WASHINGTON — For centuries Europeans sought out the ‘‘unicorn horn’’ — the long and straight tusk of the arctic-dwelling narwhal whale — for its perceived magical and curative capabilities.
On Friday, the tusk did indeed wield a historic force, just not in the way the queens and kings who once collected the twisted and tapered ivory likely imagined.
Instead, as the deadly knife attack unfolded on the London Bridge, a man, described in news reports as a Polish chef, grabbed the nearest arms he could find for self-defense — a narwhal tusk — and headed to help stop the melee.
The simple, heroic act in a way embodied the ancient lore of the large-than-life tusk.
The attack began by Fishmongers’ Hall, a historic building and events space on the London Bridge replete with famed fishing artifacts, two massive narwhal tusks included. The assailant, 28-year-old Usman Khan, had been at the hall attending a conference when he wielded a knife and fatally stabbed two people before police shot him dead.
Amid the shock and horror, it struck many as quintessentially British the way the beloved ‘‘unicorn horn’’ suddenly surfaced to help ward off the attacker, said British historian and journalist Guy Walters.
‘‘There’s something very British about fighting a terrorist with something as surreal as a narwhal tusk,’’ he said. ‘‘We don’t carry weapons in this country. But we do have narwhal tusks around.’’
Walters described the draw of the strange whale and its sharp tooth as ‘‘enigmatic and weird.’’
‘‘The beauty of narwhals is that they were always these really mysterious creatures,’’ he said. ‘‘For centuries no one really knew what they were. When they found these tusks they assumed that they were unicorns. . . . They became these incredibly sought-after items.’’
The tusk is in fact a tooth but a rarity among whales for how long (up to 10 feet) and spirally straight it can grow. It’s also incredibly strong and can cut through inches of wood, Walters said. The tusks primarily appear on males, who can sometimes have two. Scientists have found that the tusk-of-a-tooth has up to 10 million nerve endings and sensory capabilities, as well as possible courtship uses.
Still, there’s much that remains mysterious about the blubbery whale and the majestic tooth projecting from it.
As Katherine Rundell reported in the London Review of Books, ‘‘Named rather ungallantly for the Old Norse word nar, meaning ‘corpse’, and hvalr, ‘whale’, after their mottled gray markings, narwhals are unicorn-like not just in their appendages, but in their elusiveness; they are one of the mammals about which we know least. They spend the winter months dodging dense pack ice, where humans cannot follow, and can swim a mile deep, twisting upside-down as they descend into pitch-black water.’’
Today, the whales are also under threat, as climate change causes the ice that they rely on for shelter and feeding to shrink.
The tusks had long been part of Inuit culture. Then starting around 1000 A.D., Viking traders began selling the tusks, which they found surfacing on the shores of such places as Greenland, to other Europeans. Historians have found evidence of the tough tooth being fashioned into weapons for hunting and fighting.
‘‘The trade strengthened during the Middle Ages, when the unicorn became a symbol of Christ, and therefore an almost holy animal,’’ reported Hadley Meares of the History Channel. ‘‘By the Renaissance, [narwhal] horns had developed a reputation as a poison cure-all, and their cost inflated to ten times their weight in gold, or more.’’