The lady and the unicorn
10 Feb – 24 Jun 2018Buy tickets
The myth of the unicorn
In the Middle Ages, everyone believed in unicorns. Mentioned several times in the Bible and recorded since antiquity, few had reason to doubt its existence.
The unicorn of the European Middle Ages had a horse’s body, the cloven hooves and beard of a goat, the tail of a lion and a single spiral horn. The horn was much prized for its power to purify water and neutralise poisons.
To catch the swift and formidable unicorn was almost impossible. The only way was for a virgin to sit in wait in a forest for the unicorn to encounter. Enchanted, he would lay his head upon her lap and fall asleep, allowing his capture.
By the 1200s, the story of the hunt of the unicorn had become a love story. The unicorn – seen as courageous, compassionate and loyal (associated with knights) – stood for the lover and the lady, his beloved.
Unicorn or narwhal?
In the Middle Ages, unicorn horn was said to have magical properties and was very valuable. Trade in fake unicorn horns was brisk, with narwhal tusk often sold to those seeking the real thing. Narwhals – once called ‘sea unicorns’ – are a species of whale that live in Arctic waters. Their spiral tusks are actually overgrown teeth.
The exhibition’s 'unicorn horn’ is actually a narwhal tusk on loan from our friends at the Australian Museum:
Monodon monoceros Linnaeus (Narwhal tusk) 1758
B.6683, exchanged from Museum of Zoology, Florence
Registered May 1885
Today, it seems everybody wants some of those magical properties people believed in so long ago: unicorns are everywhere, once again a popular symbol of magic.