In 1897, C.J S. Thompson published The mystery and romance of alchemy and pharmacy, and although it has long been out of print, you can access it in several digital formats online at Archive.org here.
In his discussion of what was found in ancient pharmacies, he discusses that most rare and costly medicine, the horn of the unicorn. He quotes Pierre Pomet’s A Compleat History of Druggs (1712), “the unicorn is an animal which our naturalists describe under the figure of a horse, having in the middle of his head a spiral horn of two or three feet long, but we know not the real truth of this matter to this day.” Since unicorn horn was especially effective against poisons, ” many great persons are fond of it, so that it has been valued at its weight in gold “.
He also refers to a treatise on the unicorn by Ambrose Paraens (about whom I can find nothing). He says that Paraens claims that in the Arabian deserts he found wild asses with a single horn. Thompson refers to old writers agreeing that a one-horned animal existed, “but whether it was a goat, or an ox, or a hart, or an ass, no one could say.” What mattered was that there was horn, but it did not matter from what animal it was obtained. Thompson almost suggests that the horn had a placebo effect: if you believe in it, it will work.
The unicorn’s horn
Thompson shares the general belief that most “unicorn horn” actually came from the narwhale, or “sea unicorn” (as I have recounted here). He mentions two special unicorn horns.
One, valued at 20,000 pounds sterling (and in those days, a pound was worth something) was presented to the King of France, and another, presented to Charles I of England, “was seven feet long, weighed thirteen pounds, and was in the shape of a wax candle.”
Medicinal uses of unicorn horn
According to Thompson, unicorn horn was prescribed to neutralize any kind of poison, cure plague and fevers, and heal the bite of a snake or of a mad dog. Unicorn horn was taken as a cordial, and a jelly was made of it.
A treatment with unicorn horn
Sir Henry Winton, British ambassador to France, was injured in 1596. Thompson quotes old records as saying that Winton “was physicked with confectio alcarmas, which was composed of musk, amber, gold, pearl, and unicorn’s horn, and with pigeons applied to his side, and all other means that art could devise sufficient to expel the strongest poison, and he be not bewitcht withall “.
The unicorns of Mecca
Thompson refers to and summarizes the claim of Ludovico di Varthema (whom he refers to by the Latin form of his name, Ludovicus Vertomanus), the first European to enter the holy cities of Islam, whose account of his travels is generally considered reliable. His story of seeing two unicorns in Mecca is so odd that I am concluding with it, in its entirety. It comes from The travels of Ludovico di Varthema in Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and Arabia Felix, in Persia, India, and Ethiopia, A.D. 1503 to 1508, and you can read the complete book (again from Archive.org) here.
Chapter concerning the unicorns in the Temple of Mecca, not very common in other places
In another part of the said temple is an enclosed place in which there are two live unicorns, and these are shown as very remarkable objects, which they certainly are. I will tell you how they are made. The elder is formed like a colt of thirty months old, and he has a horn in the forehead, which horn is about three braccia in length.
The other unicorn is like a colt of one year old, and he has a horn of about four palmi long. The color of the said animal resembles that of a dark bay horse, and his head resembles that of a stag ; his neck is not very long, and he has some thin and short hair which hangs on one side ; his legs are slender and lean like those of a goat ; the foot is a little cloven in the fore part, and long and goat-like, and there are some hairs on the hind part of the said legs.
Truly this monster must be a very fierce and solitary animal. These two animals were presented to the Sultan of Mecca as the finest things that could be found in the world at the present day, and as the richest treasure ever sent by a king of Ethiopia, that is, by a Moorish king. He made this present in order to secure an alliance with the said Sultan of Mecca.
You can find an index to all my stories of hunting unicorns, “The Joys of Chasing Unicorns,” here.