The Great Viking Unicorn Hoax
How an outlawed murderer laid the foundations for one of the biggest frauds in history
In the Middle Ages, unicorns were real. In the literal sense. It said so in the bible — nine times in five books through three translations. And to suggest otherwise would have been heresy — which often carried a death sentence.
Besides, the evidence was everywhere. Just ask the right people. Rich folk would have been delighted to show you their unicorn horns (also known as alicorn).
Ivan the Terrible, the Russian czar, had a staff made of alicorn. Likewise for the hilt of a sword carried by Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Ditto for the shaft of a scepter among the Austrian Hapsburgs’ crown jewels. Also, much of the supporting structure of Denmark’s throne. Even bishops and archbishops leaned on crosiers supported by staffs of alicorn.
In 1577, Martin Frobisher presented Queen Elizabeth with a rare gift. The horn of a sea-unicorn , discovered on one of his attempts to find the fabled Northwest Passage. She prized it so much she kept it with the crown jewels. And when Sir Humphrey Gilbert offered her another one she snapped it up for a whopping £10,000.
For perspective, she could have bought a castle with that.
It got to the point that a royal household without any unicorn swag was just passé.
Today, because science, we know unicorns never existed. It’s easy to look back and giggle at the folly of the insanely rich. But still, several questions remain. Where did these horns come from? What made them so distinctive? And why were they so bloody expensive?
For answers, let’s to jump back to the late tenth century and spend some time with the Vikings.
Erik’s epic northern adventures
Even by Viking standards, Eiríkr Thorvaldsson moved around a fair bit. Born in Norway in 950, his family moved when he was only ten. His father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, had been banished for committing manslaughter. They settled in Iceland where Eiríkr became better known as Erik the Red. This nickname either referred to his hair color or his destined-to-become-legendary short temper. Take your pick.
In 982 Erik killed a man named Eyiolf the Foul who’d killed some of Erik’s slaves. His punishment? A three year banishment. Before leaving, Erik married his sweetheart — Thjodhild — and moved to the Icelandic island of Öxney.
Soon after, he got into a property dispute with a neighbor. This quarrel resulted in copious amounts of bloodshed. When the matter was officially resolved, Erik was outlawed for three years.
Viking outlaws had it somewhat tougher than cowboy outlaws ever did. The law did not extend to them. At all. So, if someone with vengeance in their heart decided death by torture was suitable payback, that was their prerogative.
Having wronged so many of late, Erik decided to head out in search of less-populated territory.
Most Europeans — flat-Earthers and proud — already assumed Iceland sat dangerously close to the edge of the world. But Erik knew better. He’d heard the stories of Gunnbjörn Ulfsson who, blown off-course by a sudden storm around the year 900, discovered a huge island to the northwest of Iceland. Indeed, if you climb Snaefell — Iceland’s tallest peak — on a clear day, that island is plainly visible on the horizon.
So, Erik the outlaw set sail, making landfall on what we know today as Greenland. With luck, he landed on the western shore, the only strip of the island that was neither permafrost nor glacier.
Erik spent the next three years exploring. And remarkably, he didn’t die of scurvy.
Viking life in Greenland
His exile up, Erik returned to Iceland as a conquering hero and made immediate plans for a return trip. He talked the place up and tried to convince others to go with him and start a new colony. He came up with the name Greenland, trying to make it sound more appealing to the Icelanders.
But he needn’t have worried. Many Icelandic farmers were having a hard time living off the land and found Erik’s promise of verdant, virgin soil too enticing to resist.
In the spring of 985, Erik set off again for Greenland at the head of a 25-ship flotilla. But if anything, the 700-mile crossing of the Denmark Strait is more treacherous after the winter sea ice recedes. A devilish stew of pack ice and icebergs laid waste to his fleet, only allowing 14 or 15 to reach the far shore.
Unpacking the legend of the unicorn
The unicorn first appears in a book called Indika by Ctesias, a fifth century BC Greek scholar of natural history. In his account, the unicorn was a fleet-footed wild ass from India with a single horn. It is not — as some might suspect — a creature of Greek myth like the Pegasus. Medieval scholars took Ctesias’s word as law.
It appears as if the legend of the unicorn as we know it today may be a classic example of things getting lost in translation. India has no unicorn legend. There are, however, some surviving relics from that time that feature a bull standing in profile. As such, you only see one of his horns. And it could be growing straight out of his head.
Biblical unicorns could be referencing to a similar beast. In the original Hebrew Bible, it’s called a re’em. It doesn’t become a unicorn until the Latin Vulgate Bible appears in the fourth century. More recent translations often replace all reference to unicorns with wild oxen.
Some of the more intriguing parts of the unicorn legend are the magical and medicinal attributes of alicorn. Cups and cutlery were often made of “horn” for its alleged power to detect and neutralize poisons.
And ingesting alicorn could supposedly cure all manner of diseases. Depression, rabies, the plague. Apothecaries claimed it could put an end to erectile dysfunction. And according to rumor, it could even resurrect the dead. In 1546, Martin Luther called out for it on his death bed.
Meanwhile, back in Greenland
Despite the harsh climate, the Viking colony on Greenland thrived. The population grew to somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000, and Erik the Red reigned as their head of state. Which probably suited the former outlaw just fine.
Erik’s son, Leif Erikson, soon got bitten by the exploration bug as well. He established the first known — albeit short-lived — European colony in North America in the year 1000. Erik had meant to join Leif on his voyage, but he fell from his horse on the way to the boats. Though not seriously injured, he took it as a bad omen and decided to stay behind.
Within a couple of years, new settlers to Greenland brought a sickness with them which decimated the population. Before Leif could return to play the conquering hero himself, Erik would succumb to disease.
Please note that even with all this expansion, Viking traditions were already losing steam. Leif, the brave explorer, was also a convert to Christianity. As belief in the new God spread among the Vikings like a virus, it sounded the death knell of Viking culture as we know it. 
Enter the narwhal
Remember when Erik didn’t die of scurvy? Well, his survival points to a deeper mystery that helps tie all these loose strands together.
Scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency. And not a lot of citrus trees grow near the arctic circle. Without some form of vitamin C intake, Erik would have been symptomatic within weeks and dead within months.
Of course, Vikings wouldn’t have known about vitamins in those days. The Royal Navy wouldn’t figure out that sailors needed citrus juice until 1795–800 years later. And the term vitamin doesn’t get coined until 1912.
So, how did he survive?
It’s possible Erik observed the local Inuit eating whale blubber and decided to try it for himself. It turns out blubber — or mattak, as the Inuit call it — is a life saver. Even today, regularly resupplied by helicopter, the Inuit of Greenland get most of their vitamin C from whale blubber. Some say it tastes like hazelnut.
The best mattak comes from the two whales most at home in arctic waters — the narwhals and their cousins the belugas. Of the two, narwhal is more nutritious.
Even the word narwhal comes to us from the Vikings. It’s Old Norse for “corpse whale.” The unique mottling of the narwhal’s skin must have reminded one of the Greenland settlers of a dead body.
By establishing his colony where he did, Erik the Red gave his people exclusive European access rights to one of the world’s most reclusive whales. So reclusive, no one else back home even knew about them. Like belugas, narwhals only swim in the Arctic Ocean between Canada and Greenland. But unlike beluga, they have those remarkable tusks.
A narwhal’s tusk is an elongated upper left canine tooth that has burst through the animal’s lip. It usually denotes a particular narwhal as male, though some females also show this feature. It’s purpose, if any, remains a hotly debated bone of contention among marine biologists to this day.
Regardless, somewhere along the line one of the Greenland settlers must have looked at a narwhal and thought of the unicorn. That’s a no-brainer. And when they did, a unique trade opportunity presented itself.
By the time narwhal tusks made their way to Europe, they found a devout Christian population awaiting them, eager to believe. Made of ivory and spiraled unlike anything in nature, what else could these strange objects be but the horns of the fabled unicorns?
By weight, on the open market, the tusks proved to be more valuable than gold.
The alicorn trade thrived for hundreds of years. It even inspired counterfeiters to grind up horns and antlers of other animals to pass off as genuine unicorn product. But in 1638, Danish physician & zoologist Ole Worm discovered narwhals for himself, and the jig was up.
Okay, even with science behind him, it took over a century for the practice to dry up. As late as 1746, British doctors still prescribed alicorn as a miracle cure.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) used to list narwhals as “nearly threatened.” But recent population estimates have upgraded that status to “least concern.”
This is due in no small part to international initiatives banning the tusk trade in particular and whale hunting in general. Today, even the Inuit of Greenland and Canada have strict subsistence quotas put on the number of narwhals they can hunt.
That said, narwhals are bound to the Arctic ice sheets that protect them from attack. The tall dorsal fins of orcas limit their maneuverability under the ice, giving narwhals a fighting chance to get away.
But with climate change, polar ice is receding at an alarming rate which could be disastrous for the narwhals. A report in Ecological Applications lists them as one of three species most vulnerable to climate change.
Erik’s colony in Greenland lasted until at least the 1400s. Its eventual decline and demise wasn’t well-recorded but could have been the result of any number of causes. Malnutrition. The black death. The onset of the Little Ice Age. Ongoing conflict with Inuit. Lack of support from Norway. Plundering by pirates.
Some point to the devaluation of walrus ivory — the colony’s main stock in trade — as a driving factor.
All we know for certain is that a mission sent from Norway in the early 17th century couldn’t find a single person of Viking descent in Greenland.
But today, the memory of Erik’s ambitious colony lives on, even if we’re not aware of it. It thrives in our collective consciousness every time we see a painted unicorn and notice the spiraling tusk of a narwhal staring back at us.
- Frobisher’s account of a beached sea-unicorn — clearly a narwhal — didn’t disprove the existence of unicorns as you might expect. It was a commonly held belief that almost every land animal had an aquatic counterpart. Sea horses, sea serpents, mer-people, etc. If anything, it helped reinforce people’s faith in the existence of unicorns.
- Big digression alert! In the Viking tradition, the dead needed material possessions with them in the afterlife. They hoarded massive fortunes and took most of it to their burial mounds and funeral pyres. This was definitely a motivating factor behind Viking raids. Inheritances were almost unheard of, and every Norse child had to carve out their own fortune. But conversion to Christendom afforded the Vikings certain benefits. Christian traders were more open to doing business with other parties of the same faith. And Christian neighbors, like the mighty Charlemagne, could no longer use the fact that the Vikings were pagans as an excuse to invade. And with their new faith came a change in funeral rites. Medieval Christians, regardless of wealth, were buried without material possessions. Children held onto their parents’ belongings. And the desperate need to amass wealth by force soon evaporated.