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J Hist Dent. 2011 Winter;59(3):135-42.

The unicorn and the narwhal: a tale of the tooth.

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Indiana University School of Dentistry, USA.


From as far back as the early Roman era, detailed descriptions and artistic images of the unicorn have been imagined. In Europe, the Mediterranean and the Far East, this creature became accepted as real. Although such an animal had never actually been seen, it was said to have the appearance of a horse, the beard and cloven hooves of a goat, the tail of a lion, and a single, spear-like horn protruding from the center of its forehead. The unicorn myth originated shortly after unidentified horn-like objects, from six to ten feet long, began to appear in ancient European marketplaces. Physicians quickly ascribed outlandish healing properties to these horns, pulverizing them for the treatment of various diseases. In 1638, a Danish zoologist challenged these claims and provided evidence that the so-called "unicorn horn" was actually the tusk (tooth) of the narwhal from the Arctic seas. However, his findings remained unheeded for the next 100 years. This paper explains how the myth of the unicorn and the purported powers contained within the substance of its magical horn evolved from the ages-old spoils of the Arctic fishing trade, where the narwhal was primarily speared for food and secondarily, for the export value of its ivory tusk. This unusually long, pointed and protruding single tooth, which breaks through the upper lip and the left jaw of each male narwhal, became a highly valuable commodity over the following centuries, due to its believed supernatural origins and curative qualities.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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