039 Why Are There Unicorns in the Bible? (Transcript)

If you read some older English translations of the Bible, like the Catholic Douay-Rheims (pub. 1609) or the Protestant King James (pub. 1611) you come across some passages that seem a bit mysterious. For example in the Douay-Rheims, in Psalms 91:11 we read:

But my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn.

In the equivalent verse in the King James (Ps. 92:10) we read:

But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn.

In reading such passages, you might think, what on earth does that mean? Well in these cases, the horn is being used as a symbol of strength or vigor. The Psalmist is saying that thanks to God, I’m going to be given a lot of strength and vigor so praise God.

Fine, but what’s this stuff about unicorns? I, mean does this mean unicorns are real? If you look at the different passages in the King James and Douay-Rheims that refer to unicorns you never have one where unicorns appear on camera, you never have a statement like “…and Moses hopped on his unicorn and rode off…”.

Instead, you have poetic expressions, figures of speech. Like ‘as strong as a unicorn’ or ‘like a unicorn’. You could say these are just figures of speech, we’re not meant to take them literally, like today I could say someone is ‘as fierce as a dragon’ without implying that I think dragons are real.

Before going that route though, we should look a little closer at this. Today we think of unicorns as, basically, a horse with a long, pointed horn on its forehead, above its eyes. The Hebrew word in this passage is R’em or R’eym depending upon how it’s spelled in different passages. It’s an obscure word and that’s not too surprising because the modern system for classifying animals scientifically didn’t exist back then.

If we’re not talking about a common domesticated animal, it can be difficult for translators to know exactly which animal is being discussed. There seems to have been some confusion about this in ancient times too. The way we got the word ‘unicorn’ into this passage is from the sebtoajent, a translation of the Old Testament for Greek-speaking Jews such as those in the community of Alexandria in Egypt.

In the Septuagint version of this passage, the word that it uses is monokeros. That’s a compound of the prefix ‘mono’, which means one and the word ‘keras’, which means horn, so we have ‘one-horn’. If you say that in Latin, you get uni-cornus, from which we obviously get ‘unicorn’. Like I said, today we think of a unicorn as a horse with one horn, but is that how the ancients thought of it?

Well, the greatest naturalist, perhaps, in the ancient was a Roman named Pliny the Elder who died somewhat mysteriously during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. But before he died, he wrote a multi-volume work called Natural History in which, among other things he described the animals that he was aware of, either seeing them directly or having heard reports of them in different countries.

He mentions a monokeros as being native to India. He said

“A very fierce animal called the monokeros, which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length. This animal, it is said, cannot be taken alive.”

To review the essential elements of the physical description that he gives for the monokeros, Pliny said it has the has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, the body like that of a horse, and single horn from the middle of its forehead. Recently I was looking at a picture drawn by an artist of the artist’s conception of what Pliny said about the monokeros and indeed, it had all these features, it was a very nice picture. But as an artists’ conception it something that might not represent precisely what Pliny’s animal was.

In particular, there could be room for variability in proportions, which can make a difference. In this case, they do. Because there is actually an animal in India that fits Pliny’s description quite well. Leave a little room for variation and some flexibility, it’s really a close fit.

We need to talk for just a second about foreheads. As human beings, we have front-mounted eyes, a nose that begins at our eye level so our forehead is above our eyes and nose. Some animals, like horses and stags, have side-mounted eyes and their nose is at the bottom (below their eyes) of their face so the middle of their face there is a long stretch that could be called a forehead.

That’s where this animal’s forehead is. It has a single horn in the middle of its forehead, just above it’s nose and because this horn is just above its nose, it’s not only called a monokeros (one-horn in Greek), it’s also called a rhino-keros, or as we say in English, rhinoceros.

If you look at a picture of an Indian rhinoceros, you can see how well it fit’s Pliny’s description: a head kind of like the stag, the feet of the elephant, the tail of the boar, a horse-like body, and single horn above its nose. Which is why you can call it a one-horn, you can also call it a nose-horn, which is what ‘rhinoceros’ means.

So the Indian rhinoceros may actually be the basis of the European legends that we’re familiar with of unicorns. It’s also interesting to note that in the Douay-Rheims version, not the King James, it actually translates the word referring to this animal as rhinoceros in some cases.

In the Psalms that refer to this animal, it uses the term unicorn but elsewhere it uses the term rhinoceros. This displays some awareness of the fact that the monokeros may indeed refer not simply to what we think of as a unicorn but actually to a rhinoceros.

Is that then what the animal actually is that the Hebrew author was referring to, could be…but modern Biblical scholars have generally thought that it refers to a different animal. If you look in a modern Bible translation, like the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, you’ll see this passage translated this way:

But thou hast exalted my horn like that of the wild ox.

Or if you look at the New American Revised Edition, it will say:

You have given me the strength of a wild ox.

That’s the common opinion among Bible scholars today. That the creature in question, the R’em or R’eym, is a wild ox of some kind, because there are different species of wild ox. There are still some variability about what species might be intended.

For example one species that is sometimes talked about as a possible contender for the R’em, is the Arabian Oryx. If the Arabian Oryx is what the Biblical authors have in mind, it’s easy to see how they could be talking about ‘my horn is exalted like that of an Oryx because Arabian Oryx’s have this huge, tall horns that are really exalted and so would make a very apt metaphor for God endowing one with great strength.

Between Oryx’s and other forms of wild oxen and rhinoceroses, it seems there are a number of possible candidates for what this creature could be besides what we think of as a unicorn.

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