Rubies, Unicorns, and Carbuncolos

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. cut rubyWhen it is really good, it shines in the dark like a live coal, and I myself have seen such a one.

~Albertus Magnus
Book of Minerals (1261)

unicorn in Historiae Amimalium

The Unicorn in Conrad Gesner’s _Historiae Animalium_ (1551)

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.”

Aberdeen bestiary

Page from the _Aberdeene Bestiary_ (c. 1200)

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.

Lady with Unicorn by Raphael

_Lady with Unicorn_ by Raphael (1483–1520)

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.

Byzantine Alexander Manuscript

14th-Century Manuscript Depicting Alexander the Great Dictating a Letter to Queen Candace

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.

the lady and the unicorn

_The Lady and the Unicorn_ by Luca Longhi (1507-1580)

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.”

The unicorn in captivity

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.”

Peruvian Fox (photo: Mike Weedon)

Peruvian Fox

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.

unicorns carbuncolos attrib