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A Brief History of Unicorns

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An armed warrior kitty riding a fire-breathing unicorn. Your argument is invalid.

An armed warrior kitty riding a fire-breathing unicorn. Your argument is invalid.

As some of you know I am an amused observer of The Internet Wars of Religion™, which are similar to the French Wars of Religion only with less bloodshed, eloquence and intelligence. I say observer because what I really like to do is torment fundamentalists, religious or irreligious. Yes, I know, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but sometimes it has to be done. Fundies, of course, do their best to fight back, but having no idea what the heck they’re talking about their efforts tend to be wasted.

Case in point, on a few different occasions this past month I’ve had several people accuse me of “believing in fairy tales” due to my Catholicism. Two of them when challenged told me that I had to believe in unicorns because “unicorns are in the bible, after all, and so you must believe in them and the easter bunny.”

Naturally I made the only answer possible to such idiocy. “I had no idea that the bible was written in English. No doubt being a stupid Catholic I was ‘deluded’ into believing that it had been written in Hebrew and Greek.”

Aren’t there unicorns in the bible?

The short answer is No. “OK, I get that unicorn was the English word but there was a creature mentioned that English writers had in mind,” I hear you say. But the answer remains no. The unicorn only appears in the Old Testament, and the Hebrew word that ended being rendered as unicorn was re’em. In modern times we have uncovered more of ancient language, and know to relate the Hebrew word to other words in the Akkadian language tree, namely rimu or ri’im. Both words are a designation for something like an aurochs. This is why the word that was translated as unicorn in the King James version of the bible is translated as wild ox in other versions.

How the hell did unicorns get in the bible if that’s not what the word meant?

Well, simple, by the time the Old Testament was translated into Koine Greek in approximately 250 BCE (the Septuagint) the re’em was extinct. And the Jewish Greek scholars doing the translating weren’t really sure what word to use to describe the beast, so they settled on the Greek word monokeros, meaning single-horned. When Jerome began translating the scriptures into Latin some six centuries later, as a Greek scholar, he understood that monokeros simply meant “one horned” and then used a Latin word with the same meaning, unicornis.

Fast forward another 12 centuries to post-Elizabethean England, the priests and scholars charged with creating the Authorised Version of the bible weren’t quite sure what to do with the re’em/monokeros/unicornis and didn’t want to spend a lot of time on trivial matters, they had more important political and theological fish to fry. So they simply elected to invent a new English word to cover it. The unicorn. And that’s how this one translation of the bible came to have unicorns in it.

So why did those Alexandrian scholars choose a mythical creature for their version of the Old Testament?

They didn’t. Here’s the interesting part, the word monokeros did not come from Greek mythology, it came from Greek natural history. More precisely, it came from India.

India?

"Hey, even if you stroke my horn you're still a virgin."

“Hey, even if you stroke my horn you’re still a virgin.”

Yes, India, by way of the Persian Empire. A Greek physician, Ctesias, served as personal physician to Artaxerxes II of Persia, and there collected many fantastic tales from merchants and travelers, and in a work on India made the first western mention of the unicorn as being a sort of wild ass with a single horn a cubit and a half in length. Later Greek thinkers would situate them there as India was the land of wonder to those in the eastern Mediterranean. Aristotle mentions two types of unicorns, the Oryx and the Indian variety. Later thinkers revised the tales to create the horned horse that we now envision.

Of course, you might point out that these were European stories about India, however archaeological digs in the Indus Valley civilization have turned up carved stone seals with many animal carvings, some of which appear to be single-horned creatures. So it’s easy to see how the legend of the single-horned creatures could have started centuries later (the Harappan empire reached its apex from 2600-1900 BCE, but was gone by 1300 BCE) amongst the Indic peoples.

It is mostly now assumed that the depictions of unicorns may just be an aurochs seen in profile. Another theory is that the Indian tales derived from a sort of early rhino known as the elasmotherium, which resided in the same general region as the Harappan civilisation (central Asia). It’s assumed to have gone extinct around 50,000 BCE, but surviving descriptions of the creature indicate that it might have lived past that point.

An argument for the elasmotherium being the basis for the unicorn might be found in that the Arabian word for the unicorn, karkadann also means rhinoceros and may have given birth to the alternate Greek word for the unicorn, cartazonos. While the elasmotherium’s relatively early extinction is an argument against it, it very well may have lived millennia past its accepted extinction date; Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan describes something very similar to an elasmotherium as living in the Volga region as a second hand story, with a further note that some people told him the creature was a type of rhinoceros.

So, in conclusion, no, amongst the mythical creatures that are in the Old Testament the unicorn is not one of them. And the unicorn is not, strictly speaking, a creature drawn from mythology, but one about whom vast mythologies grew. Also you should remember that while there are no single-horned horses, one of the reasons that researchers have so much difficulty pinning the story down is that there isn’t a shortage of single-horned creatures that could have been the model for the tales of antiquity. Thus endeth your lesson.

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