Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, , at sacred-texts.com
THE first point that research into a doubtful matter should try to determine, as Andrea Bacci wisely observes, is whether the thing in question really exists; and if we were concerned in this book with the unicorn itself rather than with unicorn lore there could be no excuse for having postponed for so long the question concerning the animal's actuality. That question cannot be entirely ignored because the doubts that have been expressed and the affirmations made in reply are themselves an important part of unicorn lore.
To anyone not instructed in comparative anatomy the unicorn is so credible a beast that it is difficult to understand why anyone should ever have doubted him. Compared with him the giraffe is highly improbable, the armadillo and the ant-eater are unbelievable, and the hippopotamus is a nightmare. The shortest excursion into palaeontology brings back a dozen animals that strain our powers of belief far more than he does. What may be called the normality of the unicorn is just as evident when we set him beside the creatures of fancy. Compared with him the griffin is precisely what Sir Thomas Browne calls it, "a mixed and dubious animal".
Yet it is well known that the unicorn has been doubted, and that not by natural infidels like Pare and Marini and Cuvier alone, but by natural believers living far back in the Ages of Faith. Saint Ambrose, for example, disbelieved in the animal for the strange reason that it was not to be found, or so he thought, in nature--"non inveniatur". One might have made sad havoc in the theological creed of Ambrose or any other early Christian by applying that brutal test, and we can imagine the flood of invective he would have poured forth upon the pagan who dared to write "non inveniatur" against the Apostolic miracles. However, I wish to devote this chapter to affirmations, recording the testimony of those who have kept the good faith and of the many others who, having fallen away into agnosticism or free-thinking or positive infidelity, have been brought back into the fold. The list of these affirmations will necessarily involve some writers that I have mentioned elsewhere.
One of the earliest of these, aside from the Ctesian and the Physiologus traditions, was that of Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Greek of Alexandria who spent his young manhood travelling as a merchant in Ethiopia, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. In his Christian Topography, written about A.D. 5 50, Cosmas writes: "Although I have not seen the unicorn, I have seen four brazen figures of him in the four-towered palace of the King of Ethiopia, and from these figures I have been able to draw a picture of him as you see. People say that he is a terrible beast and quite invincible, and that all his strength lies in his horn. When he finds himself pursued by many hunters and about to be taken he springs to the top of some precipice and throws himself over it, and in the descent he turns a somersault so that the horn sustains all the shock of the fall and he escapes unhurt."
Cosmas's ingenuous admission that he has not seen the living animal inclines one to believe that he did see the brazen images. These must have been figures in the round rather than bas-reliefs, so that their single horns could not well have been due to the wellknown convention of ancient art which often led to the representation of one horn where two were to be understood; we may be fairly confident, therefore, that there existed in Ethiopia during the sixth century of our era an active belief in a one-horned animal. The drawing of this animal which accompanies the text in the Vatican manuscript of Cosmas is more interesting than the description. It shows a beast of the antelope kind, apparently not large, very spirited in bearing, with a horn almost as tall as itself jutting per- pendicularly from between its brows. The moment one sees this drawing the unicorn of Physiologus comes to mind. One remembers that the feat of absorbing the shock of a fall by an elastic or possibly spring-like horn has been attributed also to the ibex, to the African oryx, and to the Rocky Mountain goat. Finally, it is not to be ignored that Cosmas found these brazen unicorns in the palace of a king.
In the year 1206, we are told, the conqueror Genghis Khan set out with a great host to invade India. His army had marched for many days and had climbed through many mountain passes, but just when he reached the crest of the divide and looked down over the country he intended to subjugate there came running toward him a beast with a single horn which bent the knee three times before him in token of reverence. And then, while all the host stood wondering, the Conqueror paused in his march and pondered. At last he said, as we are told in the vivid narrative of Ssanang Ssetsen: "This middle kingdom of India before us is the place, men say, in which the sublime Buddha and the Bodhisatwas and many powerful princes of old time were born. What may it mean that this speechless wild animal bows before me like a man? Is it that the spirit of my father would send me a warning out of heaven?" With these words he turned his army about and marched back again into his own land. India had been saved by a unicorn.
In several versions of the Alexander Romance we read that Alexander's host, while travelling near the Red Sea, met a number of beasts with single horns, sharp as swords, on their foreheads. They were very strong and fierce and charged the host again and again, but they were killed by arrows. The description is not clear enough to show that they were the unicorns we know.
The Friar Felix Fabri, who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1483, says that on the twentieth of September in that year he and his company saw standing on a hill near Mount Sinai a large animal gazing toward them. At first they took it for a camel, but their guide told them that it was a unicorn and pointed out the great single horn on its brow, so that they examined it as closely as they could and were sorry that it was too far away to be seen quite clearly. They lingered there a long while watching the beast, which seemed to enjoy the sight of them as much as they did the sight of it, for it did not leave until they did. This beast, the friar adds, is remarkable in many ways: it is exceedingly wild and destroys everything that comes in its way; it sharpens its horn on stones; the horn has a brilliant hue and is set in gold and silver; the animal can be captured only by using a virgin as a decoy.
The most important of all descriptions of the unicorn given by the few who claim to have seen the animal is that of Lewis Vartoman (Ludovico Barthema), of Bologna, who travelled in 1503 through the countries of the Near East. Vartoman's Itinerario is a book of sustained interest and some historical value, although the modern reader is unlikely to share Scaliger's opinion that its author was a man worthy of trust. At the city of Zeila in Ethiopia he saw certain cattle with single horns about a palm and a half in length rising from their brows and bending backward, but much more important than these were the unicorns in a park adjoining the temple at Mecca. There were two of these animals, "shewed to the people for a miracle, and not without reason for the seldomenesse and strange nature. The one of them, which is much hygher than the other, yet not much unlyke to a coolte of thyrtye moneths of age, in the forehead groweth only one horne, in maner ryght foorth, of the length of three cubites. The other is much younger, of the age of one yeere, and lyke a young coolte: the horne of this is of the length of foure handfuls. This beast is of the coloure of a horse of weesel coloure, and hath the head lyke an hart, but no long necke, a thynne mane hangynge only on the one syde. Theyr legges are thyn and slender, lyke a fawne or hynde. The hoofes of the fore feete are divided in two, much lyke the feet of a Goat. The outwarde part of the hynder feete is very full of heare. This beast doubtlesse seemeth wylde and fierce, yet tempereth that fiercenesse with a certain comelinesse. These Unicornes one gave to the Soltan of Mecha as a most precious and rare gyfte. They were sent hym out of Ethiope by a kyng of that Countrey, who desired by that present to gratifie the Soltan of Mecha."
This passage was almost as influential among modern writers as the remarks of Aeian about the unicorn had been during the Middle Ages. One is to observe that the hoofs of Vartoman's unicorns are divided on the fore feet and, apparently, solid behind--a peculiar characteristic faithfully observed by the artist who drew the unicorn picture for Conrad Gesner's Historia Animalium and by all who imitated him. We should observe also that these unicorns came from Ethiopia and that they were sent as a present from one sovereign to another.
I have placed Vartoman, as others do, among those who claim to have seen the unicorn, but although he does say that he saw the one-horned cattle of Zeila, he makes no such assertion about the two animals at Mecca and it has been inferred that he saw these only from the extreme minuteness of his description. Edward Webbe, an Elizabethan traveller whom no one has ever called trustworthy, does not wish to leave his readers in any doubt on this point. "I have scene," says he, "in a place like a Park adjoyning unto prester Iohn's Court, three score and seven-teene unicornes 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."
Vincent Le Blanc, who set out on his travels through the Orient in 1567, was still more fortunate, for he declares: "I have seen a unicorn in the seraglio of the Sultan, others in India, and still others at the Escurial. That there are some persons who doubt whether this animal is to be found anywhere in the world I am well aware, but in addition to my own observation there are several serious writers who bear witness to its existence--Vartoman among others, who says that he saw some at the same place in Mecca." In the seraglio of the King of Pegu he saw a unicorn with a tongue "very long and like a file". (This probably means that he had read Marco Polo on the rhinoceros.) He was told that these beasts were tormented cruelly by huge serpents which were very fond of their blood because it had a delicious odour, and that when one of them was wounded in the chase the hunters always sent as much of its blood as they could collect to the king, enclosed in a little box. No one had ever seen the unicorn dip its horn in the water when drinking. A Brahmin told Le Blanc that he had been present at the capture of a very old unicorn which defended itself so fiercely that it broke off its horn on the branch of a tree and which, when it had been taken and bound, was led to the palace of the king; but this animal had been so severely beaten by the hunters for having wounded the king's nephew that it died in a few days. The queens of India, Le Blanc reports, wear bracelets of unicorn bone, and the King of Casubi showed him a horn much lighter in hue than those he had seen elsewhere in the Orient. His remarks are a strange compound of things seen and heard and read thrown together without any attempt at criticism or sorting.
Another Oriental traveller, Dr. Leonard Rauchwolf, who saw the countries visited by Le Blanc a few years after him was told by a Persian "that the Sophi King of Persia had several Unicorns at Samarcand . . . and also in two islands . . . which lay from Samarcand nine Days journey, some Griffins which were sent him out of Africa from Prester John."
In the same year in which Vincent Le Blanc began his travels there was published a famous book on the drugs and spices of India by Garcias ab Horto. Here we find a description of an amphibian unicorn which the author says he has had from men worthy of belief. They have told him that between the Cape of Good Hope and the promontory commonly called Currentes (Cape Corrientes, opposite the southern end of Madagascar) there are to be seen certain animals that live on the land yet take pleasure also in the sea. Although they are certainly not sea-horses, they have equine heads and manes. This beast has a horn two palms in length, and the horn is movable so that it can be turned to right or left and raised or lowered at will. The animal fights fiercely with the elephant and its horn is considered good against poison. A similar animal, called the campchurch, was reported eight years later by André Thevet. This creature, he said, was to be found near the Strait of Malacca, large as a stag and bearing on its brow a horn three feet and a half in length and mobile like the crest of the Indian cock. The horn was efficacious against poison. The campchurch had two web feet like those of a duck which it used in swimming both in fresh and salt water, but its forefeet were like those of the stag. It lived on fish." This André Thevet, one must remember, was a man "worthy of trust." He believed what was told him by a Turkish ambassador about the unicorns of Ethiopia and he thought also that the reindeer had only one horn. Caspar Bartholinus, who had seen reindeer, ridiculed this assertion, but John Johnston, who tried to please everyone in his Historia Naturalis, reconciled Bartholinus and Thevet by showing a picture of the reindeer with the two horns twisted together into one.
We have seen that Ambroise Pare disbelieved in the unicorn as firmly as his faith in the Bible would allow, but his fairness in controversy was such that he quoted against himself the testimony of an acquaintance of his, a physician named Louys Paradis, who said that he had actually seen the animal. This unicorn had been sent to Alexandria, where Paradis encountered it, as a gift to the Great Mogul from Prester John. It was about as large as a boar-hound, though not so slender in body, had a glossy coat like that of the beaver in colour, a slender neck, small ears, and one horn between the ears, very smooth, dark, and only one foot long. The head was short and thin, the muzzle round like a calf's, the eyes were very large and fierce in aspect, the legs lean, the hooves divided like a deer's. The animal was of one colour all over excepting one forefoot, which was yellow. It ate lentils and pease but lived chiefly on sugarcane. Paradis was told by the men who brought it from Prester John that there were many others of the same kind in their country, but that they were so wild that they were hard to capture and that the people feared them more than any other beasts. This account is more impressive in its minuteness and precision even than that of Vartoman, and one is surprised that Pare, who seems to have thought his informant trustworthy, could maintain his disbelief in the face of it.
In reading these accounts one cannot fail to be impressed by the number of unicorns coming from Prester John, who seems to have kept the neighbouring potentates regularly supplied with them. Vartoman's two unicorns came from the Court of Prester John, the numerous specimens seen by Edward Webbe were in a Park adjoining that monarch's palace, the unicorns reported by Leonard Rauchwolf as belonging to the Sophy came from there and so did the single animal seen at Alexandria by Louys Paradis. Let us turn directly to the source of supply and see what records can be found of unicorns in Ethiopia itself.
Most of these records were written by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries to Abyssinia, and they cover a period of about one hundred years. John Bermudez, who went on an embassy to Prester John in 1535, is the earliest member of the group. He says that in the province of Abyssinia, known in his time as Damute, there is found in the mountain districts a very fierce and wild unicorn shaped like a horse and as large as an ass. Marmol Caravaial (often called Marmolius), who wrote forty years later, is much more specific: "Among the Mountains of the Moon in High Ethiopia", he says, "there is found a beast called the unicorn which is as large as a colt of two years and of the same general shape as one. Its colour is ashen and it has a mane and a large beard like that of a he-goat; on its brow it has a smooth white horn of the colour of ivory two cubits long and adorned with handsome grooves that run from base to point. This horn is used against poison, and people say that the other animals wait until this one comes and dips its horn in the water before they will drink. It is such a clever beast and so swift that there is no way of killing it, but it sheds its horns like the stag and the hunters find these in the wilderness."
Fray Luis de Urreta, whose book on Ethiopia has already proved useful, also tells us that unicorns are found among the Mountains of the Moon. "The reason why so few men have ever seen them", he says, "is that these mountains are almost inaccessible. They are quite different from the pictures of them to be seen in Europe, for they are only slightly smaller than elephants and their feet are like those of the elephant. Their general characteristics remind one of swine, for they love to wallow in the mire. On the brow there is one horn, heavy and large but tapering to a point and black in hue. The animal's tongue is rough with spines that tear whatever it licks like a teasel--an excellent emblem of flatterers! . . . It is true that Saint Thomas and Saint Gregory and other holy men consider this unicorn identical with the Rhinoceros, but we must remember that they were chiefly concerned with moral matters and the welfare of the soul and that it was not their business to distinguish the species of animals."
The most interesting of these travellers in Ethiopia was the Jesuit missionary Jeronimo Lobo (1593-1678). After sailing round the Cape in 1622 and spending some time in the Portuguese colonies of India he went to Abyssinia, the Negus Segued having recently been converted by the Jesuit Pedro Paez. There he spent several years in the district of Damute, where both he and John Bermudea place the unicorn, but in 1632 the Negus fell into heresy and banished all the Jesuit fathers. Lobo was captured by the Turks and sent to Goa to secure ransom money, after which he tried to get the Portuguese viceroy to declare war on Segued with the object of bringing him back to orthodoxy by force of arms. Failing at Goa, Lobo sailed for home, was wrecked and captured by pirates on the way, and laid the grievances of the Christian faith--mingled, perhaps, with others of a more private sort--before the Courts of Lisbon, Madrid, and Rome without avail. Disgusted by this irreligious pacifism, he returned to India and rose to high office in his Order. His last days were spent in Portugal.
Lobo left two accounts of Abyssinia, one of which was translated into French from the unpublished manuscript and out of the French into English by Samuel Johnson in his Grub Street years. This familiar book contains the following passage: "In the Province of Agaus has been seen the Unicorn, that Beast so much talk'd of and so little known; the prodigious Swiftness with which this Creature runs from one Wood into another has given me no Opportunity of examining it particularly, yet I have had so near a sight of it as to be able to give some Description of it. The Shape is the same as that of a beautiful Horse, exact and nicely proportion'd, of a Bay Colour, with a black Tail, which in some Provinces is long, in others very short; some have long Manes hanging to the Ground. They are so Timerous that they never Feed but surrounded with other Beasts that defend them."
It is pleasant to have this passage in Johnson's phraseology, and one would like to know what the man who kept an open mind about the Cock Lane Ghost thought concerning the unicorn. His Dictionary, I think, forbids us to include him among the believers, but in his Preface to the Lobo translation he says that whatever the Jesuit relates, "whether true or not, is at least probable; and he who tells nothing exceeding the bounds of probability has a right to demand that they should believe him who cannot contradict him. He appears to have described things as he saw them, to have copied Nature from the Life, and to have consulted his Senses, not his Imagination."
One is glad to recall Johnson's measured assertion while considering Father Lobo's second passage on this topic, which appears in A Short Relation of the River Nile, edited, or perhaps one may say written, in 1669 by Sir Peter Wyche. The contents of this book are: "A Short Relation of the River Nile; The True Cause of the River Nile Overflowing; Of the Famous Unicorn:--where He is Bred and how Shaped; The Reason why the Abyssine Emperor is Called Prester John of the Indies; A Short Tract of the Red Sea; A Discourse of Palm-Trees." All of this is obviously delectable matter,but the best chapter is that concerning "The Unicorn, the most celebrated among Beasts, as among Birds are the Phoenix, the Pelican, and the Bird of Paradise". This animal is "of the more credit because mentioned in holy Scriptures, compared to many things, even to God made man. None of the Authors who speak of the Unicorn discourse of his birth or Country, satisfied with the deserved eulogiums by which he is celebrated. That secret was reserved for those who travelled and surveyed many countries . . . . The country of the Unicorn (an African creature, only known there) is the Province of Agaos in the kingdom of Damotes; that it may wander into places more remote is not improbable . . . . A Father, my companion, who spent some time in this province, upon notice that this so famous animal was there, used all diligence to procure one. The natives brought him a very young colt, so tender as in a few days it died. A Portuguese Captain, a person of years and credit, told me that returning once from the army with twenty other Portuguese soldiers in company they one morning rested in a little valley encompassed with thick woods, designing to breakfast while their horses grazed on the good grass. Scarce were they sat down when from the thickest part of the wood lightly sprang a perfect horse of the same colour, hair, and shape before described. His career was so brisk and wanton that he took no notice of those new inmates till engaged among them; then, as frightened at what he had seen, suddenly started back again, yet left the spectators sufficient time to see and observe at their pleasure. The particular survey of these parts seized them with delight and admiration. One of his singularities was a beautiful strait horn on his forehead. He appeared to run about with his eyes full of fear. Our horses seemed to allow him for one of the same brood, curvetted and made towards him. The soldiers, observing him in less than musket shot, not able to shoot, their muskets being unfixt, endeavoured to encompass him, out of an assurance that that was the famous unicorn; but he prevented them, for, perceiving them, with the same violent career he recovered the wood, leaving the Portuguese satisfied in the truth of such an animal. My knowledge of this captain makes the truth with me undoubted. In another place of the same province (the most remote, craggy, and mountainous part, called Manina) the same beast hath been often seen grazing amongst others of different kinds . . . . To this place of banishment a tyrannical Emperor name Adamas Segued sent without any cause divers Portuguese, who from the top of these mountains saw the unicornes grazing in the plains below, the distance not greater than allowed them so distinct an observation as they knew him, like a beautiful Gennet, with a fair horn in his forehead."
More scholarly than any of these writings is the New History of Ethiopia by Job Ludolphus, which appeared in English in 1682. Here one finds a description of a beast "both Strong and Fierce, call'd Arweharis . . . which signifies one Horn. This beast resembles a goat, but very swift of foot. Whether it be the Monoceros of the Ancients I leave to the scrutinie of others . . . . However, the Portugals tell us that the report was not altogether vain, for one of them was seen by John Gabriel in the province of the Agawi in the kingdom of Damota . . . . The description of the Portugueses seems most agreeable to Truth."
Robert Frampton, later Bishop of Gloucester, spent several years of his early life during the middle of the seventeenth century in the Orient, and while there he once met "a great officer of that country they call Ethiopia". This officer told him that "the most remarkable beast they had there was the Unicorn, which, though very wild and rarely taken, he had often seen, and described just as we paint him. And the man being utterly unacquainted with the European fancy made it, if not probable, at least possible that such a beast there might be, though in that little frequented country, not well known by us, it might escape the notice of those few that had been there."
In October 1652 there arrived in Copenhagen an "African legate" by the name of Franciscus Marchio de Magellanes. He was much impressed by the alicorn in the royal museum, especially because it was so different from the horn of the unicorn that was familiar to him in his own land. This horn, he said, came from the Tire Bina, a very fleet and wild beast about the size and shape of a small horse, which lived in the African desert. Shaggy about the head and legs and feet, the animal had a short mane and a tail like that of a horse, but not very full. Its hide, smooth and with very short hairs, was ashen in hue above, with a black line running along its back, and white from the lower jaw to the abdomen. There was a small bundle of hairs on the brow from the midst of which there sprang a single horn to which the hairs adhered. This horn, barely three spans in length, had not the spiral striae seen in European alicorns, but small protuberances running in a straight line from the base to the point. It was of a golden hue and hollow at the root. On the point of this horn there was another bundle of hairs, as large as a man's fist and reddish. The Africans made much of this horn, using it both internally and externally against poison. The legate told his friends in Copenhagen that the Tire Bina always dipped the horn in the water before he drank of it, and that as soon as he did this the water was greatly agitated. The inhabitants were accustomed to dip the horn in their drinking-water in the belief that this made it more healthful. They also used the animal's flesh and the burned hairs of its tail as drugs.
These reports of the Ethiopian and African unicorn, buried as most of them were in books that were seldom read, made little impression in northern Europe. In 1625 Purchas felt obliged to say: "As for the Unicorne, none hath beene seene these hundred yeares last past, by testimony of any probable Author (for Webb, which said he saw them in Prester John's Court, is a mere fabler.)" James Primerose, thirteen years later, thought that although the animal was certainly not fictitious it must be excessively rare. Aidrovandus said in 1639 that in spite of the fact that almost the whole surface of the globe had been explored hardly any man dared to affirm that he had seen the unicorn. John Ogilby, the bookseller-poet, by no means so ridiculous a person as Dryden and Pope managed to make him appear, shows in his Africa that his faith is slight. After the middle of the seventeenth century, however, there was a decided tendency, somewhat difficult to explain, toward belief. This is clearly seen in Antony Deussing's monograph on the unicorn and in all the other academic dissertations; but in these the "will to believe" is obviously actuated by fear of the effect that doubt of the unicorn would have upon faith in the Bible.
The eighteenth century, as I have said, was not a good time for unicorns. The general attitude of the period is well expressed in Benjamin Martin's once famous Philosophical Grammar: "The Scripture makes mention of the Dragon and the Unicorn, and most Naturalists have affirmed that there have been such creatures and have given Descriptions of them; but the Sight of these Creatures, or credible Relations of them having been so very rare, has occasioned many to believe there never were any such Animals in Nature; at least it has made the History of them very doubtful."
John Bell of Antermony heard a "credible relation" in Tartary from a native hunter which is worth recording. This hunter said that "in the year 1713, being out a-hunting, he discovered the track of a stag, which he pursued. At overtaking the animal he was somewhat startled on observing it had only one horn, stuck in the middle of its forehead. Being near the village, he drove it home and showed it, to the great admiration of the spectators. He afterwards killed it and eat the flesh, and sold the horn to a comb-maker. I inquired carefully about the shape and size of this unicorn and was told it exactly resembled a stag. The horn was of a brownish colour, about one archeen or 28 inches long, and twisted from the root till within a finger's length of the top, where it was divided like a fork into two points very sharp."
Faith in the unicorn was at a low ebb in Europe when Anders Sparrmann published in 1783 his account of travels in South Africa. Without asserting that he had seen the animal, Sparrmann gave the impression that the unicorn was not uncommon near the Cape of Good Hope, basing his own belief upon the constant reports of natives and the observation of single horns that were shown to him. Half a dozen other travellers in South Africa during the next half-century reached the same conclusion. Thus Baron von Wurmb writes from the Cape in 1791 that he expects soon to see a unicorn, "which has just been discovered in the interior of Africa. A Boer saw a beast shaped like a horse and with one horn on its brow, ash-gray and with divided hoofs--his observation went no farther. A Hottentot has confirmed this report, and the people in these parts quite generally believe in the existence of the unicorn . . . . The future will decide. Various respectable natives have given their servants orders to bring in one of these beasts alive if possible, or else to shoot one, so that we shall soon see the question settled." Cornelius de Jong, writing two years later from the same region, traces the quest for a South African unicorn to an elderly Dutchman of education and intelligence by the name of Cloete, who was offering three thousand forms to anyone who would bring him a live specimen. The offer was made hopefully, for Cloete and de Jong agreed that the evidence for the presence of the unicorn in the neighbourhood was convincing. Hottentots who could not possibly have heard the European legends about the animal described it exactly and even said that they had drawings of it in their caves and houses.
One of these drawings was seen and copied, a few years later, by the English traveller, Sir John Barrow, who was completely converted by it to a belief in the unicorn. His copy shows the head and neck of a creature with the general appearance of an antelope and with a single horn like that of the gemsbok rising, apparently, from the right side of the brow. This drawing was one of several thousands discovered by Sir John Barrow, all of them as realistic, he says, as the skill of the artists would permit. He makes it clear that in this instance there could be no possible confusion with the rhinoceros, which is also depicted in the South African caves, and he argues earnestly that the long tradition of the unicorn, taken together with what he has heard from the natives of Africa and with this drawing, should be sufficient to compel belief.
A man still better equipped than Barrow to judge this matter, Sir Francis Galton, was almost equally impressed by the evidence. "The Bushmen", says he, "without any leading question or previous talk upon the subject, mentioned the unicorn. I cross-questioned them thoroughly, but they persisted in describing a one-horned animal, something like a gemsbok in shape and size, whose one horn was in the middle of its forehead and pointed forwards . . . . It will be strange indeed if, after all, the creature has a real existence. There are recent travellers in the north of tropical Africa who have heard of it there, and believe in it, and there is surely plenty of room to find something new in the vast belt of terra incognita that lies in this continent."
Among the rather numerous believers in an African unicorn the names of David Livingstone and Dr. Andrew Smith should not be forgotten. The Athenum for December 22, 1860, reviewing The Romance of Natural History, by the father of Edmund Gosse, says that "the unicorn cannot be pronounced a fable, although our national representation of it may prove to be fanciful", expressing belief in a South African species "which appears to occupy an intermediate rank between the massive rhinoceros and the lighter form of the horse". Dr. William Balfour Baikie, the scientist and African traveller, writes in the same journal for August 16, 1862: "The constant belief of the natives of all the countries which I have hitherto visited have partly shaken my scepticism, and at present I simply hold that the non-existence of the unicorn is not proven. A skull of this animal is said to be preserved in the country of Bonu, through which I hope to pass in a few weeks, when I shall make every possible inquiry. Two among my informants have repeatedly declared that they have seen the bones of this animal, and each made a particular mention of the long, straight, or nearly straight, horn."
These persistent rumours of unicorns in South Africa seem to have revived the belief, which had died down since the seventeenth century, that the animal was to be found in the northern parts of the continent. Dr. Eduard Ruppell was told by the natives of Kordofan, without any question or suggestion from him, that there was in their country a beast about as large as a horse and of the same shape, with reddish smooth hide, divided hoofs, and one long slender straight horn on its brow. Baron von Muller, travelling in the same district in 1848, was told by a native who had provided him with specimens of many other animals, about a beast called a'nasa which he described as resembling a donkey in shape and size but with a boar's tail and a single movable horn. During his travels in Abyssinia A. von Katte heard repeatedly from soldiers drawn from all parts of the country "that the unicorn really exists in the wild valleys of the mountains. It is true that their reports are not entirely consistent, but neither are they contradictory. Those who assert that they have seen the animal give the same description of it that Pliny left us. They say, that is, that it has the hoofs of a horse and the same shape as a horse, that it is grey in colour and has a strong horn in the middle of its brow. Its size is that of a well-grown ass. They say also that it is very shy and therefore hard to approach. These people find great likeness between it and the unicorn shown on the English arms, but when I showed them a picture of the rhinoceros they said at once: 'That is not it; that is another animal.' . . . I am therefore strongly inclined to believe that the unicorn is really to be found in the high, inaccessible mountains of this country."
The vast size and the mystery of the Dark Continent affected the imaginations of thoughtful and trained observers in the nineteenth century somewhat as America had affected the mind of Europe three hundred years before. "In a land like inner Africa", wrote Joseph Russegger, "in which Nature puts forth the strangest forms of life, we may expect that the larger and unknown quadrupeds which we have thought long since extinct will be discovered. Is it not possible that even the unicorn may be found there? Arabs, Nubians, and Negroes told me often and much about this animal, which resembled, according to their descriptions, either an antelope or a wild ass. Their reports were too contradictory and contained too much nonsense for me to reproduce them, but everywhere one hears the refrain that the animal still exists . . . . To regard the unicorn as wholly fabulous and a product of fancy is an absurd and arbitrary position, and we do well to remember that if the elephant and giraffe and camel should once die out they too, on account of their strange forms, would be thought fabulous."
The most interesting account of an African unicorn is that communicated to the Journal Asiatique by F. Fresnel in a letter written in April 1843 and published in March of the following year. Fresnel was a consular agent of France at Djeddah, and his remarks are based, not upon personal observation, but upon the testimony of several Arabs in whose honesty and intelligence he firmly believed. These men had often killed the animal in Dar-Bargou, north-west of Darfour, a district still almost unknown and at the time when the letter was written quite unexplored.
Fresnel's description is very minute. He says that the unicorn is a pachyderm, but insists that it is not the rhinoceros. In appearance somewhat like a wild bull, it has the legs and feet of an elephant, a round and almost hairless body, a short tail, and a single horn one cubit long and movable at the animal's will. This horn springs from between the eyes and not from the end of the nose like that of the rhinoceros. For two-thirds of its length it is of an ashen grey-colour, like the rest of the animal, but the upper third is a vivid scarlet. (One thinks of the splash of scarlet on the end of the horn described by Ctesias, and of the words of Solinus, "de splendore mirifico.") When the unicorn is not disturbed he swings this horn to right and left as he walks, but he can fix it like a bayonet ready for action at a moment's notice. Of vast strength and extremely fierce, he always charges at the first sight of a man, and he charges with intent to kill. He is never taken alive. Fresnel gives a minute account of the method of hunting the beast which one can hardly read without recalling the lion-capture story. One man on foot goes up to the unicorn's lair while his fellows, on horseback and armed with lances, wait at a distance near a tree. As soon as the animal sees the man he plunges toward him, and the man turns and makes for the tree. The mounted hunters lance the beast from behind while he is running, and while he turns to face one after the other, until he drops from exhaustion.
Fresnel has perfect confidence in his sources of information. "There is nothing more animated and honest", says he, "than the descriptions given by a Bedouin, just as there is nothing more false and obviously absurd than those given by the inhabitants of eastern cities or by travellers who are only merchants." His informants had nothing to sell, they said nothing about the horn's medicinal value, they had hunted this beast and killed it, they knew the rhinoceros well and said that this unicorn was quite different. Fresnel was therefore thoroughly convinced that the abou-karn of eastern French Soudan was the same creature as the Hebrew Re'em and the monoceros of Ctesias and the unicorn of Pliny. One is reminded of Samuel Johnson's words with regard to Father Lobo: "He who tells nothing exceeding the bounds of probability has a right to demand that they should believe him who cannot contradict him."
In following the trail of the African unicorn I have neglected chronology and ignored important developments in other parts of the world. The nineteenth century studied the unicorn chiefly "in the field", yet there were a few scholars of the old school who still preferred the methods of the library. E. A. W. Zimmermann, after reviewing all the evidence available in 1780 to a patient German polymath, concluded that the unicorn legend must be founded upon zoological fact. The French geographer Malte-Brun was deeply impressed by the rumours of unicorns emanating in his time from almost the whole continent of Africa, and he decided that although the existence of the animal had not been proved it was certainly not impossible. He said, furthermore--and I think he was the first to express this modern view--that whether unicorns were to be found in Nature or not, the legend concerning them was interesting and worthy of study for its own sake. H. F. Link, a scholar of extraordinary caution and thoughtfulness, reached the conclusion, after many pages of argument, that the unicorn must be accepted as an actual though perhaps an extinct and certainly a very rare animal.
Among these productions of the library one of the most interesting is the Notice en refutation de la non-existence de la licorne, by J. F. Laterrade, a professional scientist of literary talent. This monograph is well written and ingenious though not convincing. The author does not assert that unicorns exist but contents himself with arguing that they are not only possible but even probable. In the first place, he says, the description of the animal is in no way fabulous and it contains nothing contrary to Nature; secondly, many authors of repute have written about it in full belief; thirdly, no proof has been found that it does not exist. One does not feel that French acumen is well represented in this argument, for each of Laterrade's three points lies open to attack. Any comparative anatomist would deny his first assertion, which no contemporary and countryman of Cuvier should have allowed himself to make. The historian could name a hundred exploded fallacies that have been supported by authors of repute. As for the third point, absence of disproof is no great assistance toward belief. One might write the word "witches" in place of Laterrade's "unicorns" and get the same results.
In the year after that in which Laterrade's monograph appeared Cuvier himself attempted to give the unicorn the coup de grace. He was probably the first of all the writers on our topic who had scientific knowledge adequate to the problems involved, and, in addition, a clear mind of the highest order. Cuvier is strongly inclined to think the unicorn a fairy tale, although he does not positively affirm this. He believes that it was compounded out of the oryx and the rhinoceros. Speaking as a scientist, he says that any horn growing single would be perfectly symmetrical, and that no such horn has ever been found. A cloven-hoofed ruminant with a single horn, moreover, would be impossible, in his opinion, because its frontal bone would be divided and no horn could grow above the division.
And yet the unicorn legend continued to show surprising vitality, quite as many reports and rumours concerning the animal coming from the Orient as from Africa. Captain Samuel Turner, writing in the first year of the nineteenth century, records an interesting conversation with the Rajah of Bootan. "He had a very curious creature, he told me, then in his possession; a sort of horse, with a horn growing from the middle of his forehead. He had once another of the same species, but it died. I could not discover from whence it came, or obtain any other explanation than burra dure! a great way off! I expressed a very earnest desire to see a creature so curious and uncommon, and told him that we had representations of an animal called an unicorn, to which his description answered; but it was generally considered as fabulous. He again assured me of the truth of what he told me, and promised I should see it. It was some distance from Tassisudon, and his people paid it religious respect; but I never had a sight of it." This is an impressive story, but the force of it is somewhat weakened by the paragraph just preceding, in which the Rajah tells his English visitor about a race of men with short, straight tails, so inconvenient that they were obliged to dig small holes for them before they could sit down.
The Quarterly Magazine for December, 1820, quotes a letter from a Major Latter, stationed in the hill country east of Nepal, asserting that the unicorn had been discovered at last in Tibet. The Major writes: "In a Thibetan manuscript which I procured the other day from the hills, the unicorn is classed under the head of those animals whose hoofs are divided; it is called the one-horned tso'po. Upon inquiring what kind of animal it was, to our astonishment the person who brought me the manuscript described exactly the unicorn of the ancients, saying that it was a native of the interior of Thibet, fierce, and extremely wild, seldom ever caught alive, but frequently shot, and that the flesh was used for food. The person who gave me this account has repeatedly seen these animals and eaten flesh of them. They go together in herds, like our wild buffaloes, and are very frequently met with on the borders of the great desert about a month's journey from Lassa, in that part of the country inhabited by the wandering Tartars." The Asiatic journal, after quoting this letter in December of the following year, remarks: "Our readers are aware that steps have been taken to obtain a complete specimen of the animal supposed to be the unicorn, which is said to exist in considerable numbers in Thibet." Seven years later the same periodical reported that Major Latter was still hunting for the unicorn but had nearly given up hope.
The most famous of earlier travellers in Tibet seems never to have had any doubts. "The unicorn", says Huc, "which has long been regarded as a fabulous creature, really exists in Thibet. You find it frequently represented in the sculptures and paintings of the Buddhist temples. Even in China you often see it in the landscapes that ornament the inns of the northern provinces. The inhabitants of Adtaa spoke of it without attaching to it any greater importance than to the other species of antelopes which abound in their mountains. We have not been fortunate enough, however, to see the unicorn during our travels in Upper Asia."
All this testimony regarding the unicorns of Tibet is illumined by a passage in Colonel Prejevalsky's Mongolia, which throws a beam of light, also, along the whole course of the unicorn legend as we have traced it from the Indica of Ctesias. This passage is concerned with a small, fleet, and very quarrelsome Tibetan antelope known to the Mongols as the orongo and to science as Antholops Hodgsoni. It has slightly recurving black horns, twenty-three inches long, with rings on the anterior surfaces. Prejevalsky says that "the orongo is held sacred by Mongols and Tangutans, and lamas will not touch the meat. The blood is said to possess medicinal virtues, and the horns are used in charlatanism: Mongols tell fortunes and predict future events by the rings on these, and they also serve to mark out the burial places, or more commonly the circles within which the bodies of deceased lamas are exposed: these horns are carried away in large numbers by pilgrims returning from Thibet and are sold at high prices. Mongols tell you that a whip-handle made from one will prevent a rider's steed from tiring. Another prevalent superstition is that the orongo has only one horn growing vertically from the centre of the head. In Kan-su and Koko-nor we were told that unicorns were rare, one or two in a thousand; but the Mongols in Tsaidam, who are perfectly well acquainted with the orongo, deny entirely the existence there of a one-horned antelope, though admitting that it might be found in South-western Thibet. Had we gone farther we should probably have heard that it was only to be found in India, and so on till we arrived at the one-horned rhinoceros."
In the middle of the nineteenth century it was still possible for intelligent people to believe in the unicorn's existence; indeed, if the written records are a trustworthy indication, there seems to have been almost as much belief in the animal at that time as there had been two hundred years earlier, and decidedly more than in the eighteenth century. An amusing evidence of the public interest in the problem is found in a provincial English newspaper: "An Italian gentleman, named Barthema [Lewis Vartoman] said to be entitled to implicit credit, who has just returned from Africa, states that he saw two unicorns at Mecca which had been sent as a present from the King of Ethiopia to the Sultan." This report was of course exactly true, and the only fault that could be found with it was that the news it contained was somewhat over three hundred years old. One of the foremost French archaeologists of the century went out of his way to declare his faith. "In spite of my unfitness to judge in such matters", wrote Charles Cahier, "and in spite of the formal denial by the learned Cuvier of all unicorns past or future, I admit that I do not despair of this animal which is so cried down at present after so many panegyrics. The horn may be movable or not, it may be persistent or caducous, for all this is not important; but I dare to hope that it will be single. The unicorn will have a place in our museums beside the ornithorhyncus, which was quite as improbable as the other before it was brought before us; or he may be placed near the pterodactyls, which would have seemed absurd until the moment when they were found." A scholarly English writer of even more recent date conjectures that the unicorn may be "a hybrid produced occasionally and at more or less rare intervals, a cross between some equine and cervine species." Or the word "unicorn" may be "a generic name for several distinct species of (probably) now extinct animals--creatures which were the contemporaries of prehistoric man and which, before they finally expired, attracted the attention of his descendants, during early historic time, by the rare appearance of a few surviving individuals."