Vikings Pedal Narwhal Tusks as Unicorn Horns

It can be confusing to us now how people could accept anything coming from a narwhal as belonging to a unicorn. The mythological unicorn was meant to be a beautiful horse, with a single horn out of the middle of its head. Meanwhile, the very real narwhal is a toothed whale, growing up to 5.5 meters long. The males of the species have a large swordlike, spiral tusk, which is actually an extended tooth. [ref] [/ref]

Yet people paid large sums of money for the tusk of the narwhal thinking they were buying the horn of a unicorn. However, the unicorn was thought to come from a land far away from Europe, and the narwhal certainly did come from a place difficult for most Europeans to reach.

On left, White Whale (beluga) and a Narwhal” illustration from “British Mammals” by A. Thorburn, 1920. On right, Unicorn, oil on oak panel, by Maerten De Vos (1532-1603)

The narwhale dwells in arctic waters, in northern Greenland, Canada and Russia, [ref] [/ref]. These arctic waters would be beyond the reach of most sea going vessels. However, the Vikings did fish in these waters, and would catch narwhals themselves and would also trade with Indigenous populations in the far north for tusks. [ref] [/ref] The tusks were then traded through the Vikings’ vast network throughout Europe as unicorn horn.

It would be enough, if the supposed unicorn horns were viewed solely as beautiful objects. But the unicorn horn had another purpose.

The belief that the unicorn horn could cure poisons dated back to the earliest descriptions of Unicorns in ancient Greece where Cestius wrote “The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs.” [ref] excerpt of Ctesias in The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shephard 1930  [/ref] This wasn’t just a superstition; powered unicorn horn was used by apothecaries for any number of healing potions. Though the actual source of the powered unicorn horn could vary, and it might have been ground walrus ivory, narwhale tusk or rhinoceros horn, making at least one French Doctor, Pierre Martin La Martinière (1634-1690) wonder exactly which type of unicorn his horns were actually coming from. [ref] / [/ref]

Even Martin Luther, a major figure in the protestant reformation, took powered unicorn horn when he experienced chest pains in 1546. [ref] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World p427 [/ref] Count Albrecht who Luther was staying with, grated some off the end of the horn (which was actually a narwhal tusk), into wine for the ailing Luther. It didn’t work in Luther’s case however, as he died the next day.


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