Orau: From the Beginning John Bathurst Deane

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ALTHOUGH men have often been uncertain where unicorns were to be found, there has never been the same difficulty with regard to unicorns‘ horns. These have never been plentiful and they have usually been very dear, but they have been known. Almost any well-read or widely travelled European of the sixteenth century would have been able to name eight or ten whole horns kept in cathedrals, monastic houses, or kings‘ treasuries, not to mention the innumerable smaller pieces to be found in the hands of the wealthy. The study of these horns, of their distribution, origin, and use, leads into the centre of unicorn lore.

„Come we now“, in the words of Thomas Fuller, „to the fashion and colour of the Horn, conceiving it no considerable controversy concerning the length and bignesse thereof, quantity not varying the kind in such cases.“ It is hard to know just what Thomas Fuller, who lived victoriously and contentiously through the English Civil Wars, may have understood by a „considerable controversy“, but this one has been long and earnestly waged. Ctesias gives the length of the horn as one cubit or eighteen inches, Aelian as a cubit and a half, Pliny as two cubits, Solinus and Isidore as four feet, Cardan as three cubits, Rabelais as six or seven feet, and Albertus Magnus as ten feet. At this point the growth of the horn was checked, for the animal that bore it was obviously becoming top-heavy and needed, as several sceptics pointed out, to be „as big as a ship“ merely to carry such a formidable bow-sprit. Arabian writers showed less retraint, for Al Damiri, among others, asserts that the unicorn, for all its great strength, is unable to lift its head because of the great weight of its horn. Other Arabian authorities inform us that he often carries about on this horn the bodies of several elephants which he has „perforated“. Although the spoils went to the victor in these contests, they were frequently--as in human affairs--quite as lethal as defeat, for Alkazuwin says that when once the unicorn has gored the elephant he is unable to remove the corpse from his horn, so that he either starves to death or else dies of the putrefaction. (Here was material for a powerful pacifistic allegory, if the Arabs had been given to such things.) The end comes when the roc, seeing the unicorn with one or more elephants impaled upon his horn, swoops down and bears the whole mass of flesh away as a titbit for its young.

Concerning the length of the alicorn, then, one could think almost whatever one liked. The time was to come when specimens almost if not quite as long as that described by Albertus Magnus were to be seen in Europe, and undoubtedly the respect in which the unicorn was everywhere held was maintained by the effort to imagine a beast to which a horn ten feet in length would be proportionate.



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