DURING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY it was still widely believed in the West that the Unicorn was a real creature, or at least had been in the not too distant past. Griffins, giants, dragons and basilisks had long been banished to the realms of myth and fantasy, but at the century's close it was still possible for quite respected (if anachronistic) scholars to argue in favour of the Unicorn's existence, even enlisting Darwinian theory in support, without being totally ridiculed (as did Charles Gould in his 1886 book Mythical Monsters). Despite its dubious science this book is one of the most valuable sources of information on the Oriental unicorn because Gould worked from original sources in China with local scholars.

Alice and the Unicorn

However, the believers were swimming against a growing tide of scepticism that had been emanating from the scientific community for the past hundred and more years. So when, in Alice Through the Looking Glass, Alice met a Unicorn taking a break from his great battle with the Lion, the result was mutual astonishment. The Unicorn recovered first.

'What . . . is . . . this?' he said at last.
'This is a child,' he was told. 'We only found it today. It's large as life, and twice as natural.'
'I always thought they were fabulous monsters,' said the Unicorn. 'Is it alive?'
'It can talk,' he was assured solemnly.
The Unicorn looked dreamily at Alice, and said 'Talk, child.'
Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began, 'Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters too? I never saw one alive before.'
'Well, now that we have seen each other,' said the Unicorn, 'if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?'

THE PERSON CREDITED WITH STARTING THE ROT in belief in Unicorns was the great French naturalist Baron Georges Leopold Cuvier (1769 - 1832), famous for his pioneering work on dinosaur fossils. In a commentary on Pliny's Natural History he pronounced that in his opinion a cloven-hoofed ruminant, such as the Unicorn was supposed to be, could not possibly have a single horn because it would have to grow over a division of the bone of its forehead.


This theory had previously been advanced by some German scholars without great effect, but such was the strength of Cuvier's reputation that for many scientists it seemed like the last word on the subject. The debate over the existence of Unicorns was over and done with for most scientists, yet reports continued to come in from the Far East and Africa. This suggested that while Cuvier may well have expressed a general truth, exceptions were perhaps possible. In Europe itself the occasional surfacing of Unicorn rams has been reliably reported since the fifth century BC when the head of one was brought to Pericles, ruler of Athens, from one of his estates. As an omen it was read as signalling, correctly as it happens, his imminent victory over a bitter political rival. The association possibly arose in part because Pericles himself suffered from a curious backward elongation of the skull that led most sculptors to portray him wearing a helmet.

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Such sports of nature continue to appear from time to time in the media today. As they did a century ago with the closely-documented gift of two one-horned sheep from Nepal to the Prince of Wales that were exhibited at the London Zoological Gardens in 1906. These animals were almost certainly not just the result of nature playing games. According to the British Resident of the time at the Nepalese Court: 'There is no special breed of one-horned sheep in Nepal, nor are the specimens which have been brought here for sale freaks. By certain maltreatment ordinary two-horned sheep are converted...I am told that the object of producing these curiosities is to obtain fancy prices for them from the wealthy people of Nepal.'

Rumours of similar practices have also emanated from Africa which, while they tell us nothing about the supposed wild Unicorns of Ethiopia, may well explain how the Emperor there was able to present so many tame ones to fellow potentates in Europe.

Dr Dove's unicorn bull in his prime Click for more

Such rumours and possibilities were known to Dr W. Franklin Dove of Maine University who in the 1930s also spotted a flaw in Cuvier's reasoning. Cuvier, it seems, had assumed that horns grew out of the skull, whereas they actually start as unattached bits of tissue which later root themselves in it. The positioning of horns is quite open to natural or artificial variation, so Unicorns, Dove reasoned, were not a total contradiction of the laws of nature.

To test this, in 1933 he took a day-old Ayrshire calf, surgically removed its horn buds, trimmed them to fit together and replanted them in the centre of its forehead. As the young bull grew, the buds fused and produced a single solid, straight and pointed horn a foot or so in length which proved equally useful for fighting and uprooting fences, far superior in fact to the usual brace of curved ones when it comes to confronting a rival.

Dr Dove's unicorn bull
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Dr Dove's Unicorn bull became the leader of its herd and was very rarely challenged by other males. Which is not altogether surprising if you think about it. When bulls charge each other the main aim (as with male deer) is to crack skulls until one or other can take no more. Charging towards an enemy who has a spike aimed right between your eyes is a different game altogether. So effective was the single horn that one almost wonders why evolution did not do Dr Dove's work for him.

An interesting side effect of the experiment was the nature of the bull's temperament. Being secure in his strength led him to become unusually gentle and mild mannered, echoing what has so often been said of the true Unicorn's nature.

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Dr Dove published the results of his experiment in an article titled The Physiology of Horn Growth in the Journal of Experimental Zoology (Jan 1935, Vol 69, No 3); and another Artificial Production of the Fabulous Unicorn in Scientific Monthly (May 1936, Volume 42; Pages 431-436).

More recently, around 1980 the American media stirred to rumours of live unicorns being shown at various alternative fairs and festivals around the US. This culminated in 1984 with the creatures going on show in the Ringling Bros/Barnum & Bailey Circus. They were in fact unicorn goats produced in California according to Dr Dove's method by two mystics called Otter and Morning Glory G'Zell. When the truth of the matter came out they were widely accused of fraud and interest in the creatures rapidly died away.

Below is Lancelot, the first of several unicorns created by Morning Glory and Otter G'Zell (also known as Timothy).

Unicorn goat Otter Otter and Morning Glory

While below is a fake unicorn made by Damien Hirst in 2008 and titled The Dream.

Damien Hirst's The Dream 2008 Damien Hirst's The Dream 2008