Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, , at sacred-texts.com
THE zoologists of four hundred years ago believed that every terrestrial form of animal life had a marine counterpart. When men began to think, in the seventeenth century, that the land-surface of the globe had been fully explored and yet no unicorn was any where discovered, it was natural, therefore, that they should seek the animal beneath the ocean waves. They were justified by at least a partial success: the alicorn, whose origin had been concealed so long by the mists and dangers of the northern seas and by that old fear of the Atlantic sedulously propagated two thousand years before by Phoenician merchants, was traced at length to its source. The method of this discovery and the effects of it upon commerce and medicine and scholarship, the coincidence of it with the dawn of modernity, the light it threw backward over the way we have comethese things, which make up perhaps the most interesting department of unicorn lore, are what we have left to consider.
Near the end of an exceedingly dull history of Iceland I find a vivid passage relating how Arnhald, the first Bishop of that country, was wrecked off the west coast of it in the year 1126, barely escaping with his life. There is a marsh on the mainland, the narrator tells us, near the spot where the shipwreck occurred, and this marsh was in his time still called the Pool of Corpses because of the many bodies of drowned sailors washed ashore there after the disaster. "And there also were found, afterward, the teeth of whales (dentes balenarum,) very precious, which had gone down with the ship and then had been thrown on shore by the motion of the waves. These teeth had runic letters written on them in an indelible red gum so that each sailor might know his own at the end of the voyage, for they had apparently been tossed into the hold helter-skelter as though intended merely for ballast."
To one reader, at least, that passage is not merely vivid but thrilling, for these "whales' teeth" were indeed very precious. Shakespeare's Clarence saw no greater wealth in his gorgeous dream of the under-sea than this that went down with the Bishop of Iceland eight hundred years ago and was found again in the Pool of Corpses. The fact that each man had his name written on the teeth he owned shows that they were already valuable, but this was in 1126; their market value was to increase for five centuries until they were worth ten times their weight in gold. The "whales' teeth" found in the Pool of Corpses were the "true unicorns' horns" of kings' treasuries.
How many cargoes such as this were brought safely to port in later years no one can say, for they belonged to a business in which it did not pay to advertise. There were not enough of them, at any rate, to glut the market, nor did they come in frequently enough to attract the slightest attention in Europe. Four hundred and fifty years after Arnhald's shipwreck there were scarcely more than twenty famous alicorns in Europe, and although these were very famous indeed no one had the faintest notion of their origin. If the situation had been planned and prepared by a master of salesmanship it could not have been arranged more admirably.
Four hundred and fifty years pass by, and in 1576 Sir Humphrey Gilbert presents to Queen Elizabeth his famous argument to prove that there must be a north-west passage to Cathay. He has to meet the arguments in favour of a north-east passage made by Anthonie Jenkinson, one of which is that a unicorn's horn has been picked up on the coast of Tartary. Whence could it have come, Jenkinson asks, unless from Cathay itself? Sir Humphrey replies: "First, it is doubtful whether those barbarous Tartarians do know an Unicornes horne, yea, or no: and if it were one, yet it is not credible that the Sea could have driven it so farre, being of such nature that it will not swimme . . . . There is a beast called Asinus Indicus (whose horne most like it was) which hath but one horne like an Unicorne in his forehead, whereof there is great plenty in all the north parts thereunto adjoyning, as in Lappia, Norvegia, Finmarke, etc. And as Albertus saieth, there is a fish which hath but one horne in his forehead like to an Unicorne, and therefore it seemeth very doubtful both from whence it came and whether it were Unicorne's horne, yea, or no."
In the following year Martin Frobisher set forth on his second voyage to discover a north-west passage, and during this voyage his men discovered, in the words of Master Dionise Settle: "A dead fish floating, which had in his nose a horn straight and torquet, of length two yards lacking two inches, being broken in the top, where we might perceive it hollow--into the which our sailors putting spiders, they presently died. I saw not the trial thereof, but it was reported to me of a truth, by the virtue whereof we supposed it to be the sea-unicorne."
Eleven years later one of these "fish" was washed ashore on the coast of Norfolk so that England had only herself to blame if she continued to pay Danish fishermen the huge sums at which alicorns were then held. Englishmen did continue to pay such prices, however, and the credit for discovering, or at any rate for publishing, the true nature of the alicorn went to another nation.
The dead "fish" found by Frobisher's company belonged to the same species of whales from which the "teeth" collected by Bishop Arnha]d's sailors had come, and that species was of course the narwhal--monodon monoceroc. The adult males of these marine mammals, from ten to eighteen feet in length, have single teeth or tusks of pure ivory extending for half their length from the left side of the upper jaw, pointing forward and a little downward. The fact that they are seldom seen south of Greenland explains the success of Scandinavian fishermen in keeping their lucrative secret for at least five centuries. Even after these animals had been closely examined and described by scholars of Copenhagen and Amsterdam curious misapprehensions concerning them held on well into the eighteenth century. In particular, it took over a hundred years to quell the belief that the narwhal's tusk was a "horn" and that it sprang from the middle of the forehead.
A well-written and sensible book published in 1665, for example, makes this assertion: "Comme la Licorne de terre a une corne aufront, cette Licorne de mer en avoit aussi une parfaitement belle au devant de la teste." Thus far all is clear, but the reader is somewhat confused when he finds in the same chapter a good description of the actual narwhal. It happened that just when the author of this book, César de Rochefort, was writing the revision of his chapter on the Licorne de Mer for a second edition there arrived at Rotterdam a Flemish ship from Davis Strait which had on board many narwhals' tusks--"une quantité bien considerable de ces dens ou cornes de ces Poissons qu'on appelle Licornes de Mer". From these sailors he may have gained his correct notions of the narwhal, but he hands on to his readers without prejudice both the narwhal and the Licorne de Mer, giving pictures of both. According to the economical customs of the times, these pictures did service in several other books, propagating error wherever they went. They were used by de la Martinire, for example, in his popular Voyage des pays Septentrionaux, where confusion is worse confounded by the addition of a vigorous woodcut depicting the capture of a Licorne de Mer. The author informs us that he saw this capture--pretty certainly that of a cetacean because the harpoon was used--with his own eyes, and that he studied the head carefully, yet he allowed his engraver to place the "horn" in the middle of the brow. Furthermore, he says of the creature caught just after this one that it had no horn but that this was atoned for by the fact that its teeth were "beaucoup plus grosses". Now the fact is that the narwhal has only two teeth; in the young and in females both are rudimentary and in adult males one is enormously developed into the tusk. Unless de la Martinire's second licorne was a walrus I can make no sense of his passage, and even in that case it remains mysterious how an intelligent man can "study" the head of a narwhal and still believe that its "horn" springs from the brow.
The unicorn was "an unconscionable time adying". No sooner was the narwhal discovered by Europeans--putting the legendary beast, as one might have thought, in deadly danger of being explained away--than they made a horn of its tooth and placed that horn where the horn of a unicorn ought to be. For was not the narwhal the Licorne de Mer, the unicorn of the sea? The rest followed, in spite of ocular evidence. A man who was by no means a fool could "study" the head of a narwhal, seeing clearly with his eyes if not with his mind that the creature's tusk issued from the upper jaw, and yet when he came to give directions to his engraver he was tricked by a mere word, the word "Licorne", into making that tusk a horn. There is no more vivid example of our inveterate tendency to see only what we expect to see, to think in terms of labels and phrases, to ignore the unfamiliar, to let the present be ruled by the past. One may judge what progress knowledge of the narwhal had made in England by the year 1721 from this definition: "Unicorn Whale--A fish eighteen feet long, having a head like a horse and scales as big as a crown piece, six large fins like the end of a galley oar, and a horn issuing out of the forehead nine feet long, so sharpe as to pierce the hardest bodies."
About one hundred years later still "a sea-unicorn's horn, seven foot and a half long" was to be seen at a coffee-house in Chelsea. Thomas Roscoe was at this time working at his translation of Cellini's Memoirs in far-off Liverpool, and when he came across a note in which Cellini's Italian editor, Carpani, says that the unicorn is a wholly fabulous animal he wrote: "From all we hear of the fine specimen of a unicorn's head--an unique, we suppose, now in London--the Italian commentator will soon be obliged to change his tone." These are the words, be it observed, of a highly educated Englishman of the nineteenth century.
Dutch and Danish scholars had told the world everything of importance about narwhal tusks and their relation to the traffic in alicorns two hundred years before the time of Roscoe. They had, to be sure, a definite advantage of position, for ships from the northern seas with narwhal tusks in their cargoes were frequently calling at Copenhagen and Amsterdam, but their chief advantage was that they read everything without believing all that they read, that they were insatiably curious, and that they were rather more disposed than any other body of scholars in Europe to try all things and to hold fast only what seemed to be true.
Several early writers attribute to Pierre Belon, the sixteenth-century traveller and zoologist, the first identification of the alicorn with the narwhal's tusk. Feeling that such a discovery would be an important addition to the claims this bold and brilliant man already has upon memory, I have searched his writing for confirmation, but all that I find is his assertion that the alicorn is often merely the "dent de Robart". This is not quite the same thing as the narwhal discovery, for the rohart is the walrus or morse, concerning whose tusks Hector Bo‘thius had made the same assertion some time before. Olaus Magnus, Archbishop of Upsala, came closer to the truth in saying that "the monoceros is a sea-monster that has in its brow a very large horn wherewith it can pierce and wreck vessels and destroy many men". Perhaps we have here the literary origin of the Licorne de Mer celebrated by de Rochefort and de la Martinire, but Olaus Magnus is not entitled to the rank of discoverer for Albertus Magnus was in advance of him by several centuries. Closer to the fact than either of these remarks is the brief statement of Amatus Lusitanus--who makes an excellent showing everywhere by the unicorn test--that some fraudulent merchants "sell whale bones in place of unicorns' horns". Andrea Marini, writing in 1566, suggests that the sea, "which often breeds animals very like those of the land, and much more numerous", is the source of most of the alicorns of Europe, and he suspects that all of those in England are of marine origin because "there is not even a record of a one-horned beast in that country". It seems probable to him that the sea has cast up many objects with the shape and substance of horns, and he even knows that there is "a sea-unicorn which has, as it were, a single horn," though just what this horn is he cannot say. Three years later the excellent Goropius of Antwerp goes a step beyond Marini. After a close description of a great narwhal's tusk which was before him as he wrote, one of three exposed for sale, he speculates about its origin: "I sometimes suspect", says he with the caution of a scholar, "that this is the horn of some fish, because many remarkable horns are found among fishes and also because this horn at Antwerp was brought from Iceland. And yet it occurs to me, on the other hand, that this island is not far from the Pole, and that animals may be much more numerous there because of the absence of men, wherefore it is not absurd to suppose that the horn comes from a beast after all."
The men thus far named had only glimmerings of the truth. We may learn from them by what slow processes the way is prepared for a slight advance in knowledge, how subject the knowledge once gained always is to relapses, and with what difficulty it was disentangled from old errors.
William Boffin, the English voyager, came a little closer in a letter written in 1615 concerning the north-west passage: "As for the Sea Unicorne", says he, "it being a great fish having a long horne or bone growing forth of his forehead or nostril (such as Sir Martin Frobisher in his second voyage found one) in divers places we saw of them, which if the home be of any goode value, no doubt but many of them may be killed." Not much credit is due to Boffin for these remarks, however, for he has not made up his mind whether the "horn" grows from the brow or the nostril and he does not know whether it is "of any goode value".
The earliest clear statement of all the essential facts that I have found is that of the great geographer Gerard Mercator. In one of his discussions of Iceland he says: "Among the fish is included the Narwhal. Anyone who eats its flesh dies immediately. It has a tooth in its head which projects to a length of seven cubits, and some sell this tooth as unicorn's horn. It is considered good against poison. The beast is forty ells in length." Caspar Bartholinus, who wrote seven years later, in 1628, did not know so much as this, for he still calls the tusk a horn, and if Mercator's statement had been somewhat ampler full credit for the discovery would be due to him. As it is, the man to whom that credit should be given acknowledges that Mercator had made a prior announcement of his own conclusions.
This man is Ole Wurm, Regius Professor of Denmark and a zoologist and antiquarian of high attainment. Perhaps the most important event recorded in unicorn lore was his public delivery at Copenhagen in 1638 of his Latin dissertation on the narwhal's tusk. The dissertation was called forth by a dispute among the merchants of Copenhagen about the true nature and origin of the substance they were selling as unicorn's horn--a quaint and antique situation indeed, when it is considered that the learned Professor was appealed to, so far as one can see, not for purposes of advertisement but actually to decide the question. If any of the alicorn merchants of the city expected Professor Wurm to put patriotism before truth and to "remember who paid his salary", they must have been grievously disappointed, for his remarks were decidedly "bad for business". He began with a careful description of the alicorns to be seen in his time all over Europe, everywhere regarded and highly treasured as horns of unicorns. So far are they from being such, he then says, that they are not horns at all. They have neither the substance, nor the shape of horns and they are not set in the animal's cranium as horns are. He asserts that they have all the characteristics of teeth and that teeth they must be called. In his third section Ole Wurm declares that the alicorns of Europe are the teeth of narwhals, citing as evidence the cranium of a narwhal, which he has recently examined. This cranium he describes, and also the tusk projecting from the left side of the upper jaw, with painstaking exactness. He concludes by saying that in the future those who do not care to deny the authority of witnesses and even of their own senses will be obliged to admit that the alicorn is really the tooth of the narwhal.
One might suppose that after such a public statement of the facts, iterated as it was by the author himself and by many others, the vogue of the alicorn would have ceased and the whole unicorn legend would have begun to die away. On the contrary, the dissertation seems to have had little more effect at first than such productions usually have. Public faith in the unicorn was unshaken. The trust of physicians and princes in the alicorn remained. It is true that the price of narwhals' tusks fell off sharply at about this time, but that was chiefly due to a glutting of the market. I have shown that the tusk was to be used in the royal household of France for one hundred and fifty years after Ole Wurm's dissertation was delivered and printed; it was to be kept on the official pharmacopoeia of London for more than a century to come; good physicians continued for a long time to speak highly of its medicinal virtues. Ignorance and mental indolence, better known as conservatism, may have been chiefly responsible for this, but they were assisted by these two facts: the disclosure of the marine origin of most alicorns did not by any means disprove the existence of the terrestrial unicorn; on the contrary, if there was a unicorn of the sea it seemed to follow necessarily that there was one of the land as well. Further, the proof that the alicorns of Europe were whales' teeth did not cause people to abandon the belief in their medicinal virtues, for it seemed natural to suppose that the sea-unicorn would have all the properties attributed to his counterpart of the land.
We may infer that Ole Wurm's dissertation had little effect even in his own land from a remark made by de la Martinire about the disposition of the two "horns" taken by his company to which I have already referred: "One of the Principals of the Company was ordered by the rest in all their names to present to his Majesty [Frederic III of Denmark] the two sea-horses horns that we brought home with us, which his Majesty received as a most estimable present, supposing they had been Unicornes Horns, of the virtues of which so many authors had written. He ordered them presently to be laid up among the best of his rarities, promised the Company to do them what benefit he could, and presented the bearer with a Chain of Gold with his Picture hanging to it, and forgave him his Customes besides." One can only surmise, reluctantly, that Frederic III did not read all the works of his Regius Professor.
The two "horns" presented on this occasion to the King of Denmark are heard of again in the Travels of Dr. Edward Browne, son of Sir Thomas. "Two such as these", he writes, "the one ten foot long, were presented not many years since to the King of Denmark, being taken near to Nova Zembla." But this Edward Browne is a scoffer, and his testimony is valuable chiefly as showing how plentiful alicorns became towards the end of the seventeenth century. He asserts that he has "seen some full fifteen feet long, some wreathed very thicke, some not so much, and others plain: some largest and thickest at the end near the Head; others are largest at some distance from the Head; some very sharp at the end or point, and others blunt. My honoured Father Sir Thomas Browne had a very fair piece of one which was formerly among the Duke of Curland's rarities, but after that he was taken prisoner by Douglas it came into the hands of my Uncle Colonel Hatcher, of whom my Father had it. He also had a piece of this sort of Unicornes Horn burnt black, out of the Emperor of Russia's Repositorie . . . . I have seen a walking Staffe, a Sceptre, a Scabbard for a Sword, Boxes, and other Curiosities made out of this Horn, but was never so fortunate as from experience to confirm its medical Efficacy against Poisons, although I have known it given several times and in great quantity. Mr. Charleton hath a good Unicorn's Horn. Sir Joseph Williamson gave one of them to the Royal Society. The Duke of Florence hath a fair one. The Duke of Saxony a strange one, and besides many others I saw eight of them together upon one table in the Emperor's treasure, and I have one at present that for the neat wreathing and the elegant shape gives place to none. But of these Unicorns' Horns no man sure hath so great a Collection as the King of Denmark; and his Father had so many that he was able to spare a great number of them to build a magnificent Throne out of Unicorns' Horns."
This alicorn throne of Denmark was in its time one of the chief wonders of Europe, and if Edward Browne mentioned it to show how cheap the material had become he did not choose a good example. It was begun by Frederic III and was long used as the Coronation Chair, the legs and arms and all the supporting pieces being made of alicorn. (If the construction of such thrones was at all common in the remoter past then it is clear why all captured unicorns were led at once "to the palace of the king".) Christian V was crowned in this chair in 1671 and the officiating bishop remarked: "History tells us of the great King Solomon that he built a throne of ivory and adorned it with pure gold, but your Majesty is seated on a throne which, though like King Solomon's in the splendour of its materials and shape, is unparalleled in any kingdom." Whatever might be said of the learned professions, Church and State had not abandoned the unicorn.
The dissertation of Ole Wurm did not shake the faith of Europe, as I have said, in any serious degree. Belief in the medicinal value of narwhal tusk remained as strong as ever--and Ole Wurm, like Caspar Bartholinus, seems to have shared this belief himself. And after all this was a sensible attitude, for the substance remained the same that it had always been, although a few persons now called it by a new name and thought of it as coming from another part of the world. César de Rochefort, in the passage in which he speaks of the cargo of tusks just arrived at Amsterdam from the northern seas, remarks that they are certain to bring a great price because all the most celebrated physicians and apothecaries, having tested them in various ways, assert "qu'elles chassent le venin, et qu'elles ont toutes les memes proprietez qu'on attribue communement a la Corne de la Licorne de terre". And this in 1665 was still approximately true.
Eleven years after that date appeared the curious monograph by Paul Ludwig Sachs, M.D., the main purposes of which are to show that the unicorn really exists, that its true name is "narwhal", and that the narwhal's "horn"--for Sachs rejects all theories about "teeth"--has at least the alexipharmic if not the magic properties formerly attributed to the alicorn. So much he has himself proved by repeated scientific experiments, and he quotes in corroboration of his belief a dozen of the most prominent physicians of the time who used the "horn" in daily practice. Taking his point of view, one smiles with sympathy at his pious outburst by way of peroration: "Therefore we cannot sufficiently adore and wonder at the marvellous goodness of God, who has brought forth for us things useful and beneficial to our health not only from the bowels of the earth and from the mountain-tops but even from the abysses of the sea. In the sea the unicorn is found. Those precious objects which have long been kept like pearls in the treasuries of princes and which our forefathers vainly sought among the wild forests and mountains of Africa and America are now brought to us from the ocean waves. This miraculous and never-enough-to-be-praised horn forces us to cry out with the royal prophet: 'Praise the Lord from the deep, ye whales and all abysses; yea, all creatures, praise the Lord. Hallelujah!"
The remarks of Pierre Pomet on this topic are considerably more restrained. He has no more belief in the terrestrial unicorn than Paul Sachs had, and rather less confidence in the tusk, yet he hands on de Rochefort's Licorne de Mer, together with the inevitable picture, in addition to the narwhal, leaving the reader to suppose that there were two marine creatures with this medicinal horn. Nicolas Lemery, another French pharmacist of wide influence, says much the same things in 1733, although he tacitly ignores the Licorne de Mer. He asserts that the narwhal tusk strengthens the heart, induces perspiration, cures epilepsy, and is "propre pour resister au venin". These are exactly the same claims that had been made two hundred years before for the unicorn's horn, although nearly a century had passed since the appearance of Ole Wurm's dissertation. Lemery says that the reason for the alicorn's great rarity in former days was that the narwhal was then unknown, "mais depuis qu'on a peché beaucoup de ces poissons, cette corne n'est plus guéres rare; on en trouve chez plusieurs Marchands coupées par troncons".
The remark of Lemery that by the year 1733 the alicorn was much more common than in former times leads one to ask what had been the narwhal tusk's commercial history. The materials for an answer to this interesting question are few, partly because that history belongs to a time when no trade records were kept and partly because those concerned had no desire that their transactions should be generally known. What little can be said on this topic, therefore, must be based primarily upon inferences.
One of the inferences to be drawn from the few facts at our disposal is as unquestionable as it is significant. I have already spoken more than once of the fact that in mediaeval pictures of the unicorn found in illuminated manuscripts that go back to the twelfth century, the animal's horn almost invariably shows the characteristic striae, the "anfractuous spires and cochleary turnings", which are found on no object in nature except the narwhal's tusk. Now when we consider that the narwhal is almost never seen south of Greenland that the seas in which it swims were utterly unknown to Europeans in the twelfth century--or, for that matter, in the fifteenth--and that its tusk will not float, we can reach only one conclusion: narwhal tusks have been articles of merchandise for at least eight hundred years. The same conclusion is indicated by the remarkable passage quoted above in which Arngrimr Jonsson records the loss, in 1126, of a cargo of tusks collected among the gulfs of Iceland. A study of the Mediterranean trade carried on during the Middle Ages in Scandinavian bottoms will show that there would be no difficulty, when once such tusks reached Norway or Denmark, for them to find their way into the treasure chests of Europe.
How much farther than that they went, and how much earlier than 1126 they set out on their travels, is harder to say. The overland routes by which the trade of Scandinavia was carried into Russia and southward toward the Black Sea must have absorbed many of them, and the tradition that the two alicorns of St. Mark's in Venice were taken at the division of spoils from Constantinople in 1204 is therefore, in itself, not incredible. In Arabia they had apparently ousted the rhinoceros horn as early as the fourteenth century, for Alkazuwin says that the unicorn has "one horn on his head, sharp at the point and thicker at the bottom, with raised striae outside and a hollow within". We may be fairly sure, however, that the tusks did not reach China in considerable numbers until the legend of the Ki-lin was complete, for there is no evidence of acquaintance with them in the descriptions and representations of that animal. Whether they gave rise to the Italian word licorno one cannot certainly say. One does not see how they could have had any dispersion whatever in Europe or Asia before the seas about Iceland became known at least to a few adventurers, and it is this fact, among others, that makes Aelian's word xxxxx so tempting to the historic imagination. If we translate that word cautiously and conservatively by "rings", as I have done, then it is fairly certain that Aelian had in mind the horn of an antelope; but if we translate it by "spirals"--a sense in which it was used by Aristotle, with reference to snail-shells, and also by Aelian himself--then we must think of narwhal tusks as brought back from Ultimate Thule in the third century of the Christian era.
One thing is perfectly evident regarding this traffic: it never amounted to a regular trade. So much is made clear by the great prices commanded by the tusks in the sixteenth century, after they had been known for at least four hundred years. Even if we allow fifty per cent. for the goldsmith's work upon the Horn of Windsor or upon that for which Pope Julius III paid ninety thousand scudi, it is clear that the tusks had enormous rarity value. In the middle of the sixteenth century there were probably not more than fifty whole tusks in all of Europe and Great Britain, although the smaller pieces were more numerous, and these, seeing that they were precious and almost indestructible, represented certainly a large part of the total importation from the beginning. Taken together with the huge prices and the fact that the supply was almost unlimited this paucity is somewhat perplexing. We can scarcely believe that the middlemen who conducted the sales had the economic foresight and knowledge which would have made them refrain from glutting the market. Perhaps we need only remember that the voyage to Iceland and Greenland was a different thing in the centuries of which we are speaking from what it is now, that means of advertisement were almost entirely lacking, and that the number of persons who would be practically interested, so to speak, in alicorns was always narrowly restricted. Furthermore, the maintenance of high prices for the tusks is partly explained by the fact that just when they began to be more plentiful in Europe a fresh impetus to the belief in their medicinal value was contributed by Portuguese travellers returning from India. The rhinoceros was introduced to Europe at about the same time, and it was felt that his horn would not meet the specifications because it was too short and not at all like the alicorns represented in pictures. Narwhal tusks on the other hand corresponded exactly, and for the best of reasons, with pictures of unicorns' horns that had behind them almost the authority of revelation.
We may be quite as certain of one other thing about this traffic: during the earlier centuries it did not involve conscious deceit on the part of anyone. The seamen of the North who collected the tusks may not even have known under what name and with what representations concerning their value they were finally sold. Those who conducted the final sales may not have been aware, in the earlier centuries, of the tusks' origin. Even if they had been aware of this, their notions of zoology and of materia medica were certainly no clearer than those of the scholars and physicians whose opinions we have examined, and they would have felt entirely justified in selling for ten times its weight in gold a substance for which such miraculous powers were everywhere asserted and accepted. There was a definite though restricted demand for alicorns, but there was no general agreement as to just what these were. Rhinoceros horns had a considerable following and walrus tusks, artificially straightened, had probably a greater; fossil bones and petrified wood and even stalactites were used in large quantities; after the end of the fourteenth century, however, the tooth of the narwhal defeated all competitors and was accepted by the experts as "true unicorn". A busy merchant could not trouble himself about such niceties. The public wanted unicorns' horns; his business was to give the public what it wanted and to get the best price he could.
Before it established itself above all rivals the narwhal's tusk met with some opposition, as we have seen, from those who knew what the ancients had said about unicorn's horn. The chief objection was to its colour, for both Pliny and Aelian had said that the true horn was black. Bo‘thius de Boodt disposed of most of the horns to be seen in his time by saying that they were not of the right colour, and Amatus Lusitanus advised his readers to purchase the black variety--antelope or rhinoceros horn--when it could be had. Pietro della Valle, again, although much interested in the tusk shown him by Captain Woodstock, who had found it in Greenland in 1611, could not agree that it was the true horn, for this, if he remembered his Pliny correctly, had been described as black. Another objection to the narwhal tusk was that it was not large enough, even at the base, to permit its being made into beakers such as those used by Indian potentates; but this difficulty was evaded by fitting together several lamin sliced from the tusk and so constructing a tankard not unlike a German stein, or by inserting a single piece of the tusk in a cup made of other materials.
During the seventeenth century, however, those who had narwhal tusks for sale were confronted by more serious difficulties and objections. A probing, curious, sceptical spirit was spreading through northern Europe, inciting men to ask questions that had never been asked before and to deny beliefs that had been held for ages--beliefs that were still held, of course, by all but one or two in the million. Those who were infected by this new spirit laid a novel emphasis upon what they called "experience" and we call experiment, rating the evidence it provided almost as highly as that given by "authority" and by "reason". Not quite so logical as the Schoolmen, nor quite so erudite as their own immediate predecessors--although their book-learning was still enormous in comparison with that of those whom we call scientists to-day--they sought for evidence not so much in authority and tradition and the consent of the ages as in what they were more and more disposed to call "facts". Such a spirit was not good for the traffic in narwhal tusks. Very slowly but surely it diffused throughout Europe an intellectual climate in which the unicorn could not feel at home.
Like all transformations in the fundamental habits of our thought, this change was very gradual. Recent news from Tennessee and Oklahoma shows that it is far from complete to-day, and Europeans may reach the same conclusion upon evidence gathered nearer home. The mass of men, quite unaffected by Ole Wurm of whom they had never heard, went on buying powdered alicorn for more than a hundred years after his dissertation was delivered, went on drinking alicorn-water, went on believing what they were told as they always had done and as they always will do. Thomas Bartholinus certainly exaggerates the influence of the Danish discovery when he implies that it stopped the traffic in narwhal tusks. "Our merchants would have filled whole ships with this pretended horn", says he, "and would have sold it all through Europe as true alicorn, if the deceit had not been detected by experts." Thus it is that scholarship constantly tends to over-estimate its own influence. The fact seems to be that if anything like whole cargoes of narwhal tusks had ever been brought to Europe they must have been brought at about the time when Bartholinus was writing, and in Danish ships. No; the scholars of Denmark may have done their best to kill the goose that laid their country's golden eggs, but the goose declined to die. All the little that may have been lost in British and European markets by Ole Wurm's unpatriotic disclosures was made up by new markets in Russia--or rather by old Russian markets first developed by the Scandinavian overland traders. When these were gone, there were still others, as we shall see, in lands much farther off where Latin dissertations were never read.
For all this, the difficulties encountered in selling the tusks at anything like the old prices did certainly increase as the seventeenth century wore on. Pietro della Valle gives us some significant information on this topic in his account of the efforts to dispose advantageously of the tusk found by Captain Woodstock. As he was bound to do by the terms of his agreement, the Captain turned this tusk over to his Company of Merchants, who sent it at once to Constantinople for sale. The best offer made for it there was only two thousand pounds. Hoping to get more than this, the Company sent it to Russia, where about the same amount was offered, and in Turkey the bids were even lower. (The fact that no effort was made to sell the tusk in western Europe is significant.) At last it was cut into small pieces and disposed of bit by bit, realizing a total sum of only twelve hundred pounds.
Even clearer evidence that the market was rapidly falling is found in de la Peyrere's Relation de Groenland, which first appeared in 1647. "'Tis not long since", says this garrulous writer, "that the Company of New Greenland at Copenhagen sent one of their agents into Muscovy with several great pieces of these kind of horns, and amongst the rest one end of a considerable bigness, to sell it to the Great Duke of Muscovy. The Great Duke being greatly taken with the beauty thereof, he shewed it to his Physician, who, understanding the matter, told the great Duke 'twas nothing but the tooth of a fish, so that this agent returned to Copenhagen without selling his commodity. After his return, giving an account of the success of his journey, he exclaimed against the physician who had spoiled his market by disgracing his commodities. 'Thou art a half-headed fellow', replied one of the directors of the Company, as he told me since. 'Why didst thou not offer two or three hundred ducats to the physician to persuade him that they were the horns of unicorns?'" If we have been right in saying that there was no conscious deceit in the earlier history of the traffic in tusks, that period is now definitely past.
There are several references to this Copenhagen Company of Greenland Merchants to be found in unicorn literature, although not so many as one could wish. It seems to have enjoyed something like a monopoly in the traffic for a time, and during a still longer period Denmark kept the business in her control. We read in Purchas His Pilgrims, for example, that in 1561 "a citizen of Hamburg begged the gift of a unicornes horne found in the ice of Iceland, and sold it after in Antwerp for some thousands of Florins. When this came to the King of Denmarkes eares he ruled that no Germaine should winter in Iceland in any cause." Another record shows that "in the year 1606 a company of merchants in Copenhagen sent two ships into the straits under the patronage of the Chancellor Christian Fries, and they traded with the natives . . . . On this voyage the ship's company brought back the teeth or horns of the unicorn fish, which at that time were unknown, and were valued at twelve hundred pounds a piece in Copenhagen, and were sold in Russia for a great price as the horns of the land-unicorn."
Although there was certainly a "period of depression", we are not to suppose that the unicorn, after his millenniums of glory, was snuffed out by a dissertation, or even that the traffic in his alleged horn was permanently disabled by the discovery that it was really the tooth of a small whale. Superstition is armed in triple bronze against all mere learning, and as for trade and commerce we should know that they will use science for their own ends precisely as far and as long as they find it lucrative. We reckon ill when we ignore the enterprise shown by modern business in finding and exploiting new markets. When it was found that western Europe would absorb no more alicorns at the old prices they were sent to Constantinople, Turkey, and Russia, and when even these markets began to fail others were discovered to take their places. One of the more amusing events in unicorn lore is the emergence of the alicorn, late in the eighteenth century, in the trade of the Far East.
The story is told by Charles Peter Thunberg, a traveller and botanist whose account of the medicinal use of rhinoceros horn in South Africa I have already quoted. He visited Nagasaki in 1775--at a time, that is, when the Dutch factory on the neighbouring island of Dezima still held a monopoly in the Japanese trade. This monopoly, which began in 1601, had formerly been of immense value, two voyages sufficing to make a Dutch captain wealthy for life; but it had recently fallen away for the sad reason that the Japanese had learned from their European visitors a few elementary tricks of trade. Among the articles imported by Japan in 1775 were camphor, tortoise-shells, spectacles, glass and mirrors, watches, chintz, and "unicorns' horns". The collocation is instructive.
"Unicorn's horn", writes Thunberg, "sold this year on Kambang very dear. It was often smuggled formerly, and sold at an enormous rate. The Japanese have an extravagant opinion of its medical virtues and powers to prolong life, fortify the animal spirits, assist the memory, and cure all complaints. This branch of commerce has not been known to the Dutch till of late, when it was discovered by an accident. One of the chiefs of the commerce here, on his return home, had sent out from Europe, amongst other rarities, to a friend of his who was an interpreter, a large, handsome, twisted Greenland unicorn's horn, by the sale of which this interpreter became extremely rich and a man of consequence. From that time the Dutch have written to Europe for as many as they could get, and made great profit on them in Japan. At first each catje [threequarters of a pound] sold for one hundred kobangs or six hundred rixdollars, after which the price fell by degrees to seventy, fifty, and thirty kobangs. This year, as soon as the captain's wide coat had been laid aside and prohibited [to prevent smuggling] all the unicorn's horn was obliged to be sold on Kambang, the open market of Dezima, where each catje fetched one hundred and thirty-six rixdollars . . . . The thirty-seven catjes four thails which I had brought with me were therefore very well disposed of for five thousand and seventy one thails and one mas [the 'thail', in money, is about the equivalent of one rixdollar], which enabled me to pay the debts I had contracted and, at the same time, to expend one thousand two hundred rixdollars on my favourite study."
Here we may close this inadequate outline of the narwhal tusk's commercial history, not because there is nothing left to say, but because we should find chiefly disillusionment in pursuing the research until we came to the hogsheads crammed with alicorns that may be seen stored to-day in the London docks. And here, too, we may as well end our sketch of the lore of the unicorn, although certainly not for lack of further materials. It is something to have shown how it happened that, perhaps on account of a curious set of beliefs about the moon worked out ages ago by Mesopotamian astrologers, a European scholar of the eighteenth century was able to equip himself for his botanical studies by selling bits of narwhal tusk at twelve rixdollars an ounce to credulous Orientals.
At any rate, I have accounted for the long, straight stick of ivory that lies before me on the table.