A popular creature of legend and lore, the unicorn has been imagined and interpreted in many ways from antiquity to the present day. While different versions of the ‘unicorn’ existed across Eurasia, the rendition most familiar to Western iconography and pop culture emerged from the European tradition. This unicorn was not viewed as a creature of mere whimsy or fancy as it carried much symbolic significance in both sacred and secular contexts. As a result, there was great demand for unicorn paraphernalia, with the most prized item being the horn itself, and it was a truly wealthy individual indeed who could show off their collection of unicorn horn products. Where did these horns come from? How does one sell/buy something that doesn’t exist? This talk will dive into the connections between mythology, religion, trade, and natural history to explore how the tooth of a marine mammal could transform into one of the most expensive pieces of medieval naturalia as it journeyed from the waters of the Arctic Sea to the splendor of medieval courts.
Carolyn Willekes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of General Education at Mount Royal University. She received her PhD from the Department of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses primarily on equines in the ancient Mediterranean world, but she also has an interest in the broader cultural perspectives of animals and the human-animal relationship.