Friday, November 18, 2011

Rhino horn: myth and legend

Another day, another rhinoceros horn stolen from another museum. Not a beautifully carved Qing Dynasty rhino horn libation cup, but just the plain old horn. Why? — to capitalise on the anachronistic folkloric belief that powdered rhino horn has medicinal qualities. It doesn't. It's a bit of a dead animal. And the sooner they all disappear from Western museums the better.

Of course, the real problem is not rhino horn thefts from museums. It's rhinos being slaughtered for their horns.

The media reporting of rhino thefts doesn't help. This problem is not unlike the Dr No mythology that lingers around art theft. Rhino horn is not in common use as an aphrodisiac in Asia, although a few members of the wealthy business élite continue to see it as an exotic alternative to Viagra. That is doubtless more to do with the fact that it's expensive…and thus fashionable.

Rhino horn is, however, a treasured ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in which it is used to reduce fever. But as most of us know, TCM is medieval bunkum. Rhino horn is made of keratin, which is the same as human hair or fingernails. Ever tried eating your own hair to reduce a fever? No, of course not.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the mounted rhino horn may have justified its inclusion in the Wunderkammern, or Cabinets of Curiosity assembled by most self-respecting European princes. Originating as it did from the fearsome, armour-plated beast drawn so exquisitely by Albrecht Dürer (above left), one can easily see how, during the superstitious pre-Enlightenment culture of seventeenth century Europe, the rhino's horn would exert a similar fascination to the myriad other wondrous things in the princely cabinet — the teeth of a mermaid, or blood said to have rained on the Isle of Wight. In the eighteenth century, those weird collections became the 'Universal' or 'Encyclopedic Museums' we have today.

However, as the directors of these museums continue to remind us, we are still living through the Enlightenment (I know, just look around you — it's a laughable notion, isn't it?). The Age of Enlightenment was supposed to have swept away medieval superstition and replaced it with rational thought. What's rational about a mouldy old rhino horn nailed to a mahogany shield in a tiny provincial museum in Surrey? Or anywhere else for that matter.

Precisely what educational significance can a mounted rhino horn have for the gentle denizens of Haslemere in Surrey, or Ipswich? Don't they get David Attenborough documentaries down there? National Geographic? The Discovery Channel? The internet? Perhaps not.

I can see them now, weeping into their Waitrose shopping trolleys at the cruel theft of the beloved rhino horn from their local museum. Meanwhile, somewhere in the basement restaurant of a brand new poured concrete metropolis in mainland China a group of priapic, freshly-minted billionaires stir the Haslemere Horn into their rice wine as the karaoke machine belts out James Brown's It's a man's World.

Rhino horn, powdered down by TCM practitioners for its medicinal properties (twice the value of gold in that market); public bronze sculpture melted down for its scrap metal content; Qing Dynasty porcelain vases making unconscionable sums at UK auctions — the Asian tiger is on the rampage, energised by a bizarre mixture of medieval superstition and ever-accelerating modernity.

Around the horn...
Rosie the rhino's horn stolen from Ipswich Museum

Irish rhino horn racket uncovered

Rhino horns put Europe's museums on thieves' must-visit list

Rhino horns stolen from museums in Italy and Germany