November 20, 2010

Strange Creatures In Scripture

Ah yes, the famous (or infamous) passages about unicorns in the King James Version of the Bible. Most of the newer translations translate this wild ox and rightfully so. So what we are talking about here is a rather ugly bovine not a full-size version of My Little Pony® . We need a history lesson for this one so we can clear the waters once and for all.

God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn. Numbers 23:22 (similar in Numbers 24:8)

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

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Job 39:9

But my horn shalt thou exalt like [the horn of] an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil. Psalm 92:10

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

What is known for sure is this animal was strong and horned. The author of the Hebrew texts would've probably known exactly what this animal was but I am betting one thing: It was probably not a unicorn. When the Hebrew was translated to Greek in the Septuagint the word chosen was monoceros/monokeros μονοκερως. When it was eventually transliterated to Latin it guessed it: unicornis. We must keep in mind that the translators of the KJV were natives of 15th century England and probably had never left their local region let alone England proper so when they came across a Hebrew Re'em רְאֵם or a Greek μονοκερως they were hard pressed to find an English equivalent so they did the best they could with the Greek. Too bad the best they could do was a bit too creative and relied heavily on folklore and imagination.

The Aurochs

The beast may have been a rhinoceros. Strong, single horned and its name even ends in ceros or horn. The problem with this theory is the Greeks already had a name for the Rhinoceros: ῥῑνόκερως. More than likely this "unicornis" was an Auroch or a wild ox. Aurochs were immortalized for their brute strength and “elephantine” size by Julius Caesar in Gallic War , Book 6, Chapter 28:
"...those animals which are called uri [Aurochs]. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments."
Powerful, fast and horned. Once real and legendary in their time, they are now extinct.

An Auroch, a more feasible explanation...but boring (**yawn, a cow **). Were there ever unicorns. Who's to say for sure. Scientists are digging up new fossils of spectacular beasts everyday and wildly speculating about how they evolved from this or that and who we are related to them. Perhaps some day they will dig up a unicorn fossil?

Were the old versions of the Bible wrong to include what they knew might be too fantastic to believe? Before we leave behind the "Land of Eccentric Biblical Creatures" we should probably clear the air and mention the other more whimsical items of the Bible.

We have the Satyr שָׂעִיר mentioned in Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14 (KJV of course).

The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest. Isaiah 34:14

This was probably a shaggy or hairy goat.

We also have a Cockatrice, the chicken-snake with looks that kill.

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. ~Isaiah 11:8 (KJV again).

The Cockatrice was suppose to have been some type of serpent that can kill with its glance. The context leads a reader to realize that this is a snake of some sort most likely an asp or an adder.

...and of course we must mention the Dragons. The Dragon of Revelation is really suppose to be a dragon or some form of nightmarish beast. The words of the Old Testament are not so clear (Psalms 148:7) δρακοντες or תַּנִּין tannim/tannin. They were clearly large and unpleasant terrifying brutes. We can also look to nearly every euro-asian culture and see a form of this beast. All cultures have this creature in common. This is similar to the story of a massive flood. Many, if not all cultures have a story of mankind going through an antediluvian period (pre-flood) and then a massive deluge. It is highly unlikely that these stories were pervasive myths and spread but it is more likely that in actuality...they happened and became part of the culture. Cultures do not readily spread to other peoples without force but stories within cultures do. That means many of these stories came from the bottom-up (past to present) not from outside (other cultures). Similarly the story of dragons spread the same way. I mean good grief, we believe that dinosaurs exist, is the existence of a dragon that much of a stretch? I guess the same can be said of the unicorn but there is much more evidence in the case of the unicorn to suggest this was another form of pastoral animal. It is mentioned in the context of other pastoral animals such as peacocks, lambs, lions, bullocks, goats, donkeys and horses.

Where we are pretty sure these beasts are the product of 16th century misuse of words we should absolutely go back to visit the original languages or at least consult multiple versions to gain a consensus of what we are really dealing with. If we do not explain how fairytale creatures can reside in the pages of the Bible (mostly KJV) we do a horrible injustice to modern readers/believers. We also do a terrible injustice to the translators of the King James Version as they did not have at their disposal all the resources many have today like National Geographic and the Internet. At the same time we really should make sure that we stay as close to the original manuscripts as possible. I still use the KJV but I always match it up against the Greek and Hebrew in a word study since these tools are so readily available in software packages in our computer age. If you do not have a computer, a Strong's coded interlinear Greek and Hebrew Bible and a Strong's coded Greek and Hebrew dictionary usually do the trick. The second thing I would need to ask is: How are you reading this now if you do not have a computer? ;)


Anonymous said...

I would have shown my finished drawing of the aurochs, instead of the work in progress.

Andy Pierson said...

I saw this pic and couldn't resist. Would you like me to remove it? If you are willing I would like to use your completed work and credit you. Anonymous and Phantom are a bit ambiguous. Do you have a website other than Deviant Art?

Anonymous said...

Hi Andy,

You can use it.
The only web page with my artwork is

The finished piece

Tom Hammond

Andy Pierson said...

Done boss. Credited and linked.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

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