Wrestling with Unicorns

unicornYou read that right. Yesterday I wrestled with unicorns…all afternoon. And not just your run of the mill mythic Greek unicorns. No. I wrestled with the Biblical variety. In case you have no clue what I’m talking about, you might be surprised to find that “unicorns” are mentioned in the Bible (or at least in the King James Version of the Bible). [1]

Here are the passages where “unicorn/s” are referred to: Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9; Psalm 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7. This is quite a list. I know I was surprised by it.

Perhaps you are actually wondering why I would be concerned about “unicorns” (the Hebrew is  רְאֵ֖ם or r’m) in the Bible and spend my afternoon studying them? Well, as it turns out, I have a friend who is a professor in Canada who emailed me an extended question on the topic, because someone had asked him about it. Here is part of his question (where he is citing the person who brought it to him):

“Psalm 92:10 is very clearly saying that this animal has one horn, while Deut. 33:17 is clearly saying that this animal has two horns. Therefore, whatever the r’em is, it must be an animal that could have either one or two horns.”

As such, this individual believes that the “wild ox” translation of most of our modern versions is actually misleading and inaccurate and we should be sticking with the LXX  (KJV) rendering of rhinoceros/unicorn.

Unicorn on the Black ObeliskAnd here is my reply:

Technically Psalm 92.10 (or more specifically the MT 92.11) only refers to “the horn” of the r’m. This does not require it to have only one horn, but only notes “the horn” of this creature as if to specify a type rather than delineate the number of horns this creature has normally. For instance, I could refer to something being “like the tusk of the elephant” but this does not mean that elephants only normally have one tusk, but I would be referring to the general category, or exemplar of just one of the tusks of the elephant. I could be wrong and perhaps the plural form for “horns” in Deut.33.17 is intended to refer to multiple horns or to the significance of the horn of this creature, but it seems more likely in that case to actually be referring to multiple horns on the single r’m.

On the NIDOTTE [2], it doesn’t have ANY mention of this term as a synonym or anything. Too bad really. And the TWOT doesn’t have anything besides “wild ox”. 😦

The Black Obelisk [3] also contains images of monkeys (?) and elephants (on another side of it). These are the only two of the four sides depicted in ANEP. However, on yet another side there are what appear to be some sort of an ox and a buffalo and in their middle is a one-horned ox-like creature also being brought as tribute to Shalmaneser (this is a photo from the British Museum: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fuzitalondon/320861479/). So PERHAPS it is a reference to a one-horned creature, but there does not appear to be anything requiring such. Not sure what to think about it. If only there were actually a depiction with a cognate term used so that potentially one might know what is being referred to precisely.

The cognate occurs in Ugaritic r’m : rum “buffalo” UT 49:VI:18, plural rumm (UT 51:I:44; 62:19; 2 Aqhat VI:21 [where his “sinews” are considered “splendid”). For more contemporary citation references: 4.i.44 (in the land of Ym’an there are 10 thousands of them); 5.i.17 (captivated by a pool of water much like the appetite of lions in the wasteland, or the desire of dolphins with the sea and hinds with springs of water), 6.vi.18 (the brutality of the battle between Mot and Baal is compared to the goring of this creature) in Gibson who provides the gloss “wild ox”. [4]

Interestingly enough EVERY occurrence in the Hebrew Bible is in a poetic statement. Not sure what that might mean, but it is interesting nevertheless.

My likeliest explanation for “unicorn” is it derives from the Vulgate [5] which translated the LXX which started with “one-horned”. Not sure where the LXX derives this from, other than potentially their own understanding of the Psalm passage about the singular “horn” of this creature. Granted (as is witnessed on the Obelisk) there is some sort of creature known to the ANE which had a single horn (or so it appears as such), but this does not necessitate the same creature for the Hebrew r’m.

So that is the gist of my wrestling with unicorns in the Bible. However, the story isn’t quite complete, because when I arrived home my oldest daughter (Abbi, 11) showed be a video that her sixth grade class had made which was based on the topic they had been discussing yesterday…which just happened to have been “unicorns”. 🙂 Coincidence…you be the judge. 🙂


[1] Wild ox or buffalo seems to be the preferred translation in many other versions.

[2] He had asked about the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (5 vols; Zondervan, 1997). I also looked at the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament ()2 vols.; Moody, 1980) which is why I mention it next.

[3] In one of the commentaries he had consulted there was mention made that the Black Obelisk had a picture of a one-horned creature along with other livestock, but sadly that particular side of the Obelisk is not pictured in James Pritchard’s The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (2 vols.; Princeton, 1971). So I included a link to it as photographed in the British Museum.

[4] UT refers to Cyrus Gordon’s Ugaritic Textbook: Grammar, Texts in Transliteration, Cuneiform Selections, Glossary, Indices (Analecta Orientalia 38, Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1965). The Gibson text I refer to is Canaanite Myths and Legends (2nd Edition; New York: T&T Clark, 2004). While I did not mention it in my response, one also finds a cognate in the Aramaic and, yet earlier, Assyrian rimu.

[5] The Latin Vulgate translates with the English equivalents of “unicorn” and “rhinoceros”. This appears to be following the Greek Septuagintal translations (LXX).


29 thoughts on “Wrestling with Unicorns

  1. I think that what the bible may be referring to is not unicorns, but possibly deer or elk these animals can have one horn or two, and in those days that is a type of animal they were more likely to see.

  2. This is very interesting..I never knew there was any possibility of the truth behind unicorns, especially that could be found in the bible.

  3. Finally some proof that unicorns existed! I know that it is not foolproof evidence, but I take it as evidence. I do not believe that they were merely mythological creatures. I believe that they, along with many other creatures of myth really did exist.

  4. Interesting. On a more broad note, I do find it funny that people research this stuff. I mean, the Bible is meant to be studied and such, but whether or not something is a unicorn isn’t something that I would expect to hear debated. Personally I think that the unicorns won’t get me to heaven, so I have a hard one developing an opinion. But this is good writing! Made me think of things that I haven’t before.

  5. I found this article to be very interesting. Matt Lindgren may be right in that these “Unicorns” may be deer or elk but then why do all the passages reference their power and destruction, which would be more fitting for a bovine type creature. I also wonder if maybe they were referencing some mythological creature that the other nations, specifcally the Egyptions, had come up with? I was thinking this way in part because of the description and also because of every reference being poetic.

  6. I actually found this pretty interesting simply because I remember someone saying that dinosaurs were mentioned in the bible now to find out that unicorns are mentioned in there to makes me want to read it all the more

  7. I think it is definitely possible for creatures like this to have existed at one point in time. The ideas we have today of unicorns and other mythological creatures had to come from somewhere… Obviously getting exaggerated and changed over time though. Like you pointed out though, every reference of unicorns is through poetic passages, so it might mean nothing and they are fake.

  8. I think this is something only you Canadians think about. Haha it was interesting but there are other subjects in the bible i would rather try to figure out.

  9. This another one of those moment where I wish the Bible included pictures so we could see what is being discussed… Now that I there is some evidence to unicorns being real I would like to include this in my own personal archive of things that make being a believe worthwhile! Our awesome faith that yeilds us a possible connection to unicorns!(;

  10. What if a whole herd of wild oxen or buffalo, let’s call them the Sharks, were to have entered into fierce battle with a rival herd, the Jets, and lost just one horn as collateral damage? This may explain sightings of such one-horned creatures. I would imagine lots of snapping and twirling in such a scenario…. maybe I should stop watching musicals before homework time….

  11. I don’t think there are creatures that would resemble what we have portrayed as unicorns today but I can see how we can think that. Once in the local paper of my home town there was an article of a man from Cali who came to MT to hunt some elk. This man was later sued by a local lama farmer since the man had shot and killed one of his lamas mistaking it for a bull elk… If you have ever seen either of these animals the only resemblance is that they have four legs and are larger animals. An elk is usually much larger than any lama though and a bull has a very large set of antlers. So if a Californian today can mistake a lama for an elk I can see someone back then calling any larger animal with horns a unicorn.

  12. This articles definitely caught my attention. It’s amazing how many ideas there are and how many possible things these creatures or “unicorns” could be. I think it could be a deer, a a mythological creature or maybe even a horse that had a headdress on it. Or maybe it is a unicorn… But I digress.

  13. It was an intriguing read. In discussions with other individuals in the past, we theorized that it might have simply been a term for a one-horned creature. Especially since we read the headline of an article about a goat that had only one horn on its head. Whether it was an anomalous genetic occurrence, or a continuous trait, we never fully established. But we did find more amusement than we should have in informing less educated comrades that “unicorns” were in the Bible.

  14. For me the key word in all of these texts is “like”. Although quite possible, I feel that th existence of unicorns is not likely. much like in the book of Revelations, John used symbolism to describe what he was being shown of heaven. for example: I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast covered in blasphemous names and had seven heads and horns.(Rev 17:3). perhaps even in those days the myths of unicorns were being told through out the land. plus even if they did exist they were lost during the flood.just read the poem “The Unicorn” by Shel Silverstein. Oh those silly unicorns.

    sorry just had to add a little humor.

  15. I found this article very interesting. We will never know for sure what the creature is. I personally think it to be a rhino. There are five species in the world. The black rhino for example has two horns and also lived in the correct geographical area. Other species have only one horn so it is possible they could be co-existing in the same area as do many animals in the wild if there something drawing them in like a watering hole. I just don’t think that they were talking about cattle, although very powerful they were not anything out of the ordinary in those times like a rhino. I maybe wrong but the rhino in my mind best matches the description in the bible of this beast.

  16. I think the one-horned animal could definitely be a unicorn in the picture. It’s hard to decided if it is mythical or real, but I would like to believe that they are. And that they’re in the bible.

  17. That is very interesting, but the idea of unicorns is hard to believe. Maybe it is a dear missing half of its rack. And if so is there any findings of unicorn fossils. Its hard to say where they existed or not.

  18. If there can be giants and Nephilim in the time of Moses and a time when man lived hundreds of years, who is to say what the world looked like pre-flood and what roamed the earth at that time. Even in our current world, there are creatures that can adapt (not evolve) to specific environments. Camouflage, coloring, and other various adaptations can make some rather interesting animals. There are birds of paradise that have exotic and strange plumage and dances; arctic whales that live for hundreds of years, species of amphibians that live in boiling water around volcanic spouts, and countless extremophiles that defy explanation. I suppose arguing about unicorns or dragons or any other “mythical” creature is an exercise in futility. What once existed may not exist anymore and there may be no physical record of its existence, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist at all.

  19. Personally I think that due to the period of time that they discovered this one-horned animal there is a possibility that it could be a unicorn or another one horned animal could exist during that period of time. I think that due to the translation there is a higher chance of it being an ox with one horn rather than a unicorn but because it had taken place during this certain period of time there is a chance that it could have been a unicorn that does no longer exist in today’s world. Because we have no proof that it is a unicorn, it is a choice whether or not we choose to believe that it is a unicorn or another form of a one horned animal.

  20. I think it would be pretty sweet if unicorns did exist, but I think it is more likely that an isolated incident where some animal lost one of it’s horns. I also wonder if maybe a rhinoceros would fit the ticket?

  21. Although I would love to believe in unicorns, the Hebrew word just seems to describe a horned animal. I agree with Layne that it would be more logical to believe that it’s a rhino. Also a rhino more resembles a buffalo than a depiction of a unicorn.

  22. I think it is a definite possibility that unicorns existed. It would make sense since they are so popular in mythology and a horse with a horn is not that unrealistic since cattle, buffalos, goats, and other livestock also have horns. However, I don’t think these biblical passages would be considered proof for the existence of a unicorn. Although, it does make one wonder what the Bible is actually talking about in theses passages. This also reminds me of a personal story I heard from a woman whose parents made her throw away all her unicorn things because it was unrealistic and therefore ungodly. I personally believe that it is good for us to be creative and wonder about the mystery of undiscovered biblical creatures.

  23. This is very interesting. I had no idea that unicorns were referenced in the Bible. This gives you some insight on the vast variations of interpretation that people have.

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