“Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease (epilepsy). Indeed, they are immune to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from their beakers.”
--- Ctesias. Greek physician and historian, Indica (c. 400 BC)
It has been recorded throughout history that six mysterious natural substances have been coveted by ancient rulers above all others. These were:
- Walrus ivory for the crosiers of Christian bishops and the sword hafts of Muslim princes
- the Coco-de-mer, a voluptuously shaped 50-lb nut that bestowed bliss and health, and grew, it was said, in forests beneath the sea
- Mammoth tusks that, the Chinese believed, were the teeth of a monstrous mole that died when it came to the surface of the Earth
- the Gyrfalcon, so rare and noble that by law only emperors, kings and princes of the church were allowed to own them
- Polar bears, the ultimate status symbol for an emperor, pope or pharaoh
- the miracle-working horn of the unicorn (the correct term for which is alicorn) that cured all ailments from ague to plague, detected and neutralized poison and, not surprisingly, was worth many times its weight in gold.
Of these six treasures, the horn of the unicorn or alicorn, was the most valuable and sought after. Sheer value and mystique made them sought after gifts among rulers, and they were used extensively to win friends, influence fellow monarchs or protect a poison-prone prince. (Considering the reputation of Catherine de' Medici, a lady both lovely and lethal, it was most thoughtful of her uncle, Pope Clement VII, to give her fiancé, the dauphin of France, a gold-mounted alicorn as a wedding present!)
And the wonder-working horn existed. Alicorns were owned by monarchs and popes throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. The horn became an emblem of imperial power: The sceptre of Russia's czars and the sceptre of Austria's Hapsburg emperors were both made of unicorn horn. Two alicorns are among the treasures of Japan's imperial palace. Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, settled what in today's terms would be a multi-million-dollar debt by giving the Margrave of Bayreuth two alicorns. King Edward I of England owned a unicorn horn which was stolen. In 1550 Pope Clement purchased an alicorn said to be "the most beautiful unicorn's horn ever seen." It was elaborately mounted in silver and gold before being presented to King Francoise of France.
Mary, Queen of Scots, owned one, as did Francis I. Frederick III of Denmark had a throne made almost entirely out of alicorn. The Sultan of Turkey, the wealthiest ruler of his time, sent 12 alicorns to His Most Catholic Majesty King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). At that time each of them was worth from 10 to 20 times its weight in gold.
A typical alicorn was up to 9 feet long, had a basal girth of 8-9 inches and weighed 18-20 lbs. Even the Swiss scientist Konrad von Gesner (the father of zoology), who had his doubts about unicorns, concluded in 1551 that "the animal must exist on earth, or else its horn would not exist."
The Church also owned alicorns, which were put on public display at various times. The most famous of these belonged to the Church of St. Denis near Paris, where it was kept in a vault. One end was placed in a font and the water dispensed to the sick and infirm.
Allegedly it cured a wide range of illnesses after causing an initial fever. Unfortunately, this alicorn disappeared during the French Revolution. St. Mark's in Venice possessed three famous alicorns, as did Milan Cathedral, St. Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey in London and several others. Chester Cathedral in England still boasts an alicorn among its treasures.
Probably the most famous alicorn of all — known as the 'Horn of Windsor' — belonged to Elizabeth I of England. The horn was listed among Elizabeth's crown jewels and valued at 10,000 pounds (more than 10,000,000 pounds at today's prices), a sum which at that time would have been enough to buy a large estate plus castle.
This horn was given to the queen as a gift from the man who found it — Martin Frobisher. A captain in the British Navy, he had been trying to discover a northwest passage to India for some time. During his first attempt in 1576, rough winds and cold weather forced him to turn back. But the trip was not a total failure as some of his men had found some "black earth" and the rumor quickly spread that it was gold.
This made it much easier for him to find backers for future journeys and he was able to set out again the very next year. Once more inclement weather interfered with his explorations. And, after several ships were wrecked by a storm, Captain Frobisher had to end his journey. He had sailed as far as the inlet now known as Frobisher's Bay in Baffin Island, Canada. His men, who spent most of their time there collecting ore, found "a great dead fish" with a hollow spiralling tusk almost two yards long.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, many people believed that for each animal of the land there was an equivalent animal of the ocean. Captain Frobisher and his men probably believed this animal was a sea unicorn. The sailors even tested the horn by placing poisonous spiders in the inner cavity.
As men, to try the precious unicorn's horn,
Make of the powder a preservative circle,
And in it put a spider.
~ John Webster, The White Devil
When the spiders died it was considered adequate proof that the horn must belong to the unicorn of the sea. Frobisher returned to England and delivered the horn to Queen Elizabeth. He was later knighted for his valor against the Spanish Armada.
The alicorn's immense value was based on the absolute, universal and many-thousand-year-old belief in its magical powers. Pablo Neruda, the Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet and diplomat, said it bestowed on its owner "the eternal dream of man!—health, youth and virility." Many believed that it had a phallic quality, and in some cultures powdered alicorns (like the horns of rhinos) were believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac. It was also thought, it could detect and neutralize poison.
Some nobles would carry a unicorn horn with them, often capped with gold or silver at the tip and the base and with a loop around the end for carrying. The theory was that waving the horn over food or drink would neutralize any poisons. The eating utensils of the kings of France were made of alicorn until the revolution made such precautions superfluous. As food was brought to royal tables throughout the medieval world from Spain to Japan, a tester touched viands and wine with an alicorn. If they contained poison, the alicorn would make them "froth darkly" and bubble. Even as late as the Renaissance period, Charles the Bold of Burgundy and other spiritual and secular princes still demanded that a fragment of an alicorn and a unicorn place setting always be present on their dining tables.
The belief in the alicorn's ability to cure a wide range of maladies and protect against poison was nearly universal. Unfortunately, it was only available to the wealthy as its price was prohibitively high. Poor people had to make do with small quantities of horn such as a single band worked into a metal cup, or shavings ground up and used as powders.
Its effectiveness was such that the smallest amount was greatly treasured. It was used to protect people against plague, fever, rabies, colic and cramps. Boiled in wine, it whitened teeth. Mixed with amber, ivory, gold, coral, raisins and cinnamon, it helped cure epilepsy. It's no wonder that the Apothecaries Society of London, founded in 1617, chose a pair of unicorns to support its coat of arms—the symbol was easily understood.
This horn is useful and beneficial against epilepsy, pestilential fever, rabies, proliferation and infection of other animals and vermin, and against worms within the body from which children faint. Ancient physicians used their Alicorn remedies against such ailments by making drinking mugs from the horn and letting their patients drink from them. Nowadays such drinking vessels are unobtainable and the horn itself must be administered [as a powder] either alone or mixed with some other drug...Genuine Alicorn is good against all poison; especially, so some say, the quality coming from the Ocean Isles. Experience proves that anyone having taken poison and becoming distended thereby, recovered good health on immediately taking a little Unicorn horn.
Trade in alicorns was fairly widespread during the Middle Ages and numerous noble houses listed one of the horns among its treasures. The fact that alicorns were both so valuable and so rare (some legends say there is never more than one unicorn on earth at any one time) provided great temptation and opportunities for fraud. Merchants anxious to make a profit often sold the horns of other animals as alicorn.
With so much fraudulent alicorn being sold, it became necessary to devise some way of testing alicorns to determine which were real. Some of these tests included:
- Drawing a ring on the floor with the alicorn. A spider placed inside the ring would not be able to cross the line and would starve to death trapped inside the circle.
- Placing the horn in water, causing the water to bubble as if it were boiling, even though it remained cold.
- Placing a piece of silk on a burning coal, then laying the horn on top of the fabric. If it was a true alicorn, the silk would not burn.
- Bringing the horn near a poisonous plant or animal, which would burst and die in reaction.
- Inverting a beaker carved of alicorn over two scorpions. If it was truly unicorn horn, the scorpions would die.
Not even kings were exempt from being defrauded. King James I of England purchased an alicorn at great expense (reportedly for about 10,000 pounds). He felt it was important to test its authenticity, even though he had no doubt it was genuine. He summoned a favorite servant and told him to drink a draught of poison to which powdered horn was added. The servant drank the mixture and promptly died. James could not have been more unpleasantly surprised—he had been deceived.
Times and values certainly do change! James I immediately believed his fake alicorn to be almost worthless. Yet in 1994 a fake alicorn was auctioned at Christie's in London—and sold for nearly half a million pounds! This in spite of the fact that it was known to be a 12th Century fake. It's been speculated that this alicorn may have once belonged to Hereford Cathedral. It was purchased in the 1950's for next to nothing as part of a bundle of walking sticks cleared from a property in the cathedral close.
Fake or not, some of the magic of the unicorn seems to have been attached to this alicorn. Here are the first impressions of David Ekserdjian, head of Christie's sculpture department:
"It was wrapped up in newspaper inside a cardboard tube, but the minute I held it in my hand I knew I was in the presence of a great and extraordinary object. There was something about its weight and heft; as well as the sheer beauty of its carving; it has an almost tangible power, something you can feel coursing through your veins."
The unicorn horns still in palaces and royal treasuries (e.g., the Schatzkammer in Vienna or the Kremlin Armory in Moscow) and in museums and private collections have one thing in common: They are in fact all narwhal tusks, the enormously elongated and spiraled single tooth of a 13-to-15-foot High Arctic whale.
The narwhal swims in small groups in the remote Artic and is a mammal, not a fish. Its chief value to humans is the male narwhal's tooth, which juts out through its lips and grows in a spiral motion as long as eight feet. The tooth is ivory and exactly what most people picture when they think of an alicorn. In some ways, it is the alicorn.
It's believed narwhal horns first made their appearance around the 12th Century. The tusks of the male whales were traded to the wealthy courts of Asia and Europe by Scandinavian fishermen who had discovered the narwhal off the coast of Greenland.
The narwhal-unicorn connection was probably the best and longest kept secret of all time and, perhaps, one of history's most cunning marketing strategies. It was a trade carried on in utter secrecy; the middlemen, most often Vikings and Arabs, made millions and kept quiet. They were able to preserve their lucrative secret for more than 400 years because the narwhal seldom swam south.
The bubble burst in the 17th Century and the truth emerged as a result of growing trade between Greenland and North America. While alicorn continued to be listed as a scientifically approved medicine until well into the 18th Century, the price plummeted dramatically. One complete horn belonging to King Charles I dropped in value from 8,000 pounds in 1630 to only 600 pounds by 1649.