Scriptural Unicorns

unicorn

Why does the King James Bible mention unicorns several times?  First of all, let me confirm that it does.

All of the references to the unicorn are in the Old Testament.  There are a total of nine mentions, two in consecutive verses, as follows:

  1. God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” –
    Numbers 23:22.
  2. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.” – Numbers 24:8.
  3. 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: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” Deuteronomy 33:17.
  4.  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.
  5. “Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the nicorns.” – Psalm 22:21.
  6. He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalm 29:6.
  7. But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalm 92:10.
  8. And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7.

Some people have used this fact to discredit the Bible.  Other people are very attached to the King James Version (KJV) and some even believe it to be a special second revelation on a par with the Bible itself.  Others attach themselves to it because of its seemingly picturesque language, and still others prefer it because they believe that other popular versions of the Bible are manipulated to make it seem more liberal than the original intention.

I am personally quite attached to the KJV, and find it unnatural to say the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, so I usually use the version beginning “Our Father, Which art in heaven.”  Many well-known Bible passages come to me first in the KJV.  Then again, some passages from the gospels occur to me first in Gothic, a language spoken in Roman times into which the Bible was translated in the early fourth Christian century.  A few of them come in Old English, although as far as I know the entire Bible was never translated into English before the Norman Conquest.  It’s just how my mind works.

In spite of how my mind works, however, I recognise that the KJV, however beloved it may be, is not a particularly good translation.  In a sense it suffers from being too accurate.  That’s quite a flippant way of putting it, but it tends to translate word for word, meaning that particular turns of phrase, i.e. idioms, in Hebrew and Greek tend to get transposed directly into English when in fact they weren’t originally part of the English language.  This fact is somewhat obscured by the very strong influence the language of the KJV has on English, such that some idioms which weren’t formerly found in English are now part of the language.  An example of this is the form “X of Xs”, as in “Song of Songs” and “King of Kings”, both of which emphasise the importance of the noun mentioned.  To an English speaker living in 1611, this would have sounded odd and not have suggested what it does to us nowadays.

A particularly questionable aspect of the KJV is that James VI conducted a personal vendetta against people whom he saw as witches, who were also seen as never practicing alone.  Having said that, there are some misconceptions about the attitude to perceived witches in Britain in the past, and much of the actual burning is more like popular lynching than a governmental execution policy.  Nonetheless, James VI could be said by modern standards to have been paranoid about witchcraft, and as a result the KJV includes a number of dodgy translations which use words such as “witch”, for instance Exodus 22:18 – “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live“.  To be honest I don’t fully understand what other options were available here because when I read it in other languages it still seems to say this, but it’s said that this is inaccurate.  Maybe there was just a lot of anti-witchcraft sentiment around at the time all those translations were made, but it says “sorceress” in the NIV so I don’t know.

Back to unicorns.   This is what the Bible means by a “unicorn”:

aurochs

I’m going to assume that this picture is out of copyright!  This is what I call an aurochs.  Across Eurasia in Old Stone Age times, there were various species of bovine, including the wisent, or European bison, and the aurochs.  Just to get this out of the way:  I say “aurochs” for the singular and “aurochsen” for the plural, not to be awkward but because the “ochs” bit to me is “ox” spelt oddly, so to me “aurochsen” makes more sense than either “aurochs” as a plural or “aurochses”, which sounds dreadful, so that’s why I do it, okay?  I want to get past this.

It makes a lot of sense to interpret the KJV “unicorn” as an aurochs.  Oxen strength is proverbial, for example, and the Numbers references refer to the strength of a “unicorn” in the same way.  The Deuteronomy verse refers to “the horns of unicorns” and the plural introduces ambiguity in that it could be talking about pairs of horns rather than one horn per beast.  That verse also mentions “unicorns” just after cattle and several of the other references do the same and also depict it as a beast of burden.  Moreover, most or all of the references seem to be figurative, as if they are about a mythical animal, or at least one which isn’t around any more, and that’s the crucial clue.

The word “unicorn” in the KJV translates re’em in Hebrew.  When the Bible came to be translated into English, no animals in the Middle East had that name.  Given the figurative overtones of the reference, and I haven’t checked this, it seems that even at the time the verses above were written, the “re’em” was rare if not extinct.  Here’s a map of the aurochsen peak distribution:

By made by Christophe cagé 11:24, 22 March 2007 (UTC). Based on several authors, as T. van Vuure. – Based on image in: Van Vuure, C. (2005) Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Pensoft Publishers. Sofia-Moscow., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1820741Bos_primigenius_map

This clearly includes the Middle East and represents the distribution in the early Holocene, the epoch immediately after the last ice age up until the Industrial Revolution.  The species initially evolved in South Asia in the early Pleistocene and spread to cover the extensive grasslands of Eurasia which appeared after the land bridge between North and South America formed, leading to the Gulf Stream and global drying due to the build up of snow in the Arctic locking up much of the water.  The last wild aurochs seems to have died in Poland in 1627, although domestic cattle are descended from them, some being more primitive than others such as the Northumberland Chillingham Cattle, as painted here by Landseer in Victorian times:

Edwin_Landseer-_The_Wild_Cattle_of_Chillingham

There used to be quite a few species in Europe and the Med which aren’t around any more but were common in ancient times and existed recently enough to have been recorded in writing.  One typically sad example is the European Lion.  Greek myths, such as that of Herakles, mention lions, although the Greek sphere of influence included Asia Minor, and the last European lions seem to have been the ones who killed Christians in the Colosseum, which probably weren’t very healthy judging by skulls full of the marks of dental abscesses for example.  This actually reflects the tendency for Europe to become less “African” as time passes.  Woolly rhinos and mammoths are further examples, although there are many others.

From the perspective of biodiversity, the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture first arose, suffered earlier in many ways than the rest of the planet from human activity.  That said, animals often seem to have been either hunted, accidentally killed in runaway forest fires started by humans or simply unable to compete with us for food, way back into the Old Stone Age.  Compared to the early Pleistocene, mammals now tend to be smaller and more likely to be nocturnal all across the planet.  Even so, the Middle East suffered particularly badly at the dawn of written history, before the locus of Western civilisation started to shift northwest.  Consequently, although the Tanakh mentions the word re’em a number of times, when the time came for the text to be translated into English nobody really knew what the word meant.  Consequently, it was translated as “unicorn”.

Another aspect of this is the nature of how the West saw natural history at the time.  Whereas Europeans would have been aware of animals in distant parts of the world such as elephants, they bracketed them with the likes of dragons and unicorns, and their approach was, and this is important, not scientific in the way we would understand the word nowadays.  It was more important to them to learn lessons from the living world, and this was reflected in bestiaries.  I’ve been into this before, but I’ll illustrate it with a couple of examples, one of which is from the Bible, Proverbs 6:6-8 (KJV 🙂 ):

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:  Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.

Later on, the beaver is given as an example of an animal who will sacrifice its lust to survive by castrating himself and leaving the gonads for hunters to recover, which is more an allegory than something which was literally supposed to happen.  This can be seen in particular in tales about such species as horses, very familiar to the readers of bestiaries but still used to teach morals in their behaviour, which was probably known not to be literally true by the writers and readers and never intended to be taken as such.

Hence the appearance of the “unicorn” in Scripture.  Whether or not the translators actually believed there was such an animal, the point is that it’s used to illustrate an allegory.  The actual cause of it being mentioned at all is down to the fact that human activity had reduced the biodiversity of the regions where the Tanakh had been compiled, but it doesn’t actually matter that much.

For the record, the NIV says “wild ox”.

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