The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers

The Natural History of UnicornsHow, you might ask, can there possibly be a Natural History of Unicorns? Chris Lavers takes as his point of departure the assumption that unicorn myths have their basis in real, non-unicorned beasts. The rhinoceros, the kiang, the chiru, the okapi: all have a connection with unicorn myths, and much of the book is devoted to tales of nineteenth century explorers from Europe uncovering the unknown in Asia and Africa, and looking to fill out the details of stories passed down since the ancient Greeks and before.

The rest of the book is generally given to telling those stories, to examining the different mythologies springing up in different cultures at different times that are related to unicorns or related to each other. Christian unicorn myths, Muslim unicorn myths, Zoroastrian tales of a one-horned ass, that sort of thing. And lots of exploration into the pharmacological properties of unicorn horns.

Both of those lines of inquiry are very interesting, and have a definite place in a natural history of unicorns. But the overwhelming problem with this book is its organization. After starting with the Greeks and getting some very interesting information about the Christian unicorn motif, we go off on a diversion about khutu, which may or may not be unicorn horn—that is to say, of course it isn’t, but people may or may not have thought it was—and what it really is, and by the time we get to the end of that we have no idea where we were to begin with. And throughout we run into accounts from the same explorers, interspersed from chapter to chapter, each chapter with a different topic—couldn’t their travels have been explained chronologically? Jumping from topic to topic rather than going forward through time became very confusing for this reader.

Then, the final chapter, on “ancestral unicorns,” makes the disorganization feel even worse. Here we jump far back in time, to before the ancient Greeks. We touch on the epic of Gilgamesh, and then on Enki, an ancient Babylonian god, who seems to date (though it’s not entirely clear) to sometime around the third millennium BC. Then the Persians and Zoroastrianism, which begins around 600 BC. But when Lavers is summing up, he talks about the beliefs of ancient Iran, and “meanwhile,” those of ancient Iraq. Well, that doesn’t sound very “meanwhile” to me—but more importantly it simply adds to the general chronological confusion. Lavers tries to explain in several places the direction of diffusion of unicorn mythology but it becomes a lot more difficult to do when you don’t get the chronology more explicitly straight.

Worse, his penultimate paragraph mentions that “[i]f your unicorn is large and horselike, heraldry and its secular offshoots are probably to blame” (as opposed to if your unicorn is small and goatlike, in which case you’ve been more influenced by Christianity)—but this is the only mention made of heraldry and secular unicorns!

The organizational problems are mirrored in some smaller-scale editing problems too. “Foreign-looking people were often used in Christian art to represent people of other nations.” And some repetitive items here and there as well. I hate to sound so down on this, because it is cute and fun, but I believe it could have been much tighter. Still, the historical and mythological parts are interesting, and it’s a relaxed and congenial little microhistory.