Rhino Horns and Scraps of Unicorn: The Sense of Touch and the Consumption of Rhino Horns in Early Modern Iberia

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In early modern Iberia, rhino horns were widely consumed by high-ranking persons. Rhino horns were often confused with the horns of the legendary unicorn, which were said to be able to transform poison into water with their touch. Consumption of rhino horns is often explained either by their ascribed prophylactic properties or by their use as the symbolic representation items for social manifestation. These motivations have long been identified, but they still continue to puzzle us. In this paper, I argue that a structural belief in the power of touch to transform matter from one stage to another played a central role in early-modern Iberia’s consumption of rhino horns. The belief in the transformative power of touch was the framework that can explain the development of a diverse set of motivations that fed the market and circulation of rhino horns in early modern Iberia. The socially-constructed perception that touching certain objects could bring transformation sustained the consumption of horns, because it was shared by most agents involved: consumers, apothecaries, physicians, scholars, and so on. Ultimately, this paper contributes to a more complex approach to analysing the consumption of luxurious goods in general. By opening up its scope, this paper shows how understanding consumption dynamics should include social practices, spiritual beliefs, medical knowledge or symbolic representations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-103
Number of pages26
JournalLuxury: History, Culture, Consumption
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jul 2021
EventRhinoceros: Luxury's Fragile Frontier - Palazzo Contarini Polignac , Venice, Italy
Duration: 24 Nov 2018 → …


  • Consumption
  • Iberia
  • Early Modern
  • Rhino
  • Touch


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