Unicorn Horns: A Viking Con Job?

unicornNarwhal

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What if Vikings, whose settlements stretched across the northern medieval world, used legends of unicorns to swindle the kings of Europe out of their coffers, all the while skimping out on giving the proto-Inuits their fair share of the profits?

I would like to informally propose that such a scheme was happening throughout much of the medieval period. While I must admit I have no evidence to directly support this claim, the idea of it is almost as entrancing as the unicorn mythology itself.

For starters, it is commonly perceived that one theory for the existence of unicorn horns is that they were not, in fact, taken from horned quadrupeds, but narwhals. Since narwhals, whose tusks are majestic, tend to live in the northern reaches of the world, particularly around Baffin Island, Greenland, and the islands of Northern Canada, they would not have been out of sight of Norse settlements.

Patricia Sutherland, a Canadian archaeologist featured in this article in National Geographic magazine, believes certain tell-tale signs indicate that Vikings settled Baffin Island. I would be willing to believe her claim–particularly since it confirms the allusion to a Norse settlement on Baffin Island in John Dee’s Limites Imperii Britanici. Although this work is filled with dubious historical allusions to the Norse island of Estotiland (roughly corresponding to Baffin Island or Labrador), it would make a great story if legends of Estotiland were based on some truth. Perhaps Sutherland’s findings have something to do with a forgotten Norse kingdom located in Northern Canada.

At around 1300-1500AD, Vikings would have had contact with the Dorset culture. Although the small bands of proto-Inuit would have been on the decline territorially, they would have been resourceful traders and hunters of narwhal. Furthermore, a Viking settlement in the cold lands of Baffin Island, if one did exist, would have had a hard time trying to survive without some kind of exchange with the locals.

What if the European settlers saw the narwhal horns that the Dorsets collected–presumably from which they carved tools or jewellery–and saw in them instead an opportunity to get rich?

The fascinating possibility is that Vikings, or some other north-sailing tribe, might have either traded these horns with the Dorsets or hunted the whales themselves. In the North, narwhal tusks would have been valuable enough, in a utilitarian or decorative way. But down South, the horns had legendary, even religious significance and could be sold for an amount to make a weary Arctic sailor very wealthy indeed.

Surely if we accept the hypothesis that many unicorn horns are, in fact, narwhal tusks, then there must have been some form of trading and bartering between the north and south by someone. Seeing these tusks as evidence for the existence of unicorns, royal buyers would have inflated their real value according to their perceptions of the mythology, legends, and magical lore surrounding these beasts. This would make the market strategy of the Vikings, or whatever culture did these tradings, an early example of commodity fetishism.

If we suppose that someone, either a merchant or the hunter of the narwhal himself, must have knowingly traded the narwhal tusk, knowing it was a tusk, with a European who thought it was a unicorn horn, then what we have is a case of first class deception. What we have is the fostering of belief in a legend for the sake of mercantile prosperity.

“What is the profit margin of a legend?” writes Brian Attebery in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.”  Though the fantasy critic uses this rhetorical question to make the point that universal stories can never have a price tag attached to them, that the value of stories runs beyond the economic draw of capitalism, this Viking con game of narwhal tusks and unicorn horns threatens to challenge that idea. The right kind of  legend, it seems, can indeed draw a profit–although it will, of course, remain impossible to calculate the total net profit of something so abstract as a story.

I don’t know if it was the Vikings who did this. I don’t know if the system of deception was that systematic. But I’d like to propose that if the Dorsets were involved, they got a poor share from the deal. Since their culture did not have arrowheads, it may have been that the Vikings traded arrows for tusks, which they sold to the kings of Norway, Scotland, and England for chests filled with gold. I doubt they ever returned to give the “pygmies” or “Skraelings” two pence of what they made.

I hope that the whole narwhal horn trade inspires future archaeologists and historians to pursue solid evidence about this, albeit hypothetical, transaction.

In the meanwhile, I believe this will make a great short story one day.

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Picture Credits:

Narwhal: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Narwhal.jpg

Unicorn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicorn

Viking: https://www.flickr.com/

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2 comments on “Unicorn Horns: A Viking Con Job?

  1. Pamela Courtney says:

    Hello Matthew. I enjoyed your post and wanted to ask, if you had a primary source for your information? Did you contact Patricia Sutherland for any of your info. I am writing a children’s picture book on this amazing animal and would like to talk to you more if that is possible. Again, thoroughly enjoyed your post.

    • Are you talking about illustrating narwhals or unicorns? They are both rather amazing animals! I have no personal contact with Sutherland, but you have a link to the National Geographic article I refer to, which discusses her Baffin Island find. She doesn’t really discuss narwhals or unicorns since she is an archaeologist. But there is one NG article on narwhals from August 2007 entitled “Arctic Ivory.” You can likely find it on the site. I have no sources on unicorns. All the vague historical speculations that Vikings were involved as middlemen in the exchange are just my own fancy, so I have no primary source for the rest of the article (except for the John Dee book). My article is meant to ask, “What if?” and is sort of an exploration of an idea for an alternate history fantasy story I was thinking of publishing. I hope that answers your questions and that your children’s book goes well!

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