By the tenth century the Arabs had begun to take note of the lucrative Western commerce in “fish-teeth.” A passage by ‘Awfi, a geographer of the first half of the tenth century, confirms this notice, for he remarks that in the Arctic Ocean “a fish rises from whose teeth handles of knives and swords are made” (Ettinghausen, 1950, 121). Meanwhile, during this same period, far to the east, marine ivory continued to enter China via the northeast Asian maritime trade routes. Of course, the ancient peoples who hunted and traded in this kind of ivory knew exactly what it was. But in China, people came to believe that the tusk of the narwhal was the horn of a thousand-year-old snake (guduxi), a concept which may have derived from the snake-like appearance of fossilized narwhal teeth found lying on the ground on the northern shores of Siberia, especially in the valley of the Kolyma River (Laufer, 1913, 332).

The earliest written reference to this idea appears in the Liao shi (History of the Liao Dynasty), a dynasty established in 916 C.E. by the Khitan tribe who were probably of Mongol origin and who lived northeast of China in present-day Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. Chapter 116 of the Liao shi states, with regard to guduxi, that it is “the horn of a thousand year’s old snake.” This Khitan term guduxi was probably not limited to narwhal horn but included various kinds of marine products such as walrus tusks, whale bones, etc.

Another early Chinese source containing a reference to maritime ivory is found in the Songmo jiwen buyi (Historical Memoranda regarding the Jin Dynasty), a dynasty ruled by the Jurchen tribe who were of Tungusic stock like the Mo-ho. This book was written by Hong Hao (1090-1155) who was sent on an embassy to the Jin where he remained for fifteen years (1129-1143). His statement reads as follows: The Khitan value guduxi. It is not large. It is veined like ivory, and tainted with yellow colour. It is only used for knife handles, but it is already priceless.” Berthold Laufer firmly believed that Hong Hao distinctly described a product in the far north of China, and that it could not have been fossil mammoth ivory, since this was always called xiang ya (elephant teeth) (Laufer, 1913, 329). The statement that the guduxi was “not large” was due, no doubt, to the fact that marine ivory rarely arrived at its destination in its original form, rotten parts having first been cut off and the tusk sawn into smaller parts for ease of transportation (ibid., 332).

Laufer also believed that in the eyes of the Chinese people, narwhal “horn” and rhinoceros “horn” were entirely distinct substances, and certainly this must have been true during the Tang Dynasty when the connoisseurship of rhinoceros horn was an aristocratic passion as well as an important matter of state. However, during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125 C.E.), the belt plaques made of rhinoceros horn and other precious substances such as jade, which had been worn by officials during the Tang Dynasty, were replaced by belt ornaments made of gold, a substance much dearer to the hearts of nomadic peoples. Thus, by the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 C.E.) tastes had changed so much that people said, “Jade is not different from stone, and rhino horn is not different from horn” (Sun, 1982, 83). Perhaps because of this demotion of rhinoceros horn to the generic substance “horn,” a popular belief arose which associated rhinoceros “horn” with narwhal “horn,” an idea nourished by their similar use in Chinese medicine (Laufer, 1913, 333).

These Chinese ideas filtered westward into Central Asia during the 218 years of Khitan (Liao) rule in north China, probably in part via the Kirghiz nomads who, having overthrown the declining Uyghur Turkish Empire in 840 C.E., withdrew westward and resumed their nomadic way of life, moving with their herds across the vast steppes and uplands of Russia (map 14). On the great rivers of Central Eurasia they would have encountered ancient tribes whose livelihood was based on trade in furs and other arctic products such as marine ivory.

Russia and Central Asia Chinese Unicorn

Map 14. Russia and Central Asia

The most important examples are the massive rivers of Siberia, including the Ob-Irtysh, Yenisey and Lena systems, which empty into the Arctic Ocean, which is ice-bound most of the year…. To a considerable extent, movement in the Siberia and European portions of Inner Asia has been able to compensate for these directional debilities by use of land routes between river systems…. Although the limited navigational season on these rivers, ranging from six months in southern Siberia to only three months in the northern parts, was also a serious handicap to transportation, pathways formed by the frozen surfaces of rivers frequently were used for overland type movement. (Taaffe, 1990, 20)

At the same time, the Bulghars succeeded in establishing a direct connection with Turkestan by way of the Yaik (Ural) River. It was by this route that the intrepid traveller Ibn Fadlan set out in 921 C.E. from Khoresm in Central Asia on his famous diplomatic mission to the Volga Bulghars. In fact, much of what we know about the Bulghars we owe to his travel diary (Canard, 1988). Curiously, in this work, he includes an account of a large beast with a single horn in the middle of its head, which the men of that country called the karkadann (rhinoceros-unicorn) (ibid., 69-70). Whether this was a true rhinoceros or not is difficult to determine, but what is clear is that by the tenth century, the Bulghars were familiar with both a one-horned land animal, as well as a single-tusked sea animal.

During the tenth century there was an enormous increase in north-south trade in Western Russia, as the upper Volga offered the Bulghars a line of communication with the Baltic area, and the Kama River with the Ural region and Siberia. Essentially this was a trade in furs, but along with the furs came marine ivory from the arctic shores of Siberia. By this time, Islam, which had been introduced from Central Asia, was well established among the Bulghars. However, prior to their Islamisation, they had continued to use the script of the Chinese and that of the Manichaeans of Central Asia, although none of this has survived. These people also became known as the Black Bulghars in accordance with the Chinese system of directional colours, in which black signifies north (Vernadsky, 1959, 223). Thus, although they were the northernmost Islamic country in the world in the tenth century, and although they were vassals of the Khazars, their strongest ties, in terms of ancestry, trade and religion, were with the Turks and Muslims of Central Asia.

The Bulghars are mentioned by the Arab scholar al-Biruni (973-1048 C.E.) in a work on metals and precious stones in which he discusses a product called al-chutww.

It originates from an animal; it is much in demand, and preserved in the treasuries among the Chinese who assert that it is a desirable article because the approach of poison causes it to exude. It is said to be the bone from the forehead of a bull. Its best quality is the one passing from yellow into green; next comes one like camphor, then the white one, then one coloured like the sun, then one passing into dark-grey. If it is curved, its value is a hundred dinar at a weight of one hundred drams; then it sinks as low as one dinar, regardless of weight. (Laufer, 1913:315)

In this passage, when al-Biruni speaks of the “frontal bone of a bull” which “the approach of poison causes it to exude,” he is clearly echoing ancient Chinese ideas about rhinoceros horn which were summarized in the fourth century by Ge Hong in his Baopuzi.

In another similar treatise, Al-Biruni speaks again about the al-chutww. “It is asserted that it is the frontal bone of a bull living in the country of the Kirghiz who, it is known, belong to the northern Turks. The preference (for the one or other gem) changes with different social strata and peoples” (Laufer 1913, 315). This appears to be a reference to rhinoceros horn, and yet his mention of the nomadic Kirghiz tribes who roamed the vast steppes and uplands of Russia and Central Asia would seem to indicate a northern origin for this kind of al-chutww. Nevertheless, the fact that the horn is discussed in a work on gemstones clearly echoes the ancient Chinese belief that rhino horn was a bao (precious thing). In addition, his comment about the preferences of different social strata for particular gems recalls the connoisseurship of rhinoceros horn belt plaques during the Tang Dynasty. Al-Biruni goes on to say that

The Bulghar bring from the northern sea teeth (nab) of a fish over a cubit long. White knife-hafts (nisab) are sawed out of them for the cutlers [the makers of knives]. The middle portion [of the tooth] is distributed among the single hafts, so that every piece of the tooth has a share in them; it can be seen that they are made from the tooth itself, and not from ivory, or from the chips of its edges. The various designs displayed by it give the appearance of wriggling. Some of our countrymen bring it to Mekka where people regard it as white chutww. The Egyptians crave it and purchase it for a price equal to two hundred times its value (ibid., 316; emphasis added).

This white chutww obviously refers to marine ivory rather than rhino horn, while “the appearance of wriggling” seems to suggest the spiral twistings of narwhal horn. However, regardless of the true identity of al-chutww, the most important aspect of al-Biruni’s text with regard to the alicorn, is that in the Muslim world by the early eleventh century, the “horn” of the rhinoceros and the “horn” of the narwhal were considered to be the same product, chutww horn, which was also known in the Muslim world as khutu- or hutu-horn. This is especially interesting in light of the fact that al-Biruni’s lifetime (973-1048 C.E.) fell within the time frame of the Liao Dynasty (916-1125 C.E.) when marine ivory came to be known by its Khitan name of guduxi or gudu– horn. The similarity between these two terms hutu and gudu would suggest that they both derive from a common, probably Central Eurasian, source.14

It is clear that from an early date in the West, pieces of the “horns” of marine mammals were put to practical use in the decoration of knife handles, in the same way that pieces of rhino “horn” were employed in China during the Tang Dynasty, examples of which have survived in the collections of the Shoso-in in Nara, Japan. In addition, both rhino horn and narwhal horn were considered to be “precious things.” We also know that from very ancient times in China, rhino horn had been used medicinally and as an antidote to the zhen bird’s poison. By the late tenth century in China it is apparent that rhino horn and narwhal horn had become linked in people’s minds, no doubt due to the fact that both “horns” were used for medicine.

By the early eleventh century, this Chinese idea of a connection between the two “horns” had reached the Muslim world, presumably via the Kirghiz and the Bulghars, where they were considered to be the same product, al- chutww. Literary evidence, dated to the beginning of the twelfth century, confirms this idea, for in 1120 C.E. the Persian geographer Marvazi states “that the khutu horn is the horn of the rhinoceros, and vice versa, that the rhinoceros horn is called khutu” (Ettinghausen, 1950, 130). Once this connection was made, ancient Chinese ideas about the magical properties of rhinoceros-unicorn horn were transferred to narwhal horn, and the tusk of the narwhal was transformed into the magical horn of the unicorn in Europe. It is possible, of course, that these ideas arose spontaneously. But if narwhal horn had been actively traded since at least the ninth century in Europe, why it would suddenly acquire supernatural properties in the twelfth?

One of the earliest European scholars to write about the therapeutic and magical aspects of the unicorn was Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179 C.E.) who believed not only that the horn of the unicorn but its entire body was medicinal. She explains how to make an unguent from “the yolks of eggs and powdered unicorn’s liver” as a sovereign remedy for leprosy, and that a belt made of unicorn’s skin will preserve one from fevers and boots made of the same material will provide immunity from plague (Shepard, [1930] 1982, 120-21). Because of such magical beliefs, by the late twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century in Europe, the beautiful spiral tusks of the narwhal were represented as the horns of unicorns in manuscripts of the mediaeval period. (Ettinghausen, 1950, 137 n. 32). During the thirteenth century this Western transfer of ancient Chinese beliefs about the rhinoceros-unicorn horn was greatly accelerated by the Mongol invasions.

In the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, the Mongols under Chinggis Khan (1162?-1227 C.E.) erupted out of Mongolia and began their conquest of Eurasia, thereby creating the largest contiguous land empire in world history which was eventually to stretch from Korea to Hungary. During the reign of his son Ogodei (1229-1241 C.E.), the Mongols conquered and destroyed the Jin Dynasty in north China in 1234, and moved westward into Central Asia, Russia and parts of Western Asia. Because the Mongols were relatively open to foreign influences, there occurred an extraordinary exchange of ideas, products, personnel, and science and technology across Eurasia during the approximately 100 years of Mongol rule, which is known collectively as the “Pax Mongolica” or “Mongolian Peace” (Allsen, 2001).

Among the Mongol ideas which would have impacted the West at this time was their own ancient belief in “animal judgements.” Ruth Meserve cites several examples of stories of the importance of butting animals, both fabulous and real, as decision makers among the both the Mongols and the later Manchus.

The very fact that ‘animal judgements’ occurred well after the period of the ancient Qiang (‘goat’) peoples to find a presence among the medieval Mongol peoples of the 13th century at the beginning of their state formation and then also among the Manchu would suggest that the practice of ‘animal judgements,’ including its use in the ordeal, had enjoyed a wider knowledge and implementation in Inner Asia, preserved not in the codes of law but embedded in historical record. (Meserve, 2001, 96)

In 1255, the Persian Islamic scholar al-Tusi (1201-1274 C.E.) was sent as a negotiator to Hulegu, a grandson of Chingghis who, as Khan of the Mongols, was preparing to conquer Persia. Al-Tusi subsequently joined the entourage of Hulegu as adviser on scientific and religious affairs, and accompanied him on his conquests in the West, witnessing the fall of Baghdad in 1258 C.E. (Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2000, 10, 746). Then al-Tusi, together with the Spanish astronomer al-Maghribi, founded the famous astronomical observatory at Maragha, the Mongol capital in Azerbaijian, which became operational in 1262. This observatory, which was reportedly built with the assistance of Chinese astronomers, attracted many talented scholars and students, and although it only lasted 50 years, “its intellectual legacy had repercussions from China to Europe for centuries to come” (ibid. 751).

Al-Tusi was mainly concerned with religious and ethical matters, but his curiosity also led him to consider many aspects of what was known as “ancient knowledge.” He wrote a famous work on minerals which included chapters on jewels and perfumes, and he was one of the first Muslim scholars to use the expression “snake horn” to refer to marine ivory (Ettinghausen, 1950, 115). Since “snake horn” (guduxi) was a term specific to the Liao Dynasty, this would indicate a direct transmission of Chinese ideas about rhinoceros-unicorn-narwhal horn into the world of Islam. It is possible that this information was provided by visiting Chinese astronomers. But, in addition, the Chinese scholar Chang De was sent by the Emperor Mangu as an envoy to his brother Hulagu in 1259 C.E. Thus al-Tusi and Chang De must have been present at the Mongol court at Maragha at the same time.

The diary of Chang De, which is found in the Xi Shi Ji (Envoy to the Western Regions) edited by Liu Yu, mentions guduxi among the products of the Western Regions [most likely Siberia], and says that it is the horn of a large snake which has the property of neutralizing every poison. Thus it is clear that by the mid-thirteenth century at the latest, the property of neutralizing poison, borrowed from ancient Chinese beliefs in the efficacy of rhinoceros horn, had been transferred to “the horn of the thousand’s years old snake.” This development may also have been the catalyst for a change in the Chinese characters used to designate guduxi so that it meant “gu-poison horn.” Towards the end of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China, Tao Zongyi, writing in his Chuo geng lu (Notes while Ploughing) in 1366 C.E., says “Guduxi is the horn of a large snake, and it is poisonous by nature, it can counteract all poisons, for poison is treated with poison. For this reason it is called guduxi, gu-poison horn.”

This conception that the tusks were horns and the suggestive writing of the word resulted during the Mongol period in the thought development that guduxi was regarded as an efficacious remedy on a par with rhinoceros horn, and like this one could neutralize every poison…. Thus, the final outcome was that guduxi was regarded as a substance closely akin to, or identical with, rhinoceros horn. It is no doubt that this peculiar development of beliefs in China which has imparted itself to the Arabs. (Laufer, 1913, 352-53).

Thus Shepard’s statement that the Arabs had accepted the “spiral twistings” on the horn somewhat earlier than the Europeans makes perfect sense.

We know that the most salient feature in Chinese images of the mythic goat-unicorn zhi is its long straight horn. In addition, representations of karkadann rhinoceros-unicorns in Islamic art, “seem to indicate that the Muslims usually regarded the horn of the rhinoceros as long and straight” (Ettinghausen, 1950, 110). However, in some early Muslim images of the twelfth to fourteenth century, the horn of the karkadann is shown with distinct striations (ibid., plates). It is possible that the source of these “rings” on the karkadann’s horn were the horns of the male Tibetan ‘antelope’ chiru, which, as we have seen, has 15-20 distinct ridges on its anterior surface. In addition, the unicorns in Jin Dynasty images are clearly antelope-unicorns, and this would suggest a strong Tibetan influence. Since the Mongols conquered the Jin Dynasty before they began their invasion of the Islamic world, the concept of an antelope-unicorn with a “ringed” horn may well have travelled westward with them.

We have examined the history of the Bulghars, and seen how deep were their ancestral and religious connections with China and Central Asia long before the Pax Mongolica, so there is no reason to doubt that Chinese beliefs about rhinoceros-unicorn horn were transferred across Eurasia into the Muslim world, and from there, via the trade routes across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, into Europe. Realistically, there was no need for these Chinese ideas to be attached to the tusk of the narwhal, since the Vikings and the Bulghars, who were the principal Western traders in marine ivory from the arctic, knew exactly what it was. However, from the early thirteenth century, when the Mongol Empire inextricably linked Asia to Europe in a manner never seen before, the fabulous properties of Chinese rhinoceros-unicorn horn became attached to narwhal horn, thereby magically transforming the spiral tooth of the narwhal into the horn of the mythic unicorn in the West.

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