ladies, if there is a unicorn in the vicinity it will
come and lay its head in this maiden's lap. At this point she may sing
to it, or slip a golden bridle over its head. Once the unicorn has
been tamed in this manner, the hunters leap out from hiding and either
capture or slaughter the beast. When they do, the greatest prize, of course,
is the horn itself. (Though some people also believe there is a precious
jewel, a "carbuncle," hidden underneath the horn.) The correct term
for the horn is "alicorn," a word some people think was invented simply
because "unicorn horn" sounds so awkward. Alicorns are among the
most powerful of magical items. They were prized by popes and kings because
||protection against all manner of evil, including
epilepsy, pestilence and poisoning.A horn set in the middle of a table
would begin to sweat, or form a dew, if any of the foodstuffs had been
poisoned. Even a little powder filed from such a horn was an antidote
to the most toxic substances.
Small wonder that in a place like fourteenth century
Italy, where poisoning was a common way to deal with one's enemies, these
horns were considered treasures indeed. As might be expected, an
item both so valuable (horns sometimes sold for ten times their weight
in gold) and so rare (some legends have it that there is never more than
one unicorn on earth at a time) was a great temptation for frauds.
With so many people selling false alicorns, it was necessary to find a
way to determine which were real.
The trade in alicorns was very real in the Middle Ages,
and many noble houses listed one of the mystical horns among its treasures.
However most of us today would agree it is far better to leave a unicorn's
horn where it belongs: on top of its head!
||Some of the tests included:
* Drawing a ring on the floor with the alicorn. A spider placed
in such a ring would not be able to cross the line, and in fact would
starve to death trapped within the circle.
* Placing the horn in water, which would cause the water to bubble and
seem as if it were boiling, even though it remained cold.
* Placing a piece of silk upon a burning coal, and then laying the horn
on top of the silk. If the horn was truly an alicorn, the silk would not
beburned. * Bringing the horn near a poisonous
plant or animal, which would burst and die in reaction to it.