In November last year a Polish chef on London Bridge overpowered a knife-wielding terrorist who’d fatally stabbed two pedestrians. As extraordinary as the hero’s bravery was his weapon – a 1.5m narwhal tusk. Bizarre? Undoubtedly – but then narwhal tusks are synonymous with bizarre.

That the chef armed himself with a narwhal tusk was purely opportunistic – it happened to be decorating the doorway of a nearby fishmonger’s stall and it was the only available weapon in the heat of the attack.

Still, his actions generated lots of comment from observers quick to point out that the weapon was yet another chapter in the ‘supernatural’ powers of the narwhal tusk. And to appreciate that narrative, you need to settle back into an armchair with a glass of your favourite tipple and momentarily detach yourself from reality.

First, some background.

Members of the whale family, narwhals grow to about 4–5m in length and are mostly found in the icy waters around Greenland and Canada. Though shy, elusive creatures, they are most wellknown for the spiralled horn (tusk) that protrudes from the foreheads of the males. In rare instances females also have a tusk and, equally rarely, males sometimes have double tusks.


While it can grow to 3m, it seems the tusk is actually a rogue tooth that slowly pushes through the upper lip of the narwhal. Sounds like torture. Early observers thought narwhals used the tusk to spear their prey, or to knock it senseless. And that the males crossed tusks and jousted (like medieval knights) to win the hearts of admiring damsels. Predictably, it’s thought a well-proportioned tusk earned its owner special favours – who knows how those with double tusks fared! Some of this might be accurate (or not).

Of course, science eventually delivered a more clinical explanation. After extensive research into the tusks a Connecticut dentist (Dr Martin Nweeia) presented his findings at a 2005 marine biology conference. His work showed that the tusks have about 10 million nerve endings along the surface – and that far from ‘jousting’ the creatures ‘rub’ tusks to communicate. The nerves also help to sense prey and sea conditions.


But far more colourful than the tusk’s sensory features is its ‘supernatural’ mythology – one that captured the public’s imagination for centuries. And it all began because everyone thought the tusks came from the fabled unicorn – a creature no one had ever seen. It was commonly accepted that the horn (in various forms) was a miraculous cure for disease and pestilence – and especially effective as an antidote against poison.

Who started this fanciful idea? Hard to say – records show the unicorn/horn myth dates back to before the Greeks and Romans – but by around 1000AD street-savvy Norsemen began to collect the tusks from the dead narwhals they chanced upon.

They brought the ‘unicorn horns’ back to Europe and sold them for a handsome price – largely because of a ‘poison paranoia’ among the continent’s royalty. For obvious reasons the Norsemen refused to say where they’d captured the unicorns and their horns – a marketing strategy that rapidly fuelled the value of the tusks.



A monarch’s life was not a happy one – particularly in the period between the 11th and 18th centuries. A king/queen’s privileged position was constantly threatened by family rivals, and poison was a popular method of dispatching the incumbent. Given its anti-poison properties, a unicorn tusk became a must-have for any monarch intent on keeping his/her butt on the throne.

European royal dynasties are littered with examples of horns being bought for astronomical prices; of drinking goblets carved from the horn; of thrones being fashioned from the horns. Rulers were obsessed with the horns and, naturally, only they could actually afford one.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-87), for example, used a piece of unicorn’s horn to test her food for poison. England’s Elizabeth I reportedly invested £10,000 in a unicorn horn and was also known to drink from a horn cup. In 1533, Pope Clement VII presented France’s King Francis I with a horn embellished with gold. French monarchs had their cutlery fashioned from the tusks.

Ivan the Terrible had a staff made from a horn – it was ‘garnished with verie fare diamondes, rubies, saphiers, emeralls’. He called for it with his dying breath in 1584, but it failed to deliver the promised cure.

Writing in 1609, one Thomas Decker said a unicorn horn was worth ‘half a city’, while a Florentine physician noted that apothecaries sold ground horn powder for £24 an ounce. Austria’s Kaiser Karl V evidently settled some of the country’s national debt with two tusks. The tusk collection belonging to Spain’s Philip II extended to 12. Denmark’s Christian V ordered a throne fashioned from unicorn horns for his coronation in 1671.


This all adds up to an impressive tally of unicorns being caught…


Its anti-poison properties aside, unicorn horn was truly a wonderfully curative elixir if the literature is to be believed.

In the December 2004 issue of The Pharmaceutical Journal, retired pharmacist William Jackson gives a fascinating account of the use of the horn in medicine. In the Middle Ages, he says, “it was used to cure plague, fevers and bites from serpents and mad dogs” and records this 1656 treatment: “Take a handful of Box, and stamp it, and strain it with a draught of milk, put into it a pretty quantity of Lobsters shell beaten to a powder, and some Unicorns horn, if you can get it, and drink thereof and wash the wound therewith.”

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In 1678 William Salmon’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (New London Dispensatory) mentions that the horn’s properties included “alexipharmick” (counteracting poisons) “sudorifick” (causing sweating) “cardiack” (a cordial restorative) “antifebritick” (reducing fevers) and “cephalick” (counteracting disorders of the head). He added: “It potently resists Plague, Pestilence, and Poyson, expels the Measles and Small-Pox, and cures the Falling-Sickness in Children.”

A few years later physician Nicholas Culpeper observed: “Uni-corns horn resists Poyson and the Pestilence, provokes Urine, restores lost strength, brings forth both Birth and Afterbirth.” Based on the ‘restores lost strength’ reference, it seems the horn was also a useful aphrodisiac!


Inevitably, commonsense and science unmasked the fantasy.

Elizabeth 1’s successor – King James I – was a little less gullible than his predecessor. Electing to ‘test’ the horn’s anti-poison properties, he ordered a servant to drink poison and then ingest some powdered horn. James’ reaction to the unfortunate servant’s death is not recorded.

The Age of Enlightenment hastened the exposure. By the late 17th century, magic, alchemy and astrology were giving way to chemistry and science. In 1638 a Danish scholar (Ole Wurm) proved the horn came from a narwhal – not a unicorn. By the 18th century British doctors had stopped prescribing unicorn horn as a treatment. Prices plummeted.

Narwhal waiting at the ice-edge for a crack in the ice to appear, big enough for them to swim down to access their summering grounds. Admiralty Inlet (just off Lancaster Sound), Nunuvut, Canada

Today, narwhals are under threat – mainly from climate change and melting ice. Ice not only provides their pantry (it harbours their prey) it also offers refuge from their mortal enemy – the orca. Noise pollution is also a threat – more ships and mining in the Arctic will affect narwhal communication.

Though the creatures are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), small numbers are still legally hunted in Canada and Greenland by Inuit.

Perhaps the saddest irony surrounding the magical powers of the tusk is the narwhal’s name: it stems from Old Norse and is a combination of the words nar (corpse) and hvalr (whale) – in effect, the ‘corpse whale’. Norsemen thought the whale’s blotched skin resembled the grey pallor of a drowned man.