has been kept apart from such associations. Uncontaminated by trade, never regarded as a drug or as an emblem of moral virtue, he has moved serenely all this while in the central recesses of the Oriental imagination.

    One of the rarer titles in the "Americana" that have so strongly attracted the cupidity of book-collectors in recent decades is a wellprinted and brilliantly illustrated volume called Die Unbekante Neue Welt, by Dr. Olfert Dapper. The most accurate pages in this entertaining book are those that deal with New Amsterdam and the present site of New York City, so that a casual reader is the more surprised when he finds, immediately after those pages, a lively representation of the American unicorn in its native haunts--the suggestion is that they must have been in the general region of the Bronx--with an unmistakable American eagle upon its back. In the accompanying letterpress, however, and under the appropriate rubric Seltsame Tiere, the Doctor places this unicorn somewhat farther afield. "On the Canadian border", he says, "there are sometimes seen animals resembling horses, but with cloven roofs, rough manes, a long straight horn upon the forehead, a curled tail like that of the wild boar, black eyes, and a neck like that of the stag. They live in the loneliest wildernesses and are so shy that the males do not even pasture with the females except in the season of rut, when they are not so wild. As soon as this season is past, however, they fight not only with other beasts but even with those of their own kind."

    While one reads this fairly accurate paraphrase of Aelian one's thoughts slip back more than two thousand years behind Dr. Dapper to another physician sitting in his library at the court of Darius and describing as accurately as he could the animals of another distant and wonderful land. (Without the medical profession the lore of the unicorn would have been far less rich than it is.) Here we see the animal's range enormously extended at a single leap, so that we may think of the unicorn as roaming, if not Manhattan Island, at any rate the woods of Maine and the Canadian border--that is to say, the region of the moose.

    But it had not been reserved for Dr. Dapper to discover the American unicorn. His account is more than a hundred years too late for that, in addition to the fact that it has a strong smell of the lamp. We are told in the legends of the conquistadors that Friar Marcus of Nizza set out from Mexico in 1539 with Stephen the Negro to find the "Seven Cities of Cibola", and that when he got there the inhabitants showed him, among other wonders, "an hide halfe as big againe as the hide of an Oxe, and said it was the skinne of a beast which had but one home upon his forehead, bending toward his breast, and that out of the same goeth a point forward with which he breakes any thing that he runneth against." Furthermore, Sir John Hawkins writes in his account of his voyage of 1564: "The Floridians have pieces of unicornes homes which they wear about their necks, whereof the Frenchmen obtained many pieces. Of those unicornes they have many; for that they doe affirme it to be a beast with one home, which comming to the river to drinke, putteth the same into the water before he drinketh. Of this unicornes home there are of our company, that having gotten the same of the Frenchmen, brought home thereof to shew . . . . It is thought that there are lions and tygres as well as unicornes; lions especially; if it be true that is sayd, of the enmity betweene them and the unicornes: for there is no beast but hath his enemy insomuch that whereas the one is the other cannot be missing."

    This passage helps one to see how notions of a new country's fauna developed even in the minds of intelligent men less than four centuries ago. Objects of horn or bone worn on necklaces by the natives of "Florida" proved that there were unicorns in that region, and in that case there must be lions too, for a beast cannot be left without its natural enemy. No man endowed with the divine faculty of reason required, or even wished, to see an actual American lion in order to be convinced; the bits of bone strung round the necks of the Floridians were a sufficient proof of lions to satisfy him. And if any one should be inclined to doubt the veracity of Captain Hawkins, now that his sword is rust, he has left a remarkable bit of "convincing detail" in a marginal rubric accompanying the text just quoted: "Unicornes homes, which ye inhabitants call Souanamma." He brought home, then, one hard bit of fact--a name. We see how he read what he thought he knew into the unknown, but that unknown belief of the Floridians may after all have been something worth finding out.

    Twenty-three years after the voyage of Sir John Hawkins, John Davis, seeking a north-west passage to India, found a "unicorn's horn" in the hands of a savage on the coast of North America, in latitude 67 degrees. "Of them," he says, "I had a darte with a bone in it, or a piece of Unicornes home, as I did judge. This dart he [the savage owner] made store of, but when he saw a knife, he let it go, being more desirous of the knife than of his dart."

    So much, then, for written records, by means of which we have traced the unicorn legend through the greater part of the world. And now, if one might shake off for a moment the necessity of finding definite authority for every opinion, if one might indulge his own fancy on this topic as thousands of others have done, and if it were not for the fear of being taken quite seriously, one would like to toy with the notion that the original home of the unicorn was the Lost Atlantis. Let us consider what may be said for this. Here we have a very ancient and persistent legend concerning a beast that seems to have vanished from the earth. The belief is of long standing that this beast, although as actual as the mammoth or the sabre-tooth tiger, was destroyed by the flood. Now it is generally agreed among Atlanteans that the world-wide tradition of the Flood--which Hebraizers will persist in calling "Noah's Flood"--is a racial memory of the submergence of the Atlantic Continent. Most significant are the few but startling evidences that the aborigines of the Western Hemisphere had their own legend of the unicorn, and that they actually used its supposed horn for magical ends. Legends so similar and so peculiar, found in both hemispheres, must have spread East and West from a common distributing centre, and that centre may well have been the vast region that has been covered for at least ten thousand years by the Atlantic waves. The Sargasso Sea has been for time out of mind the port of missing ships. Why may it not cover the primeval habitat of missing animals?

    Here is an argument in support of Plato's theory about the Lost Atlantis that would have commended itself to the enthusiastic genius of Ignatius Donnelly; but one of the several objections to it is that we cannot really prove the existence of a unicorn legend among the American aborigines. One is sorry for this, feeling that Atlantis would have been as appropriate a habitat for the unicorn as even the Mountains of the Moon. We should solve several difficult problems if we could place him there with assurance.

Next: Chapter V. The Treasure of His Brow