Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Unicorns and Other Wild Beasts

"THE name of Monoceros, that among the Latines sounds so much, as a one-horned beast, agrees to many creatures; but in a strict sense, is retained to one alone, namely that, who from having but one horn, bears the name of Unicorn.

[H]e is said to resemble in his whole body the Horse: He is tailed like a Boor, grins and snarls like a Lyon, headed like an Hart, footed like an Elephant, furnisht with one onely horn, and that a black one, two cubits long, standing in the midst of his fore-head. J.J."

[click images for larger version]

Beyond the mythical and religious symbolism, the unicorn also had a long run in the non-fiction rather than folklore section of literary history. It features in Pliny's Natural History and the writings of some formidable minds of the middle ages.

To varying degrees, the rhinoceros and narwhal have been cited as the basis for many of these 'factual' descriptions, such as in the introductory quote above. Perhaps it was just a case of misidentity coupled with wishful thinking, in so far as the unicorn has traditionally represented strength and was of course imbued with magical healing properties.
"A dream, if it is no more than that, of such great age and beauty as this of the unicorn, is far more worthy of consideration than the question whether we shall have one species more or less in the earth's fauna."
[Odell Shepherd]
In 1657, physician and naturalist Joannes Jonstonus (John Johnston) published his latin treatise Historiæ Naturalis de Quadrupedibus (later translated and released as 'A description of the nature of four-footed beasts : with their figures engraven in brass'). It includes 80 engraved plates of both real and fanciful beasties and there is obvious influence at times from the likes of Gesner, Dürer and Aldrovani. The illustration work was by Matthäus Merian (the Younger).
{note the webbed feet in the 2nd image above - the acquatic species}


misteraitch said...

I recall seeing a couple of images from this book somewhere on-line a couple of years back & looking in vain for more: it’s heartening that so many more of these curious texts are being made available all the time; & I’m ever-grateful for your talent for finding them!

I’d guess from the 1657 date that the younger Matthäus Merian would have been responsible for these illustrations, his father having died in 1650.

peacay said...

Thanks everyone.

Laura I'm afraid my latin is restricted to the occasional word or phrase. It does my head in at times..

Misteraitch I'd been seeing Johnston's name pop up all over the place and I think I originally drew a bit of a blank searching too. He seems to be more of a 'character' along the trail (and mostly because of the illustrations) in natural history rather than being a memorable scientist.

I randomly found the ebay link yesterday which prompted me to have another/a better search. And I was very very lucky because Wisconsin U. has transcripts - which I landed on - and just as I was about to leave the site I saw the link to page images.

They don't advise when they upload material and their science collection never stood out for me as being as good as their other sites. Maybe I had landed on the transcripts previously. I shall remember that: it may be the reason I haven't ever thought their science collection was particularly memorable.

re: Merian....aaah thanks. I should check my dates/read a bit more closely!

eleKtrofly said...

i think it's also entirely possible that the unicorn did exist and maybe has gone extinct.

just because we don't have fossil evidence... who's to say the ancients simply made it up?

peacay said...

elektrofly somewhere among the links they talk about there being some fossil 'evidence'.

I guess that's part of what appeals to me about unicorns particularly -- myth, religion, science: it crosses all of the major historical areas of thinking.

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