The Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

10 Must-Have Trivia Games for Any Interest

Amazon
Amazon

Whether you’re a TV lover, serial killer aficionado, or a history buff, there’s a trivia game out there to suit your interests (even if those interests are as niche as wild turkey hunting). Check out these 10 trivia games you can enjoy with your friends and family, no matter how specific your tastes may be.

1. Inspirational Women Trivia Game; $10

Inspirational women trivia card game
Uncommon Goods

Accomplished women have often gone overlooked in history books. This game brings attention to the women you may not have known, spotlighting inspirational figures like Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mount Everest; Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader of the British suffrage movement; and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of one of the first-ever private schools for African-American girls. With three levels of difficulty, you can either play with a younger audience eager to learn or test the knowledge of some of your history buff friends.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

2. Friends Trivia; $33

Friends trivia.
Lacesi/Amazon

Friends is one of the most quotable series from the '90s, but if you think your knowledge of the classic sitcom is on another level, it's time to put it to the test. In The One With All the Questions, Friends fans will have 342 questions to prove who the real Geller expert is. This one should fill the Central Perk-shaped hole in your heart while you wait for the show to return to streaming on HBO Max later this year.

Buy it: Amazon

3. The Logo Game; $45

Logo Game on Amazon.
Spin Master Games/Amazon

With more than 1200 questions about brand logos, slogans, and television commercials, this game is for anyone who knows their Taco Bells from their Del Tacos. Race around the board to beat up to five other players in a challenge to see who knows the most about modern brands.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Cinephile; $20

Illustrated Cinephile game cards
Cory Everett and Steve Isaacs/Amazon

Movie lovers, look out for Cinephile, a card game that challenges players with five different gameplay options. In the easiest version of the game, called Filmography, you simply have to name more of an actor’s past movie roles than your opponent. But take the chance to brush up on your film trivia before you tackle the hardest method of gameplay—Six Degrees. In this mode, you’ll play a version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in order to connect any two random actors from different eras.

Buy it: Amazon

5. ... I Should Have Known That! Trivia Game; $16

I Should Have Known That! trivia game
Hygge Games/Amazon

How do you say Japan in Japanese? What does GPS stand for? What side of the boat is starboard? This game quizzes you on things you feel like you should know—but often don’t. Challenge your friends with 400 questions about everything from Facebook to fairy tales. Want an extra edge when you go to play the game? Prepare yourself by reading these amazing facts that we think everyone should know.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Wine IQ; $19

Wine IQ trivia game
Helvetiq/Amazon

To most of us, a $15 bottle of wine tastes exactly the same as a $100 bottle. But if you’re one of those few people who can actually tell the difference, this might be your game. With tricky multiple-choice questions like “What is a raisined grape?” and “What should be avoided while tasting wine?” (answer: wearing perfume), this trivia game will challenge even the most avid vino buffs. Wine not your thing? Don’t worry—Amazon also sells a trivia game for beer lovers.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Trekking the National Parks: The Family Trivia Game; $30

Trekking the National Parks trivia game
Underdog Games/Amazon

Even if you know absolutely nothing about national parks, you can still enjoy this trivia game that’s kind of like The Price Is Right meets Jeopardy! meets a Patagonia store. All the answers are numerical, so even if you don’t know the exact year that Yellowstone was established as a national park (1872) or the elevation of the tallest mountain in the United States (20,308 feet), you still have a shot at winning if your guess comes closest to the actual answer.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Sussed Lifeology; $13

SUSSED Lifeologies self-exploration trivia game
SUSSED/Amazon

To win this game, you’ll have to prove you know the most about your fellow players. Does Uncle Frank prefer poetry, biographies, or fiction? Would your friend Abby rather be a Formula One racer, a top-seeded tennis player, or a chess grandmaster? Mix things up with the All Sorts and Wonderlands expansion packs, which offer 1000 additional questions suitable for both adults and young children.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Hella '90s; $15

'90s trivia game on Amazon.
Buffalo Games/Amazon

Finally, an excuse to proudly flaunt your knowledge of Nintendo 64 controllers, Bill Clinton’s cat, and Tamagotchis. With 400 questions on the cringey fashion, music, and social trends of the time, this game isn’t for novices—you’ve got to be fully immersed in all things ‘90s to stand a chance. And if you want to set the right mood, you can scan a code on the box to listen to the game’s decade-appropriate soundtrack on Spotify.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Death By Trivia; $24

Death by Trivia game on Amazon.
Headburst/Amazon

What was the American folklore-inspired name for the operation conducted in response to the ax murder of two U.S. soldiers by North Korea in 1976? If you answered Paul Bunyan, you're correct! You're also probably full of more macabre knowledge perfect for Death by Trivia, a game that actually rewards you for knowing all about ax-murderers, mad scientists, serial killers, and other grisly bits of history. So grab a couple like-minded friends and see who comes out on top in this twisted test of trivia.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

9 Royally Interesting Facts About King Cake

iStock
iStock

It’s Carnival season, and that means bakeries throughout New Orleans are whipping up those colorful creations known as King Cakes. And while today it’s primarily associated with Big Easy revelry, the King Cake has a long and checkered history that reaches back through the centuries. Here are a few facts about its origins, its history in America, and how exactly that plastic baby got in there.

1. The King Cake is believed to have Pagan origins.

The king cake is widely associated with the Christian festival of the Epiphany, which celebrates the three kings’ visit to the Christ child on January 6. Some historians, however, believe the cake dates back to Roman times, and specifically to the winter festival of Saturnalia. Bakers would put a fava bean—which back then was used for voting, and had spiritual significance—inside the cake, and whoever discovered it would be considered king for a day. Drinking and mayhem abounded. In the Middle Ages, Christian followers in France took up the ritual, replacing the fava bean with a porcelain replica engraved with a face.

2. The King Cake stirred up controversy during the French Revolution.

To bring the pastry into the Christian tradition, bakers got rid of the bean and replaced it with a crowned king’s head to symbolize the three kings who visited baby Jesus. Church officials approved of the change, though the issue became quite thorny in late 18th century France, when a disembodied king’s head was seen as provocation. In 1794, the mayor of Paris called on the “criminal patissiers” to end their “filthy orgies.” After they failed to comply, the mayor simply renamed the cake the “Gateau de Sans-Culottes,” after the lower-class sans-culottes revolutionaries.

3. The King Cake determined the early kings and queens of Mardi Gras.


A Mardi Gras King in 1952.

Two of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes (NOLA-talk for "crew," or a group that hosts major Mardi Gras events, like parades or balls) brought about the current cake tradition. The Rex Organization gave the festival its colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) in 1872, but two years earlier, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe brought out a King Cake with a gold bean hidden inside and served it up to the ladies in attendance. The finder was crowned queen of the ball. Other krewes adopted the practice as well, crowning the kings and queens by using a gold or silver bean. The practice soon expanded into households throughout New Orleans, where today the discovery of a coin, bean or baby trinket identifies the buyer of the next King Cake.

4. The King Cake's baby trinkets weren't originally intended to have religious significance.

Although today many view the baby trinkets found inside king cakes to symbolize the Christ child, that wasn’t what Donald Entringer—the owner of the renowned McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, which started the tradition—had in mind. Entringer was instead looking for something a little bit different to put in his king cakes, which had become wildly popular in the city by the mid-1900s. One story has it that Entringer found the original figurines in a French Quarter shop. Another, courtesy of New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker (via NPR’s The Salt), states that a traveling salesman with a surplus of figurines stopped by the bakery and suggested the idea. "He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,'" said Tooker.

5. Bakeries are afraid of getting sued.

What to many is an offbeat tradition is, to others, a choking hazard. It’s unclear how many consumers have sued bakeries over the plastic babies and other trinkets baked inside king cakes, but apparently it’s enough that numerous bakeries have stopped including them altogether, or at least offer it on the side. Still, some bakeries remain unfazed—like Gambino’s, whose cinnamon-infused king cake comes with the warning, "1 plastic baby baked inside."

6. The French version of the King Cake comes with a paper crown.


iStock

In France, where the flaky, less colorful (but still quite tasty) galette de rois predates its American counterpart by a few centuries, bakers often include a paper crown with their cake, just to make the “king for a day” feel extra special. The trinkets they put inside are also more varied and intricate, and include everything from cars to coins to religious figurines. Some bakeries even have their own lines of collectible trinkets.

7. There's also the Rosca de Reyes, the Bolo Rei, and the Dreikönigskuchen.


"Roscón de Reyes" by Tamorlan - Self Made (Foto Propia).

Versions of the King Cake can be found throughout Europe and Latin America. The Spanish Rosca de Reyes and the Portugese Bolo Rei are usually topped with dried fruit and nuts, while the Swiss Dreikönigskuchen has balls of sweet dough surrounding the central cake. The Greek version, known as Vasilopita, resembles a coffee cake and is often served for breakfast.

8. The King Cake is no longer just a New Orleans tradition.

From New York to California, bakeries are serving up King Cakes in the New Orleans fashion, as well as the traditional French style. On Long Island, Mara’s Homemade makes their tri-colored cakes year round, while in Los Angeles you can find a galette de rois (topped with a nifty crown, no less) at Maison Richard. There are also lots of bakeries that deliver throughout the country, many offering customizable fillings from cream cheese to chocolate to fruits and nuts.

9. The New Orleans Pelicans have a King Cake baby mascot—and it is terrifying.

Every winter you can find this monstrosity at games, local supermarkets, and in your worst nightmares.

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