Carbunculus, which is anthrax in Greek, and is called rubinus by some, is a stone that is extremely clear, red, and hard. It is to other stones as gold is to the other metals. It is said to have more powers than all other stones, as we have already said. When it is really good, it shines in the dark like a live coal, and I myself have seen such a one.
Book of Minerals (1261)
Greek scholars were convinced of the reality of the unicorn, which was said to inhabit distant and exotic lands. Over the centuries a belief in unicorns persisted. It was frequently mentioned in mediaeval bestiaries where it was described as “having a stag’s head, a horse’s body, an elephant’s feet, a boar’s tail, and a single very long black horn growing from the forehead.”
Over time the unicorn’s mythos grew increasingly elaborate. With the aid of its horn, it was said to detect poison and purify water. Its legendary ferocity was associated with strength and sovereignty. Because only virgins could tame it, it became the symbol of chaste love or faithful marriage. According to Hildegard von Bingen, many parts of the animal had magical healing properties. Its liver was a cure for leprosy; its skin, when worn as a belt, warded off fevers.
But a lesser-known fancy associated with the unicorn was the idea that it had a valuable ruby at the base of its horn. This idea can be traced to mediaeval stories, or romances, about the life of Alexander the Great and a chapter that speaks of his encounter with Queen Candace of Meroë.
According to the story, Candace was a Nubian queen who managed to dissuade Alexander from invading her country. Just how this occurred is a matter of dispute. Some claim that she seduced him to avoid invasion, and others say that Alexander was discouraged by the size of her army. Still other sources indicate that Queen Candace bought him off by paying tribute in the form of a unicorn.
In Pfaffen Lamprecht’s 12th century Alexanderlied, Alexander claims:
“I had from this rich queen
A beast of proud and noble mien
That bears in his brow the ruby-stone
And yields himself to maids alone.
But few such unicorns are found
On this or any other ground,
And only such are ever captured
As stainless virgins have enraptured.”
This theme was echoed in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century Arthurian epic Parzival:
“We caught the beast called Unicorn
That knows and loves a maiden best
And falls asleep upon her breast;
We took from underneath his horn
The splendid male carbuncle-stone
Sparkling against the white skull-bone.”
Unicorns were not the only legendary animals with rubies in their skulls. According to some sources, there was a kind of Peruvian fox that was capable of lighting the night with a carbuncle embedded in its forehead. This animal was called the carbuncolo, and its glowing gemstone was visible only at night when it was said to guide the spirits of the dead. If people looked directly at the beast, they were temporarily blinded. Beliefs in carbuncolos were taken very seriously. Sources indicate that the Spanish viceroy issued special instructions requesting its capture as a matter of utmost urgency.
- Alchemy and the Celestial Ruby
- The Peridot Mines of Ancient Egypt