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Introduction to Avram Davidson's "The Spoor of the Unicorn":

Avram Davidson has for too long been underrated as a writer, in spite of his well-deserved Hugo (for that mad little classic, "Or All the Seas with Oysters," detailing the sex-cycles of coat hangers and safety pins), his almost endless list of fine short fiction, his erudite and highly-entertaining novels, and the demonstrable fact that he is one of the most eloquent and individual voices in modern letters. Good as Davidson has always been, in the last few years he's gotten even better: his recent series of stories about the bizarre exploits of Doctor Engelbert Eszterhazy (collected in The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy) and the strange adventures of Jack Limekiller (as yet uncollected, alas) are Davidson at the very height of his considerable powers, and must be counted as some of the very finest work produced in the seventies, in any genre. In the last few years a few long-unavailable Davidson books have come back into print again—the novels Rogue Dragon, The Kar Chee Reign, and Masters of the Maze, and the collection Or All the Seas with Oysters—and it may be that Davidson is on the brink of finally getting the sort of recognition and critical attention that he deserves. Davidson's other books include The Phoenix and the Mirror, Rork!, The Enemy of My Enemy, Clash of Star-Kings, Joyleg (with the late Ward Moore), and Peregrine: Primus. His most recent books are Peregrine: Secundus, a novel, and the collections The Best of Avram Davidson, The Redward Edward Papers, and Strange Seas and Shores.

Here, in an essay especially commissioned for this anthology—one of a series of "Adventures in Unhistory" that Davidson has been writing, examining curious and little-known areas of history and folklore—Davidson brings his customary wit and erudition to bear in a search for that most elusive of all animals—the unicorn.

An Adventure in Unhistory

Avram Davidson

In that one of the ADVENTURES IN UNHISTORY called An Abundance of Dragons, I declared that although the wombat is real and the dragon is not, nobody knows what a wombat looks like and everyone knows what a dragon looks like. Also, a unicorn. Platonian comment in re the Archetype would be of interest here, as to what Plato said about the unicorn, lo! it is that he said nothing. So far as I know. So evidently I am free to paraphrase, to wit, Somewhere there is a heavenly or archetypal unicorn, for if there were not, how would we have been able to formulate the image of one here below? Perhaps it is the function of this Adventure to show how; easy does it, though, Plato was the pupil of Socrates, and we all know what happened to him. Don't we.

Whenever I ask myself, in any situation, "Where to begin?" the answer always comes from Charles Fort: "In measuring a circle, one begins anywhere." After that, no matter what digressions, it is merely a matter of getting back to it. And I begin with a quotation from Jorge Luis Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings (with Margaret Guerrero, tr. by N. T. di Giovanni, Avon, 1960, N.Y.). "To the Chinese, the heavens are hemispherical and the earth quadrangular, and so, in the Tortoise with its curved upper shell and flat lower shell, they find an image or mould of the world. Moreover, Tortoises share in cosmic longevity; it is therefore fitting that they should be included among the spiritually endowed creatures (together with the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tiger) and that soothsayers read the future in the pattern of their shells." It might not in the normal, everyday, course of events have occurred to you that the unicorn was related in any way to the tortoise, the dragon, the phoenix and the tiger; let alone that it is (as each of them is) "a spiritually endowed creature." But now you know. We have begun to measure our circle. Onward.

Having already accepted that the subject of this Adventure is not merely a fancy horse with a spirally-wound horn, going tap-it-a-trot across beautifully-broidered tapestries in order to lay its lovely head in the lap of a lovely maiden, you may be prepared to obey the order, Now hear this: "The unicorn was also a symbol frequently used by the alchemists, and it represented Mercury and the Lion. It was intermingled with the Eagle and the Dragon, and, during the Middle Ages, was regarded as the sign of the Holy Spirit. The unicorn represented divine power, both in its negative and destructive aspects as well as in its creative manifestations." The this which you have now heard is not from Borges, nor does it refer to that much mis-used matter, The Wisdom of the East. It is from A Pictorial History of Magic and the Supernatural, by Maurice Bessy (Spring Books, U.K., 1960). I am of a reasonable surety that this was translated from the French, and if anyone knows who the translator was, please let me know. Monsieur Bessy, like a great many writers . . . like far too many writers . . . is likely to state casually as facts things which are likelier to have been purely his own opinions, but there is nothing I can do about that; 22 years after publication, "Clean up your act, Bessy!"—what would it accomplish? Faint transatlantic echoes of Merde, alors!, Eh, ta soeur!, Comme ça?, blague!, and other Gallic impertinences; never mind. Doubtless the same thing might equally be said of many another writer; just keep this in mind as you read his book.

The important thing is to note how the dainty hoof of the one-horned beasty has already crossed the Euro-Asian land mass from one end to another: long, long ago. Keep this in mind, too: "Near the field Helyon in the Holy Land is a river Mara [Hebrew, bitter], whose bitter waters Moses struck with his staff and made sweet, so that the children of Israel could drink thereof. [Not exactly what the Bible says: but close.] Even now, now being 1389, "evil and unclean spirits poison it after the going down of the sun, but in the morning after the powers of darkness have disappeared, the unicorn comes from the sea and dips its horn in the stream, and thereby expels and neutralizes the poison, so that the other animals can drink of it during the day." Our authority for this useful information is "the pilgrim, John of Herse." And how do I know that? Do I have his parchment journal lying by my side, no I don't, I know it because I have faith in the one who quotes him: Clark E. Firestone, in a wonderful book, The Coasts of Illusion, A Study of Travel Tales (Harper, '24). That is the way which items such as this are usually written, though it mayn't be fully known that such is the case. Not every author of something called, let us say, and we might safely say, as I'm making this up, Gadzooks and Genzel-worms, is going to tell you point-blank that he found out something in a book from the East Weewaw (Wis.) Public Library, let alone tell you what book. I fear that the author of Gadzooks and Genzel-worms is simply going to abstract his info and slip it to you as though it had been scraped off the wall of a tomb in Khartoum by the author himself. Well, why not. Old stuff. Of course at one time writers felt that the more titles and authors they could quote, the more impressive-sounding their own works were. Many an antique author is known by name only because a long-later one quoted him. However, gradually, a slyer note crept into the great game. "Ambergris," a later writer may state casually, "though usually assumed to be the by-product of the indigestion of the sperm-whale, was far more often produced in a pickled-pigs' feet factory in Bratislava." (I'm making this up, for pity's sake! Don't quote me.)—thus giving the impression that he, personally, found this out in the course of fatiguing researches in, of course, Bratislava . . . whereas, actually, no: he simply extracted it from a slim little volume entitled Pickled Pigs-Feet Through the Ages, the Farmers Wife Press, East Weewaw, Wisconsin, 1893, where he had found it after being driven by rain into the public library whilst waiting for his transmission to be fixed.

I, however, will level with you. Only maybe not.

I am not sure when this began. Even the great Gibbon indulged in it; all those immensely impressive footnotes, Slawkenbergius, xxi, 13; Berzelius, xxx, 121; Isidore of Isphahan contra Manichaeus, vl. 3—etc etc etc—you think Gibbon actually read them all? No ho ho. Gibbon lifted the refs. in toto from others. And when he presented vol. ii of the great Decline and Fall to His Royal Highness William Duke of Gloucester whose Patronage of Learning, and all the rest of it, HRH exclaiming, "Another demned thick square book? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?"—why, people sneered behind their lace jabots, called HRH "Silly Billy." Only maybe he wasn't so silly. Being younger brother to George III is not absolute proof of feeble-mindedness. Almost, though. Well, and how do I know all this? I read it. Somewhere. Forget just where. Couple of places. Nyaa.

Meanwhile. Back to the Spoor of the Unicorn, which has already led us to classical Chinese uranology, medieval European alchemy, and ancient Hebrew history—however, take note, and take careful note: although the Pilgrim John of Herse connects the unicorn with the Biblical account of Moses, he speaks of the unicorn as living in his, John's, own present time . . . not in the time of the Bible. This distinction is to be blurred, ere we have finished trekking this fabulous spoor.


However. Ere we onward, note also that the unicorn makes its appearance only at the break of day, and it does not bathe in the stream; it suffices, evidently, for it to dip its horn in it. The key words, however, do not include water. The key words are night, poison, and horn. Remember.

With a cold, stern look all around, intent to smother any possible snickers, I ask, "What is it which we most commonly do at night?" The answer I promote is not, Listen to the radio, Eat a Dagwood sandwich, or, Call my Mother in East Weewaw, Wis.—it is, Sleep. Of course we sometimes sleep at other times as well. Sleep may well indeed be Nature's sweet restorer. But sometimes it is induced for other purposes than simply catching forty, in order to rise like a giant refreshed and go out and sell more Life and Casualty insurance than any other guy in the District. I will not cite you some sources which, at first sight, may seem to have nothing to do with unicorns . . . but if I were to cite, merely sources which specifically refer to them, why, you might simply go and read them for yourself. Anyone, after all, can go peek in the catalog (or, increasingly, the microfiche—harder on the eyes, easier on the feet) under U. The value of this Adventure, if value it has, is to bring before you things gleaned from fields seemingly foreign to the subject. This next field is entitled, Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads, L.C. Wimberly, Dover, NY, '65 (reprinted from the edition of 1928).

In Scandinavian analogues of Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight . . . the demon-lover's sleep is induced by the power of runes, to match which we find in the Scottish ballad . . . a soporific "sma charm":

She stroaked him saefast, the nearer he did creep.

Wi a sma charm she lulld him fast asleep.

Among the several devices, again, which the woman employs in order to get the murderer into her power, the original would seem to be her inducing him to lay his head in her lap, which gives her the opportunity (by use of charms or runes) . . . to put him into a deep sleep.

According to the Swedish Sömp-runorna and the Danish Sövnerunerne, which tells a story somewhat similar to The Broomfield Hill . . . a maiden puts a man to sleep by the aid of rune charms and so preserves her chastity.

[foot-note: For other examples of rune-slumber and sleep-thorns in romance, ballad, and tale, see Child [Ballads] . . . ]

Very well, you've been very patient, you've read it, you've read it all: what does it have to do with unicorns? Well, the unicorn in John of Herse appears only just after night has departed, night is connected with sleep, sleep is magically induced by a lady's getting a fellow's head into her lap, and that is the downfall of the unicorn: lays he down that puissant head in that chaste lap, it's off to sleep he goes. And awakes in chains. So to speak. —What? Absurd? Preposterous? My dear people, this is all preposterous and absurd. No, it won't Sell Flour, no, it has nothing to do with our Dwindling Natural Resources; it is Poetry, it is Romance, and it is also an incredibly complex account of one of the many complexities of nonsense which from ancient times have perplexed and led astray the minds of man- and womankind. Let us say in its favor that though it is nonsense, it is gorgeous nonsense, and it docs not lead us down slow cold steps to worship a tyrant in his tomb; and that at least there have never been Unicorn Riots, Unicorn Wars, Unicorn Persecutions, Unicorn Plagues, Unicorn Famines. A scholar in his study studying unicorns will encompass no one's death in the sacred names of Science and Technology. Perhaps we are where we are because we have no more unicorns. Onward.

I have quoted Charles Fort to the effect that—But let me go back a bit. Sleep-thorns. What do thorns do? They prick, and draw blood. What do horns do? They gore. And draw much blood. Unicorns, thorns, horns, chastity, maidens, virgins, blood, sleep.

Back to Charles Fort, and . . . But, say. Who was Charles Fort? He was a roly-poly man with a walrus moustache who, having inherited a competence, spent the rest of his life copying odd stuff, damned odd stuff, out of books, magazines, and newspapers; writing them down on slips of paper and file-cards, filling thousands of shoe-boxes in his Bronx apartment with this data, which, eventually, he drew off into 4 of the damnedest, oddest books ever compiled: Lo!, Wild Talents, New Lands, and The Book of the Damned. For a very long time nobody much read these books, and in the meanwhile Charles Fort died. Read them if you can find them. They are absurd and fascinating. They have, specifically, nothing to do with unicorns. This was the man who said, "One measures a circle, beginning anywhere."

However, the spoor of the unicorn does not lead us altogether in a circle; if even time must have a stop (must it?), then even the spoor of the unicorn must have a beginning.

There was in Constantinople in the 9th century a holy and scholarly man named Photius, who was in fact the Patriarch of that city, "New Rome," capital of the Eastern Roman (or "Byzantine," a word its people did not use) Empire. Things must have been placid at least for some considerable while in Photius's times. He did not have his beard torn out nor his nose cut off nor his eyes blinded, neither was he burned alive . . . at least I don't think he was burned alive; if somebody knows for a fact that the Patriarch Photius was burned alive, let me know, please. With all this peace and quiet at his disposal, Photius was able to devote himself to abstracting the works of Ctesias, a fellow-Greek and fellow-scholar who had lived almost 1500 years before him. Ctesias, in retirement, did not spend his golden years puttering around the house: he wrote a History of Persia, in 23 "books", a meaningless unit of measurement, now mostly all of it down the tube of time; and a work which we know as the Indica. Aristotle knew of Ctesias, but did not think much of him; what we know of what Ctesias knew, or thought he knew, we owe to His Holiness, Photius, Patriarch Oecumenical; or, more specifically, to his abstracts from the Indica. And so, rather than pretend that I have an excellent working knowledge of Greek, a language which I flunked, forty years ago, boys and girls! forty years ago—I shall quote what is perhaps the beginning of it all (only maybe not), and quote it from the properest place from which to quote: The Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, '30. And here it be.

There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about afoot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs. The base of this horn, for some two hands'-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson . . . and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else, from these beakers.

The date? The year 400+ or – before the Common Era will do. It may be said, then, that at this date the unicorn enters written history. You will note that it is not the single horn, as such, which most occupies the attention of Ctesias: it is the curative powers thereof. It ought to be noted, in this connection, that Ctesias, unlike many Greeks who had gone into Persia, was not a military but a medical man. And even as early as his time, and even as late as, say, the 18th century, in the eyes of many the chief importance of a physician was to save people from poison.

I don't refer here to fear of accidental poisoning, such as properly concerns us all, and against which (in theory) a network of Poison Control Centers have been set up, reachable by one's local police in a matter of seconds: no. I refer to a personal fear of being personally poisoned. It is said that the easy ritual of wine-tasting derives from the slow, ceremonious sampling of the Big Man's food and drink. If power tends to corrupt—and it does—so does the envy and the fear of power. And the desire to achieve it. If one were, say, 500 or 1000 years ago, desirous to remove from office one's chief, be he sacred or secular, one did not go out and ask people to sign a Recall petition; neither was it always feasible to hire an assassin. It was popularly believed that anyone who held high office was liable to be poisoned. What to do about it?

Recall that forensic medicine was all but non-existent, and that medical science itself, with its belief in the Four Humours, its absolute ignorance of the world beneath the microscope, was—we now realize—all but impotent to provide real help to those really ill. Or, for that matter, when people died, to say from what they really died. Violent death was of course obvious, and so was death by any of the great plagues recognized as such . . . and that was, by and large, about it. But it was not recognized that that was about it. The stroke, the heart attack, the wasting diseases, and—and most of all—food poisoning (the "ptomaine poisoning" of my childhood) . . . none of these were always and clearly recognized as what they really were.

If the bishop fell into convulsions, if the duke died whilst dining, if the king ate a spoonful of preserves insufficiently preserved: no one said, "Botulism." Everyone was likelier to say, "Poisoning." When, indeed, somebody did not say, "Witchcraft."

Therefore, it was of immense importance to know that there was a way to avoid vicious intromission into one's food supply, and if this way lay via the use of the horn of a mysterious creature which in life galloped over the mysterious soil of far-off lands, why, how wonderful! Hardly anyone asked, "How do you know?" The usual question was, "How much does it cost?" And the answer was, "Plenty." A wand of unicorn's horn, Shepard says, sold for 20 times its weight in gold . . . If, therefore, a sovereign who used it regularly, lived to die of what was recognizable as old age, this was all to the credit of the unicorn's potent horn. If, however, unlike Mithridates, the king did not "die old," but, after a mere tenth helping of everything on the table during the heat of summer, turned crimson, made funny noises, and fell face forward into the stewed eels: why, what could have caused it? The answer was fairly obvious: poison. And . . . but . . . the king's unicorn wand? His drinking cup of unicorn's horn? It was a fake. Wasn't that obvious? Sure it was.

Unicorn was merely the chief-most of many substances used in this ceaseless war against doses from the black bottle. Petrarch, taking some time off from Laura, or perhaps Cicero (he made an immense journey to find a rare copy of a book by the Latin lawyer-orator . . . only to lind, also, that there was hardly any ink to copy it with and probably the xerox was broken), noted of a certain potentate the precautions he had taken "against secret plots; between the wines and the viands project the livid horns of serpents skilfully fastened to little gilded trees, so that it is a wonder to see how Death himself stands guard, as it were in the very strong-hold of pleasure, against the death of this miserable man."

Leaving the horned serpent for a while, let us return a moment to old Dr. Ctesias, there in his retirement home in Cnidus, alternately exciting and boring the neighbors with his tales of foreign parts and the great wonders thereof: he had been the personal physician of the Great King of Persia, and from Persia it was but a spit in the right wind to India. Now, India, by obvious definition, one would think, is the land of the Indus River; only maybe not. Maybe the river was so-named because it was in India. One measures a circle . . . However. It has been said that, "India, to Ctesias, is the Himalayas and Tibet." Maybe so. Well, let's see, then, let's try this on for size and style: "Somewhere in the Himalayas and Tibet is a certain wild ass as large as a horse, and maybe larger." Well, with an eye more to zoology than geography, one might say that this a description of the onager, or wild ass; perhaps of that other Asian wild ass, the kiang: ¿Quien sabe? I am not a specialist in wild asses. Of course, when we read that these beast had horns "on the forehead" we realize that we have left zoology almost past the possibility of returning, and the length of the alleged horn is irrelevant. That there were one-horned beasts somewhere in them there parts is certain, for there still are, if they have not all been extirpated by the wonderful picturesque natives so busy enjoying their independence from imperialist constraint that they may soon have extirpated all their larger wild life and even a good deal of the smaller, too.

It is of course easier for us to preach conservation to them than it is for them to appreciate it. When a native of Nepal (which is in the Himalayas, or was, last I looked) sees a rhinoceros, he does not immediately think of how magnificent and increasingly rare it is; he immediately thinks (as does his African and Indonesian counterpart) of how much meat it is; next he thinks of all the damage it does to his crops (plenty), and he never thinks such thoughts as, "Well, maybe I shouldn't be planting my crops in rhino country;" and then he thinks of the horn, which is actually not a horn as the horn of the antelope is a horn, but a mass of compressed hair-tissue . . . or something like that . . . he doesn't care about that, neither does the horn-buyer. What they care about is that there are quite a lot of elderly Chinese gentlemen who, not yet being resigned to inability to achieve an erection, are willing to pay plenty for the medicine which will, they believe, make this possible. Blamm! It is a seller's market, and if the horn doesn't nowadays fetch 20 times its weight in gold, still, it fetches plenty. How come? How come that after all these years people are still paying plenty for a substance which doesn't do what is claimed for it?—namely, allowing old Mr. Wong to Get It Up. Kindly remember all those long centuries in which people paid plenty for it under the belief that it would prevent and cure poisoning. If "the origin of illness is in the mind," then so is its prevention and cure. —Yes, but what gives them such an idea? Mr. Wong, Mr. Ong, Mr. Dong, et al.? Well, the idea is already there. How did it originate? I say, simply, that it is simple. Horn = Horny.

Very well, very well. But why did they describe the rhinoceros as an ass? Because, those unfamiliar with cither Linnaean or Aristotelian ideas of categories, faced with new creatures, naturally describe in terms of old creatures. The sea-cow is not a cow, the sea-horse is not a horse, the Rocky Mountain goat is not a goat, the bison isn't really a buffalo; and neither, really, is the North American elk an elk. Going farther back into history than the time of Ctesias, we find the horse being described, early on, as "the ass of the east." The wild ass, by which one does not mean those poor stunted feral burro which, despite inroads made by starvation and disease, continue to destroy land-cover in many a western canyon; the wild ass is considerably larger than its domestic donkey cousin or the latter's run-wild descendants; but now enough about the wild ass.

The glamor of the unicorn, that is, of it as a particularly graceful and lovely creature, belongs largely to the Renaissance; the ancient world was impressed, but it was differently impressed. Here is our old friend Solinus, called (often) "Pliny's ape," and in fact almost improving on Pliny: here he is, in an older translation by Arthur Golding: "Atrocissimum est monoceros"—oops! that's not Golding, that's Solinus; still, you must admit that Atrocissimum est monoceros sounds more impressive than Omnia Gallia est in tres partes and the rest of it; "But the cruelest is the Unicorne, a Monster that belloweth horrible, bodyed like a horse, footed like an elephant, tayled like a swyne, and headed like a stagge. His home stikketh out of the midds of his forehead, of a wonderful brightness about four feet long [It has grown, you see, since the earlier report of Ctesias; eh, Mr. Wong, Mr. Ong, and Mr. Dong? Hmmm.] so sharp that whatsoever he pusheth at, he striketh it through easily. He is never caught alive; kylled he may be, but taken he cannot bee." Note that there is here no mention at all of the matter of his being taken by a virgin. That came later.

And when, long later, it came to be realized that there was an animal, the rhinoceros, which, like the unicorn, had one horn—did this immediately dissipate the legend, relegating the unicorn to the realm of myth? No it didn't. The rhinoceros was one animal, the unicorn another. Besides: sometimes the rhinoceros (read nose-horn) had more than one horn. You see?

Physiologus (not his real name), that fairly early Christian writer who (most likely) lived in Alexandria and probably invented the Bestiary; Physiologus said that the unicorn was about the size of a goat-kid. Having swelled, it now shrinks. Uh-oh, Mr. Wong, Mr. Ong, Mr. Dong! This could not be endured. Just as the unicorn could not be tolerated to be as large as the rhino, so it could not be endured to be as small as a kid. The human mind, by a series of trials and errors, finally figured out what the right size of the unicorn was, and there it still is, on the other side of the British lion, both of them holding up the Royal Arms. You don't believe me, go look. I don't recall having seen any ancient Greek or Roman picture of a unicorn, either graved on pottery or painted on walls; but in one of the murals of Pompeii is a centaur: how big is it? oh, about the size of a goat-kid . . . in comparison to the man-figure before whom it stands. Do I mean to imply a connection? no I don't. The centaur was "merely" mythical; the unicorn was medicinal as well. Do you know about St. Hildegarde? Do you know about Bingen on the Rhine? Course you don't.

It was the custom in our public schools during the last century and partly into this, to give those children capable of it a "piece," often but not always a poem, to memorize during the week, and to recite, usually on Friday afternoon, "in assembly." The assembly was not merely a gathering, it was a hall in the school building (is it still? they don't tell me these things); there we would gather to Niilutc the Flag, listen to a Psalm being read, and receive Instruction from the Principal. Sometimes this was limited to orders to eschew the syllables Om and Yup; on one Memorable Scene he directed all girls and women teachers to Leave the Assembly: the doors being reported firmly closed, he smote the table in front of him and cried, "This practice of throwing paper towels in the urinals must stop!"

Also, poems and other "pieces" were recited. One favorite began (searching the dimmest corners of memory), "A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers / There was dearth of woman's nursing, there was dearth of woman's tears. . . ." And at each verse's end the dying soldier reminds us that he was "born in Bingen, dear Bingen on the Rhine." Other favorites included Darius Green and His Flying Machine; There's Nothing To Laugh At, As I Can See, / If You'd Been Stung By A Bumble-Bee . . . and, of course, a late-comer but a stayer: Joyce Kilmer's Trees. The science of reciting well had a name, it was called Elocution, my late Cousin Tootsie taught Elocution, and when this became unfashionable, she re-emerged as a Speech Therapist. Good one, too. Nowadays kids are not subjected to this harsh discipline, and, instead of reciting long poems, they drink, dope, smash windows, shoot out lights, wreck cars, knock up their eleven year old girlfriends, and set fire to churches. Progress, this is called. Progress.

Very well, Hildegarde was from Bingen, she was a nun, a physician, and a visionary. Shepard tells us that:

Hildegarde believed that not the horn alone of the unicorn but the whole animal was medicinal; under its horn, she says, it has a piece of metal as transparent as glass in which a man may see his face; she tells how to make an unguent of the yolks of eggs and powdered unicorn's liver, which . . . is a sovereign cure for leprosy—"unless the leper happens to be one whom Death is determined to have or else one whom God will not allow to be cured. [ . . . . ] A belt made from unicorn's skin, she says, will preserve one from fevers, and boots of the same material assure one of sound legs and immunity from plague. All this is good to know, and it comes from one who, as head of a large religious house, had the health of a whole community in her keeping.

As to where Mother Superior got her unicorn parts from, I am sure I do not know. Certainly it is easy to laugh and sneer. Once I saw a reproduction from an illuminated Ms which St. Hildegarde had either painted herself or directed a painter to execute; it showed things which I can best, though inadequately, describe as turrets, or castellations; I brought and showed it to an ophthamologist, asked what he thought. He said that he thought he agreed with the caption. "Probably they are migraine constructs. Why do you ask?" I said, because from time to time my eyes would become sun-dazzled by flashes of light and that things very much like the ones in St. Hildy's Ms would wiggle within them. Dr What examined my eyes fore and aft. "It is my diagnosis, "he said, thoughtfully, "that you suffer from migraine, fortunately a mild form. Take the pills I'm going to prescribe, as directed." I did, they worked, the label says they consist of caffeine and phenobarbital and ergot: if they also, and surreptitiously, contain unicorn, well, I wouldn't be surprised.

When "a whole unicorn's horn [was] worth six or seven thousand ducats" there was a temptation to get one's money back before the interest mounted too high; anyone who has seen, even today, people casually swapping pills, will acknowledge a fairly widespread belief that what is good for one thing may likely be good for another; an old-time country pharmacist told me of the woman who used to come in once a year to ask for "A quarter's worth of mixed pills for my children." Ought to be no surprise, then, to learn that unicorn's horn, also known as licorn or alicorn, "had an important place in the materia medica . . . prescribed as a cure for all poisons, for fever, for bites of mad dogs and scorpions, for falling sickness, worms, fluxes, loss of memory, the plague, and prolongation of youth. Charlatans were even known to assert that it could raise the dead." Absurd? Take a look at the other items included in the medieval materia medica—with the possible exception of worms, nothing was available which was of any use, really, for any of the ailments mentioned. But this doesn't mean that they were useless. (Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am vast, I contain multitudes.) A 19th C. cartoon by the great Daumier shows a sick man with a physician on each side. Says the homeopath, "My patients die of the disease." Says the allopath, "My patients die of the medicine." Says the patient, "A moi c' est égal, it's all the same to me." Sometimes, of course, the patients recovered; this was sometimes due to a sound constitution, a weak form of infection, or factors unknown; sometimes it was due to an absence of fear, itself one of the great killers. And if "the medicine," no matter what it contained, provided confidence, confidence would drive away fear. Often.

Well, well, very well, then. Here we have unicorn's horn. But, there being, really, I am afraid, no such actual thing as a unicorn—what were all those people taking, who thought they were taking unicorn's horn (alicorn, licorn?) What were they applying to the food and drink on those lavish tables? Bezoar-stone, snake' s-tongue, terra sigilata, eagle-stone, snake-stone, toad-stone, cerastes, vulture's and raven's claw, vulture's claw, rhino horn, walrus tusks, stalactites, stalagmites, powdered stag's horn, tongue-stone, burnt horn, whalebone, limestone, fossils . . . This list may pose as many questions as it answers. Bezoar-stone, for example, is a concretion which may be found in the tummies of turtles and of serpents as well as in those of cattle and goats. In my "Adventure in Unhistory, An Abundance of Dragons" (IASFM, July 6,1981), I have attempted to connect it with the so-called treasure-hoards of precious stones guarded by the Great Worm. Snake's tongue may have been, indeed, snake's tongue; similia similibus curantur, like cures like, the poisonous tongue of a snake was—obviously—good against poison; the fact that the venom of a venomous snake is not distilled through its tongue was not fully realized. Tongue-stone was "really the petrified tooth of a shark;" Shepard doesn't say which shark; Fred, maybe. Terra sigilata means "sealed earth." The earth was taken from a place in the island of Lemnos for well over 2,000 years, stamped with whatsoever signs, and used for cups, as well as being eaten. One of the signs was the sign of the unicorn. Perhaps the consumption of the terra sigilata may be associated with the phenomena variously called pica, geophagy, or clay eating; Shepard doesn't say; I say. Also the earth was certainly one of the "native earths," largely (perhaps) aluminum silicate, used in modern times for stomach ailments such as ileitis. Eagle-stone is also a concretion (look up "concretion"); old John D. Rockefeller used to carry one in his pocket to keep off rheumatism, and, possibly, competition and trust-busting; for the last 40-odd years of his life he lived on milk, poor-rich guy, his stomach being able to hold nothing stronger—you think it's a cinch, being the richest man in the world?—popular belief says it was mother's milk, skeptics say it was merely that of mother goats. Maybe he should have tried terra sigilata, or one of its successors.

Toad-stones, despite Shakespeare's assurance that "the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in its head," were actually "the fossilized teeth of the stingray."—And so on. As for fossils, if, as often, these were fossilized bones, the calcium content might well have been useful to the consumer.

However. When we read of the alicorns being some-limes seven feet long, and sometimes decorated with silver and with gold, clearly we are not dealing with some nugget extracted from the belly of a goat, nor with a fossilized fish-tooth, a walrus tusk, or a concretion able to fit into a pocket . . . even a millionaire's pocket. Nor was it a cerastes, or viper's horn . . . what? A horned snake? Isn't this about as fabulous as a horned (as distinct from a horny) jack-ass? Let us to Webster's Collegiate (I use no other), what does it say, it says

ce-ras' tēs [L. a horned serpent, fr. Gr. kerastēs, horned, fr keras, horn] A venomous viper . . . of the Near East, having a horny process over each eye;—hence often called horned viper.

Well, I snum. Whether or not Herodotus snummed, I can't say, but he referred to "horned asses," too . . . and, clearly, his creatures were not rhino. What were they? Don't you wish you knew? Stick around. Rome wasn't built in a day. Andrea Bacci . . . says that in his time a pound of powdered alicorn was commonly sold in Florence for 1,536 crowns, the worth of a pound of gold at the time being 148 crowns. More than they pay me. Of course, I'm not working. I'm just writing. ("Are you working these days, Avram? Or just writing?") And if you knew how many years I have been accumulating these data, you would shake your heads in shame at the mere trifle you have paid to read it. Onward.

The learned Mr. Robert Silverberg, in his monumental Prester John, gives us the following report:

Byzantine writers testify to the continuing power of Axumite Ethiopia in the 5th and 6th centuries. Ethiopian ambassadors were in attendance at the courts of Constantinople, Persia, India, and Ceylon. Ethiopian caravans spanned the desert route to Egypt and went up from Yemen across Arabia to Mesopotamia; Ethiopian vessels were active in the Red Sea. Kosmas Indicopleustes, who visited Ethiopia about 525, set down a vivid account of the great expeditions of traders sent from the Axumite capital every other year to the Ethiopian interior to bargain for gold, offering the primitive natives salt, iron, and cattle in return. Kosmas also told of the king's palace at Axum, with four great towers topped by four statues of unicorns, and marvelled at the tame elephants and giraffes in the palace courtyard.

Were these the unicorns of Ctesias, from far-off India? If the ambassadors of Axumite Ethiopia went as far as Ceylon, a commerce with India would not be out of the question;—or, on the other hand, were these unicorns the "horned asses" mentioned by Herodotus as being "in the eastern side of Libya, where the wanderers [i.e. nomads] live"? The name of the modern nation of Libya is a fairly recent borrowing of the ancient Greek term which included most of cisequatorial Africa aside from Egypt. Perhaps we shall find out. Perhaps not. Who knows what we shall find.

"I saw 32 unicorns there. This is an amazingly fierce creature, in every way similar to a fine horse, except that it has a stag's head, feet like an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a black horn on its forehead, six or seven feet long, which generally hangs down like a turkey-cock's comb. When it wishes to fight or use it in any other way, it raises it stiff and straight. I saw one of them in the company of several other wild animals, purifying a fountain with its horn. [ . . . ] The unicorn purified the water of pools and springs from any dirt or poison in them, so that these various animals could drink in safety after it."

Who saw? One Reverend Father François Rabelais, M.D., is our source here, in his book Gargantua and Pantagruel (Penguin, 1955). As old Rabelais was a funny fellow, it is likely that he is funning here; despite the quotations from Solinus and "the pilgrim John of Herse." There is always more in a work of art than its creator intended, says Marianne Thalmann; and it is certain that in the reference to the "horn . . . which generally hangs down like a turkey-cock's comb . . . [and sometimes is raised] stiff and straight" there is more intended than the good father's religious superiors intended he should intend; eh, Mr. Wong, Mr. Ong, Mr. Dong?

And surely it is now time to state that in the whole legend of the unicorn and the virgin (recall that it is a small v, and that we are dealing merely with a popular legend and not with any article of religious belief) there is scarcely a trace of mysticism, that the allegory or metaphor is purely, I would not wish to say "impurely," a phallic one; that the horn which sometimes hangs down and sometimes rises stiffly erect is the same phallus which every male mammal has—or, for that matter, largely (ho ho) every male vertebrate—that, whether or not Ovid was correct in stating, "after coitus all animals are sad," it is certainly correct that after coitus all phalluses are flaccid. The whole thing was merely a tolerable joke which got, so to speak, out of hand; scarcely did one know it, before it had entered the realm of metaphor and art. The savage creature persuaded to lay its fierce-horned head in the virgin's (maiden's) lap, after which it fell asleep and was easily captured—what else is this but that which everyone knows as a commonplace? the pricking of the sleep-thorn? Samson shorn in the arms of Delilah as he slept? Sisera, sleeping, slain by Jael? Need we go on? Not really.

In Europe (merely to sum up) the horned unicorn yields to the charms of sex. In Asia the unicorn's horn gives capacity to prolong sex. To this day in southern Italy, corno, or "horn," refers to the penis, to the horn-shaped charm so puissant against all magic, and to magic—in its malign form—itself. I've said it once, and once again and no more say it I will: horn = horny.

Rapidly to ascend to a higher sphere, have I not hinted that there may have been Biblical elements in the legend of the unicorn? I have. There are verses. God hath brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn, Num. 23:22 (a marginal note—wild oxx). The them/he in question seems to be Jacob/Israel. Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilst thou trust him because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn? Job, 39:9-12. These are among the great many rhetorical questions in the great Book of Job. And, to swing back to both Ctesias and Herodotus, earlier in the 39th Chapter of Job we find this: Who hath sent out the wild ass free? or who hath loosed the bands of the wild ass? Whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. However . . .

Let us recollect that the Bible was not originally issued in English, and take note that every Biblical use of unicorn is in the Old Testament, which came out, the first time around, in Hebrew. The world used was re' em, pronounced rem, and Bible scholars seem to agree that it really means "wild ox;" so say the Jewish translations, and so says a marginal note in the (Nelson) edition of the King James, or Protestant, version from which I have quoted. Other verses, which I have not quoted, seem to emphasize the horn—except sometimes, sigh, it is horns. Nowhere does the Bible indicate that this beast has only one horn. The implication must have entered via the Latin and the Greek translations, both of which had been revised after the first one(s); it is not possible for me, writing with the valor of ignorance, to say at which date implication of single-hornedness entered the texts—certainly, though, after the time of Ctesias or Herodotus. I conjecture visions of a translation committee wondering what re' em is, considering that it was anyway a horned animal living in the wilderness and not domesticable, and deciding that it might be the unicorn.

And that's as far as I go.

As for the moon, the fancied resemblance of the crescent moon to horns enters the symbolism of mankind earlier than we are able to trace; as for the pollution or poisoning caused by nocturnal demons, we have here, I think, a conflation of nightmares and wet dreams with the same half-awareness of the origin of a major plague which has given us the word malaria: mal aria, bad air. Webster's Collegiate again,

archaic: air infected with a noxious substance capable of causing disease.

As I have expressed my simple but certain conviction that "horny" = "horn," and that "horn" = "horny," it will come not as a shock when I state further that behind the "poisons of the night" may well lie the so-called "nocturnal pollution" which consists of, simply, the phenomena well-known to every man and boy under the common term of "wet dream"—that is, a dream of sexual intercourse which results in an emission of semen. As for water, there was the obvious fact that water sometimes, often, was polluted (and what do I mean, "was"?), plus the not so obvious fact of stagnant water harboring mosquitoes which sometimes spread disease.

Let me attempt my reconstruction, then. The crescent moon rises and sets over a body of water, that is, it dips its horn in it. By day time many of the mosquitoes have gone back to their ponds and marshes, therefore the day is healthier than the night, that is, the dipping of the horn has purified the water. All horns are powerful, the rarer they are the more powerful they are, that of the unicorn is the rarest and thus the most powerful, so if you dip the unicorn's horn in water it will purify the water. Pollution is poison, and so the unicorn's horn will both prevent and cure poisoning.


Many items, we have seen, were passed as unicorn (licorn, alicorn), but the one which became recognized as unicorn's horn, the most obvious and excellent, was the long, straight, spirally one. There was nothing else really like it, it was obviously . . . well, whatever it was . . . and, by Jove! It looked like it damned well ought to be the horn of the unicorn. —And, after it had been so depicted in art long enough, the matter came to admit of no doubt. Until.

Until someone began to do a little book-keeping. The unicorn, it was generally accepted, lived in the south and the south-east. Hot countries. Yes? Yes. So . . . how come . . . how come that all the best—and, in fact, all the spirally—horns—came from the north? This question was long in being asked and was long in being answered; when the answer finally came, sometime in the 1600s, the effect was devastating: "The unicorn's horn is the tooth of a fish which lives in the great northern ocean!" —or, in modern terms, it is the tusk of the narwhal or narwhale. Back to Webster's Collegiate:

tusk . . . 1. an elongated greatly enlarged tooth that projects when the mouth is closed and serves for digging food or as a weapon . . .


nar-whal also nar-wal . . . or nar-whale . . . an arctic cetacean (Monodon monoceros) about 20 feet long with the male having a long twisted ivory tusk of commercial value.

Only, any longer, not that damned valuable! For, you see, it was not the innate value of the article which gave it its value; it was the belief that the article came from the magical land-animal which gave it its value; if it was not from the unicorn then it had no more value than if it had come from, say, the hippo. Ivory, although valuable, was, after all, merely valuable as ivory. The elephant could cure nothing, neither could the hippo, neither could the walrus, and so, certainly, neither could this damned Norwegian dolphin . . . or whatever it was . . . And after that, it was down-hill all the way.

The narwhale is born with the roots for two tusks, but only one of them grows out? Who cares. There is an antelope called the oryx with a long spiral horn, or horns, and sometimes one breaks off, or if viewed in profile the two look like one single horn? Who cares. It is possible to transplant the horn-buds of a bull-calf to the middle of its forehead so that it will have one centrally-located horn? Who cares. If the puissant horn was not in fact grown upon the brow of a classy-looking horse-like creature in a remote wilderness and taken after its capture by a virgin—if it was merely a damned fish-tooth washed upon a barren strand somewhere in Scandinavia . . . why . . . then . . . the hell with it.

Who cares.


After that, all the work of scientific skepticism and empiric investigation was largely beside the point. After that, the merchants of Venice, who had made many a killing in unicorn horn, after that, after asking the familiar question of What news on the Rialto?—the Venetian commercial district—did not bother to quote unicorn. Probably they quoted, instead, spaghetti. Which, after all, if not as romantic, is certainly a lot tastier.

Please pass the grated cheese.

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