Friday, 27 November 2015

Marco Polo's Unicorn

      We've looked at a few of the marvels recorded in Polo's Devisement and Odoric's Relatio over the past couple of weeks. It's important to bear in mind that marvels are what the European travellers were interested in: accurate commercial and political information was considered less important than a good marvel, at least until some point in the fifteenth century, when Western European exploration became serious business. Before that, marvels were travel-writing gold.
        So here's Marco Polo on the unicorn, perhaps the archetypal mythical medieval animal, which he saw in Little Java:
Il ont olifans ellez et unicornes aussi qui ne sont gaires grandes dun olifant et ont le poil autel come buffle et les piez come olifant et ont une corne ẽmi le fronc blanche mlt grosse et ne font nul mal de la corne mais de la langue. Car ces vnicornes ont la langue mlt espinouse de granz espines et longues. Et si ont la teste autele come de cengler. Et portent touz iours la teste enclin uers terre. Il demuerent uolentieres entour las et plantaīs. Cest une mlt laide beste a ueoir. Et nest pas tele come nos dirons. De ca quele serpent ou giron dune pucele et uierge.
      'They have elephants there and unicorns too, which are nearly as big as an elephant and have hair like a buffalo, and a horn in the middle of the forehead which is white and very thick, and they do nothing bad with the horn but rather with the tongue. These unicorns have a thorny tongue, with spines both large and long. And they have a head like a boar's, always inclined to the ground. They wallow in mud and bogs. They're really quite horrible to look at, and nothing like the unicorns we talk about, caught in the laps of maidens and virgins.'
Reality. h/t Charles W. Hardin.
      Polo's obviously talking (through Rustichello's peculiarly winding sentences) about the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), a critically-endangered mammal of a sort that once inhabited most of Southeast Asia and western Indo-Malaysia. The horns of the rhino are grey or black, not white, and most of the extant Polo manuscripts say that (KB Ms.304 is an exception), but I'm not sure where the part about the tongue comes in. In some manuscripts Polo says that the rhino's tongue was used to attack people and animals, which I'm fairly sure isn't a real thing. Either way, it's pretty clear that Polo's unicorns are rhinos.

       The context for this story is Polo/Rustichello's description of Basma(n). Basman was certainly in Sumatra and is identifiable either with Samudra-Pasai in northern Sumatra, which in Arabic was called Basam (according to Henry Yule), or with Gunung (Mt.) Pasaman in what is now the province of Sumatera Barat (West Sumatra).

      Polo says that the people of Basman had no religion and lived like animals (also: ' ne tienent nule loy', 'they have no law'), which he says of several Sumatran groups. Pasai, though, was a city with laws and at the time probably had a large Muslim population, and it seems unlikely that Polo would ignore that and declare them all animalistic idolaters when he gives accurate information for Ferlec (Fallet, Fellet, etc), another largely-Muslim city in northern Sumatra. We have a historical account of Pasai from fourteenth-century Pasai itself, the Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai, which I've mentioned before, and 'lawless gentiles' doesn't sound like an accurate description of the city at all.

      Let's be clear that nobody really lives without law in some sense, and calling people animals is the definition of dehumanisation. I'm not saying that the people of Pasai were better than villagers in West Sumatra in the thirteenth century in some objective sense, only that they don't fit the non-Abrahamic, non-urban lifestyle described by Polo. 

     On that basis, I suspect we're dealing with the people and thorn-tongued unicorns who apparently lived around Mount Pasaman in West Sumatra. Precisely why Polo visited this part of Sumatra I can't say, but he visited Barus, also in western Sumatra, so it's not far off his route.

More marvels next time...

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