Monstrous Engravings: The Onager Aldrovandi!

 Onager Aldrovandi, © 2015 Liz Vitale
Onager Aldrovandi, © 2015 Liz Vitale

In John Jonston’s Historia Naturalis ,published in 1657, there exists many beautiful (and sometimes horrifying) engravings of creatures both real and imaginary; however, the animals we know as fanciful today we

re treated then with the same reverence as if they were completely true-to-life, since during this era many beasts such as dragons and unicorns were considered quite real and worthy of study.

Several unicorns are mentioned, and the animal I drew above is listed and pictured with them.

An article entitled UNICORN,extracted from The Penny Cyclopaedia, 26 (1843), pp. 2-4, describes many interpretations of unicorns from these old texts and engravings.

“‘Concerning the Unicorn, different opinions prevail among authors,’ says the author of Thaumatographia Naturalis (1633), and he adds that some doubts, others deny, and a third class affirm its existence.”

Later in the article, this strange two-horned unicorn is named:

“Wald Esel, Onager Aldrovandi,’ with a mule’s head and two rhinoceros-like horns, one on his forehead and the other on his nose, and a horse’s tail, with a collar round his neck”.

“Wald Esel” translates in German to “forest donkey”, and an onager is a species of Asian wild ass. I have yet to find a translation for “Aldrovandi”. Still, nothing explains the two horns, and if anything, the creature in the drawing resembles a very petite and equine-like rhinoceros. It has three toes like a rhinoceros,or even a prehistoric horse. Still, it is interesting to find it grouped with the unicorns,prompting me to wonder if it is indeed a sort of rhino that inspired the artist, or if it is an an attempt at inventing a new species such as a mule-like unicorn.

And who puts the collars on these animals?

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