Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, , at sacred-texts.com
The horn of the unicorn was supposed to be the most powerful antidote against, as it was a sure test of, poisons. He was therefore invested by the other beasts of the forest with the office of "water-conner," none daring to taste of fountain or pool until he had stirred the water with his horn, to discover whether any dragon or serpent had deposited his venom therein, and render it innocuous. So complete was the faith in the efficacy of the wonder-working horn as a test of poisons, that fabulous store was set upon the possession of even a portion. In old inventories the "Essai" of Unicorn's horn is frequently mentioned.
An Italian author who visited England in the reign of Henry VII., speaking of the wealth of the religious houses in this country, says: "And I have been informed that, amongst other things, many of
these monasteries possess unicorns’ horns of an extraordinary size." Hence such a horn was worthy to be placed among the royal jewels. At the head of an inventory taken in the first year of Queen Elizabeth and preserved in the Harleian Library (No. 5953) we read "Imprimis, a piece of unicorn's horn," which, as probably the most important object, is named first. This was no doubt the piece seen by the German traveller Hentzner, at Windsor: "We were shown here, among other things, the horn of a unicorn of about eight spans and a half in length, valued at about £10,000." Peacham places "that horne of Windsor, of an unicorn very likely," amongst the sights worth seeing.
"One little cup of unicorn's horn" was also in possession of Queen Elizabeth, and was subsequently given by James I. to his Queen.
Alviano, a celebrated general of the Venetian Republic, when he took Viterbo, and dispersed the Gatesca faction, whom he called the poison of the city, caused to be embroidered upon his standard a unicorn at a fountain surrounded by snakes and toads and other reptiles, and stirring up the water with his horn before he drinks, with the motto or legend "Venene pello" (I expel poison). Although the unicorn has not been seen and described by any modern writer, its horn has been occasionally found, sometimes preserved in museums, but alas! the cherished horn, whenever it is examined, turns out to be a narwhal's tooth. To this, Wood's "Natural History" makes
special reference: "In former days, an entire tusk of a narwhal was considered to possess an inestimable value, for it was looked upon as the weapon of the veritable unicorn reft from his forehead in despite of his supernatural strength and intellect. Setting aside the rarity of the thing, it derived a practical value from its presumed capability of disarming all poisons of their terrors, and of changing the deadliest draught into a wholesome beverage."
This antidotal potency was thought to be of vital service to the unicorn, whose residence was in the desert among all kinds of loathsome beasts and poisonous reptiles, whose touch was death and whose look was contamination. The springs and pools at which such monsters quenched their thirst were saturated with poison by their contact, and would pour a fiery death through the veins of any animal that partook of them. But the unicorn, by dropping the tip of his horn into the pool, neutralised the venom and rendered the deadly waters harmless. This admirable quality of the unicorn's horn was a great recommendation in days when the poisoned chalice crept too frequently upon the festive board, and a king could receive no worthier present than a goblet formed from such valuable material.
Even a few shavings of the unicorn's horn were purchased at high prices, and the ready sale for such antidotes led to considerable adulteration—a fact which is piteously recorded by an old writer, who tells us that "some wicked persons do make a
mingle-mangle thereof, as I saw among the Venetians, being, as I here say, compounded with lime and sope, or peradventure with earth or some stone (which things are apt to make bubbles arise), and afterwards sell it for the unicorn's horn." The same writer, however, supplies an easy test, whereby the genuine substance may be distinguished from the imposition. "For experience of the unicorn's horn to know whether it be right or not; put silk upon a burning coal, and upon the silk the aforesaid horn, and if so be that it be true, the silk will not be a whit consumed."
Examples.—Argent, a unicorn rampant (sometimes sejant sable armed and unguled or), is borne by Harling, Suffolk.
Another of the name bears the unicorn courant in chief with additional charges upon the shield.
Azure, a unicorn couchant, argent between twelve cross crosslets, or.—Doon.
Argent a chevron engrailed gules between three unicorns’ heads, erased azure.—Horne.
Religious emblems were in great favour with the early printers; some of them for this reason adopted the unicorn as their sign. Thus John Harrison lived at the Unicorn and Bible in Paternoster Row, 1603.
Again, the reputed power of the horn caused the animal to be taken as a supporter for the Apothecaries’ arms, and as a constant signboard by chemists.
The great value set upon unicorn's horn caused the Goldsmiths of London to adopt this animal as their sign.