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The Vikings cheated all over Europe with a whimsical scam

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For centuries, the Vikings and their descendants made huge sums of money selling horns from unicorns. No one has ever seen the fabulous animal, but it is said that the creature's long, twisted growth in the forehead can cure diseases and purify water. Even small pieces of the horn cost a fortune.

After five months of sailing to northernmost Canada, the Englishman Martin Frobisher returned to England on 23 September 1577 with the cargo full of 200 tons of ore.
The daring explorer assumed that the black rock fragments in the cargo of his ship contained gold in large quantities, but he was disappointed.
Upon closer examination by knowledgeable professionals, the ore turned out to be worthless sulfur ore - also known as fool gold.

The stones ended their days as filling material in England's potholed roads, but fortunately Frobisher had a trump card that would surely get Queen Elizabeth I of England and all the expedition's other sponsors to support a new trip to Canada.

In a letter to the Queen, Frobisher described the most valuable treasure he had found high to the north - a horn from an animal. But not just any animal: "This horn is twisted and like a wax candle and probably belonged to a sea unicorn."

The horn of the sea unicorn gifted Frobisher to the queen, who placed it with her crown jewels, for in the late 16th century nothing was more valuable than the horn of a unicorn. Rich princes paid fortunes for the long, twisted status symbols, and only a single one cost the same as a castle.

Scandinavian traders, who supply Europe with unicorn horns, profited badly from the business, but it was all one big scam.

The Vikings sold fake horns

The unicorn horn scam can be traced all the way back to the Viking Age. During their colonization of Greenland in the 1000s, the Vikings encountered the narwhal, which carries a long, twisted tusk in its forehead. The tusk was reminiscent of the horn that, according to medieval legends, sat on the head of the unicorn.

Who got the idea for the scam of calling the narwhal's tusk for unicorn horns, no one knows, but soon Vikings with trading talent began to sell it for outrageous prices to merchants and princes throughout Europe. The hoax remained a well-kept secret, for for the next 500 years only the Vikings and their Scandinavian descendants traveled far enough north to meet narwhals.

Only in Frobisher's time did the rest of Europe begin to navigate the icy waters north of Canada in search of the Northwest Passage - the shortcut to China's fine silk and India's coveted spices. When Frobisher's expedition docked at Christopher Hall Island in 1577, an island in the waters between Greenland and Canada, his men found a dead narwhal on the beach.

Such a creature the English sailors had never seen before, but the horn seemed familiar. Therefore, Frobisher baptized in the absence of better animal sea unicorn.

The unicorn was mentioned in the Bible

Frobisher's somewhat hasty conclusion was not an indication that the English explorer was particularly simple - he simply relied on the Bible, which clearly wrote that the unicorn existed.

In the Bible, the beast was even mentioned seven times, and for 16th-century believers, it settled the matter - of course, the unicorn was a real creature.

That the fabled beast ended up in the Bible by mistake, Frobisher could not possibly know. The error occurred even before the rise of Christianity - around the year 250 BC, when the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy II ordered 72 Jewish scribes to translate their holy scriptures from Hebrew into Greek so that he could better understand them. During the translation, the Jews encountered a problem. Their lyrics had several references to an animal called "Re'em".

In Hebrew, the beast was described as tame, strong, and fearsome. But no one knew what creature it was. Modern biblical scholars believe that the Jewish texts probably refer to the two-horned aurochs that were already extinct in Ptolemy's time in North Africa and the Middle East.

The original Jewish texts do not mention that the animal had a special horn, but Pharaoh's scribes still chose to name the animal "monoceros", which can be translated as "a horn". The translation was continued when the Jewish texts became the Old Testament.

Scientists described the fabled beast

In addition to the Bible, explorers like Frobisher could look up the unicorn in so-called bestiaries - scientific books about the world's wildlife. Bestiaries were especially popular in the Middle Ages, but even in the Renaissance, in which Frobisher lived, Europe's elite read these colorful works on everything from horses and cows to dragons, the Bird Phoenix and the Unicorn.

Most bestiaries were characterized by the total lack of fieldwork and observation of animals in the wild. Instead, the authors most often sat in their homes, basing their works on older texts. Especially the Roman politician and author Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) was popular reading, and he described the unicorn in colorful terms:

“The unicorn is the deadliest animal in the world and it is impossible to catch one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a red deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a wild boar and a horned ox, three feet long, in the middle of the forehead ”.

The Bible and the bestiaries removed all doubt. Although no European had encountered a true unicorn, the stories of the creature had to be the apparent truth.

Superstition benefited sales

Precisely in Martin Frobisher's time, the popularity of unicorn horns peaked. After centuries of lucrative trade in the commodity in demand, Scandinavian merchants were blessed with a book that raised prices to astronomical heights. In 1508, the Italian adventurer and voyage of discovery Ludovico di Varthema published the story of his more than five-year voyage in the Middle East and Asia.

The book contained a description of the magical abilities of the unicorn horn, which Varthema had seen with his own eyes in the world's most powerful man at the time, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
“Horns from the unicorn counteract plague, soot and poison. It expels measles and smallpox and cures epilepsy in children ”.

According to Varthema, the doctors of the time and not least the Scandinavian sellers, there was not the disease that the horns could not cure, Varthema wrote. During the 16th century, his book was translated into all major European languages, and now the entire elite of Europe could read Varthema's captivating description of the effect of the unicorn horn.

The Scottish Queen Maria Stuart (1542-1587) bought in expensive judgments a piece of a unicorn horn in France. With the play, she tested her food for poison every day as she feared being forgiven by her numerous enemies. Until the French Revolution in 1789, a servant dipped a piece of unicorn horn into the French king's glass - to prevent poisoning. Other rushing rich nobles and royalty got whole mugs made from unicorn horns - just to be on the safe side.

The hornet's alleged ability to purify water caused even wealthy churches to place a small piece in their altar vessels.

The unicorn fever gripped Europe

An Italian author visited England in the 16th century and described the country's rich monasteries that "own unicorn horns of extraordinary sizes". Not only among religious did he notice the inclination of the English to the coveted horn. Nobles wore small pieces of unicorn horns, either as part of their clothes or as jewelry, and when they sat down at the table, their cutlery, table decorations and tableware were also richly decorated with unicorn horns, he recounted.

With so much positive publicity, the prices of unicorn horns rose again, and their flight to heaven is perhaps best illustrated by Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England in Frobisher's time. In a statement of her values, a unicorn horn was mentioned as the first and most important.

German lawyer Paul Hentzner visited the Queen's court and was shown the horn, which he estimated to be worth £ 10,000. The King of France owned a horn that was said to be worth twice as much. For such enormous sums a king could buy a city or build a larger fortress. Not only the horn but also the unicorn itself became a popular symbol of power and wealth.

Artists painted countless pictures of the hunt for the noblest of all animals and virgins, who as the only ones could tame the unicorn. Any self-respecting castle made sculptors make a statue of a steep unicorn to throne over the entrance. London's goldsmiths put the horse with the horn in its forehead on the signs above their shops, and numerous European noble families had the animal adorn their coat of arms.

A Dane shot down the myth

Belief in the unicorn and its magical horns lasted until the Danish scientist Ole Worm in 1638 investigated the matter. Worm was a renowned scientist who had already refuted the myth that lemmings spontaneously emerged out of pure nothingness - they clearly multiplied in the same way as other rodents.

Worm studied unicorn horns more closely and could soon conclude that it was in fact the narwhal's tusk. The news of Worm's research spread only slowly in Europe, but caused the price to plummet where it reached. A unicorn horn in Charles I of England's collection had in 1630 been valued at 8,000 pounds. In 1659 - well over 20 years after Worm's revelation - the estimate was a paltry 600 pounds.

Although Worm proved that the horns were derived from narwhals, he was convinced that they had healing powers. Among other things, the twisted horns from narwhals continued to be popular status symbols for another century - and were used as medicine until the 19th century.

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