The old legend of the unicorn, and the value of his fabled horn

The old legend of the unicorn, and the value of his fabled horn

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The legend of the unicorn, and its history of use in British heraldry (1906)

Fictitious & symbolic creatures in art, with special reference to their use in British heraldry, by J Vinycomb

The unicorn is represented by heraldic usage as having the head and body of a horse, with the tail of a lion, and the limbs and hoofs of a stag; a twisted horn grows out from the center of its forehead.

It is rarely met with as a coat-of-arms. As a crest or supporter it is of more frequent occurrence. A unicorn’s head is a favorite bearing, either erased , or couped, at the shoulder, and always represented in profile. 

The unicorn was a famous device all over Europe, and symbolized the virtue of the mind and the strength of the body. It is well known as a supporter of the Royal Arms of England, a position it has occupied since the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne as James I.

Antique unicorn artwork

Two silver unicorns were the supporters to the arms of that kingdom. On the legislative union with England, the red dragon of JVales , introduced by Henry VII., gave place to the unicorn as the sinister supporter. 

James III of Scotland had it figured on coins which were thence called “unicorns.” James V first used it with the national arms as supporters. Although the silver unicorn came into England with James I, Queen Jane Seymour had already adopted it. 

“Unicorn” was the pursuivant of Lord Lyon King-at-Arms, the Royal Scottish Herald. 

As a supporter to the Royal arms it is thus blazoned: A unicorn argent , armed , unguled, crined and gorged or , with a royal coronet (i.e., composed of crosses patee and fleurs-de-lis), having a chain affixed thereto , and reflexed over his back of the last.

The term “armed” has reference to his horn, “unguled” to his hoofs, and “crined” to his flowing mane. “Gorged” implies that the coronet encircles his “gorge” or throat. The term “or ” (that is, the metal gold or the tincture of it) being only mentioned after the several parts implies that they are all alike to be gold. ” Of the last” means of the last color mentioned. 

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Queen Anne with unicorn on old coat of arms

Mediaeval conception of the unicorn 

The mediaeval conception of the unicorn as the water-conner of the beasts was doubtless suggested by that belief of earlier ages which made the unicorn not merely symbolical of virtue and purity, but the more immediate emblem of Christ as the horn of our salvation (Psalms xcii. io and Ixxxix. 17, 24), expressly receiving its general fulfilment in him (St. Lulcei. 69).

The horn, as an antidote to all poison, was also believed to be emblematical of the conquering or destruction of sin by the Messiah, and as such it appears in the catacombs at Rome.

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The unicorn is the companion of St. Justiana, as an emblem betokening in the beautiful legend her pure mind, resisting all the Geraldine-like dreams sent by magic art to haunt her, till she converted her tormentor himself. 

He is remarkable, say the old writers, for his great strength, but more for his great and haughty mind, as he would rather die than be brought into subjection (Job xxxix. 10-12). 

It was believed the only way to capture him was to leave a beautiful young virgin in the place where he resorted. When the animal perceived her, he would come and lie quietly down beside her, resting his head upon her lap, and fall asleep, when he would be surprised by the hunters who lay in wait to destroy him. 

The unicorn is one of the most famous of ail the chimerical monsters of antiquity. The Scriptures make repeated mention of such a creature, but of its shape we can form little conception.

In early Christian art, the unicorn symbolized the highest and purest virtue ; not only was it one of the noblest bearings in the heraldry of the Middle Ages, but was viewed as the immediate emblem of our Blessed Lord.

Heraldry - Frederick Prince of Wales - Unicorn on crest

Whence comes the unicorn? It is older than the days of Job. Among the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt this wonderful creature is depicted. Sometimes the body is that of an ass, sometimes that of a bull, sometimes that of a horse with the long twisted frontal horn for which he is noted. Is the myth derived from some mysterious single-horned antelope, as has been said, or is the one-horned rhinoceros the prototype of the legendary unicorn?

As an emblem, it figures on the obelisks of Nimroud and the catacombs of Rome. We read of this strange creature in Herodotus, and in Aristotle, who calls it the “wild ass”; Pliny calls it the “Indian ass,” describing it as like a horse with a horn fixed in the front of his head. Caesar counts it among the fauna of the Hyrcinian Forest.

The earliest author who describes it is Ctesias (b.c. 400), who derives it from India. According to an Eastern legend the unicorn is found in Abyssinia.

Lobo also describes it in his history of that country: there the animals are undisturbed by man, and live after their own laws.

“Of the many ancient and famous men,” says a modern writer, ” who have written about the unicorn, no two seem to agree except when they copy from one another.” 

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About the horn of the unicorn 

“The unicorn whose horn is worth a city.” – Decker, “Gull’s Hornbook.” 

The horn of the unicorn was supposed to be the most powerful antidote against, as it was a sure test of, poisons. He was therefore invested by the other beasts of the forest with the office of “water-conner,” none daring to taste of fountain or pool until he had stirred the water with his horn, to discover whether any dragon or serpent had deposited his venom therein, and render it innocuous.

So complete was the faith in the efficacy of the wonder-working horn as a test of poisons, that fabulous store was set upon the possession of even a portion. In old inve tories the “Essai” of Unicorn’s horn is frequently mentioned. 

An Italian author who visited England in the reign of Henry VII, speaking of the wealth of the religious houses in this country, says: “And I have been informed that, amongst other things, many of these monasteries possess unicorns’ horns of an extraordinary size.”

Hence such a horn was worthy to be placed among the royal jewels. At the head of an inventory taken in the first year of Queen Elizabeth and preserved in the Harleian Library, we read ” Imprimis, a piece of unicorn’s horn, ”which, as probably the most important object, is named first. 

“One little cup of unicorn’s horn” was also in possession of Queen Elizabeth, and was subsequently given by James I to his Queen. 

Alviano, a celebrated general of the Venetian Republic, when he took Viterbo, and dispersed the Gatesca faction, whom he called the poison of the city, caused to be embroidered upon his standard a unicorn at a fountain surrounded by snakes and toads and other reptiles, and stirring up the water with his horn before he drinks, with the motto or legend “Venene pello” (“I expel poison”).

Although the unicorn has not been seen and described by any modern writer, its horn has been occasionally found, sometimes preserved in museums, but alas ! the cherished horn, whenever it is examined, turns out to be a narwhal s tooth. To this, Wood’s “Natural History ” makes special reference : “In former days, an entire tusk of a narwhal was considered to possess an inestimable value, for it was looked upon as the weapon of the veritable unicorn reft from his forehead in despite of his supernatural strength and intellect. Setting aside the rarity of the thing, it derived a practical value from its presumed capability of disarming all poisons of their terrors, and of changing, the deadliest draught into a wholesome beverage.” 

Antique unicorn rearing up

This antidotal potency was thought to be of vital service to the unicorn, whose residence was in the desert among all kinds of loathsome beasts and poisonous reptiles, whose touch was death and whose look was contamination.

The springs and pools at which such monsters quenched their thirst were saturated with poison by their contact, and would pour a fiery death through the veins of any animal that partook of them. But the unicorn, by dropping the tip of his horn into the pool, neutralized the venom and rendered the deadly waters harmless.

This admirable quality of the unicorn’s horn was a great recommendation in days when the poisoned chalice crept too frequently upon the festive board, and a king could receive no worthier present than a goblet formed from such valuable material. 

Even a few shavings of the unicorn’s horn were purchased at high prices, and the ready sale for such antidotes led to considerable adulteration — a fact which is piteously recorded by an old writer, who tells us that “some wicked persons do make a mingle-mangle thereof, as I saw among the Venetians, being, as I here say, compounded with lime and sope, or peradventure with earth or some stone (which things are apt to make bubbles arise), and afterwards sell it for the unicorn’s horn.”

The same writer, however, supplies an easy test, whereby the genuine substance may be distinguished from the imposition. “For experience of the unicorn’s horn to know whether it be right or not ; put silk upon a burning coal, and upon the silk the aforesaid horn, and if so be that it be true, the silk will not be a whit consumed.” 

Religious emblems were in great favor with the early printers ; some of them for this reason adopted the unicorn as their sign. Thus John Harrison lived at the Unicorn and Bible in Paternoster Row, 1603. 

Again, the reputed power of the horn caused the animal to be taken as a supporter for the Apothecaries’ arms, and as a constant signboard by chemists. 

The great value set upon unicorn’s horn caused the Goldsmiths of London to adopt this animal as their sign. 

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The fabled unicorn (1935)

From Time magazine – February 25, 1935

The unicorn of fable was a fierce creature with the head and body of a horse, the hind legs of an antelope, the tail of a lion or horse, a long sharp horn growing from its forehead. In the Authorized Version of the Old Testament unicorns are mentioned four times; in the Revised Version the Hebrew word, R’em, is translated “wild ox.”

During the Middle Ages, the belief was prevalent that the savage unicorn was soothed by the sight of a virgin, would approach softly and lay his head in a true virgin’s lap. Though this notion gave rise to no little scandal, no one managed to trap the elusive beast by virgins or otherwise. A bit of unicorn horn ground to powder was regarded by a medieval physician as the most potent remedy he could administer, but because undisputed horns turned up so rarely the price ranged from $12,000 to $150,000.

In 1590, the religious of a Spanish monastery presented a unicorn in a handsome leather case to the new Pope, Gregory XIV, who was in feeble health. Next year, the Pope sank so alarmingly that it was gravely decided to administer the powdered tip of the horn. Despite this strong medicine, or perhaps because of it, the Pope died.

In 1909, the horn, minus tip and plus a few worm holes, was brought to light and sold to a man in Rome, who later sold it to a US collector, who still later gave it to Manhattan’s American Museum.

When Pope Gregory’s unicorn horn was on exhibition, it was placed in the Hall of South Asiatic Mammals, because it was identified as having once adorned the snout of an Indian rhinoceros.

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