Of all the pieces in your 19th-century curios collection, a unicorn horn was the most prized possession of the lot. I remember the first time I saw one of these so-called ‘alicorns’. Long, pointed and spiraling, for the briefest of moments I’ll admit that I wondered whether maybe, just maybe, unicorns really did exist. In fact, there isn’t really anything magical or mythical about this horn at all. Extending up to 3 meters in length, the tusk (or tooth) actually comes from a narwhal.
A now ‘near threatened’ species, this makes it all the more important that people know of the Narwhal’s existence. It’s estimated that there are less than 100,000 of these animals left worldwide.
What is a Narwhal?
A narwhal, narwhale, or Monodon Monoceros if we want to get super technical is a toothed whale which is related to the bottlenose dolphin and harbour porpoises. Narwhals subsist on shrimp, krill, squid and other small aquatic life. Despite their massive size, they require small meals as they only have two teeth. They’re born grey and later develop a black and white mottled skin as they age. The name narhwal derives from Old Norse meaning ‘corpse whale’; this is supposedly because their skin looks a little like a drowned sailor. They can live up to 90 years of age and are around the same size as a bus.
Narwhals can also dive up to a mile underwater. At such depths there is little light and no oxgen. There’s also immense pressure and gravity is at its strongest. As social creatures, they swim in packs of 15-20; although some unverified accounts have suggested groups numbering the thousands.
What about the Narwhal Tusk?
What’s presented as the ‘Unicorn horn’ or ‘Alicorn’ (mythical name for the horn), is actually a Narwhal tooth or tusk. Only the males have the tusk and its exact function remains unclear. In males, the left of the two teeth carries on growing past its normal length in a spiral movement. Eventually, the tusk extends up to three meters in length. Although it’s rare for female narwhals to grow the tusk, it can happen. The strange thing is that no one knows exactly why male narwhals grow the tusk.
All sorts of theories have been put forward. These include everything from the credible to absolutely ridiculous; one theory that has some weight is that narhwals use the tusks to fight with one another- they’re covered in scars. Another theory is that Narwhals use the tusk to catch food; this is the most ludicrous as if this were the case, then all narwhals would have tusks, not just the males. This theory becomes even less credible when you consider that female narhwals live longer than their male counterparts.
That no one knows the exact purpose for the narwhal tusk, perpetuates the unicorn myth, albeit it another form.
The beginning of the Unicorn Myth
Narhwal horns have been sought, bought and traded by humans for time immemorial. As far back as the vikings, the ivory from these mammals was transported to the mediterranean and beyond. The great size, length and shape of the horns led to great speculation as to what animal these could possibly have come from. With no photographic equiment or even accurate descriptions, the unicorn myth emerged.
In the middle ages, the unicorn myth grew and spread, growing greater and greater until the story reached the point of fluffy pink horses sprinkling gold glitter as they flew. During the middle ages, it was often claimed that narwhal teeth had all sorts of magical properties; from being able to cure illnesses to bringing good luck, they were the object to possess.