Fun Stuff

Unicorn of the Sea

magical majestical narwhal, unicorn of the sea

The Narwhal is medium-sized white whale, same color as the Unicorn of the land. These two creatures  have one other physical attribute in common; males are the ones with the singular horn. However, this is where physical similarities end.* While the narwhal is distinguished by a long, spirally formed canine tooth extending from his upper lip, the terrestrial unicorn supports this appendage from his brow.

At one point in history, these two animals came as close as they would ever get to each other, and for centuries, the narwhal was the unicorn’s silent benefactor, giving tangibility to a form that until then, was alive only through legends…

* female narwhals exist while the world has never noted a female unicorn…

The Unicorn of the Land

Emerging from the minds of men, it took over a millennia to ignite the fire of the unicorn fantasy. But, around A.D. 1000, when the narwhal tusk made its debut on the World’s stage, it provided the all-spark that would fuel the flames of power and superstition for another six centuries.

It was a victory of opportunism that kindled the partial manifestation of the beast; a mixture of ignorance mistaken for fortuitousness, and an exploitation of that same ignorance. Vikings had hunted the narwhal and acquired tusks from Arctic natives during the first millennia; a common and practical activity for which they used parts of the whale for different purposes.

It appears that when they learned of the Europeans’ esteemed value for tusk which was fervently interpreted by men of a different culture as an elusive, rare and now incredibly coveted item, they enthusiastically and discreetly let it pass as one of the most prized artifacts of all time: the unicorn horn… for which they collected vast sums of wealth.

The Europeans, who hadn’t yet explored the remote and frigid North, zealously regarded the tusk as proof that the ‘chivalrous’ and elusive unicorn, born of myth and mystery, did indeed exist. Regardless of the era, when people want to believe something, they do. While synchronicities and miracles can occur, they are rooted in something more like quantum entanglement engaged by prayer, faith, and the mysteries of Life, which pervade all levels of Creation. The unicorn myth was more like fantasy; disconnected from realities and idealized. The perpetuation of which invited intrigue, imagination, delight and desires, but still, was an expression and projection of the psyche. It served as a symbol outside ourselves, that had the ability to heal, to be free, to be magical and majestical.

According to researchers, the birth of the unicorn can’t be truly identified or marked in any time or any place. However, one tangible thread leads to Ctesias, a Greek physician practicing medicine in Persia at the court of King Darius II. Upon returning to his home town of Cnidus in 398 BC after seventeen years, he wrote two books, one of which was the ‘History of Persia’ and the other, ‘Indica’.

Ctesias, although born into the priestly caste of the Asclepiadai, in which medicine was an inherited profession, did not engender the profound credibility of Herodotus, perhaps in part due to his recording of an animal that served as the unicorn progenitor. Ctesias’ reputation as a writer was viewed as having a romanticized tone. Even still, Ctesias claimed all that he had written was perfectly true, and in fact, was witness to all his recordings. However, it was clear that Ctesias, by his own confession under different circumstances, wrote about places he’d never been, relying upon news from travelers and Persian officials.

He wasn’t suspicious about the where his sources obtained their information, believing that the people with whom he conferred were beyond reproach. He had already heard stories of a beast existing in the Himalayan mountains, described in languages besides his native Greek tongue. Translations of detail and interpretations may have given rise to images that were more ‘artistic’ than factual with regard to the unicorn. Any doubt could be assuaged by a simple and extensively promulgated ‘fact’; that there were all kinds of unique and curious beasts native to India, let alone the even more remote Himalayan territories. While he wrote about a fierce animal, its description could have been likened more to a rhinoceros with the notable feature, the singular horn, being approximately 28” in length. Rumors of the stubborn and willful members of the onager family were not less intriguing, since this relative of the Central Asian Wild Ass was native to northern Persia, a country in which he spent nearly two decades.

In any case, unicorn legend had a very slow genesis, creeping along by way of written work and only understandable to the educated. Fragmented references to the unicorn surfaced centuries after Ctesias’ writings. Julius Ceasar described a huge animal in the first century BC – a stag – who had a long straight horn supported by his brow, in-between his ears… and then, Julius Solinus in the third century AD, wrote of a monster that had the body of a horse, elephant feet, a tail like a pig and the head of a stag. The horn was bright, and had grown to four feet in length. Solinus also claimed the beast couldn’t be caught alive.

“In that city [Alexandria], during the third century after Christ and under Christian influence, there were brought together a number of animal stories, some of them drawn from the wide-spread “Beast Epic” of the world and others apparently concocted to serve the immediate need, each of them fitted with a “moral” somewhat after the fashion of Aesop’s Fables. It seems unnecessary to assume that any single individual was responsible for the collection as a whole or that a single original text ever existed.” ~ The Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, publ. London: George Allen & Unwin, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930, pg 19.

Serving as an english speaker’s window into that time, the King James translation (early 1600s) of the already existing early Christian Bible, advertised clear references to the unicorn in the Old Testament.

Keep in mind, that “the earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible is the Old Greek (OG) [or Septuagint], the translation made in Alexandria, Egypt, for the use of the Greek-speaking Jewish community there. At first, just the Torah was translated, in the third century B.C.E.; the rest of the biblical books were translated later. The whole Hebrew Bible was likely translated into ancient Greek by the middle of the second century B.C.E.” ~, accessed 6-21-21.

Assuming the translation was as accurate as possible, the characteristics of the unicorn in ‘Old Greek’ had changed yet again, but remarkable strength, indomitable spirit, and linkages with the lion, bull and calf were loosely tagged (see image at the end of this section). Most importantly, this creature was mysterious, awesome and powerful. It had the basic ingredients of the useful Metaphor.

During the ninth century, it was another Greek, Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople who preserved fragments of Ctesias’ work. Like the famous game of operator, in this case an ancient one, image interpretation emerging in one mind, were altered in another, leading to a new, but (still) non-existent creature:

“There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly dugs. The base of this hors, for some two hands’-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. Those who drink out of these horns, made in drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers. Other asses, both the tame an the wild, an in fact all animals with solid hoofs, are without the ankle-bone and have no gall in the liver, but these have both the ankle-bone and the gall. This ankle-bone, the most beautiful I have ever seen, is like that of an ox in general appearance, but it is as heavy as lead and its color is that of cinnabar through and through. The animal is exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it.” ~  The Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, publ. London: George Allen & Unwin, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930, pgs. 7-8.

In dissecting the passage, researchers can make a few observations. One of which is that the passage seems to be describing (at least?) two animals merged together, and that this differs from previous descriptions. The coloring seems very exotic, too. Also, in this documentation, the addition of pharmaceutical value was entered. This value may have been attributed to an already ‘old’ belief – especially in the Orient – that the rhinoceros horn had curative properties. Collectively over time, pieces of this legend having various seeds and roots (from the ancient Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and the Bible) took on a customized form and purpose…

“Not Ctesias and not Aelian but this grist of old wives’ tales fathered upon an imaginary “Physiologus” was responsible for scattering the image of the unicorn throughout Europe, making him familiar where books were never read, contorting his shapely limbs on corbels and cornices and miserere seats, depicting him in stained glass and on tapestry, lifting him finally to the British Royal Coat of Arms.” ~ ibid. pgs 20-21.

Beautiful wall-sized weavings of exquisitely dyed yarns, depict a white horse dipping his long horn into water to purify it, lying down in captivity, and as shown at the end of this section, partially in the lap of a beautiful virtuous woman, purity being the only quality capable of attracting and taming the beast. Even though the Middle Ages show more of a goat head or beard and cloven hooves, the unicorn we are familiar with, is more than not, ‘horse’.

Now that the Europeans were primed with a Christian symbol, allegory and metaphor, they were unwittingly primed for the emergence of the horn itself; circumventing any careful scrutiny or discernment. The value of such an item was incredible, and possession only for those of merited importance.

“In medieval Europe, some people believed that narwhal tusks were the horns from the legendary unicorn. Whilst in the north, the tusk simply had a practical or decorative use, on the European continent, the tusk was believed to have superb magic powers, like healing from poison or curing certain diseases. This made the item worth huge amounts of gold…” ~ accessed 6-21-21.

In the late 1580s, Queen Elizabeth I received a unique carved and bejeweled narwhal tusk worth 10,000 British pounds, at that time, enough to purchase a whole castle.  

“The horns became an icon of power, both earthly and divine, in part because of their religious associations. In medieval times, the unicorn was seen as a symbol of great purity and of Christ, the motif common in religious art. The fantastic beast appeared in many thousands of images, Mr. Bruemmer wrote, and “All carry a horn that is unmistakably a narwhal tusk, the only long, spiraled horn in all creation.” ~ accessed 6-21-21

It wasn’t until the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, when the Europeans began exploring the Arctic regions for themselves, that they learned of the narwhal… even then, it was dubbed the ‘unicorn of the sea’, and retained some of the terrestrial unicorn’s mystique.

“Explorers claimed its tusk could punch holes in thick ice, and that males battled with their long tusks for supremacy. In 1870, Jules Verne told how a narwhal could pierce ships “clean through as easily as a drill pierces a barrel.””~ ibid accessed 6-21–21.

“In his beginnings, wherever and whatever they may have been, the unicorn was a symbol of beneficent power inhabiting the poetic imagination. The symbol expanded into myth and this myth was debased into fable. The unicorn next became an exemplum of moral virtues, then an actual animal, then a thaumaturge, then a medicine, then an article of merchandise, then an idle dream, and, last stage of all, an object of antiquarian research.” The Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, publ. London: George Allen & Unwin, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930, pg. 168.

"The Maiden and the Unicorn" by Domenichino, ca. 1602 --- The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino --- Image by © Alinari Archives/CORBIS
"Of the Unicorn", Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Unicorn of the Sea

The Narwhal, or ‘unicorn of the sea’ is scientifically known as, Monodon monoceros, meaning ‘one tooth, or one horn’. They are the lesser known of their family Monodontidae (the Beluga whale is the only other member) and of their infraorder, Cetacea, consisting of 89 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The Narwhal swims in herds of 20-30, and up to one thousand or so during migration. For this yearly trek, they travel from the coastal waters of Greenland and the Canadian high Arctic landmasses during the winter, into the open Arctic Ocean during in the summer. Unlike other whales, their entire life cycle is spent in the coldest water on Earth. They are specially adapted for life underneath the frozen ice pack of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia, where they must find air in precarious open areas and in unpredictable cracks in the unforgiving pack ice.

Even still, these speckled, sausage shaped whales have an average life span of ninety years. They are able to make remarkable dives of approximately 6000 feet; able to utilize the air of one beautifully held breath for twenty-five minutes while they navigate in the pitch black waters of the frigid ocean depths.

To maintain their weight and health, they must make 10-25 vertically inclined dives per day that average 2600 feet. They search and feed on flatfish, halibut, cod, cuttlefish, shrimp, and squid. The pressure at these depths can exceed 2200 pounds per square inch, which is deadly for many other species including humans. To assist them, their bodies have compressible rib cages, their muscles  have twice the amount of oxygen binding myoglobin, their blubber is 3-4 inches thick, and, under normal circumstances they don’t ‘get the bends’. [see Health/Environmental Note 1 at the end of this article].

In addition to the advantages mentioned, unlike other species of whales, narwhals (and Belugas) lack a dorsal fin, but do possess a strong dorsal ridge. This provides them with the opportunity to hunt for fish very close to the pack ice, where, as it turns out, they spend a great deal of time. In fact, it’s the primary reason there are so few sightings… remaining ever elusive, a quality of any good unicorn.

Narwhals have big rounded foreheads filled with fat cells that facilitate highly sensitive echolocation; a front mounted sonar device receiving frequency and vibration, which they then interpret according to their knowledge and experience. Echolocation produces a 3D image with dimension like a sonogram.

“If you lowered a hydrophone, however, you would discover a sphere of “noise” that only spectrum analyzers and tape recorders could unravel. The tremolo moans of bearded seals. The electric crackling of shrimp. The baritone boom of walrus. The high-pitched bark and yelp of ringed seals. The clicks, pure tones, birdlike trills, and harmonics of belukhas and narwhals. The elephantine trumpeting of bowhead whales. Added to these animal noises would be the sounds of shifting sediments on the sea floor, the whine and fracture of sea ice, and the sound of deep-keeled ice grounding in shallow water.”~ Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams, location 2211, Kindle version, Open Road Integrated Media, 1986.

They eyes aren’t very sensitive. They are fixed without individual movement forcing a Narwhal to turn his head to see with one eye or the other. Like horses (read ‘unicorn relatives’), they are ‘monocular’, meaning each eye has its own hemisphere of view. Usually this orientation is reserved for prey species, so in this sense, whales differ from the dedicated prey status of horses.

The distance between their eyes in both species, makes the focal point for ‘binocular’ vision a fair distance from their bodies. For example, anything closer than six feet or so, is blurry for the horse, and could be called legally blind in human terms. Because of this distance, using both eyes within close range (possible for the horse who can move their eyes within the sockets), vision requires much effort and concentration, and therefore isn’t something that can be sustained over long periods of time. Peripheral vision on the other hand, in addition to monocular vision is the best, most efficient use of physical eyes and gathering information for the brain/body complex. It also allows the brain to work differently by welcoming a broader world view as opposed to narrow, focused vision. It’s advantageous and much, much safer.

Sight isn’t as important for whales as it is for other marine species – they spend much of their time in the ocean depths where absolutely no light can penetrate, and where sound travels 4.5 times faster underwater than it does in air. They have adapted different ways to perceive the 3D, fluid, ever-changing map, the ever changing locations of friends, family, food and foes…

What is important, is safety in an environment without any hiding places for animals so big. Having eyes on each side of the head, has another purpose. Each eye is associated with correlating hemispheres of the brain. These hemispheres are connected by a relatively small corpus callosum; the bridge between the hemispheres. This bridge isn’t as important for whales as it is for most other animals.

Sperm whales sleep with one eye open so half their brain sleeps while the other half remains awake; a solution that allows whales to remain aware of threat, especially when young ones need constant care.

Note: Human beings have a large corpus callosum, and require long, uninterrupted sleep periods, needing motionless REM and deep sleep in almost equal amounts.

Narwhals ‘hear’ through their sonar power, breathe without smelling through one singular, dorsal blowhole, and while they may feel through a sense of touch all over their bodies like a horse, their ivory, spirally grooved tusk remained a mystery… until now.

Over the centuries, many assertions have been made about this superbly long tooth; measuring four inches in diameter at its base and extending almost ten feet for some individuals, and weighing up to twenty-two pounds. Protruding from a body that is from 13 – 18 feet long, this is a significant evolutionary investment.

Many theories have been postulated. The earliest thought; since all males sport a tusk, and very few females do, this must be a ‘sword’ for battle, Competing males would joust and display their abilities, thus winning a female’s affections. However, a female Narwhal gives birth once every three years. As far as survival goes, it would be more of a burden to keep a sword at the ready for such infrequent occasions. The ‘military’ application for the tusk might have been a natural guess, but still, without more verifiable data, this was merely human ‘projection’.

Other assertions included the use of the tusk for spearing fish, protecting young, breaking ice, venting excess heat, prodding the seabed for food, showing off for females, and establishing dominance.

“But a team of scientists from Harvard and the National Institute of Standards and Technology has now made a startling discovery: the tusk, it turns out, forms a sensory organ of exceptional size and sensitivity, making the living appendage one of the planet’s most remarkable, and one that in some ways outdoes its own mythology.

The find came when the team turned an electron microscope on the tusk’s material and found new subtleties of dental anatomy. The close-ups showed that 10 million nerve endings tunnel from the tusk’s core toward its outer surface, communicating with the outside world. The scientists say the nerves can detect subtle changes of temperature, pressure, particle gradients and probably much else, giving the animal unique insights.

“This whale is intent on understanding its environment,” said Martin T. Nweeia, the team’s leader and a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Contrary to common views, he said, “The tusk is not about guys duking it out with sticks and swords.” ~ accessed 4-30-21.

The tusk of a Narwhal is resilient; although its outer layer is dense with a high mineral content, it can – surprisingly – bend approximately one foot any direction.

Males have also been observed in a kind of mutual grooming activity, rubbing their tusks, presumably removing calcified algae and other debris. Instead of something adversarial, it seems they help each other clean their teeth, maintaining more accurate access to the outer world through these millions of tiny openings. Its primary function is as an incredible sensory apparatus, serving the function of receiving ‘smell’, ‘taste’, and perceiving other chemical information. It is of interest to note that the sense of smell has all but disappeared in whales, since they don’t receive this information as a part of their breathing cycle. Perhaps, they don’t take enough breaths ‘per minute’, to be useful in staying acutely aware of their surroundings. This whale is able to sense ‘smell’ through millions of tubules rooted in sensitive pulp, surrounded by basically, dentin and enamel, in order to discern harm or health in their environment.

The Narwhal has also been filmed by a Canadian team maneuvering a drone from above, stunning, and then scooping the fish into its mouth. Since 90% or more of the females do not sport a tusk, it may be that the males share with them, and the young ones. Other Cetaceans are known share their catches with their relatives.

The tusk therefore can be understood to serve the purpose of an olfactory organ, a tongue with ten million taste buds (horses have 35,000, humans have 2000-4000), whiskers, a brush, and a bat, all in one spirally formed package… an elegant, unique and wondrous adaptation. The narwhal is a marvelous creature who inspires awe and can always remind us of the magic of a unicorn. There’s much more to learn and realize, much more to understand and love. We are very fortunate to have an opportunity to expand our own knowledge of this World with all of its biology, chemistry, psychology, emotion and spirit…

The mysterious, myth and metaphor will always have a place in the human mind – along with logic and reason. Perhaps an appreciation for the mythical and majestical in all life will help us embrace the myriad interconnections with the past, the future and the fantastic.

Health/Environmental Note 1:

The bends, otherwise known as decompression sickness, occurs in a person – or a whale in this case – when nitrogen bubbles are released in the body. It may help to understand that the nitrogen in the breath of a whale or the air tank of a diver, increases in pressure along with the pressure increases associated with diving depth. The longer a diver or a whale remains ‘at depth’, the more nitrogen dissolves. It is not utilized by the body, but is stored in tissues.

If the return from the depths happens too quickly, nitrogen bubbles are released, much like the carbon dioxide bubbles forming and rising to the fluid surface upon the opening a bottle of soda. The pressure is released and the nitrogen bubbles can form and travel to any part of the body.

In severe cases, blood vessels and nerves can be stretched and torn, blood clots can form, paralysis and death can follow. There are many milder symptoms that are easily mitigated by using a hyperbaric chamber which can be used to ‘re-pressurize’ and subsequently safely regulate depressurization.   

Recent studies at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, reveal that ‘noise pollution’ can be a serious threat to Cetaceans like whales, dolphins and porpoises, along with air breathing reptiles like the leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles:

“…marine mammals’ lung architecture creates two pulmonary regions: one air-filled and the other collapsed. The researchers believe that blood flows mainly through the collapsed region of the lungs. That causes what is called a ventilation-perfusion mismatch, which allows some oxygen and carbon dioxide to be absorbed by the animal’s bloodstream, while minimizing or preventing the exchange of nitrogen. This is possible because each gas has a different solubility in the blood. The terrestrial pig did not show that structural adaptation.
This mechanism would protect cetaceans from taking up excessive amounts of nitrogen and thus minimize risk of the bends, says lead author Daniel García-Parraga of the Fundacion Oceanografic.
However, he said, “Excessive stress, as may occur during exposure to human-made sound, may cause the system to fail and increase blood to flow to the air-filled regions. This would enhance gas exchange, and nitrogen would increase in the blood and tissues as the pressure decreases during ascent.”
Scientists once thought that diving marine mammals were immune from decompression sickness, but a 2002 stranding event linked to navy sonar exercises revealed that 14 whales that died after beaching off the Canary Islands had gas bubbles in their tissues—a sign of the bends. The researchers say the paper’s findings could support previous implications of decompression sickness in some cetacean mass strandings associated with navy sonar exercises.” ~, accessed 4-28-21

Additional Environmental Note:

Because the pack ice is getting thinner, the US Navy (and perhaps other Navies from Europe, Russia and Canada) conduct Arctic research for navigational purposes for two primary reasons; one to assure National Security should the ice open up in the decades to come, and the other to assure trade routes.

While the compulsory ‘protect marine wildlife’ was mentioned in the ICEX (Ice Exercise) conducted in 2020, details recognizing underwater noise pollution and the blatant disruption to individual and species lives were not.

The primary object of exploration and discovery in the Arctic hasn’t changed since it was even slightly comprehended by Western minds, already far removed from indigenous communion with the land, having adapted to and elevating human ends, means, goals and aggrandizements above all other life expressions on Earth. Conquest in the name of territory and marketing obscured the finer touches of meaning… we humans need to evolve into something better…

Understandind sound in a liquid

Cymatics is an interesting way to acquire a basis for understanding echolocation and the use of vocalizations:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *