Originally published as Alchemy, Innocence and Transformation – The Horn of the Unicorn by Sorita d’Este in SILKMILK, Jan 2010.
If we look to the Orient, the unicorn was perceived as being one of the four sacred animals there, associated with the element of Earth. It is more brightly hued than its occidental counterpart, with its colours being red, yellow, blue, white and black, or in other words the primary colours and the twin poles of light and dark. The oriental unicorn is a gentle beast, representing the noble qualities with its bell-like voice and its pacifistic non-violent approach to all life. These unicorns are only seen when the ruler is wise and benevolent, reflecting the association between a good ruler and the land they rule.
Back to the horn of the unicorn, this was famous for its credited magical powers, making it highly prized. The alleged powers of unicorn horn to neutralise any poison, cure diseases, epilepsy, plague and rabies ensured a profitable trade in such substitutes as narwhale horn, walrus tusk and rhinoceros horn. In the seventeenth century, Sir Nathaniel Bacon of Stiffkey went as far as directing which daughter would have custody of the unicorn horn in his will, though directing that all his family should have access to it for its healing powers.
The Greek physician Ctesias wrote in Book 25 of his work Indica in 398 BCE that,
“You cannot catch them alive. The flesh of this animal is so bitter that it is inedible; it is hunted for its horn and ankle bone.”
Ctesias may be the source for the trade-in healing unicorn horn, as he also wrote in the same work on the virtues of the horn and its protective abilities against poisons and sickness. Writing around a century later the Greek official Megasthenes commented on the spiral rings on the horn of the unicorn in his work India, setting the pattern for narwhale horn with its left-hand spiral to be the surrogate for unicorn horn. Between these two ancient authors came the reign of Alexander the Great, whose short, but highly influential life spanned the period 356-323 BCE. Alexander’s auspicious birth was on the same day that the Temple of Artemis of Ephesus was burned down, and it
was later said that this happened because the lunar Artemis was away overseeing his birth in her role as a kourotrophos (birth goddess). Alexander’s influence was to bring together the different civilizations of the world, from India to Egypt, Greece to Persia. The result of
this was the cross-fertilization of concepts regarding ideas including those such as alchemy and unicorns.
In her classic work Physica, the Christian mystic Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote of a little piece of metal or glass found at the base of the unicorn horn. This subsequently became lapis monoceros (unicorn stone), which was described as a red stone found at the base of a unicorn’s horn. Lapis Monoceros was credited not only with all the powers attributed to unicorn horn but also with the power of projection (i.e. transmutation of base metals to gold) associated with the philosopher’s stone, bringing us back to the lunar unicorn of alchemy.