Mapping the Sea-Unicorn: Sea-Unicorns in Word and Image in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period

Marianne Madeleine Mondt

Research output: ThesisThesis defended at external organisation, UG (co)promotor, external graduate (EDEP)


From the 16th century onwards, scholars searching for a satisfying explanation for the origin of the horn of the land-unicorn (which supposedly provided protection and cure for almost all ailments) considered the sea-unicorn as the carrier of this coveted horn. Until the 18th century, it was widely assumed that the sea-unicorn (regarded as the marine equivalent of the land-unicorn) inhabited the waters of distant, unknown territories worldwide. The animal was described in bestiaries, in the discourses of natural historians, doctors and apothecaries, and in the reports of sailors. For different reasons, they all contributed, each in their own way, to the myth of the animal, either reinforcing or weakening it. In two different appearances - the equine sea-unicorn and the fish-like sea-unicorn - the animal even adorned nautical charts and was depicted in the visual arts.This study has provided the sea-unicorn with a unique, double identity and reveals that this animal played a much more significant role in the early modern period than solely to legitimatize the declining belief in the existence of the land-unicorn. Its history is exemplary for the development of natural history research into fauna in the early modern period (including existing animals, animals people believed existed, and imaginary animals).
Translated title of the contributionMapping the Sea-Unicorn: Sea-Unicorns in Word and Image in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period
Original languageDutch
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Leiden University
  • Smith, Paul J., Supervisor, External person
  • de Jong, Jan L., Co-supervisor
Award date10-Jan-2019
Place of Publication[Leiden]
Print ISBNs978-94-6332-431-1
Publication statusPublished - 10-Jan-2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Aquatic mammals
  • Animal symbolism
  • Unicorn
  • Sea monsters
  • Early modern natural history

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