Unicorn of the Sea: Part 1 – The Age of Exploration

Today’s post is the first of a two part blog in which Laura from the Visitor Team tells the story of the Narwhal, a mysterious and fascinating creature, with a history entangled with legends of the magical healing powers of mythical unicorns’ horns.

For more about animals and nature, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Nature Manchester.

The Age of Exploration

In a dark corner of Natures Library, there’s a cabinet filled with curious creatures, from a pufferfish to a walrus skull, this cabinet is quite the curiosity. And cast in light, at the top of the case is what appears to be the horn of a unicorn.

image‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum

During the 16th and 17th century, intrepid explorers travelled the earth in search of new species and indigenous artefacts to sell to the rich elite. It was the Age of Exploration and having a cabinet of curiosity was the ultimate status symbol. Ranging from a piece of furniture to an entire room, collectors could admire the unusual shapes, patterns, colours and textures of the objects in their collections.

imageNarwhal Tusk, Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum

One of the most sought after items for any serious collector was the horn of the mythical unicorn. Believed to possess the power to detect poison, it was thought that if the tip of the horn was dipped into liquid it would bubble if poison was present. It was also thought that if it was ground up and ingested it could cure a person of poisoning. ‘Unicorn horns’ became big business and for a time were more valuable than gold!

Viking explorers would collect the tusk of the narwhal and sell them to unsuspecting foreigners for extortionate prices. Kings and Queens are said to have drunk from goblets carved from unicorn horn, one Danish King even had a throne carved from it. And Queen Elizabeth l reportedly spent £10,000 on a jewel-encrusted horn which she kept with her Crown Jewels. At the time she could have bought a castle with that sum and in today’s money it would come close to £1.5 – 2 million.

Throne Chair of Denmark (Image from: en.wikipedia.org)

As the Age of Exploration progressed and the arctic regions became less mysterious, the myth of the unicorn gradually faded and the true origin of the tusk was realised. Philosopher and naturalist Olaus Wormius was among the first to make the connection. Wormius was a great collector of the time and boasted a grand ‘cabinet of curiosities’ which would later become known as the Museum Wormianum. It was his lecture on the narwhal in 1638 that saw the beginning of the end to the myth of the unicorn. He wasn’t completely immune to the story, however – he is said to have conducted experiments by poisoning animals and attempting to cure them using ground up narwhal tusk. The poison must have been very weak as he noted it to be a success!

imageOlaus Wormius – Museum Wormianum (Image from: en.wikipedia.org)

The mystery of the narwhal continues with the next instalment of Narwhal – Unicorn of the Sea.

For a closer look at a narwhal tusk, why not come and have a look at our very own Cabinet of Curiosities on Nature’s Library next to the Vivarium.

Laura Bennett

With special thanks to Henry Mcghie and Bryony Rigby for their advice and help.

For more information on the narwhal, have a look at; worldwildlife.org

For more stories about nature, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Nature Manchester.



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