Pity the unicorn. Though mythical, the beast can’t seem to catch a break. Whether portrayed in medieval bestiaries or Harry Potter, they are constantly chased by dogs, trapped, or killed for their horns. According to ancient scholars such as the Greek physician Ctesias, the horns’ magical properties included purifying water and banishing poison in food.
Luminaries from Aristotle to Leonardo da Vinci believed unicorns to be real, and physicians in the Middle Ages began claiming the purity of unicorn horns could detect poison. That claim made unicorn horns a popular item among the royal and rich. Accounts abound of European nobility using horns to puzzle out if their food was fatal.
But how do you get a unicorn horn in a world without unicorns?
Sometimes, the answer was rhino or walrus horn. But the most common item taken by royals as unicorn horns was what is now considered one of the most expensive materials in all history: narwhal tusks. Narwhals are small whales with Arctic swimming grounds, and their single ivory tooth can reach nine feet in length and swirl, tapering, to a point. Long hunted by the Canadian and Greenland Inuit for food, they were also hunted by another group: Vikings. When they roamed the seas in the early Middle Ages, Vikings hunted and harvested narwhal horns, which they sold without revealing their origin. These horns became so emblematic that by the…
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