Wednesday, 21 October 2015

the hunting of the snark

First sighted and described through second- or third-hand accounts in the third century BC, the unicorn—or monoceros was for centuries embellished with the rich lore of mythology, though this legendary creature had no truck with myths and heroes as it was believed to be very much part of the animal kingdom, though cryptic and elusive. The creature even figured, in its classic form, in the ancient iconography of India, whence the original came. Being unable to observe the shy creature in its natural habitat and unable to produce a specimen, big-fish stories circulated of the fierce and violent steed, who might only be tamed in the presence of a virgin—apparently also a a rare beast that couldn’t just be left in some forest as bait, what with dragons to be appeased.

Received Arabic advanced pharmacology further articulated the healing, anti-venom potency of its horn—the ivory and medicine derived from it is called alicorn, but most medieval had to settle for the horn in powdered form—for which they’d pay handsomely. The possibility of being drugged while wined and dined by potential rivals was a very real fear for the nobility—which such murderous intent not relegated to the underclasses until modern times. And up until the time artist Albrech Dürer was able to issue thousands of copies of his prints, people in Europe seemed willing to accept the traditional accounts of encounters with what to modern ears becomes instantly a rhinoceros and not some lithesome horse with a horn. Whether the public grew sceptical, especially with the increasing conflation with Christianity as an excuse for the inability to deliver evidence of an actual unicorn, or whether it had already been poached to extinction, I cannot say, but some enterprising Dane saw an opportunity and went whaling off the coasts of distant Greenland, hunting an even more unlikely creature, the narwal, and passing of its spiral tusk as the genuine article. Those with means paid even greater amounts for prized exemplars of horn. Eventually this ruse was revealed by a Danish physician after having been allowed to continue for decades, however, the public fascination was not diminished but rather encouraged by this confirmation. There was a strong belief among natural scientists that all terrestrial and aquatic animals had counterparts, like the behemoth and the leviathan or landlubbing people and merfolk. Acknowledging that there was such an incredible fish to be found only made people more convinced that the unicorn was still out there to be found.