Martin Luther and the Unicorn Horn

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Melchior Adam, The Life and Death of Dr. Martin Luther (London, 1643), 109.

Martin Luther, the leading figure of the Protestant Reformation, spent his last three days on earth working. He delivered a sermon that in part encouraged Jews to convert to Christianity or be expelled from German lands. The following day he traveled to negotiate for the protection of his family’s copper trade.  Luther fell ill the day after the negotiations were completed and he continued to feel poorly through the day and evening. According to the sixteenth century German historian Melchior Adam, that “after supper, when he [Luther] went aside to pray, as was his custome, the paine in his breast began to increase: whereupon by the advice of some there present, he tooke a little Vnicornes horne in wine.” Read more

Alicorn

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Sea Unicorns from The History of Barados, St. Christophers, Mevis, St Vincents, Antego, Martinico, Monserrat, and the rest of the Caribby-Islands (London, 1666).

One of the first pieces of Anglo-American exploration literature to be translated and circulated to a wider European audience was Dionyse Settle’s 1577 account about Martin Frobisher’s second voyage entitled A true reporte of the last voyage…by Capteine Frobisher. The account was typical of others in the period.  It narrated the path of the ship, described the natural resources found in northern North America, and highlighted English encounters with Native Americans in both trade and war.  Unremarkably for the period, Settle encountered the physical remains of a sea unicorn.  Settle described seeing two shorelines, Asia in the east and America in the west.  On the western shore of America, the men of the Frobisher expedition “found a dead fishe floating, whiche in his nose a horne streight & torquet, of lengthe two yeardes lacking two inches, being broken in the top…we supposed it to be the Sea Unicorne.” The account of this event was casually sandwiched between a straightforward description of icebergs, and an encounter with Native Americans. Read more

The Unicorn in the Physiologus and Bestiaries

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A unicorn being killed in the lap of a virgin. Harley MS 3244, Bestiary, Unicorn, 1236-1250. British Library.

The medieval Physiologus also discussed the unicorn thereby contributing to the Christian context of unicorns.  The Physiologus was widely known in the middle ages, and according to Rudiger Robert Beer “enjoyed a circulation second only to that of the Bible.” The Physiologus was a collection of stories about animals, plants, and minerals originating in Indian, Hebrew, and Egyptian legends.  They were passed into Greek and Roman literature, folklore, and art and eventually written down in Alexandria, Egypt sometime in the early Christian era by an anonymous author (100 to 300 AD).  The author fused the ancient tradition of using moral allegories about nature with Christianity, thereby reflecting the teachings of the Apostle Paul in Romans when he said, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). The analogic structure of nature and divinely created symbols described in the Physiologus provided the Christian world with the tools to bridge the visible and the invisible worlds. The unicorn was one such symbol. Read more

Unicorns in the Bible

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Numbers 23:22-23 from the Geneva Bible (1560)

The unicorn existed in the ancient world as well as appeared in the unchallengeable Christian text, the Bible.  Various editions of the English Bible over the centuries described unicorns including the  Wycliffe (1383), Tyndale (1526), Coverdale/Great Bible (1535), Matthew (1537) Bishop’s (1568), Geneva (1587), and the King James (1611) Bibles.

The unicorn appeared in these editions probably due to an issue of translation.  The Hebrew Old Testament described an animal most likely to be a wild ox or an oryx, and the scribes who translated the Hebrew into Greek called it monokeros (mono-one, kerato-horn, or, monceras).  When the Bible was translated from Greek into Latin, the word became unicorn (uni-one, cornu-horn). Read more