How many horns does a unicorn have? It’s the kind of joke you can find while watching the British TV series IQ. Um, I hear you say–everybody knows it. Unicorns only have one horn (the track is in the name). And that’s what I used to think, but it seems we’ve all been deceived. Sometimes a unicorn can have two horns. I know, don’t I? What’s next?
I first came across the unicorn of two infamous horns when selecting the objects for the new exhibition of the British Library, Harry Potter: A History of Magic (#BLHarryPotter). The printed book illustrated below, in the show, has a diagram with 5 different species of unicorn. It was published in Paris (France) in 1694 and is the work of Pierre Pomet, a French pharmacist. In addition to realizing that you discover something new every day-it’s amazing to know that so many unicorn species have been identified-your eye is also attracted to the beast in the lower corner, your left hand. He clearly has a pair of horns. Is that cheating, sure?
In a more detailed inspection, I learned that the mysterious unicorn in question is known as a pirassoipi. Maybe we’re inclined to call him. Deepening, we learned that it was described as being as big as a mule and as furry as a bear. But our history has haunted us once. Pomet noticed that the unicorn horn was “Well used, because of the great features attributed to it, especially against poisons. ” Unicorns, in other words, were valued by their body parts. The very macabre image then, taken from a study of the Unicorn by Ambroise Parés, published in 1582, describes in the background the murder and the peeling of a pirassoipi. I was a surgeon of the French crown and had a great interest in strange phenomena (his book also contains chapters on mummies and poisons). In his comment, he admitted uncertainty if the parts of the unicorn’s body would have any medicinal efficacy.
Let’s take another look at the unusual unicorn illustrated at the beginning of this blogpost. It is found in a 16th century Greek manuscript that accompanies a poem by Manuel Philes called about the properties of animals. According to the poem, the Unicorn was a wild beast with a dangerous bite: it had the tail of a boar and the mouth of a lion. Clearly a-unicorn-like, right?
The unicorn is not the only animal illustrated in this manuscript. Its pages are full of drawings of herons and pelicans, a wolf and a porcupine, and even a Choco. One of my favorites is the illustration of the mythical centaur: it has a pair of extended human arms serving as front paws. The scribe of this manuscript is named as Angellos Vergekios, a Cypriot who had made his home in France, and it is said that the illustrator was his daughter. Here’s a selection of these images to whet your appetite. (A few years ago we completed the digitization of all the Greek manuscripts of the British Library thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation: The entire manuscript can be seen on our site of scanned manuscripts.) We would love you to take a look at them all and tell us your favorites