All this fuss with maidens, gardens, hunting. Why seek the unicorn at all? Why go to all the trouble? Surely something else would be tastier and less dangerous? Wouldn’t the hart make just as pretty of a mount?
Ah, but the fleet-footed hart doesn’t have what the unicorn’s got–the magic to purify (no wonder it’s attracted to the maiden’s purity). And all that magic lives in the horn.
You see, there was a problem for people in the upper echelons of medieval society. That problem was poisoning. I’ve often wondered how much of that came from food poisoning due to lack of sanitation in the kitchen, but nonetheless, popping off whoever was in the way of what you wanted (land, riches, a pretty girl) could be done easily enough by slipping something into that unfortunate fellow’s drink.
With everyone living in close proximity and most meals still being a public affair, with the noble family presiding at the raised dais at the end of the hall, anyone could have done it! No Sherlock Holmes to call for discovering who was culpable for the dastardly deed. No life insurance. So traditions sprung up to mitigate risk. The traditional toast at the beginning of a meal was once a more rowdy affair, where drink from each cup upon impact would slosh into the other. If you were planning to poison someone at the table, you would be quite reticent to lift your cup for sloshing! In essence, it was a show of trust to toast one another and make that hearty clink.
But there was another method in circulation. What if the very vessel from which you drank was able to purify any contents–even the most vilest of poisons? Could that be possible? People of the Middle Ages thought so. And what might be the medium for such a powerful cup? Why, the horn of a unicorn, of course!
And here we must return to the ancient story about unicorns to learn why. Part of the legend is that every night, the serpent of evil slips into rivers and lakes and poisons the water. All the animals of the forest must wait until dawn, when the unicorn comes to the banks and dips its horn into the water. Instantly, all the vile venom is repelled and the water is safe once again for the animals to drink. This is relayed in “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series, where the animals are waiting by a fountain for the unicorn to purify the stream with its magical horn.
If you were a nobleman in fear of poisoning, you’d want a piece of that magic too! No one seemed to wonder if the power of the horn worked in life as well as death, for an industry sprung up over the procurement and sale of unicorn horns for this elite and often spendy market. Every inch was money to be made.
Ah, but you say, where would such horns have come from for this sale? Surely there was no medieval unicorn farms to raise them. And here we intersect another interesting piece of medieval legend–the copying theory. It was believed that for every creature on land, there was a counterpart that lived in the sea. Goats had their fish-tailed cousin the Capricorn. Even people had their version–the mermaid. If a unicorn on land existed, then a unicorn of the sea must also exist. And interestingly enough, a sea unicorn does exist. It just doesn’t look that much like a unicorn.
The narwhal is quite a natural curiosity, with its whale body and enormously long fighting “tooth” off the prow of its face. Occasionally, narwhal tusks will wash to shore, and these immediately found their way onto the lucrative unicorn horn market. Every “unicorn horn” object of medieval work can be traced to the narwhal. Maybe those dashing men of the castle would have had better luck setting out to sea than traipsing through the woods in search of the precious horn. But then we would have missed all the drama with the maidens in the garden–and then where would our story be?