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The fable of the unicorn (1935)

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The unicorn

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. There last week, 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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