Give us kind keepers, heavens! What were these?


A living drollery. Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix’ throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.


I’ll believe both;
And what does else want credit, come to me,
And I’ll be sworn ’tis true: travellers ne’er did lie,
Though fools at home condemn ’em.

 –Shakespeare, The Tempest, 3.3

We have, I think, an idea—which I would call naïve empiricism—that we see or experience things in the world, and these things lead to understanding or knowledge. But in the case of the unicorn, the opposite is true. In the case of the unicorn, we invented something in order to go out into nature and find–well, not it exactly, but something perhaps more powerful than it, namely, a way of seeing we now call “science.” This strikes me as profoundly counterintuitive, and not at all the way we think “science” works.

Another famous example of scientific analogizing that helps put into perspective the idea that science might proceed from such acts of imagination to reality, via analogy, is the giraffe. The giraffe was “discovered” in much the same way that the unicorn was discovered: through secondhand accounts that were communicated across time and space that become analogies whose missing terms, whose unknowns, demanded to be found in nature.

Though 4th century BCE writer Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, or An Ethiopian Romance, is a work of fiction, it is based on actual accounts of Ethiopia in the way that Ctesias’s Indica is. Ctesias’s observations held about the same level of credibility as Heliodorus’s, and so the labels “fiction” or “travel writing” seem hair-splitting, especially in a time that may not have understood such generic divisions. In the Aethiopica Heliodorus recounts descriptions of exotic beasts being paraded before the court of the king of Ethiopia, among them

a beast of wonderful and rare nature as big as a camel. The colour of his skin was spotted as a leopard and though his hind quarters drooped lion-like, yet his shoulders, forefeet and breast rose high, far beyond the proportion of his other limbs. His neck was slender, and although the rest of his body was great, his throat was long and thin like a swan. His head was after a camel’s fashion and in size about twice as big as a Libyan ostrich, wherein he rolled his eyes terribly as though they were coloured beneath with red. In his gait he went like no beast either of the earth or water, but moved his legs on either side both at once, so that he moved his right legs and left legs not in order nor one after the other, but all his half body with either of them. He was so tame and gentle to move that he was guided by his keeper with a little cord, and obeyed his will as though it were a chain that could not be broken.

As soon as the beast was brought in it filled all the people with amazement and from the fashion of the principal parts of its body they gave it at once the name of camelopard. 1

There is considerable and specific evidence in this fictional account, as much or more than in Ctesias’s account of the wild ass. Beyond things like coloration and height, this account even provides a gait analysis, noting that, unlike camels or horses, the giraffe moves both left legs in unison before moving its right legs. And like Pliny’s analogical unicorn, which combined various animals to describe and predict the unknown known, this account of the giraffe is similarly composite. More than mere metaphors, descriptors like “after a camel’s fashion” and “spotted as a leopard” create the unknown term of analogy from the known.

If we were to represent this analogizing schematically, without any terms, it might look something like this:

Giraffe analogy 2, unknown

If we were to represent it schematically with the terms filled in, it might look like this:

Screen shot 2015-02-24 at 2.33.47 PM

To reinforce that the analogy is using known terms to describe unknown ones, I use photographs of the camel and leopard to indicate that these were confirmed creatures, not imaginary ones. But of course the cameleopard, at least at the time of Heliodorus’s analogies, remained a work of imagination, hence the illustration (from Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle [1749-88]).

The giraffe is instructive because it is, in effect, a unicorn—a wonder animal and byword of exotic nature from an exotic unknown place much sought after by early explorers and oft described—that turns out to have been perfectly real. And yet its discovery and description in accounts like that in Heliodorus’s fiction may have preceded any actual knowledge of it. Again, in other words, we invented this creature from dream fragments—second-hand accounts and travelers’ stories—and only later woke up to find it staring us in the face.

Giraffe face

If nothing else does, the giraffe proves the scientific value of the unicorn. Analogies with camels and leopards gave natural historians a way to refer to something that had been, until then, as unimaginable as a one-horned wild ass. And of course in one sense the analogy is not very sophisticated: a giraffe shares only superficial characters with leopards. Indeed Greek geographer and traveler Strabo put paid to the leopard analogy, but not until the first century CE:

they are in no respect like leopards; for the dappled marking of their skin is more like that of a fawnskin, which latter is flecked with spots, and their hinder parts are so much lower than their front parts that they appear to be seated on their tail-parts, which have the height of an ox, although their forelegs are no shorter than those of camels; and their necks rise high and straight up, their heads reaching much higher up than those of camels. (The Geography XVI.4.16)

Here, in addition to taking issue with the analogy, we see Strabo, like Pliny and other early natural historians, using better-known animals, like the ox, to take stock of unknown ones. So Strabo is merely rendering the analogy more precise by choosing an animal more closely related–a four-footed ruminant. But the “camel+leopard” description is at least half accurate: giraffes and camels belong to the same order at least, the artiodactyls or even-toed ungulates (all of which, incidentally, possess an astragalos, or talus bone, in the ankle–one of the key identifying features of Ctesias’s one-horned ass, and the feature that would have separated it from the rhinoceros: unicorns and giraffes share a more recent common ancestor than rhinos and giraffes!).

But the point is that Heliodorus’s fictional account of the giraffe arrived well in advance of any confirming (or indeed falsifying) evidence of an actual animal. French taxonomist Linnaeus would only describe it in his Systema Naturae in 1758, and Buffon in his encylopedic Histoire Naturelle, written between 1749-88. Still a rather mysterious animal even in the eighteenth century, Buffon has not laid eyes on one of these and still refers to Heliodorus’s and Strabo’s descriptions as possible evidence for it. As far as I can tell, the first giraffe doesn’t show up in Paris until 1827, at the Jardin des Plantes that also housed a zoological collection (both were eventually subsumed by the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle). 2 Before that, the nearest that European naturalists came to a giraffe was a 1764 “drawing…so badly executed that no use [could] be made of it.” 3 Perhaps this drawing looked something like this:

Gesner, Camelopards

Two sorts of Camelopardals. Edward Topsell, History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents. 1658.

Buffon’s natural history of the giraffe is all armchair, which is perhaps why he’s a little testy about the accuracy of his sources’ description. Unlike previous encyclopedists like Pliny, content merely to report what he’s heard, Buffon is especially upset that he can’t confirm, based on the descriptions of Strabo, Pliny, and even later natural historians like Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516-65), or the French explorer Pierre Belon (1517-64), whether or not “this animal sheds its horns like the deer,” which would tell him if it was more closely related to stags (which shed their horns) or camels (which do not) 4. He takes out his frustration on Swedish naturalist Fredrik Hasselquist who, “After having…heaped together a hundred useless and trifling characters…does not say a single word on the substance of the horns.”

Buffon represents a more modern science, not content to rely entirely on analogies to fashion a creature. A modern scientist working with pre-modern data, he’s upset because he’s trying to order his animals, but finds that no one has paid enough attention to the right features, distracted as they are by superficial characteristics like spots.

Perhaps Buffon understood that the cameleopard, even in his eighteenth century, was an invention posing as a discovery. But it was invention, in accounts like Heliodorus’s, that drove men like 3rd century BCE King of Egypt Ptolemy II and the Roman general Caesar into the wilds of unknown places to bring one back. The giraffe, you could say, was invented in our imagination from the fragments of other creatures described in travelers’ stories, just as the unicorn was. It was described before it was discovered. The only difference between a giraffe and a unicorn is that someone actually found a giraffe more or less fitting their description in nature. As Antonio says in The Tempest, “travellers ne’er did lie.”

Some might argue that this is the sticking point: a creature fitting that description actually turned up. And in that point might be the difference between modern science and whatever it is they were doing before modern science. But in my view, the actual creature is incidental to this question. The process of “discovering” the giraffe was identical to that of discovering the unicorn: both proceeded from ideas to realities. The only difference being that the composite cameleopard began as multiple animals and consolidated into one, the giraffe, while the unicorn spun out centrifugally into myriad animals.

We might think of unicorn as, not a byword for the unachievable—I’m reminded of the 1905 Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, which I cited in Part 1 of this series, and which defines unicorn as “two men and a woman (or vice versa) working together.” Rather, if the unicorn has a function in scientific understanding, it is as hypothesis, a good guess that something exists. Its actual existence is beside the point, and in some regard it is far less interesting than the idea that this thing must exist. Anyone naïve empiricist can find a thing with his own two eyes. But it takes a work of real ingenuity to discover a thing before you find it. In one sense, the analogies used to predict and describe these creatures are the real source of our knowledge of the world. The analogies allow us to discover what we should look for, to fill in the gaps between actualities before our eyes or our microscopes or our telescopes can see them. Once the thing is found, the rest is just sorting out details.

The power of analogy to create knowledge is precisely why a non-existent animal like a unicorn can “exist” as an important feature of science for 2500 years. Not because we were childish or naïve, but because our minds sought to comprehend the world before our tools could confirm it. In the case of the giraffe, we invented an unknown known so compelling, so fascinating, that we continued to comb through nature until we found it. It had to be there, like the Higgs-Boson particle.

Of course natural history is more than armchair ideating. It is also things. When we have lost sight of the “nature” in natural history, the result has been monsters of pure imagination. Later historians divided Ctesias’s wild ass into separate animals that took on lives of their own in subsequent Christian bestiaries: the unicorn, that creature fascinating for its one-ness, not only indexed multiple animals, but it gave birth to the “monoceros” by scribes who practiced their natural history without venturing beyond their damp European monasteries. In those same books, the cameleopard took on a life of its own, independent of any real-world correlates. It ended up a creature in the fever dreams of nature in Medieval bestiaries.

Cameleopard, bestiary

Camelus pardalis. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 50v

The series of analogues that bred an animal that only ever lived in books is preserved to this day as part of the animal’s scientific name, Giraffa camelopardalis. (“Giraffa” derives from the Arabic “zarafa,” which might mean “to hurry,” and in which case would describe something about the animal, but it might mean “lovely one,” and so, like many “scientific” names, might contain not just description but the history of an organism’s meaning and value: after all, aside from its spots, the characteristic most commonly remarked upon is the giraffe’s gentleness.)

We have kept such imaginary names, in a sense continuing to call our creatures not what they are but what they are not. Following the strange history of invention and discovery that these names preserve is more than to indulge in the “pleasure of useless out-of-the-way erudition,” as Jorge Luis Borges, the Spanish natural historian of the imagination, claims rather archly. It is a helpful reminder that there is something unknown about the known that we might not ever fully know. Borges reminds us in his Book of Imaginary Beings that “the zoology of dreams is far poorer than the zoology of the Maker” 5: maybe there will always be a gap between our knowledge and the thing itself. Analogies can only bring us so close. To get any closer, says Buffon, we would have to “make use of [our] own knowledge, and not to view objects through the spectacles of other men” 6 Whether we can ever close the gap is the subject of my next post!


  1. From The Æthiopica: An Aethiopian Romance, Trans. Thomas Underdowne (1587), revised and partly rewritten by F. A. Wright. George Routledge & Sons Ltd.: London; New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.; [with additional corrections in the online edition by S. Rhoads;] pp. 7-46.
  2. For a short history of this collection, see
  3. Buffon, George Louis-Clerc. Barr’s Buffon: Buffon’s Natural History. Vol. 8. 1749-88. London, 1807: 266.
  4. Buffon, 266-67.
  5. Borges (with Margarita Guerrero), The Book of Imaginary Beings. 1969. Trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Vintage, 2002. 14.
  6. Buffon, 266.