Legends of the Unicorn Horn: Cures, Antidotes and Medicinal Magic
Legends, myths and folkloric systems across the western world record legendary horned creatures which have become known to us collectively as unicorns. In heraldry, the unicorn is the symbol of my home nation of Scotland because this “proud and haughty beast” would rather die than be captured, as Scottish soldiers would fight to remain sovereign and unconquered. While much has been written about the mythological creature itself, less has been said about its horn, about which an entire mythological system exists.
Created around 510 BC. Winged Unicorn at the Palace of Darius in Susa, Iran. On display at the Louvre, Paris. (Amir El Mander/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Early Mentions of the Magic of a Unicorn Horn
The earliest mention of a unicorn’s horn was described by the 5th century BC Greek physician and historian, Ctesias. He believed unicorns lived in India and that their horns were magical objects used by Indian princes “to make hanaps against poison." Ctesias’ stories later inspired the writings of Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Claudius Aelianus - who all said words to the effect of drinking from the horn protects against diseases and poisons. These writings influenced the authors from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, who believed the creatures as real. But this all stopped in the 18th century when navigators discovered the extended tooth of the narwhal.
Historical depiction of a narwhal from ‘Brehms Tierleben‘ (1864–1869). ( Public Domain )
Before being rumbled, thousands of different legends recounted the magical properties of unicorn horns, and these can be loosely categorized into three distinct groups: water purification or cleansing, medicinal and curative, and protective or anti-poison.
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Cleansing (Water purification)
In most myths and folkloric traditions the unicorn’s power is focused in its horn, which is thought to immediately eliminate poisons as soon as its tip touched liquid. Unicorns were often symbolically represented by rivers, lakes, springs, and fountains and a common theme is that they caused other animals and people to wait for them to finish their magical purifying work before they drank.
Folio 21r from a 13th century Bestiary, The Rochester Bestiary (British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII), showing the Monoceros. Made for a librarian in Rochester. ( Public Domain )
The unicorn’s power to cleanse water was detailed in a 14th century interpretation of the Physiologus. Set at a large lake where animals congregated to drink, a snake poisoned the water, but a unicorn made the sign of the cross with his horn so the poison became harmless and the animals could drink safely.
Wild woman with unicorn, c. 1500–1510 (Basel Historical Museum). ( Public Domain )
Mythologists debate on the archetypes buried within this myth, but it is generally agreed that the snake represents the devil and the unicorn represents Christ, the savior and redeemer. With origins in water purification, the magic of the unicorn horn was later expanded as a universal medicinal antidote.
Medicinal Magic of the Unicorn Horn
Over time, in addition to taking care of purifying polluted water, unicorn horns were perceived to have powerful healing properties as antidotes to viruses, which made it one of the most expensive remedies during the Renaissance. Thus, it was used extensively in royal courts. In Odell Shepard’s 1930s book The Lore of the Unicorn she informs that unicorn horns were also known in the Middle Ages as ‘alicorns.’
Regarded as one of the most valuable spiritual assets that a king could possess, alicorns could be purchased at apothecaries until the 18th century and they were commonly found on display in cabinets of curiosity. Alchemists working for royal families and nobles used alicorn in their production of spagyrically (super charged) plant medicines.
"Unicorn horns" on display at the Rijksmuseum. These came from the Mariakerk in Utrecht where they were used as candlestick holders. (Autopilot/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Unicorn horn was most often infused and ingested to fight the symptoms of rubella, measles, fevers, and pains. Parisian monks gave it to lepers to facilitate their wound healing and prescribed it to nobles and royals to fight against the plague and to neutralize scorpion or viper venom.
It is probably the small fortune that royals paid for these objects that kicked their placebo effect into over drive and caused some of the reported cases of healing. In the 12th century, abbess Hildegard of Bingen’s medicinal and scientific writings recommended an ointment against leprosy made from foie de licorne and egg yolk, said that wearing “a unicorn leather belt” would protect a person from the plague and fevers, and alleged that “leather unicorn skin shoes” drove diseases away from the feet.
Hildegard of Bingen and her nuns used alicorn in their mystical Christian healing practices. ( Public Domain )
Many Medieval authors of repute devoted entire works to the medicinal properties of the unicorn horn, including Andrea Bacci's 1573 The Treaty of the Unicorn, its wonderful properties and its use. And the famous French surgeon, Ambroise Paré’s , 1580s book of Discourse On Onicorn marked what some historians see as the beginnings of the experimental method.
Unicorn Horn Display and Anti-poison
The unicorn held symbolic association with virginity and it became a symbol of the incarnation of God's Word, innocence, and divine power on Earth. In royal circles, unicorn horns were considered as highly sacred relics and were normally mounted on silver socles (the short base for a pedestal, sculpture, or column) and presented as trophies.
They also appear in various historical resources including; the Council of Trent in 1563, the Saint-Denis Cathedral in Paris and in Westminster Abbey in London. Pope Clement VII famously offered a unicorn horn “of two cubits long to King Francis I of France” at the wedding of his niece in 1533 and the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada noted that he always “bore his unicorn horn to protect himself from poison and murderers.”
‘The Unicorns’ (circa 1888) by Gustave Moreau. ( Public Domain )
In 1587, French physician Ambroise Paré explained that the horns were used “in the court of the King of France to detect the presence of poison in food and drink.” It was said if the horn heated up and began to smoke then the dish was poisoned.
Royal households created scepters and other sacred objects from unicorn horns, for example the scepter and imperial crown of the Austrian Empire and the scabbard and the hilt of the sword of Charles the Bold. A rare, twisted unicorn horn known as “the horn” was gifted to Charlemagne from the Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, in 807 AD and is on display at the Musée national du Moyen Âge.
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An Ainkhürn, “unicorn horn”, offered to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I in 1540, exposed at Wiener Schatzkammer. ( Public Domain )
Probably the most spectacular royal use of unicorn horns is found in the Throne Chair of Denmark. According to legend, the Throne Chair is made of the horn of unicorns. But in reality, it is made from Norwegian narwhal tusks.
The coronation chair of the Danish kings, used at coronations between 1671-1840 during the institution of Absolute Monarchy. (Sven Rosborn/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
From their mythical origins in ancient India, where princes used them for healing, unicorn horns lived a long and magical existence and if it were not for those damn narwhals we might still be using them today.
Top Image: One of the elements of Magic of the Unicorn horn was its supposed ability to purify water. Source: Catmando / Fotolia
By Ashley Cowie
Ambroise, P. (1928). Voyages et apologie suivis du Discours de la licorne (in French).
Bernhard, M. V. (1704). "30". Museum Museorum (in Latin). III. Frankfurt.
Hildegarde, B. (1989). Le Livre des subtilités des créatures divines (in French). II. Paris: Millon.
Godfrey, L. S. (2009). Mythical creatures . Chelsea House Publishers. p. 28.
Shepard, O. (1930). The Lore of the Unicorn . London, Unwin and Allen.
de Tervarent, G. (1997). Attributs et symboles dans l'art profane: dictionnaire d'un langage perdu (1450-1600) (in French). Librairie Droz. p. 535.