The Bible does not refer to fantasy animals
In the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible we read of God questioning Job (Chapter 39:9,10):
‘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?’
The unicorn is also mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:17, Numbers 23:22 and 24:8; Psalm 22:21, 29:6 and 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7. Nowhere in these passages is there any suggestion that anything other than a real animal is being described.
But the unicorn is well known to be a product of legend, a creature whose remains have never been found and about whom fabulous tales have been told. Some have used this to attack the Bible—this proves that the writers were simply retelling widely believed myths, they say.
Unicorn (‘one horn’) stories have been told in many parts of the world, including Syria, China, India, ancient Greece and medieval Europe. Although always having one horn, its body (usually shown in European stories as a horse, albeit with cloven hooves) has also been depicted in many other ways, including resembling a sheep, a goat or even something like a hare.
A recurring theme was its association with virtue and virginity; though wild, it liked to cradle its head in devotion in a virgin’s lap, while its horn ensured a skewered end for all who tried to falsely pass themselves off as so undefiled. Marco Polo searched for the unicorn, but rejected the rhinoceros in disappointment (such a rough, ugly, muddy head could not possibly be visualized nestling in the white flowing robes of a maiden’s lap).
It is well known that the unicorn horns were greatly prized because of the belief that they were able to render poisons harmless. Sailors occasionally found the tooth of a male narwhal washed up (a narwhal is an Arctic whale, the male of which has a long, spirally twisted tusk), and assumed that it was the only remaining part of a once-living unicorn. Fabulous prices were often paid for these—Queen Elizabeth I is said to have had one which was valued at 100,000 pounds!
However, as shipping became more widespread, it became clear that these ‘unicorn horns’ were actually whales’ teeth, which had a drastic effect on market prices.
So what was the animal described in the Bible as the ‘unicorn’? The most important point to remember is that while the Bible writers were inspired and infallible, translations are another thing again. The word used in the Hebrew is רְאֵם (re’em). This has been translated in various languages as monoceros, unicornis, unicorn, einhorn and eenhorn, all of which mean ‘one horn’. However, the word re’em is not known to have such a meaning. Many Jewish translations simply left it untranslated, because they were not sure which creature was being referred to.
Archaeology has in fact provided a powerful clue to the likely meaning of re’em. Mesopotamian reliefs have been excavated which show King Assurnasirpal hunting oxen with one horn. The associated texts show that this animal was called rimu. It is thus highly likely that this was the re’em of the Bible, a wild ox.
It appears that the reason it was shown in Assyrian (but not Egyptian) art as one-horned was as an artistic way of expressing the beauty of the fact that these horns on the rimu/re’em were very symmetrical, such that only one could be seen if the animal was viewed from one side. The first to translate the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek probably knew that the rimu/re’em was depicted as one-horned, so they translated it as monoceros (one horn).
The real re’em or wild ox was also known as the aurochs (Bos primigenius). This was the original wild bull depicted in, for example, the famous Lascaux (Cro-magnon) cave paintings. This powerful, formidable beast is now extinct, though its genetically impoverished descendants lived on as domestic cattle. For more information, see the feature article on the aurochs, ‘Recreating the extinct Aurochs?’ in this issue of Creation magazine, pages 25–28).
Naaktgeboren, C., Unicorn—fact or fantasy? World Magazine, pp. 70–76, September 1990.
Addendum (March 2004)There is a way of showing from the KJV itself that the translation of the Hebrew re’em as ‘unicorn’ is incorrect. In Deuteronomy 33:17, Moses speaks a blessing on the descendants of Joseph, saying, ‘In majesty he is like a firstborn bull; his horns are like the horns of a wild ox (Heb: re’em). With them he will push the peoples …’.
The KJV translation says: ‘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 … .’The simile is appropriate if the reference is to the aurochs or wild ox, because they had huge, long horns. However, the main point here is the dilemma for the KJV translators who had elsewhere determined that the re’em was a unicorn.
In the Hebrew of this passage, the word ‘horns’ is plural, but the word re’em is singular. But if they translated it this way, it would read, ‘His horns are like the horns of a unicorn’, which would give a unicorn more than one horn, obviously a contradiction in terms. The KJV translators clearly recognized the inconsistency in comparing the pair of horns (plural) on a bull with the single horn on a unicorn, because they took the liberty in their translation to make the unicorn plural (see the marginal note in the KJV, which makes this clear). However, it needs to be stressed again that the word is not plural in the Hebrew. Unless one grants an English translation authority over the original Hebrew, this is a once-and-for-all indication that the re’em could not be a one-horned creature.Note that in Modern Hebrew, re’em also means wild ox.