THE NATURAL HISTORY OF UNICORNS
by Chris Lavers
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In The Natural History of Unicorns, Chris Lavers has set for himself the daunting task of tracing the mythological origins of the unicorn from its first mention in the writings of the Greek philosopher Ctesias in the fifth century BCE. Lavers tries to track down Ctesias' sources as well as how the depiction of the animal changes as it passed through various Greek, Roman, and Christian hands. Furthermore, he assumes that every addition has some factual basis, no matter how altered that is.
In the course of his examination of unicorns, Lavers looks at a variety of different types of unicorns throughout mythology, from the now familiar equine unicorn to caprine and bovine unicorns and even less familiar versions of the beast, including some that have horns that are only firm when the beasts are attacking. Lavers does an excellent job depicting the different views of the unicorn throughout the ages and pointing out which aspects of the unicorn remained and which only adhered to the creature, or perhaps creatures, which we now think of when we have the idea of a unicorn, although interestingly, the Chinese ki-rin, which is generally depicted as one-horned, does not make an appearance in the book.
Lavers's style is informal, almost chatty in its nature. At the same time, he tends to skip from thought to thought without providing an indication of how he got from one piece of information to another or, at times, a conclusion. Because his chapters are thematic in nature, this means that the progression of belief in unicorns, which includes more than simply the idea of a horse or a goat with a horn, is not always entirely clear, and, of course, multiple ideas about the creatures could exist at any given period in history.
The text is quite thorough in tracking down a variety of reasons for a belief that unicorns, whatever they might be perceived as, actually existed, from the stories told by Ctesias and supported by authorities such as Aristotle and Pliny, to the existence of the narwhal, which was believed to indicate a parallel land-based creature, to the idea of the re’em, a reference to which occurs in the Bible, but which is not tied to any specific animal. Lavers has also tracked down a wide variety of lesser known animals which actually exist and which may have provided some features which were acquired over the years by the mythical creature.
The Natural History of Unicorns offers a thorough look at the mythology of unicorns throughout the ages, including why people believed such creatures existed. Lavers does not discuss the use of the unicorn in modern literature, fantasy, or film, instead focusing on the less populist versions of the creature and more on its more classical aspects. The book is liberally illustrated with photographs of the creatures which may have contributed to the legends of the animal and over all provides a fantastic exploration into cryptozoolology.
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