Does the Unicorn purify water with its horn?

This fragment of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Early Delights (one of my favoriate paintings )shows a unicorn placing its horn into water. There is an ancient myth that the unicorn purifies water when it does so. This is expressed beautifully by Natalis Comes in poetry:

Far on the edge of the world and beyond the banks of the Ganges,

Savage and lone, is a place in the realm of the King of the Hindus.

Where there is born a beast as large as a stag in stature,

Dark on the back, solid-hoofed, very fierce, and shaped like a bullock.

Mighty and black is the horn that springs from the animal’s forehead,

Terrible unto his foe, a defense and a weapon of onslaught.

Often the poisoners steal to the banks of that swift-flowing river,

Fouling the waves with disease by their secret insidious poisons;

After them comes this beast and dips his horn in the water,

Cleansing the venom away and leaving the stream to flow purely

So that the forest-dwellers may drink once more by the margin.

The idea that the touch of the unicorn’s horn could cure poison was common to many cultures. Apothecaries would frequently use a unicorn as a symbol of their business. The wealthy would purchase narwal tusks in the mistaken belief they were purchasing a unicorn’s horn. Some even wen so far as to poison animals and people to test the horn’s properties.

As for me, when I look at the painting, I see a thirsty unicorn taking a drink along with its fellow creatures. A glimpse of an imagined paradise.

Learn more about the unicorn’s horn in my forthcoming book: On the Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns, Dragonwell Publishing.

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