Monday, May 20, 2013

The Halle unicorn

In the southern parts of the German speaking lands the earth produced amazing things. It was not uncommon for brewers, storing their beer in cool caves, to come across the skulls of enormous bears or miners to bring up pieces of brown coal with the images of leaves miraculously pressed into them. In 1577 an oak tree near Luzern was knocked over in a storm and beneath its roots were revealed bones which the famous surgeon Felix Platter asserted were those of a man nineteen feet tall. In 1605 a horn of extraordinary size and beauty was discovered in the ground near the Free City of Halle in Swabia.

The horn could have been sold. There were many buyers for such oddities. This was not an unusual fate for something unique. Many churches had collections of unusual objects that were brought out on holy days to impress the parishioners with God's majestic and mysterious ways. In time, weather and handling would destroy such objects--there was a moral lesson in that, too. The Halle horn was different. Some cleric or town father decided that it was special enough that they arranged for a permanent display; it was placed in a frame of iron that was hoisted up high in the church of St. Michael above the town market. There, no one could damage it.

The Halle horn. Source.

Near the frame, they posted a poem:

Tausend Sechshundert und Fünff Jahr,
Den Dreyzehend Febuarii ich gefunden war,
Bey Neubronn an dem Hällischen Land,
Um Bühler Fluss zur lincken Hand,
Samt grossen Knochen und lang Gebein,
Sag Lieber, was Arth ich mag seyn.

One thousand six hundred and five years,
The thirteenth of February I was found,
At Neubronn in the Hall country,
On the left bank of the Bühler River,
With me were large bones and long bones,
Tell me dear, what might I be.

I doubt that it was a serious question with big cash prizes. The poem was just a bit of fun. The frame made clear what the correct answer was. It was a unicorn horn.

In those years, the learned men of Europe had begun questioning the reality of the unicorn as an animal. No one had ever seen or captured a unicorn. Biblical and Classical scholars questioned whether the word unicorn in ancient texts really meant the same thing as the animal pictured in Medieval bestiaries. Dutch and Portuguese travellers brought back descriptions of the rhinoceros, an animal that could convincingly be argued to have been the source of the legends.

What was less questioned was the existence of the substance called unicorn horn. No apothecary's kit was complete with out a good supply of powdered unicorn horn. It had 1001 uses. The most important was as a protection against and an antidote to poison. Although the heyday of Renaissance poisoning was past, anyone who was anyone still had someone who wanted them dead and it was better to be safe than dead. Over the years, many substances had been marketed as real unicorn horn. Unscrupulous doctors had been
known to grind up teeth and bones and even chalk and market it as the real thing. The learned professors were not sure what true unicorn horn was. Some said it was the strangely twisted tooth of a kind of whale found near Greenland and Iceland. Others said it was a kind of subterranean ivory called "unicornu fossili" or "ebur fossili" that was dug up in southern Germany. You can guess which position was favored in around Swabian Halle.

Taking all that into consideration, maybe the riddle was serious as well as playful. Look again at the frame. The two unicorns in the ironwork have long thin and straight horns as different as possible from the wide horn that curls around them. Maybe the unicorns are not the answer but, rather, a hint. The correct answer is not "a unicorn's horn;" it's "unicorn horn." The medicinal properties of unicorn horn are acknowledged by the metaphorical figure on the right who holds the Rod of Asclepius, the serpent encircled baton that symbolizes healing. The allegorical figure to the left of the horn holds a celestial sphere, possibly signifying the astrological element that was still believed to be an important part of healing.*

The horn was still there over a century later. St Michaels survived a siege during the Thirty Years War and it survived two major city fires that destroyed over a third of the city. During the rebuilding that followed the fire of 1728, many pieces of unicornu fossile were dug up. This got Friedrich Hoffman, a professor at the university and the German who identified German measles, thinking about the ivory. By Hoffman's time the belief in the medicinal power of unicornu fossili was on it's way out.

When he wrote down his thoughts a few years after the fire, Hoffman was writing the final chapter on unicorn horn. He wrote a review of the literature of the previous century and gave himself the task of figuring out just what unicornu fossili had been. His conclusion was that it had been many things. He was inclined to think much of it had been jokes of nature, objects formed inside the earth that mimicked the appearance of bones, shells, and human artifacts. He also concluded that some real elephant ivory had been found in Germany and elsewhere Ernst Tenzel had identified beyond any doubt the skeleton of an elephant found at Burgtonna thirty years earlier. The ivory found in Russia called "mammont" was also most likely from elephants. And, despite it's extreme curve, he was sure the horn in St. Michael's was also an elephant's tusk.

The Michaelskirche Mammutzahn today. Source.

The church of St. Michael has survived three more centuries. Though the industrial revolution mostly bypassed Halle and thousands of her citizens emigrated, the church was never allowed to fall into disrepair. Even though the Allies bombed the nearby rail station and Luftwaffe base, the old town was mostly spared. Today tourism helps maintain the church. And the horn is still there. Though it is clarly a mommoth horn. the town hasn't given up on its unicorn heritage. Halle is home to a American style football team. The name of the team is the Unicorns.

If anyone can help with the other two symbols or any other aspects of the allegorical figures, let me know. 

1 comment:

John McKay said...

That was the highest res image I could find. I puzzled over the device, too. It seems to include the liquid filled glass that the other is holding. Another problem with the muses is that I don't know whether they are really there in the church or if they only exist on the essay's frontispiece. There are 130 years between the two and the message that the allegorical figures are meant to convey could be completely different depending on the time period.