Today’s Mystery Monday post is an intriguing bookplate with an image of a unicorn swimming through ocean waves. The Greek lettering above reads philos pontou (friend of the sea). The name Joe Andrada, presumably the name of the engraver, and the year 1917 appear in the lower left-hand corner.
The image pre-dates Peter S. Beagle’s 1968 fantasy novel The Last Unicorn which memorably describes unicorns bound in the foam of the sea:
“…in the whiteness, of the whiteness, flowering in the tattered water, their bodies arching with the streaked marble hollows of the waves, their manes and tails and the fragile beards of the males burning in the sunlight, their eyes as dark and jeweled as the deep sea–and the shining of the horns, the seashell shining of the horns! The horns came riding in like the rainbow masts of silver ships.”
Both Beagle’s novel and this unidentified bookplate from 51 years earlier present the image of a unicorn as part of the sea that may stem from the relationship between the mythical beings and the real one-horned creature of the sea, the Narwhal. For centuries sightings of narwhal horns poking up from the ocean have led to speculation about mythical creatures below, and their long tusks were harvested and passed off as unicorn horns by sailors in earlier times when the boundaries of which animals were true and which fantasy were murkier to most people than they are today.
However, the precise inspiration for this bookplate and the name of the owner it was made for both remain a mystery. Who was it who selected the somewhat unusual image of a unicorn in the waves with the Greek motto? The book itself is a 1599 edition of a text on the priesthood by St. John Chrysostum, a 5th century church father (Penn Libraries BV4011 .J63 1599) with versions of the text in both Greek and Latin. The book has several other notable provenance marks, including a binding with the arms of 18th century French collector Jacques Auguste de Thou, whom I’ve blogged about before:
The book also contains a heraldic bookplate on the inside back cover identified as that of François-Michel de Verthamon, marquis de Breau (d. 1738):
and a more recent label bearing the name Comte le Moyne de Martigny:
If you think you know more about our mystery unicorn bookplate that could shed light on who owned this book around 1917, post a comment here or comment under the image on the POP Flickr Feed.