If you happen to find yourself in the Northern UK city of Sheffield, with a few hours to spare, then it’s well worth a little tramp up the hill to the Weston Park museum. There is much to be learned here of the natural sciences, a little history and social history, and you may even find the odd whiff of Pharoah’s tomb has made it this far north.
My favourite exhibit is something of a rarity, and not something you might immediately expect in a city not renowned for it’s closeness to the sea: the horn of a Narwhal.
A child may be easily fooled into thinking that this beautiful object, that is gradually tapered along its entire 6 or 7ft length, with a twisting spiral showing the direction and impulse of growth, is, in fact, the horn of the legendary unicorn. It is not surprising that these objects apparently circulated the courts of Europe prior to the ages of discovery, shown to wondering monarchs as proof of the legendary beast’s existence.
The display case actually allows you to reach in and feel the wondrous item for yourself. Of course, it is ivory, a mammalian ‘tooth’ and therefore is undeniably pleasing to the touch. Ivory has always been highly prized by craftsmen as its internal structure makes it a near-perfect medium for delicate carving. That coupled with its lovely ‘feel’ made it become the material of choice for piano keys and knife handles.
Narwhals and Unicorns have Been Revered Throughout History
Queen Elizabeth the First was given a great bejeweled Narwhal tusk as a gift once upon a time, and I wonder if it is still in the possession of the present monarch. Rumour has it that Cromwell’s men had it and destroyed it because they thought ill of it, but I must confess I find it unlikely that it could have been destroyed. Stolen seems more believable.
Of course, Narwhal horns are generally no longer attached to the Narwhal, and it is, therefore, impossible to say for certain that some of them are not, in fact, unicorn horns. Given mankind’s love of hunting, it seems not entirely impossible that no trace of the unicorn remains simply because they were hunted out of existence. The same thing nearly happened to the whale and the elephant both.
One feels, though that the prodigious size of the Narwhal horn would surely make it unwieldy in the extreme, even if attached to a very large horse indeed! No doubt the buoyancy of the Narwhal’s home element is what allows it to develop and carry such a prodigious appendage.
So, even though we are assured by our good men of science that the unicorn is, and always has been nothing but a figment of our collective imaginations, the Narwhal horn still exerts a wild fascination when you are in the presence of one. What miraculous process evolution must be, must life itself be, to produce so beautiful and so solid an object as these gorgeous spiraling horns. Many people today simply love unicorns. Narwhals apparently use them to gather information about the waters around them. As anyone who has ever held a taught elastic band in the teeth and plucked will know, the teeth are miraculous transmitters of sound. Given the cetaceans propensity for singing and communicating underwater, we must assume that the Narwhal can hear a great many things thanks to its horn.