Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, , at sacred-texts.com
WE may never know precisely when or where or how the legend of the unicorn began. It pervades recorded time and may be dimly visible even in the clouds that hover just above history's sunrise. The mystery of its origin, leaving a wide field for speculation and surrounding even the facts of which we are certain with bands of twilight, is one of the legend's most evident charms, but it precludes the possibility of tracing that legend from its beginnings. We can best take up the tale of the unicorn at the point where it first emerges into the literature of the western world, early in the fourth century before Christ.
Few need to be reminded that at just this time Mediterranean civilization was sweeping rapidly up to one of the summits, perhaps the highest, of human achievement. In structures of stone and of words and of pure thought the Greek world was then creating marvels which compel us to accept the assurance with which the men of that world ruled out all who did not belong to it as "barbarians". There are two aspects of that Greek civilization, however, from which we barbarians of the modern world are accustomed to draw a little comfort: in the first place, it was an affair of a few small cities and, even in these, of few individuals; in the second place, it was achieved in spite of what we must regard as an abysmal ignorance. Greece in the Age of Pericles was like the hand's-breadth of lighted country, surrounded by shadow, that may be seen from a hill-top on a lowering day. The best minds in the Hellenic world knew little--and, with a few exceptions, they cared less--about what lay beyond the circle of their light, and even of what lay within it their ignorance is likely to seem to us pathetic. This may well remind us to what a slight extent deep wisdom and high intellectual attainment depend upon mere information, but the interesting fact remains. Greek notions of geography, with regard to every part of the earth's surface remote from the Mediterranean, were grotesquely few and wrong; in the field of zoology there were no clear ideas about species, and, before Aristotle, no ideas whatever about orders and genera; with regard to the animals of distant lands where no Greek had ever been men were completely at the mercy of travellers' tales.
It was from this civilization and this intermingling of intellectual brilliancy and ignorance that the physician Ctesias went out in the year 416 B.C., going eastward from his native town of Cnidus to accept an appointment at the court of Darius II, King of Persia. This appointment he owed partly to the already great prestige of Greek medicine and partly, perhaps, to the fact that he was a member of the priestly caste of the Asclepiadai in which medicine was a hereditary profession. He remained in Persia for some seventeen years, serving both Darius and Artaxerxes. For a single instant he appears in familiar history, for Xenophon tells us that when Cyrus broke through the bodyguard of the Great King at Cunaxa and struck him through his breastplate, it was Ctesias, one of those fighting near at hand, who healed the wound. About the year 398 he returned to Cnidus and there wrote his two works, a History of Persia in twenty-three books, now largely lost, and his Indica, preserved in a fragmentary abstract made in the ninth century by one Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople.
There is reason to suspect that Photios subordinated the more commonplace passages of his original and stressed the marvels, yet that original work was the Mandeville's Travels of its time and even the Greeks who knew the text of Ctesias regarded him as a romancer. It is fair to remember, however, that he wrote, confessedly, about a district which he had never seen, so that he had to depend upon the tales of travellers and the reports of Persian officials, and that his most remarkable stories have usually some discernible foundation in fact. In justice to him we may ask ourselves what would be the present reputation of Herodotus, his great contemporary, if the History had been preserved only in a few selections chosen by a credulous cleric of the Dark Ages. In the thirty-third and final fragment of the Indica Ctesias asserts roundly--or perhaps it is Photius who does it for him--that his book is all perfectly true, that he has set down nothing which he has not either seen himself or else heard from the mouths of credible witnesses. Indeed, says he, many more wonderful things than he has put into his book have been left out simply because he does not wish to be thought a liar. We do well to keep this assurance in mind when we come to consider his twenty-fifth fragment, the earliest and one of the most important of European documents relating to the unicorn:--
"There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs. The base of this horn, for some two hands'-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. 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 even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers. Other asses, both the tame and the wild, and in fact all animals with solid hoofs, are without the ankle-bone and have no gall in the liver, but these have both the ankle-bone and the gall. This ankle-bone, the most beautiful I have ever seen, is like that of an ox in general appearance and in size, but it is as heavy as lead and its colour is that of cinnabar through and through. The animal is exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it."
Whatever else we may think of this passage, we cannot call it a baseless fabrication. We can believe that Ctesias added to it nothing whatever out of his own fancy, but recorded what he had heard from men who, in their turn, spoke quite honestly and even accurately of what they had seen and heard. Considered from the zoologist's point of view, the fault of the passage is that the facts it contains are strangely combined, but for our present purposes this is just its charm and value. Evidently, Ctesias is describing at least two different animals at once, and it is as though a child, having read descriptions of the lion and the camel, should combine them into a tertium quid vaguely like both but exactly similar to neither.
A main ingredient of this compound beast is almost certainly the Indian rhinoceros. The evidence for this lies in what is said of the horn's alexipharmic virtue, that those who drink from beakers made of it are free from certain diseases and from poisons. This belief about rhinoceros horn, still widely current in the Orient, was already old, apparently, in the time of Ctesias, and underneath it there lies a welter of symbolism and superstition exceedingly difficult to comprehend. Without attempting to explain it at present, we may accept it as an important datum of our study.
Thinking, then, of the rhinoceros horn, what explanation can be made of the remark about its colours, white and black and red? The actual horns of the rhinoceros vary somewhat widely in hue, and the colour of a carved specimen is really a strange dull red in the thinner parts, deepening toward reddish black where it is thick. At first thought, therefore, it seems possible that Ctesias described the natural colours of the horn by his words xxxxx and xxxxxxx xxxx, although both epithets are much too strong. This interpretation makes no account, however, of the pure white that is said to extend upward from the brow for two hand's-breadths, for there is no hint of white in the natural horn. The words suggest, by their precision, that Ctesias imagined the horn as having three broad bands of sharply distinct and vivid hues, and this is an effect not of nature but of art. It seems possible that he got his idea of the horn's colouration, not necessarily at first hand, either from some representation of it or else from a horn artificially decorated.
Support for one of these suggestions is given by Manuel Philes, a Greek poet who, although he lived in the thirteenth century, is a mere echo of the ancients. Seeing in the hands of an Indian king a drinking vessel adorned with three bands of colour, white and black and red, Philes asks what this cup is made of, and is told that it is the horn of the ovdypos or wild ass. The ultimate source of this passage is Ctesias himself, so that the story in Philes amounts not to a discovery but to an interpretation; yet, considered as such it is both shrewd and plausible. The rhinoceros cups of India may well have been painted with these three colours for symbolic or magical reasons now lost, and the mistaking of such an artificial for a natural colouring would have been only one of several such confusions that we shall meet in unicorn lore.
Yet even this interpretation is not wholly satisfying, for it leaves out of account the remarkable colours of the animal's body. No matter how feeble the colour-sense of the ancients may be thought, no matter how different it may have been from our own or how widely the meanings of colour words may have changed, it seems incredible that any man who had ever seen a rhinoceros could call its body white, its head dark red or purple, and its eyes blue. Taking these hues together with those of the horn, we have a beast coloured like the peacock--and one so gaudy, indeed, that here again we suspect the intervention of art. The splash of vivid dye at the end of the horn holds special attention. It recalls a passage in the twenty-first fragment of Ctesias in which we are told that near the sources of the Hyparkhos "there is found a certain flower used for dyeing purposes and not inferior to the Greek purple, giving in fact a far more vivid hue even than that. In the same district there is an animal about as large as a beetle, with very long legs and as red as cinnabar, which the Indians grind into a powder and so use for dyeing the robes and tunics to which they wish to give a purple colour. Their dye-stuffs are better than those of the Persians."
This means, almost certainly, that the Persians of the time of Ctesias imported dyed fabrics from the regions of northern India over which they ruled-fabrics in which a vivid purple was a prominent hue. May it not be that they sometimes found the rhinoceros, a beast unknown to them but familiar to the manufacturers, represented upon these fabrics, and in the strong hues made possible by the native dyes? We know that the animal was so represented, in colours that made no attempt at verisimilitude, by Scythian and Chinese embroiderers of later centuries. The colours of Ctesias's unicorn may, just possibly, have had some such origin.
Undoubtedly there is an appearance of the fantastic in this theory, but we are moving here in a world of fantasy. Ctesias never saw any part of the vast romantic region comprising the Himalaya mountains and Tibet which is what he means by "India", but he heard it talked about for seventeen years, for the most part in languages that he understood imperfectly, by men to whom it was a Land of Cockayne lying many caravan-journeys deep in the gorgeous East. Their gold and ivory and spices and woven fabrics came from there, and concerning the beasts said to inhabit its forests they believed what they were told. Ctesias must have been told something, for his idea about the properties of the onager's horn were not derived from plastic or tectile representation; the suggestion is only that he may have filled in his description with details of an artistic origin. He was not well equipped for criticism of his sources of information, and if it had occurred to him that his unicorned wild ass had an odd look, in particular that it was remarkably polychromatic, he would have quieted his doubts by recalling that it was a native of India.
It may be objected that even in the fourth century before Christ no intelligent man could have assumed the actual existence of a beast such as this on no better evidence than that of a rude representation. Against this objection one may bring forward the exactly similar assumption made by a scientifically trained traveller of the nineteenth century who was converted to belief in the existence of unicorns by the discovery of a primitive picture of what he took for one in a South African cave.
But thus far we have ignored the fact that Ctesias calls his unicorns wild asses, and even with such an absurd name as that of the hippopotamus--"river horse"--before us it seems unlikely that either he or his informants could ever have seen anything asinine in the rhinoceros. The wild ass, a native of Persia, as well as of India, should have been familiar to Ctesias by personal observation. It was vividly described by Xenophon and was a favourite quarry of Mesopotamian kings, its great speed and ferocity making the chase of it indeed a royal sport. Ctesias could scarcely have spent seventeen years in Persia without knowing rather definitely what he meant when he referred to the wild ass, and it seems probable that this animal contributed something to his description of the unicorn. In a part of that description which I have not translated above he says that the unicorn fights "with horn, teeth, and heels". This, and what is said of the beast's great speed, suggests the wild ass; but in saying that the unicorn increases its speed as it runs he gives us a closely observed trait of the rhinoceros. Xenophon tells us that the flesh of the wild asses killed by the soldiers of Cyrus in the Arabian Desert was "like the flesh of deer, although more tender", but Ctesias, with obvious reference to the rhinoceros, says that the flesh of his unicorn is too bitter to be eaten. There is even a possibility that the colouration of the real wild ass, which is described as "reddish above" and "silvery grey" on the belly and hinder parts, may have suggested the white body and red head of the one-horned onager.
For a moment, all difficulties seem to be solved, and one is ready to believe that Ctesias or his informants confused and combined the rhinoceros with the wild ass, clapping the artificially decorated horn of the one upon the brow of the other. When this solution is closely examined, however, its plausibility vanishes, for common sense demands a reason why a known animal should have been thus violently transmogrified. Gross inaccuracy with regard to the rhinoceros is what we should expect, but the addition of a horn to a beast that Ctesias must have seen many times, and always hornless, calls for explanation. Common sense asks how it happened that the horn of the rhinoceros, so obviously on the nose that its position there gave the beast its very name, was transferred to a totally different position, so as to stand xx xx xxxxxx. What is needed, apparently, is some intermediary between the rhinoceros and the wild ass, to ease the transference of shape and characteristics from the one to the other.
A vigorous and widespread belief in a unicorn inhabiting the table-lands of Tibet--a region included within the "India" of Ctesias--can be traced in existing documents as far back as the time of Genghis Khan, and there is good reason for supposing that it is much older still. This Tibetan "unicorn", undoubtedly, is the Antbolos Hodgsoni, a large and fleet antelope the nearly straight horns of which, seen from one side, give the effect of a single horn. It is certain that the natives, who see these animals frequently, have long believed that some individuals in almost every herd--those individuals, naturally, which they have seen in profile and at a distance--are unicorns. May it be that some vague report of these antelopes helped to set the single horn of the Indian rhinoceros upon the brow of the Mesopotamian wild ass? The conjecture looks hazardous at first, and too complex, but it gathers credibility as we consider the evidence bit by bit and as we find much the same sort of thing happening elsewhere. Such a confusion, instead of being unique, might rather be called typical, and typical not of the ancient world alone but of far more recent times. Compared with the juggling of species and the transferences of animal attributes to be found in the mediaeval bestiaries, it approaches scientific exactness.
This confusion, rolling three different beasts into one, need not be attributed to Ctesias. The rumour of the unicorn came up to him over the long trails running westward from a land as strange, as replete with incredible possibilities, as America was to the Spanish conquistadors. His unicorn, like the far less probable beasts of the Arabian Nights, was pieced together by travel-weary men sitting about many a camp-fire, drowsy, uncritical, pooling all that they had seen and heard. We may believe that every contributor meant and tried to tell the exact truth--just as each of the blind men in the proverb intended to give an honest report about the elephant, the discrepancies in their results being due to the fact that one of them had hold of the animal's trunk, another grasped a tusk, and a third was pulling at the tail. Some of these scientists of the camp-fire had seen the rhinoceros, perhaps, or had talked with men who had seen him; others had handled the painted horn and had heard report of its occult virtues; still others, hearing talk about a beast with a single horn, and that a horn of magic properties, would recall the apparently unicorned animals they had seen feeding at a distance with a herd of antelopes, and they might even know that the apparently single horns of these animals were objects of veneration in Tibet and were sold to pilgrims at high prices; finally, the merchants and tax-gatherers of Persia, returning from the lands where such tales were told and trying to make clear what they had heard, might say that the beast with the precious vari-coloured horn standing in the middle of its forehead was a good deal like a wildass--a statement practically equivalent to the declaration that it was a wild-ass. For all these earnest, far-travelled, and well-intentioned men Ctesias, the court physician, acted merely as amanuensis, freshening and defining his impressions somewhat, perhaps, by means of any figures and images of the unicorn there may have been available.
Or so, at any rate, I make it out. Besides these three actual animals, towering above them all, there may have been a guiding and shaping conception of a celestial and purely symbolical unicorn of which the beast thus compounded was only a feeble earthly representative. Of that I shall have something to say in the proper place. For the present it is enough to have shown how the unicorn of Ctesias may have been constructed out of mundane materials.
The close attention we have paid to one brief passage in an unimportant book is justified by the fact that this passage is one of the two main sources from which the Western legend of the unicorn comes down to us. It was written far back in the Ages of Authority, during which men seldom thought of acquiring opinions of their own by independent investigation and when scholarship consisted largely in the discovery, balancing, and recording of what others had said. This habit of mind made it possible for the passage just considered to reverberate through twenty centuries.
Shortly after the time of Ctesias there arose one supreme authority, "il maestro di color che sanno", who might have given the legend of the unicorn its quietus by a single blow. The animal had a narrow escape when Aristotle passed it by with a few scant references merely sufficient to show that he believed in its existence. Why he should have believed in it at all, considering that he thought Ctesias untrustworthy, and what other evidence he may have had, we shall probably never know. He even makes a slight addition to the unicorn lore handed on by Ctesias, for he says: "We have never seen an animal with a solid hoof and with two horns, and there are only a few that have a solid hoof and one horn, as the Indian ass and the oryx. Of all animals with a solid hoof, the Indian ass alone has a talus." Aristotle, then, not only believed in the existence of a one-horned Indian ass but he thought also that the oryx has only one horn and a solid hoof. He was a man whose very errors were to be far more fruitful than most men's correct opinions.--Already there are two different species of unicorns for the echoers of authority to describe.
The unicorn has no place in the classic literature of Greece and Rome, yet during the five hundred years between Aristotle and Aelian its legend somehow made progress. Aristotle knew of only two unicorns, but Aelian and Pliny between them muster seven: the rhinoceros, the Indian ass, the oryx, the Indian ox, the Indian horse, the bison, and the unicorn proper and par excellence. Aelian's acquaintance with two or three of these, moreover, is far more extended than that shown by Aristotle or even by Ctesias, but there is no way of discovering how his increments of knowledge came to him. His book about animals, composed in a florid Greek, although he was a Roman and spent his life in Italy, exerted an influence upon later writers on zoology inferior only to that of Aristotle and of Pliny. Every phrase of his three considerable passages about the unicorn was conned and reiterated many times during the following fifteen hunched years and for this reason they deserve careful attention.
In the first of these passages Aelian adds nothing to the statement of Ctesias. In the second he says: "I have found that wild asses as large as horses are to be seen in India. The body of this animal is white, except on the head, which is red, while the eyes are azure. It has a horn on the brow, about one cubit and a half in length, which is white at the base, crimson at the top, and black between. These variegated horns, I learn, are used as drinking-cups by the Indians--although not, to be sure, by all of the people. Only the great men use them, after having them ringed about with hoops of gold exactly as they would put bracelets on some beautiful statue. And it is said that whosoever drinks from this kind of horn is safe from all incurable diseases such as convulsions and the so-called holy disease, and that he cannot be killed by poison. In the rest of the chapter Aelian speaks of the black ankle-bone, of the onager's way of fighting with horn and teeth and heels, and of its bitter flesh.
The foundation of this passage, obviously, is that of Ctesias, but there are significant additions and variations. Aeian adds that the beakers are used only by the great men of India and that they are adorned with gold rings. He diverges from Ctesias in saying that the horn is about a cubit and a half in length instead of only one cubit, and also in asserting that the astragalus or ankle-bone is black. Ctesias, who affirms that he has seen this ankle-bone, declares that it is red like cinnabar. Shall we infer that Aelian had some source of information about unicorns other than the book of the court physician? He might well have increased the length of the horn without authority, as several others were to do after him, but his remark about the gold rings and about the use of the cups by great men alone is hardly of the sort that even a naturally inaccurate man like Aeian evolves from his own mind. His disagreement with Ctesias about the colour of the ankle-bone raises a curious problem. Ctesias gives us the impression that this bone was important by saying in the first place, quite wrongly, that among solid-hoofed animals only the wild ass has it, and secondly that the unicorned onager is hunted in India for the horn and the ankle-bone only. What could have given it this importance? Possibly the use of it as a charm or talisman, for we know that every part of the body of the rhinoceros was thought to have magical virtues; and it may be that the specimen seen by Ctesias had been painted or dyed so as to make it both an ornament and an amulet. The common use of these ankle-bones in the ancient world, however, was for the making of dice, as one is reminded by the Latin word talus, which means both "an astragalus" and "a die". There is a bare possibility that Aeian was thinking of the black dice of Italy.
The third passage in Aelian about the unicorn is the most important. "They say", he writes, "that there are mountains in the interior regions of India which are inaccessible to men and therefore full of wild beasts. Among these is the unicorn, which they call the 'cartazon'. This animal is as large as a full-grown horse, and it has a mane, tawny hair, feet like those of the elephant, and the tail of a goat. It is exceedingly swift of foot. Between its brows there stands a single black horn, not smooth but with certain natural rings, and tapering to a very sharp point. Of all animals, this one has the most dissonant voice. With beasts of other species that approach it the 'cartazon' is gentle, but it fights with those of its own kind, and not only do the males fight naturally among themselves but they contend even against the females and push the contest to the death. The animal has great strength of body, and it is armed besides with an unconquerable horn. It seeks out the most deserted places and wanders there alone. In the season of rut it grows gentle towards the chosen female and they pasture side by side, but when this time is over he becomes wild again and wanders alone. They say that the young ones are sometimes taken to the king to be exhibited in contests on days of festival, because of their strength, but no one remembers the capture of a single specimen of mature age."
In this passage we part company with Ctesias. Aelian is here describing the rhinoceros and getting much closer to the real animal than Ctesias did, even giving it a name, "cartazon," which is apparently connected with the Sanscrit kartayan, lord of the desert. His account is correct with regard to the beast's habitat, size, feet, tail, voice, strength, and solitary habits, although he is wrong in what he says of its mane, its tawny hair, its pugnacity, and its great swiftness. These errors are of little importance, however, in comparison with his assertion that the horn stands between the brows. This horn is black, and it is not smooth but has certain natural rings. It is about a cubit and a half, that is to say about twentyseven inches, in length. Almost certainly, this is the horn of an antelope. The suggestion made above that the Ctesian unicorn owes something to the antelope is corroborated by Aelian's independent and unconscious recourse to the same animal.
The most influential of Aelian's remarks about the unicorn were those concerning its indomitability, its solitude, its habit of fighting with others of its own species except with females during the season of rut, and the custom of taking such specimens as were captured when young to the king, who exhibited them on public holidays.
By this last touch one is inevitably reminded again of the rhinoceros, which Aelian, as a Roman of the third century A.D., must have seen frequently at the Circus. He had not the slightest suspicion, however, that his "cartazon" of India and the well-known rhinoceros were identical. The one, as he tells us here, has a horn between the eyebrows; in XVII, 40, he discusses the other briefly, saying that it, would be ridiculous for him to describe its appearance, because it is familiar to all Greeks and Romans; but he does say that it has a horn on its nose. Thus we see that he describes the rhinoceros, rather accurately in most respects, without knowing that he is doing so, and that in another place he refuses to describe the rhinoceros because it is too familiar. The strange confusion had strange results, lasting on into the nineteenth century. One of the more amusing phases of it is the fact that when Aeian is speaking of the wild ass he makes much of the magical properties of its horn, but when he comes to speak of the "cartazon," or rhinoceros, to which alone those properties were originally attributed, he has not a word to say of them.
Among the several passages in which the elder Pliny mentions unicorned animals, the only one of present importance is that in which he says: "The Orsan Indians hunt an exceedingly wild beast called the monoceros, which has a stag's head, elephant's feet, and a boar's tail, the rest of its body being like that of a horse. It makes a deep lowing noise, and one black horn two cubits long projects from the middle of its forehead. This animal, they say, cannot be taken alive."
Here, one observes, is a sober account written by a serious-minded man. We may be sure that Pliny had read stories of the horn's prophylactic powers because Pliny read everything, but he does not speak of them, contenting himself with adding another half-cubit to the horn's length and then passing on to other matters. His brief reference to the unicorn is important chiefly because for more than a thousand years his beliefs about animals were the beliefs of almost every reader of Latin in Europe. If he had enlarged, like his Greek authorities, upon the horn's medical values, the western legend of the unicorn, with a full millennium added for the development of its more interesting elements, would have attained an even richer and stranger complexity than it did. Pliny might have transplanted the fascinating Oriental idea of the horn's prophylactic virtues into the hotbeds of western folklore and magic, where it would have flourished mightily, but, having to do without his assistance, that idea came into the popular legend of the West only a few centuries before the awakening science of Europe was ready to cope with it.
The docility with which later writers accepted the opinions of Pliny was shown almost at once by Julius Solinus, whose description of the unicorn has a sonority that makes it worthy of direct quotation: "Atrocissimum est Monoceros, monstrum mugitu horrendo, equino corpore, elphanti pedibus, cauda suilla, cepite cervino, cornu media fronte protenditur splendore mirifico ad longitudinem pedum quatuor, ita tamen, ut quidquid impetat, facile ictu ejus perforetur. Vivus non venit in hominum potestatem, et interimi quidem potest, capi non potest." Whatever rhetoric can do to make the unicorn impressive Solinus has done. In this passage not even Arthur Golding can improve upon his original, for he translates: "But the cruellest is the Unicorne, a Monster that belloweth horriblie, bodyed like a horse, footed like an Eliphant, tayled like a Swyne, and headed like a Stagge. His home sticketh out of the midds of hys forehead, of a wonderful brightness about foure foote long, so sharp, that whatsoever he pusheth at, he striketh it through easily. He is never caught alive; kylled he may be, but taken he cannot bee."
We observe, to be sure, that Solinus has added another foot to the length of the horn and that he calls the monoceros a "monster"--an epithet vehemently exclaimed against by the pious of later ages, who considered it both sacrilegious and bad zoology to call any beast monstrous that was mentioned in the Bible. Otherwise, there is nothing new in Solinus, and nothing not to be found in Pliny except the vivid touch of colour on the horn which, as we have seen, may come from the indelible dyes of Upper India.
One really learned and thoughtful man of the ancient world seems to have been confronted with the rhinoceros and with the Indian superstition concerning it at the same time. This was the enigmatic seer, traveller, and rhetorician Apollonius of Tyana, whose life and sayings, as they have come down to us, form the strangest tissue of idle nonsense and lofty wisdom. During his travels in India, says his biographer, Apollonius saw the wild asses that were captured near the Hyphasis and was told that cups made from their horns-single horns, which grew from the brow--were used by the kings of India in the belief that those who drank from them were free for that day from sickness and poison. When Damis, one of the philosopher's companions, asked what he thought of this story, he said: "I should have believed it if I had found that the kings of this country were immortal." these words the man who has usually been regarded as a mystagogue and a liar, partly because of the attacks of his Christian enemies, takes high rank among the commentators upon the unicorn. He is the first man of whom it is asserted--he does not make the assertion himself--that he actually saw the unicorn, but even this was not sufficient to induce a perfect faith.
Only two further references to the unicorn in ancient literature are worthy of attention. In his long poem on the art of hunting Oppian speaks of certain Aonian (Boeotian) oxen as having solid hoofs and one heavy horn protruding from the middle of the brow. Of these we can only say that if they really did inhabit Boeotia in his time it is strange that we hear nothing of them from Aristotle or Pausanias or even Plutarch, who would scarcely have left such remarkable denizens of his district unheralded. We suspect that Oppian erred about the habitat and even the species of these bulls when we read that their horns are coloured white and black and red, for we seem to remember having heard of this colouration elsewhere.
The other reference occurs in the writings of a man often regarded as the greatest figure of the ancient world. Julius Caesar tells us that in his time there was to be found in the Hercynian Forest--where wonders have always abounded--a huge beast with the form of a stag, from the middle of whose brow and between the ears there stood forth one horn, longer and straighter than the horns known to the Romans. The words are impressive by their precision and directness, and they convince us at least of this, that one of the keenest minds recorded in history believed in the unicorn.
And yet it is clear that the unicorn legend did not really flourish in the ancient Western world. It lived merely from book to book, a literary life, taking no hold and showing no vitality in the popular imagination. It found no place in creative literature or in plastic art; religious symbolism and mythology knew nothing of it; if it ever appeared in the ancient folklore of the Mediterranean it seems to have left no trace; Galen, Hippocrates, Dioscorides even, never mention the prophylactic and therapeutic values of the horn. A thousand such merely literary references as those we have considered, most of them borrowed and reflecting a belief which had vitality only in a distant land, would never, unless by lucky chance, have given the unicorn an important position in true legend. To gain such standing, together with the complexity and strangeness and human significance that would accrue, it had to be brought closer home to the erring, dreamful, devoted hearts of men than the books of the most learned zoologists and the most honey-tongued rhetoricians could ever bring it. The legend had to be helped out of the library into the world.
Such assistance was close at hand.