10 December 2013

The Biblical "reem" was the origin of Christian unicorn mythology

"[T]here are a number of references to unicorns in the Bible – God's strength is compared to the strength of the unicorn, and there are a lot of references to the unicorns horn being a source of misery and release. The problem is, those references aren't actually to unicorns at all. The people who wrote the Bible were not thinking of that Indian animal the Greeks were on about. 

As Lavers explains, the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament mentions an animal called a "reem." When scholars tried to translate this word into Greek, they were flummoxed. They had no idea what this "reem" was. They knew it was big, and it had horns, and that it obviously wasn't a goat. (Goats are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.) So they translated it as "monoceros," meaning "one-horn." Then, when the Greek Bible was translated into Latin, the word became "unicornus." And that word, translated into English, is unicorn. 

Early in the 20th century, when scholars cracked the code on ancient cuneiform script, they finally learned what that mysterious reem really was. In these ancient texts, written around the time when the Hebrew Bible was being penned, there are many references to an animal called a rimu. Like the biblical reem, the rimu was enormous, strong, and had horns. That animal was an ox. So all of those references to unicorns in the Bible? Those are actually to an ox. Which, if you read the actual sections of the Bible, makes a lot more sense. 

But for nearly 1500 years, Christians believed in the unicorn version of things. The unicorn came to symbolize Christ, its horn the cross, and its tribulations during the hunt were like Christ's tribulations on earth. Interestingly, the idea that unicorns were attracted to virgins comes from a pagan source. A Latin book called the Physiologus, probably written in the second century CE, mentions that a unicorn can only be caught when it lays its head down in a virgin's lap. Christian analysts seized on this idea, suggesting that this was symbolic of how Christ came into the world – with the help of a virgin."
More details (and unicorn images) at io9, via The Dish.


  1. I find it baffling that someone can write an article about unicorns being mentioned a lot in the Bible, and not give any references so that people can look them up.

    However, the article links to the Unicorn Museum site, and that does give a reference, to Job 39:9-12. Well, I just looked up Job 39:9 in the NRSV, and guess what it says?

    "Is the wild ox willing to serve you? Will it spend the night at your crib?"

    So the modern translations have it right. So when the author of the IO9 article writes "Bible", they actually mean "KJV and its predecessors". Which is strange.

  2. Why is it strange? It was one of the first translations into English (actually the third, but I would bet the earlier two translated it as unicorn also) and it was the authoritative and absolutely dominant English version for round about 250 years.

    By contrast the NRSV is 24 years old. Even the American Standard Version upon which it is based is only a little more than 100 years old.

  3. I have had a number of christian apologists suggest to me that Re'em ( רֶאֵם ) is the rhinoceros because Psalms 92:10 seems to imply that it has one horn.

    The word appears nine times
    * Job 39:9 and 39:10
    * Deuteronomy 33:17
    * Numbers 23:22
    * Numbers 24:8
    * Psalms 22:21
    * Psalms 29:6
    * Psalms 92:10
    * Isaiah 34:7

  4. It's strange because it suggests that the author habitually thinks of "The Bible" and "The KJV" as being synonymous ... otherwise they would have made it more explicit.

  5. The reem in question comes from Aramaic, and it means (in both Hebrew as well as Arabic), litreally; 'a small gazelle.

    It isn't an ox, precisely. If it used to depict any certain animal; which still survives today, it does the same desert gazelles that are being bred in captivity nowadays. Other than this, the word surely, does not mean a unicorn because, simply put, that animals isn't actually one: it is a mythological animal and not even a 'mytheological' one.


    1. You are correct that in modern Hebrew it refers to a type of antelope oryx leucoryx. The Hebrew wikipedia entry under ראם confirms this.

      I believe that the best scholarship available to this date indicates that in biblical times it referred to bos primigenius.

    2. Wait, I'm confused. Oryx are not gazelles, nor are they small. Can someone explain the dichotomy of the translations to me?

  6. Gee, whaddaya know? Another example of people making stuff up that becomes - literally - gospel.

    1. Well technically all the references occur in the old testament not in any of the four gospels, but I take your meaning. : )


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...