The Natural History of the Unicorn

The following article is taken from the book Uncle John's Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader.

Today we know that there's no such thing as unicorns. But back in the 1500s, they were sort of a respectable version of Bigfoot. Although only a few people had ever "seen" them, it was widely believed that they existed. So when Topsell's Historie of Four Foot Beasties, the first illustrated natural history in English, was published in 1607, unicorns were included. Here are some excerpts from the original version of the book. Remember, as you read, that these descriptions were considered science, not fantasy.


* "We will now relate the true history of the horn of the unicorn. The horn grows out of the forehead between the eyelids. It is neither light nor hollow, nor yet smooth like other horns, but hard as iron, rough as a file. It is wreathed about with divers spires. It is sharper than any dart, and it is straight and not crooked, and everywhere black except at the point."

* "The horn of the unicorn has a wonderful power of dissolving and expelling all venom or poison. If a unicorn puts his horn into water from which any venomous beast has drunk, the horn drives away poison, so that the unicorn can drink without harm. It is said that the horn being put on the tables of kings and set among their junkets and banquets reveals any venom if there be any such therein, by a certain sweat which comes over the horn."

* "The horn of a unicorn being beaten and boiled in wine has a wonderful effect in making the teeth white or clear. And thus much shall suffice for the medicines and virtues arising from the unicorn."


* "Unicorns are very swift. They keep for the most part in the deserts and live solitary in the tops of mountains. There is nothing more horrible than the voice or braying of the unicorn, for his voice is strained above measure."

* "The unicorn fights with both the mouth and his heels, with the mouth biting like a lion's and the heels kicking like a horse's. He is a beast of untamable nature. He fears not iron nor any iron instrument."

* "What is most strange of all other is that he fights with his own kind (yea, even with females unto death, except when he burns in lust for procreation), but unto stranger-beasts, with whom he has no affinity in nature, he is more sociable and familiar, delighting in their company when they come willingly unto him, never rising against them, but proud of their dependence and retinue, keeps with them all quarters of leagues and truce."

* "With the female, when once his flesh is tickled with lust, he grows tame, gregarious, and loving, and so continues till she is filled and great with young, and then returns to his former hostility."


* "The unicorn is an enemy to the lion, wherefore, as soon as ever a lion sees a unicorn, he runs to a tree for succor, so that, when the unicorn makes force at him, he may not only avoid his horn but also destroy the unicorn, for, in the swiftness of his course, the unicorn runs against the tree wherein his sharp horn sticks fast."

* "Then, when the lion sees the unicorn fastened by his horn, he falls upon him and kills him."


* "It is said that unicorns above all creatures do reverence virgins and young maids, and that many times at the sight of them, unicorns grow tame, and come and sleep beside them, for there is in their nature a certain savor by which the unicorns are allured and delighted."

* "The Indian and the Ethiopian hunters are said to use a stratagem to take the beast. They take a goodly strong and beautiful young man, whom they dress in the apparel of a woman, besetting him with divers odiferous flowers and spices."

* "The man so adorned, they set him in the mountains or the woods where the unicorn hunts, so as the wind may carry the savor to the beast, and in the mean season, the other hunters hide themselves."

* "Deceived by the outward shape of a woman and the sweet smells, the unicorn comes unto the young man without fear and suffers his head to be wrapped and covered within his large sleeves, never stirring but lying still and asleep, as in his most acceptable repose."

* "Then when the hunters by the sign of the young man perceive the unicorn fast and secure, they come upon him and by force cut off his horn and send him away alive."


Why was Edward Topsell so sure that unicorns roamed the earth? A matter of faith. Although he'd never seen a unicorn, Topsell believed that to doubt its existence was to deny the very existence of God:

* "That there is such a beast Scripture itself witnesses, for David thus speaks in Psalm 92: 'My horn shall be lifted up like the horn of a unicorn.'"

* "All divines that that have ever written have not only concluded that there is a unicorn, but also affirm the similitude between the kingdom of David and the horn of the unicorn, for as the horn of the unicorn is wholesome to all beasts and creatures, so should the kingdom of David be in the generation of Christ."

* "Do we think that David would compare the virtue of his kingdom and the powerful redemption of the world unto a thing that is not or is uncertain and fantastical? Likewise, in many other places of Scripture, we will have to traduce God, Himself, if there is no unicorn in the world."

(Image credit: Mike Jacobsen)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader. This special edition book covers the three "lost" Bathroom Readers - Uncle John's 5th, 6th and 7th book all in one. The huge (and hugely entertaining) volume covers neat stories like the Strange Fate of the Dodo Bird, the Secrets of Mona Lisa, and more ...

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute 

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