The Power of Unicorns

From 1908 to 1995 the pharmaceutical company created by Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs in 1880 (Burroughs Wellcome/ Wellcome Foundation) had a unicorn as its logo. Muriel Bailly tells us the story behind this mystical animal and explains the unlikely connection between pharmaceuticals and unicorns.

Two Burroughs Wellcome/Wellcome Foundation logo designs from 1908 to 1995.

Two Burroughs Wellcome/Wellcome Foundation logo designs from 1908 to 1995.

I am entirely objective when I say that Wellcome Collection is an incredible place to learn about the history of medicine. I am regularly amazed by the stories I discover behind the objects from our collections. For today’s article, however, I was not inspired by the collection, but by our visitors. If you have ever visited the Medicine Now gallery you have probably noticed that an entire wall is dedicated to drawing “feedback” cards made by our visitors. On the back of each card is a list of words related to Wellcome Collection for people to take inspiration from. Amongst them is the word “unicorn”: it is one of the most popular on the cards. I wondered how unicorns could be linked to the collection or the Wellcome Trust when I first started working here. After looking a little more closely, it turned out to be pretty obvious.

Two of the cards drawn by our visitors and added to the feedback wall in Medicine Now.

Two of the cards drawn by our visitors and added to the feedback wall in Medicine Now.

I am sure we’re all familiar with unicorns from fairy tales, cartoons, films and heraldry: from the books The Little White Horse, Harry Potter and The Flight of the Horse, to the cartoons My Little PonyDungeons and Dragons and Thundercats to the films The Last Unicorn, Legend, Blade Runner and The Chronicles of Narnia. There’s even a very addictive game. Unicorns have often featured in literature and art for centuries but they were first mentioned in antiquity in ancient Greek writings. However, it wasn’t mythology writings as one might expect, but in natural history books; the ancient Greeks were convinced by the authenticity of the creature.

The earliest known mention of unicorns is by Ctesias, a Greek physician from the 5th century BC, who placed their origin in India. Ctesias spent time at the court of Darius in Persia (what is now Iran) where he heard many stories from Indian travellers about a mystical animal. Described as a creature with a white horse-like body, dark blue eyes and a single, colourful horn on the forehead about 43 centimetres long (1’6”). An animal so powerful and fleet of foot that no other could overtake it.

A fight among animals: a unicorn is fighting a griffon and a lion is killing a fox while other animals are fleeing or watching on.

A fight among animals: a unicorn is fighting a griffon and a lion is killing a fox while other animals are fleeing or watching on.

It was believed the animal’s strength resided in its horn which is why, Ctesias tells us, it was common for the people at that time to grind unicorns’ horns to prepare elixirs and remedies. A tradition paralleled by what is currently happening in Africa and Asia where rhinos are poached for their horns, which some people believe to have medicinal properties (as illustrated in the work of Brent Stirton, runner up 2012 for the Wildlife photojournalist Award at the Natural History Museum).

Unicorns are also mentioned in the works of Strabo and Pliny the Younger. In the Bible, an animal called Re’em in the Hebrew version is often mentioned for its strength and has been translated to “unicorn” in the King James Version.

The popularity of unicorns in religious and natural history literature was such that, by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, unicorns were a symbol of purity and chastity and they were very common in paintings, engravings and tapestries often represented by a white unicorn resting its head on a young virgin’s lap. 

Chastity (a virgin and a unicorn) oil painting.

Chastity (a virgin and a unicorn) oil painting.

As a result of being a symbol of purity, unicorns, specifically their horns, were believed to possess the power to heal a large variety of diseases; drinking from a unicorn’s horn would allegedly purify filthy water. For these reasons, unicorns’ horns were one of the most valuable things a king could possess throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

This raises a question: what were kings and physicians using in place of unicorns’ horns? In most cases narwhals‘ horns were passed off as unicorns’. As was the case with Goa stones, it was common in ancient times to “adjust” remedies for the greater good. The most important thing was to believe that you were being administered the real thing, what we would call the placebo effect in modern medicine.

This tusk (which originally forms from a tooth) is from the male of a small whale called a narwhal.  For centuries such tusks, which could grow several metres in length, were claimed to be from the unicorn. As powdered ‘unicorn horn’ was used in a number of different medical preparations these tusks became highly valued and the whales heavily hunted.

This tusk (a canine tooth) is from a small whale called a narwhal. For centuries such tusks, which could grow several metres in length, were claimed to be from the unicorn. As powdered ‘unicorn horn’ was used in a number of different medical preparations these tusks became highly valued and the whales heavily hunted.

A few years ago a “unicorn” or, more precisely, a single-horned deer was born in a wildlife reserve in Italy. This re-launched the debate around the authenticity of unicorns. Is it possible that such genetic modifications were witnessed in antiquity, providing an explanation for the myth? Or was there really a time when creatures such as unicorns (and even mermaids and dragons) existed?

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Intriguing insights

Narwhal's tusk

Unicorn horn or narwhal tusk? Wellcome Images

How does an academic library with a huge and diverse collection, sitting within a public venue, share its treasures with visitors? Eleanor Lanyon thinks magic might be the answer.

This has been a challenge that the Wellcome Library has tackled in a number of ways. Most visible to anyone accessing Wellcome Collection in person or online are the Library’s ‘Insights’ sessions. Obviously, an invitation to visit an academic library might be of limited appeal so we’ve tried instead to draw out some of the themes – both expected and unexpected – that run through our collections. You may not be interested in libraries per se, but you might well enjoy the chance to explore herbal medicine, history, art, travel, science, or quackery.

As Library Outreach Officer and charged with managing this programme of show-and-tell sessions I felt I should lead by example. And so ‘Magic Manuscripts’ was born; everything I could possibly and tangentially link to Harry Potter. In fact once I got going, there was a considerable overlap between our collections and the curriculum at Hogwarts – herbology, potions, charms, astrology, alchemy – even study of magical beasts.

Between me and a successful session were the challenges of the Library catalogue, a plethora of secondary sources and original material in Latin, French, and German. Not to mention, how to fit a full sized unicorn’s horn into my display of original material….

I’m pleased to report that I survived the delivery of ‘Magic Manuscripts’, although I was slightly disappointed when everyone correctly identified my ‘unicorn horn’ as a narwhal tusk. Visitors were intrigued by alchemical manuscripts, appalled by the interrogation techniques of witch-hunters in 17th century Europe and suitably disgusted by recipes for remedies involving horse dung and other dubious ingredients.

The range of ‘Insights’ sessions on offer has increased dramatically since we started, and we’re now experimenting with evening sessions as well as our afternoon slots. We hope to see you at one of our sessions in the future.

Upcoming ‘Insights’ sessions:

Facing Up to the Past on Thursday 1 April
Native Americans on Thursday 8 April
Caricatures and Cartoons on Thursday 22 April
Anatomies of London on Thursday 29 April
Fascinating Faces
on Thursday 6 May
The Occult on Thursday 13 May
Madness on Thursday 20 May

There’s no need to book:  you can pick up your free ticket for this event from the Information Desk from 13.30 on the day.

Eleanor Lanyon is Library Outreach Officer, and part of the Wellcome Collection Events team.