Wednesday, 11 November 2015

How to Sell a Myth: The Great Unicorn Scam

Elyse Waters-Brown - PhD Archaeology

The unicorn made a huge impact on the medieval economy due to the belief in its prophylactic powers. This myth, therefore, provides an excellent framework for highlighting the aspects most essential for long-term integration of a myth into society and rendering material profit.  To sell a myth, one must first determine what people desperately need, it needs to be within the realms of reality, one must carefully explain how it works with logical explanations that concur with the science of the time, and veracity of myth proved by way of tests to determine authenticity.

The unicorn mythology centers around the belief in its ability to detect and neutralize poisons. The demand for this service was so high, that the unicorn horn was worth more than gold and rare gems (Schoenberger 1951, 284). The threat of poisoning for the elite class was growing in the twelfth century and extended into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Gibbs 2009, 29, 82). Poison in drinks was of special concern as the strong taste of wine helps to hide the flavor of many poisons (Gibbs 2009, 51).

The next step in selling a myth is to make it believable. What you are selling needs to fit into the scientific understanding of the day, and not be removed from the natural world. Supernatural cures were often attributed to the work of demons and witches. As most physicians were devout Christians, authors of medical texts took special care in describing their cures as fitting with the natural order created by God (Rider 2011, 100). For hundreds of years, the European medical beliefs were based on the works of Galen, who advocated the humoural theory which described health in terms of temperature and moisture (Schulze 1935, 431). By the 12th century, there was an extreme diversity in poisons, with research suggesting there was a particular focus on cold poisons (Gibbs 2009, 19, 48, 106).  Some of the major authors of poison treatment such as Hildegard von Bingen and Averroes, were especially interested in how poisons worked and how medication could offset them (Throop 1998; Gibbs 2009). Some of their ideas are considered below.

Next in an endeavor to sell a myth, physical evidence must be provided as proof of the myth’s existence. Whole horns – usually owned by only the very rich, royalty, or those high in the religious order – sat on tables to detect poison (Schoenberger 1951, 284). Pieces might be fashioned into scepters, goblets, pendants, or handles of cutlery (Schoenberger 1951, 284;  Shepard 1930, 136-137). Powdered horn was mixed into drinks as an antidote (Schoenberger 1951, 284). In reality, whole pieces were either Mammoth tusks, Walrus tusks, goats horns, Indian Rhinoceros horns, or Narwhal tusks (Schoenberger 1951, 284). The powdered form was drawn from sources such as clay, pig or dog bone, whalebone, bones of fossilized animals, burnt horn, lime-stone, or stalactites (Shepard 1930, 116).

But why was it important to have physical objects as part of the myth? The senses are an important basis for belief in what is real. Saint Augustine highlighted the importance of personal experience for credibility, especially touch (Daston & Park 1998, 63).  The audience can engage with the item as a corporeal object, bringing it down from the lofty realms of the symbolic and grounding it in the world of reality (Geisbusch 2012, 206, 207).

The next step to promote belief in a myth is to explain how the object operates in natural terms. Medieval authors explained the horn’s effect through theories of sympathy or antipathy. Hildegard suggests antipathy and explains that the unicorn, as a warm animal, treats poison by balancing out the illnesses caused by their negative cooling factors (Throop 1998, 210- 211). In opposition to this, Laurens Catelan promotes the idea of specific form and asserts that antidotes cure poisons by virtue of being made from poisons (Shepard 1930, 150).  While we cannot say that either could be proved correct, these theories do show that both authors were very interested in explaining the effectiveness of unicorn products in natural terms.

The final stage to advance belief in a myth is to offer tests of authenticity. Though belief in the unicorn’s existence was steady for centuries, naturalists were aware that charlatans would try to make a quick buck by faking unicorn horns using something easier to obtain (Daston & Park 1998, 62; Shepard 1930).  David de Pomis suggests placing the believed unicorn horn in a closed container with three to four live scorpions and to wait for four hours. Dead scorpions would indicate that the object is a true unicorn horn (Shepard 1930, 117).  Cardan included a specific description as well as a test. According to this author, the horn is striated, hard, heavy, the colour of boxwood, and can save a pigeon poisoned with arsenic (Shepard 1930, 118). Laurens Catelan provided not one, but five tests that must be passed successfully to prove that the unicorn horn is authentic, which he apparently believed could work as he owned his own unicorn horn (Shepard 1930, 117-118).

Works Cited

Daston, L., & Park, K. (1998). Wonders and the order of nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books.

Geisbusch, J. (2012). “For your eyes only? The magic touch of relics” in Dudley, S. (ed.) (2012). Museum objects experiencing the properties of things (Leicester readers in museum studies).

Gibbs, Frederick W. (2009). Medical understandings of poison circa 1250-1600. Thesis (Ph.D.), University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Nash, Nancy. (1993). The horn's dilemma. (rhinos face extinction) (Cover Story). Far Eastern Economic Review, 156(33), 27.

Rider, C. (2011). Medical Magic and the Church in Thirteenth-Century England. Social History of Medicine, 24(1), 92-107.

Schoenberger, G. (1951). A Goblet of Unicorn Horn. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 9(10), 284-288.

Schulze, H. (1935). Some Old Bizarre Medical Remedies. The Scientific Monthly, 40(5), 431-439.

Shepard, O. (1930). The lore of the unicorn, London.

South, M. (1987). Mythical and fabulous creatures: a source book and research guide, London.

Thompson C.J.S. (1904). Poison Romance and Poison Mysteries. London: George Routledge & Sons, LTD.

Throop P. (Trans), (1998), Hildegard von Bingen's Physica : the complete English                         translation of her classic work on health and healing, Rochester.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Call for Papers - Spring 2016

Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society

Call for Papers:  Spring 2016
“Opposing Forces”

The Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society (LAMPS) invites postgraduate students to present their research at our weekly Monday seminars.

LAMPS aims to provide an engaging forum for cross-disciplinary discussion that focuses on the Late Antique and Medieval periods.  Proposals on the study of these time periods as well as topics pertaining to the reception and perception of the Late Antique and Medieval periods from later sources are all welcome.  Postgraduate students from all disciplines and at any stage of their research are welcome to submit papers.  This opportunity provides students with not only a chance to hone their presentation skills, but it also offers valuable peer support in a safe, academic environment.

For the Spring 2016 semester, LAMPS requests that all submissions explore the theme of Opposing Forces.  This theme is designed to broadly encompass exploration of opposite, argumentative, or contrasting ideas in the Late Antique and Medieval periods across various disciplines.  Possible paper topics include, but are certainly not limited to: nature vs. nurture, discord, distance, issues of gender, battle, other forms of conflict, variant ideas of morality, and even how opposing forces may have been harmonised.

Presentations should be around 20 minutes in length and are accompanied by 10 to 15 minutes of discussion and questions.  If you are interested in applying, please send a 250 word abstract along with your details and a brief introductory statement about yourself to by the 29th of November, 2015.

Lectures will take place on Mondays between the 18th of January and the 28th of March, so please let us know about any potential scheduling conflicts as soon as possible.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Significance of the Selky: Sentient Sea-beast, Siren, Seductor, Sustenance or Simple Seal?

Adam Dahmer - PhD Celtic Studies

The selky myth seems to have fulfilled numerous roles in medieval Hebridean, Orcadian, and Shetlandic societies. Likely the oldest of these was its use as a means by which to mitigate feelings of bereavement for relatives lost at sea. Because they depended on the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic for their livelihoods, both Gaelic and Norse islanders in medieval Scotland lived in constant peril of drowning. The belief that lost mariners might have sheltered with or transformed into selkies could have lessened the emotional anguish of their passing for those who survived them.

As a coping mechanism for grief, the selky myth could address not only deaths at sea, but also deaths in childbirth. The narrative archetype of the selky wife provided a ready explanation for the widower whose young child was curious about its absent mother. The notion of a connection between the selky and maternal death is reinforced by the fact that in stories of the selky wife, it is often the selky’s child who alerts her to the whereabouts of her seal skin, inadvertently instigating her sudden departure from the family just as a newborn might unknowingly bring about its mother’s untimely demise. The selky skin—with its irresistible ability to separate mothers from their children and wives from their husbands—might itself be a metaphor for death.

Imbalances of power between various entities—not only death and the mortal—play a central role in the selky mythos. One such relationship explored in the selky myth is that between the seal and the seal hunter. Medieval Orcadians, Shetlanders, and Hebrideans had four compelling reasons to hunt seals: the animals competed with islanders for fish; sealskin made excellent waterproof clothing; seal oil could serve as lamp fuel, topical medicine and a waterproofing agent for clothing and boat sails; and seals themselves were edible (Ní Fhloinn 1996). Strangely, alongside the tradition of seal-hunting and the practical incentives that maintained it, there was also a taboo against killing seals, and an entire subgenre of selky stories dedicated to its enforcement. The taboo against seal hunting thus enforced, although observed to varying degrees according to region and historical epoch within Gaelic- and Norse- speaking areas, may have served an important ecological purpose in the Middle Ages, ensuring that grey seals were never over-hunted.

Selky stories might have served not only to protect the environment, but the interests of married women. The male selky of Orcadian and Shetlandic fame had a reputation as a talented lover, who could offer women a temporary distraction or a permanent escape from a loveless marriage to a cruel or controlling husband. He was also reputed to be extremely virile, and could therefore have served as a convenient scapegoat in the event of unexpected pregnancy. Even the tales of female selkies captured and forced into marriage by fishermen might have aimed at the promotion of women’s rights; almost invariably, the selky-wives in these stories escape their captivity, leaving their one-time captors to care for their children alone. This subgenre of selky stories might therefore have been morality tales, reminding husbands that ill-treated wives could desert their abusers, and empowering abused women to do exactly that.

To the extent that the selky emblematizes the female hope of sexual and personal empowerment, it also embodies the masculine fear of sexual and personal inadequacy. The narrative of the captured selky wife in some ways provides an apt metaphor for medieval marriage—in which the female partner often acquiesced to social, familial or economic pressure to marry rather than robustly and eagerly consenting to the union. Under these circumstances, a husband might well feel that he had somehow tricked or coerced his wife into their marriage. His feelings of guilt and insecurity would only have deepened with contemplation of the male selky; by virtue of being a supernatural creature, the selky-lover surpasses his human rival in all respects. He is stronger, more attractive and self-confident, more competent in the arts of love, and able to easily navigate the depths of the ocean—a realm into which the fisherman can only peer from the water’s surface. He lives effortlessly and stays warm and well-fed in the wintertime despite his sloth. And yet, despite his superior fishing skills, the seal still insists on stealing the fisherman’s catch. By analogy, the selky ashore would surely feel similarly inclined to alienate the affection of the fisherman’s wife. The selky myth therefore reflects the medieval husband’s deep-seated suspicion that his wife only loves him from a sense of duty, and that if she could, she would not only run away from him, but into the arms of his archrival—which, in the medieval fisherman’s case, was the seal.

Interestingly, the selky myth has also been used as a means by which to overcome feelings of inadequacy. Numerous Scottish, Irish, and Orcadian families—including the families MacCodrum, Connolly, Kane, Rogers, O’Shea, and O’Dowd (MacDougall 1994) —historically claimed descent from seal-people (Ní Fhloinn 1996). Oral tradition has often suggested that some members of these families were occasionally born with webbed hands and feet, or with fingers grown together so that their hands resembled flippers. (Ní Fhloinn 1996). In light of the selky myth, such congenital anomalies—traits which under other circumstances might have been perceived as deformities—could instead have been interpreted as proof of the families’ much-touted selky ancestry.

An examination of the selky myth reveals it to be more complex than one might at first suppose, in terms of both its origins and cultural significance. It is liminal, straddling the frontiers of medieval Gaelic and Norse culture in the same way that the seal people themselves can traverse both land and sea but can be confined to neither. It reflects the harsh realities of life for preindustrial people forced to depend for survival upon one another and the sea and helped them preserve the delicate balance between the interdependent but opposing forces that sustained their existence.

Worked Cited

Anderson, Mrs, ‘Rescued by a Seal’ Scottish Traditional Tales, ed. by Alan Bruford and Donald A. MacDonald (Edinburgh: Polygon Press, 1994), 368-69

Cravalho, Mark A., ‘An Ethnozoology of the Amazon River Dolphin’ Ethnology, 38 (1999), 47-58
Farley, Erin C., Informal private interview regarding Orcadian folklore (Edinburgh, 15 September 2015)

Harper, Douglas, ‘Wretched’ Online Etymology Dictionary, website, 2001-2015 <> [accessed 7 October 2015]

Hunter, Andrew, ‘The Limpet Pick’ Scottish Traditional Tales, ed. by Alan Bruford and Donald A. MacDonald (Edinburgh: Polygon Press, 1994), 369

MacDougall, Donald, ‘MacCodrum’s Seal Wife’ Scottish Traditional Tales, ed. by Alan Bruford and Donald A. MacDonald (Edinburgh: Polygon Press, 1994), 365-67

Macpherson, George W., Highland Myths and Legends (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2001)

Marwick, Ernest, The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000)

McEntire, Nancy Cassell, ‘Supernatural Beings in the Far North: Folklore, Folk Belief, and the Selkie’ Scottish Studies, 35 (2010), 120-143

Ní Fhloinn, Bairbre, ‘Tadhg, Donncha and Some of their Relations: Seals in Irish Oral Tradition’ Islanders and Water-Dwellers, ed. by Patricia Lysaght, Séamas Ó Catháin and Dáithí Ó hÓgáin (Dublin: University College Dublin, 1996), 223-246

Robertson, R. MacDonald, Selected Highland Folktales (Trowbridge: Redwood Books, 1961)

Thordarson, Sveinbjorn, ed., Brennu-Njáls Saga (Icelandic Saga Database, 2007) <>[accessed 7 October 2015]

Towrie, Sigurd, ‘The Origin of the Selkie-Folk’ Orkneyar, website, 2 May 2014 <> [accessed 6 October 2015]

Towrie, Sigurd, ‘The Original Finfolk’ Orkneyar, website, 2 May 2014 <> [accessed 6 October 2015]