As my father lay dying several years ago, I was reading from the Psalms by his bedside. I read the following verse and became rather whimsically startled:
But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn:
I shall be anointed with fresh oil.
While I kept reading, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Really, God? Unicorns? This is what you are promising to the righteous? This is supposed to comforting?”
Later I looked up the issue and this post is about what I found.
Unicorns in Antiquity
Unicorns are found in legends in many cultures, with some obvious variations on the general theme. Today they are wimpy rainbow-poopers for little girls (much like angels!) but in medieval Europe they were hunted for their horns (supposedly) which were believed to have been quite powerful. They were animals on the liminal edge of nature and supernature, to use modern categories. They could be killed, but they had supernatural powers of some sort.
The book Barlaam and Josaphat uses the image of a unicorn in a striking way, at least to the modern eye/ear:
A man saw a raging unicorn, and flying from him fell into a pit.
But as he fell he caught hold of a branch which saved him from falling to the bottom, while he rested his feet upon a projecting stone.
Looking about him he saw two mice, one white and one black, gnawing at the root of the branch which he was holding, while at the bottom of the well he saw a fiery dragon, and near the stone on which his feet rested, a serpent, with four heads.
But just at this moment he noticed on the branch he was holding a few drops of honey trickling down, and forgetting the unicorn, the dragon, the snakes, and the mice, he directed his whole thoughts how he might obtain the sweet honey.
Now the unicorn is death,
the well is the world, full of manifold evil,
the two mice are the night and the day which, eat away the branch of life,
while the four serpents are the four elements of man’s body,
and the fiery dragon represents hell.
The few drops of honey, the pleasures of this world.
This parable, taken from a work that appears to be a Christian retelling of the life of the Buddha (ca. 7th c. AD), is noteworthy because the unicorn is “raging” and is the most obviously threatening animal listed. But unicorns these days are not dangerous, and in Medieval times unicorns were hunted rather than the hunters. So what gives?
Unicorns in the Bible
The apparent anomaly above pushes us towards our Biblical evidence and back to the Old Testament.
“Unicorns” are mentioned in the KJV translation of the OT 9 times in 5 books, and in each occurrence the unicorn is a symbol of power.
The Hebrew word used in rĕ’em, which is derived from the Hebrew word ra’am, meaning “to rise.” It denotes an exalted and powerful animal, in context and typology linked with the bull. The exact animal it refers to is not known.
Yet in the LXX we have a Greek rendering of the Hebrew term: in all 9 instances the term used is μονοκέρως (“single-horn”) (but not Job 39:10 where the noun is referred to but not repeated, or Isaiah 34:7 where ἁδροὶ, meaning “an animal that is stout, fine, fat, etc.” is used).
So it appears that the Greek Jews who translated the Hebrew OT into the the LXX considered rĕ’em as meaning a “unicorn.” But what was a unicorn in their minds?
The Greek term μονοκέρως simply means “single horn,” just like rhinoceros means “nose horn.” So the animal had a single horn, to be sure, but was not necessarily the unicorn that we think of. In fact, some English dictionaries as late as the 19th century had “unicorn” as meaning the single-horned rhinoceros. The LXX may denote this, or an animal that was bull-like but had a single horn (note that the LXX was done in Alexandria, where exposure to both the rhinoceros and other animals was possible).
This makes sense of the ominous and powerful depiction of the unicorn in the LXX. If one imagines a rhinoceros or bull-like creature charging you, one would be filled with dread. The single horn was for putting a hole in you, and was backed up by a large and very strong animal. We can add to this that the horn was a biblical symbol of power, and so the image is one of extreme power and danger to whatever was opposed to the animal. Rather than a horse, we should imagine a bull or rhino. No wings were necessary, of course.
While the Bible does speak of unicorns, they are not the unicorns of medieval times or modern times. Rather, they are somewhat ambiguous animals that are extremely large and powerful, with a single horn for attacking their enemies. It is not the case that the Bible buys into mythological fairy-tales on this point, but rather uses animal symbolism that was real and known to the readers.
This page tells us that “the Talmud states that the bull which Adam offered up to God had but one horn, centered in the middle of its forehead (Shabbat 28b).” In other words, a unicorn was sacrificed to God by Adam (the picture at the top of this post is from the same source).
The unicorn of the Bible was like God: powerful, exalted (literally), and with a single horn/power. The unicorns of today, in this sense, are much like the modern God: wimpy, fictional, and for entertainment purposes only.