Cryptozoologists often rely on ancient texts as pointers towards the discovery of the existence of hitherto unknown creatures, and the Bible provides a rich source of information.
Amidst the accounts of Jonah and the Whale and Noah and his Ark of many critters, in the King James version of the Bible, one fantastic beast is mentioned on no less than nine occasions: the unicorn.
- God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn. (Numbers 23:22)
- God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn. (Numbers 24:8)
- His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth. (Deuteronomy 33:17)
- Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? (Job 39:9–10)
- Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns. (Psalms 22:21)
- He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn. (Psalms 29:6)
- But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil. (Psalms 92:10)
- And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness. (Isaiah 34:7)
So, could the unicorn have existed in Bible times, only to have died out since? Sadly, the answer is no. The KJV unicorn is simply a construction of Bible whispers.
The unicorn has something of a seesaw history, achieving greatest prominence in Ancient Greece; during the European Middle Ages and Renaissance; and… well, now. The unicorn is a ubiquitous emblem on contemporary toys and stationery. Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino anyone? Harry Maguire was even seen riding an inflatable one during the most recent FIFA World Cup.
At the time when the Authorized KJV of the Bible was published in 1611, the unicorn was a popular motif in art and heraldry. To be made accessible to an English-speaking audience, the KJV had to pass through a series of language filters, even more susceptible to corruption than Google Translate. Hebrew was translated into Greek, was translated into Latin, was translated into English. In that muddled linguistic environment, it is no surprise that Bible whispers proliferated.
In the Hebrew version of the Bible there is mention of a horned creature called the re’em. In Greek, this becomes the monokeros. The Latin translation of monokeros is unicornis, and Hey Presto! by the time we reach the KJV, the unicorn is alive and well and living in the Middle East roughly two thousand years ago.
So, if the unicorn does not really exist, what is the re’em, which ignited this controversy? Many genuine horned beasts have been suggested, ranging from a Triceratops to a stag beetle; from a narwhal, to a rhinoceros. For the most likely answer, it is necessary to delve back even further into linguistic history.
The Hebrew word re’em appears to derive from the Assyrian word rimu, which was used to describe the massive, bull-like creatures that we know as aurochs. It is interesting to note that many of the references to unicorns, which feature in the KJV, refer to the creature’s strength, an attribute which would be more naturally associated with aurochs than with unicorns.
By the time of the KJV, aurochs were already incredibly rare––officially they became extinct in 1627––but depictions of these magnificent creatures portrayed in profile in ancient Indus Valley artefacts might have been sufficient stimuli to foster an enduring myth.
Later versions of the Bible go some way to acknowledging this likelihood, substituting the term ‘wild ox’––a better physical approximation of the aurochs––for unicorn. However, for me, this is a dilution. The modern translation of ‘wild ox’ is dull in comparison to ‘unicorn’. If the Bible needs anything to survive it needs faith. In this respect, it shares more in common with the unicorn than it might like to admit.
© Bradley Dunbar
Bradley Dunbar is keeping the faith.