The Animals Behind the Legends

Unicorns

A painting of a white unicorn resting on the lap of a woman
Image Source: Domenichino

In this new series of articles, The Nature Nook will be taking a look at a variety of legendary creatures from around the world, along with the animals that may have inspired them. For our first foray into the realm of myth and magic, we’ll be focusing on the famous unicorn. Although today it is considered a pure, gentle creature of fantasy, the unicorn in ancient times was described as a tough, violent beast, capable of running through an armoured warrior with its single horn. It was an elusive quarry that men could only capture or kill with the help of a virgin woman who breastfed it until its fierceness ceased and it fell asleep in her lap. From this, the link between the unicorn and purity soon became well-established, and the unicorn was transformed into a symbol of virtue in European folklore.

In the Middle Ages, many people thought the unicorn to be a real animal, blessed with magical powers. In the 12th century, King William I of Scotland incorporated a unicorn into his coat of arms, which in due course was inherited by the British coat of arms and shown standing opposite the English lion. The mystique of this animal was propagated by the appearance of so-called unicorn horns, which were said to be able to detect and neutralise any poison if you stirred them around in your food and drink. They were even believed to act as a type of medieval Viagra.

These mysterious horns could be sold for up to ten times their weight in gold and were particularly popular among paranoid royalty around Europe, who often feared assassination attempts. Even Queen Elizabeth I of England was a believer. In 1577, an English seaman named Sir Martin Frobisher returned from an expedition in the Arctic with a long, spiral horn that he had found on a dead ‘sea-unicorn’ washed up along the icy Canadian coast. Declaring the horn effective at neutralising poison, he presented this holy grail of treasures to the queen as a gift. Elizabeth I cherished this item so much that it became part of the Crown Jewels and is today known as the Horn of Windsor.

Of course, we now know that unicorns don’t exist – so what was their inspiration? And where did those real horns come from?

Unicorn Origins

The myth of the unicorn probably comes from a mixture of living creatures. The aggressive demeanour that it possessed in ancient myths may have come from the Indian rhinoceros, which, like the unicorn, has one large horn (albeit on its nose rather than its head). Pliny the Elder also described the unicorn as having ‘the feet of an elephant’ and a cry that was a ‘deep bellow’, which fits with this theory.

The unicorn’s horse-like appearance, meanwhile, could have come from the oryx, a type of desert antelope with two long, thin, swept-back horns. When viewed from the side, it can indeed look as though the oryx only has one horn protruding from its forehead. It has even been suggested that the unicorn may have originated in folk memories of Elasmotherium, a 3-metre-high rhinoceros with a single huge horn projecting from its head that lived on the Asian steppes until around 29,000 years ago.

The oryx, which sometimes looks as though it only possesses one long horn when viewed from the side, is considered to have possibly inspired the legend of the unicorn
This East African oryx, when viewed from the side, almost looks as though it only has one horn. Its relative, the Arabian oryx, was only saved from extinction through a captive breeding program and reintroduction into the wild.
Image Source: Bernard Dupont

But the ‘magical unicorn horn’ that Queen Elizabeth I obtained from Sir Martin Frobisher had come from none of those animals. Nor were most of the horns that the various European rulers of the time had managed to acquire. The majority were, in fact, the tusks of narwhals.

The narwhal is a medium-sized whale hailing from the cold seas of the Arctic. Its ‘horn’ is actually a modified tooth – a massively extended top-left canine that grows in a counter-clockwise spiral. This tooth eventually grows into a long, straight, but tightly-coiled tusk – sometimes up to 3 metres in length – which points horizontally out of the animal’s face. In fact, it grows directly through the narwhal’s upper lip, which allows it to shut its mouth properly. Although it is usually only the males that develop tusks, around 15% of females also grow them; they are typically smaller than the male’s, with a less noticeable spiral.

Mysteries of the Tusk

Why do narwhals – primarily the males – possess these tusks? This is a question that has puzzled scientists for many years, and several theories have surfaced. Some people have suggested that the tusk is a tool used by the whale to probe the seabed for crustaceans, molluscs and worms. Others have theorised that it might be used as a spear to impale fish, or perhaps even to make breathing holes in the sea ice from below. The problem is that none of these behaviours has ever been observed.

A very rare example of a female narwhal growing two tusks (museum specimen)
A very small percentage of males have a pair of parallel tusks, with the right canine tooth also growing out through the lips. The image above, however, is from a specimen at the Zoological Museum in Hamburg, Germany, and is the only known example of a female narwhal growing a second tusk.
Image Source: soebe

Could these tusks serve as weapons, allowing narwhals to defend themselves from predators such as orcas? Or could they be used by the males to joust with rivals? Certainly, these seem to be the two traditional and most regularly repeated explanations. However, even after many years of study, no narwhal has ever been observed using their tusk in an explicitly defensive way, and, despite the odd exaggerated story, no male has been seen using them to battle one another. Gently touching tusks is about as far as they get.

Nevertheless, the tusks may well be used in courtship in some way. The fact that it is generally only males that possess them lends credit to this theory, for otherwise you would expect them to be present in both sexes. Maybe males raise them out of the water to assert dominance, a nonviolent way for rivals to assess hierarchical status on the basis of relative tusk size – a way for the fittest and most dominant males to advertise themselves. It could be that females, as opinioned by Charles Darwin himself, are more attracted to males with the longest tusks.

A group of narwhals sticking their heads and tusks out of the water in the Arctic
The narwhal’s name is thought to come from the Scandinavian word nár, meaning ‘corpse’ (for this animal’s greyish, mottled colouration is said to look like that of a drowned sailor) and hvalr, meaning ‘whale’.

But more recent research has brought other theories into the foreground. Upon studying the narwhal’s tusks more closely, scientists have proposed that it is actually an advanced sensory organ. Whereas human teeth are hard on the outside and sensitive on the inside, a narwhal’s tusk is the exact opposite – the soft, sensitive part is on the outside and the dense, hard part makes up the middle. Scientists have found over 10 million nerve channels stretching from the core of the tusk to the outer surface, suggesting that it might be used as a hydrodynamic sensor. The fact that the tusk is twisted into a helix increases the surface area, exposing more nerve endings and, in turn, increasing sensitivity. Having all those nerves on the outside would allow the narwhal to detect changes in salinity, temperature, pressure, and particle gradient in ways thought to be unmatched by anything else known in nature. The rubbing of tusks together by male narwhals could be a method of communicating information about the characteristics of the water each has travelled through.

However, it is important to note that tusks cannot serve as a critical function for narwhal survival because females, who usually lack them, still manage to live longer than males on average. If a narwhal tusk is indeed a sensory organ, it would only benefit the males, which has caused some scientists to remain unconvinced by this theory. I suspect that the tusks serve many different functions – probably some of the ones mentioned above, and possibly some that we haven’t learned about yet. Certainly, there is much more to discover about this mysterious ‘unicorn of the sea’.

Unicorn Mania

Whatever the exact purpose of the narwhal’s tusk, they have certainly intrigued people for centuries. The first examples were brought south by the Vikings, who almost certainly knew of their origins, but for 400 years they maintained the story that they came from the mythical unicorn. In more southern parts of Europe, of course, few people had seen or even heard of a narwhal, and natural history books confidently described unicorns in detail as if they were real animals. Traders and chemists conspired to keep the whale’s existence a secret, all the while selling ‘unicorn horns’ that, due to their great rarity, were fantastically expensive. And if they couldn’t get hold of real narwhal tusks, they unscrupulously met the demand by grinding up rhinoceros horn instead.

A narwhal tusk
The tusk of the narwhal is unique in the animal kingdom for being the world’s only straight tusk and the only spiral tooth.
Image Source: Welcome Images

With the unicorn firmly implanted in European lore, a full-blown mania for their horns followed. We have already talked about the so-called unicorn horn that Elizabeth I acquired from Sir Martin Frobisher, but it was not the queen’s only one. She also bought a gem-encrusted narwhal tusk from Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Walter Raleigh’s half-brother, for the lofty price of £10,000 (over £2 million in modern currency – enough, at the time, to buy and staff an entire castle). She was even known to drink from a ‘unicorn horn’ cup, believing that it would explode if poison touched it.

Meanwhile, on the continent, in 1553, Pope Clement VII presented King Francis I of France with a magnificent unicorn horn mounted in solid gold, which is said to have cost nearly six times as much as Michelangelo was paid to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And, according to legend, the Throne Chair of Denmark, located in the Castle of Rosenberg in Copenhagen, is constructed from the horns of unicorns – although in reality, as you might have guessed, it is made largely from narwhal tusks.

The belief in the curative and mystical properties of unicorn horns began to dissipate as the Enlightenment brought advances in scientific experimentation. By the 17th century, magic, alchemy and astrology were slowly replaced by chemistry and science. As unicorn horns underwent repeated and more scrupulous testing, old superstitions began to fall away. Queen Elizabeth’s successor, James I, was certainly more suspicious of unicorn horns. After purchasing one, he tested its properties by poisoning a servant and then giving him an antidote made from powdered unicorn horn. Unsurprisingly, the servant died.

The year 1638 was when the myth of the unicorn finally died. A Danish scientist named Olaus Wormius gave a public lecture conclusively proving that unicorns did not exist and that their purported horns really came from whales living further north. The value of so-called unicorn horns plummeted almost immediately.

These days, unicorns are big business again, having recently undergone something of a resurgence. They’re still regarded as magical, but they’re more commonly depicted as delicate, feminine creatures in cutesy kids’ cartoons. In the zoological world, meanwhile, the unicorn is sometimes used as a symbol of rarity. This is why the elusive okapi, which was only discovered by Europeans in 1901, was once referred to as the ‘African unicorn’, and why, even today, the rare and highly mysterious saola, which has never been seen alive in the wild by a trained biologist, is sometimes called the ‘Asian unicorn’.

Mythical creatures have captured our imaginations for millennia. Cultures across the world have passed down tales of these fantastic beasts for generations, from the traditional legends of ancient peoples to the contemporary myths of today. In the coming months, we’ll be looking at just a few of these legendary beings – including one or two that some people still claim to walk the earth…

Author

  • With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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