A unicorn horn, also known as an alicorn, is an object of legend whose reality was accepted in Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Many antidote virtues and healing powers have been attributed to the unicorn horn. The existence of healing properties contained within the unicorn horn has been believed since the 13th century. It was due to these beliefs that the unicorn horn became one of the most expensive remedies during the Renaissance. This justified its use in the royal courts.
Medicinal Uses Throughout History
In 1651 James Primrose’s noted in his text: ‘It can scarce be said, whether to the Bezaar stone, or to the Unicorns horn the common people attributes greater virtues, for those are thought to be the prime Antidotes of all’. The horn of a unicorn in particular was often described as being much more than just a simple antidote. With its use it offered renewed strength and vigour, and had the ability to remove any contagion from the body including poisons. The majority of practitioners advised that the horn be ground down into a powder, mixed with water, and drunk. It is unknown if the powdered horn was solely responsible for the cure. It could have also been just one ingredient within a much more complex antidote.
In his book Complete Herbal, Nicholas Culpeper suggested that for a cordial powder, ‘take of Hart’s-horn, Unicorn’s horn, Pearls, Ivory, of each six grains beat them into a fine powder’. The exotic and expensive nature of the ingredients listed here suggests that this cure was likely to have been reserved for the wealthy elite. These patrons could have purchased a small amount of the powder from an apothecary when necessary, or, due to its rarity and power, a minority may have owned this curiosity as a symbol of their wealth and status.
The horn’s purification properties were eventually put to the test in Ambroise Paré’s book, Discourse on unicorn – which marked the beginnings of the experimental method.
Seen as one of the most valuable assets that a king could possess, unicorn horns were exchanged and could be purchased at apothecaries as universal antidotes until the 18th century
Other uses for unicorn horns included being displayed in cabinets of curiosities. The horns were used to create sceptres and other royal objects, such as the “unicorn throne” of the Danish kings, the sceptre and imperial crown of the Austrian Empire, and the scabbard and the hilt of the sword of Charles the Bold.
Belief in the power of the unicorn’s horn and its origins persisted from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, when the true source, the narwhal, was discovered. This marine mammal is the true bearer of the “unicorn horn”, actually an extended tooth found in the mouth of males and some females.