Words empty as the wind are best left unsaid.


A picture is worth a thousand words.

~Napoleon Bonaparte

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Unicorn in mythology and religion

Unicorn definitely deserves  attention. Those creatures not only attracted painters but also evoked a criticism of those who have questioned the Bible.  It is also quite intriguing to find unicorns in the work of the painters involved in occult.

 Gustave Moreau - The Unicorns

Let’s start with the Bible.

The translators of the Authorized King James version of the  Bible (1611) followed the Greek  Septuagint (monokeros) and the Latin  Vulgate (unicornis) and employed unicorn to translate re'em, providing a recognizable animal that was proverbial for its un-tamable nature. 

  • "God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn."—Numbers 23:22
  • "God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn."—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."—Deuteronomy 33:17
  • "Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labor to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?"—Job 39:9–12
  • "Save me from the lion's mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns."—Psalms 22:21
  • "He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn."—Psalms 29:6
  • "But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil."—Psalms 92:10
  • "And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness."—Isaiah 34:7
The American Standard Version translates this term "wild ox" in each case.

Let’s look Webster dictionary.

Definition of UNICORN

: a mythical animal generally depicted with the body and head of a horse, the hind legs of a stag, the tail of a lion, and a single horn in the middle of the forehead

However, the first edition of  American Dictionary of the English Language 1928 presents a very different definition.

U'NICORN, n. [L. unicornis; unus, one, and cornu, horn.]
1. an animal with one horn; the monoceros. this name is often applied to the rhinoceros.,unicorn

 RHINOC'EROS, n. [L. rhinoceros; Gr. nose-horn.]
A genus of quadrupeds of two species, one of which, the unicorn, as a single horn growing almost erect from the nose. This animal when full grown, is said to be 12 feet in length. There is another species with two horns, the bicornis. They are natives of Asia and Africa.,rhinoceros

So, when we look at 200 year old Webster’s definition of a unicorn,  we find that the unicorn is often applied to the rhinoceros. Furthermore, the definition doesn't say anything about horse, horselike animal, or mythical animal. On the other hand, the modern definition of a unicorn doesn’t say anything about a rhinoceros and the definition of a rhinoceros doesn’t say anything about a unicorn.

Let’s look at Latin Vulgate.

Psalm 92:10 in the Latin text: Psalmus XCI.
“Et exaltabitur sicut unicornis cornu meum,
et senectus mea in misericordia uberi.”

Job 39:9 in the Latin text:
numquid volet rinoceros servire tibi,
aut morabitur ad praesepe tuum

So, one verse says “rinoceros” and the other says “unicornis.”
rinoceros … unicornis … The scientific name for the Indian one horn rhinoceros is Rhinoceros unicornis and Diceros bicornis for two horn rhinoceros.

 Indian rhinoceros, Rhinoceros unicornis

There is an extinct genus of giant rhinoceros  called Elasomotheriumsibiricum aslo known as the Big Horn Rhinoceros. Scientists today often refer to this creature as "The Giant Unicorn".

 The Giant Unicorn

We may ask why  the American Standard Version translates  unicorn as a "wild ox" in each case.

Let’s look at etymology.

 unicron(n.) early 13c., from O.Fr. unicorne, from L.L. unicornus (Vulgate), from noun use of L. unicornis (adj.) "having one horn," from uni-"one" (see uni-) + cornus "horn" (see horn). The Late Latin word translates Gk. monoceros, itself rendering Heb. re'em, which was probably a kind of wild ox. According to Pliny, a creature with a horse's body, deer's head, elephant's feet, lion's tail, and one black horn two cubits long projecting from its forehead. Cf. Ger. Einhorn, Welsh ungorn, Bret. uncorn, O.C.S. ino-rogu.

Pliny’s  description doesn’t match that of a modern unicorn or a wild ox.  

 In  Latin Vulgate there are different words that have been used such as rhinoceros, rhinocerotis unicornium, unicornis These Latin words are used when the Old King James version of the Bible mentions unicorns.

 Deus eduxit illum de Aegypto, cujus fortitude similis est rhinocerotis. Numbers 23:22 

Numquid volet rhinoceros servire tibi, aut morabitur ad praesepe tumm? Job 39:9

Et comminute eas tamquam vitulum Libani: et dilectus quemadmodum fillus unicornium Psalm 28:6

“Et exaltabitur sicut unicornis cornu meum, et senectus mea in misericordia uberi.” Psalm 92:10

Psalms 92:10    “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.”

Notice how this verse uses phrases like “my horn” and “the horn.” That’s why the Latin Vulgate says “unicornis,” because it’s talking about a one-horned animal.

Quasi primogeniti tauri pulchritude eius, cornua rhinocerotis cornua illius: in ipsis ventilabit Gentes usque ad terminos terrae.Hae sunt multitudines Ephraim: et haec millia manasse. Deuteronomy 33:17

Deuteronomy 33:17    “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.”

Moses is speaking here about Joseph and is saying that Joseph’s two horns are his two sons. Ephraim and Manasseh are Joseph’s two sons. You see, in the King James Version, when it uses the word “unicorns” (plural) there is a marginal note which says that in the Hebrew text it’s actually “a unicorn” (singular).

In the Hebrew text, the word that’s being translated as unicorn ראם  (r’em) is in it’s singular form, but the word that is being translated as horns קרני (qarney) is actually plural possessive. So the original Hebrew text is saying that these plural horns are being possessed by this singular “unicorn,” which would mean that it’s not actually a unicorn.

That’s why the verse in Latin doesn’t say unicornis, but rather it says “rinocerotis” because it’s talking about the two-horned rhinoceros.

So, it is true that some early translations of the Bible have a mistranslation. But the mistranslation is not that it mentions a mythical horse-like animal with a horn on its head. The issue is that it mentions a one-horned rhinoceros when some scripture verses, according to the context, are talking about a two-horned rhinoceros.

In Deut. 33:17, there is no grammatical basis for the singular noun r’em to be translated as the plural noun “unicorns.” Singulars cannot be translated as plurals just based on context alone without a grammatical reason for doing so. Therefore this verse is talking about a two-horned rhinoceros, not a one-horned rhinoceros

I have searched  why the modern translations use a  wild ox but I haven’t found a satisfying explanation. But it is interesting to notice that the definition of the unicorn has changed as well as the fact that unicorns disappeared from  modern translations. It would be interesting to investigate when unicorns disappeared from the Bible and what version of the Bible was the first to introduce the changes.

According to Wikipedia, re’em translated in King James as “unicorn” has been recognized from the last century as Aurochs. Interestingly enough, Wikipedia doesn’t mention Latin Vulagate that used both unicorn and rhinoceros. Auroch is an extinct type of large wild cattle.  Bull or cow are pervasive in ancient religions or mythology, particularly in Egyptian religion. Bull is also present in catholic art and churches or cathedrals as it may be seen in previous blogs. We may  even find a winged bull in church. Very intriguing indeed.

Let’s go back to unicorn.

Photius' excerpt of Ctesias' Indica

In India there are wild asses [rhinoceroses] as large as horses, or even larger. Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and they have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length. The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red. Those who drink out of cups made from it are proof against convulsions, epilepsy, and even poison, provided that before or after having taken it they drink some wine or water or other liquid out of these cups. The domestic and wild asses of other countries and all other solid-hoofed animals have neither huckle-bones nor gall-bladder, whereas the Indian asses have both. Their huckle-bone is the most beautiful that I have seen, like that of the ox in size and appearance; it is as heavy as lead and of the color of cinnabar all through. These animals are very strong and swift; neither the horse nor any other animal can overtake them. At first they run slowly, but the longer they run their pace increases wonderfully, and becomes faster and faster. There is only one way of catching them. When they take their young to feed, if they are surrounded by a large number of horsemen, being unwilling to abandon their foals, they show fight, butt with their horns, kick, bite, and kill many men and horses. They are at last taken, after they have been pierced with arrows and spears; for it is impossible to capture them alive. Their flesh is too bitter to eat, and they are only hunted for the sake of the horns and huckle-bones.

Strabo ( 64/63 BC – ca. 24 AD),  a  Greek geographer, philosoper and historian wrote:

 56 Now these customs are very novel as compared with our own, but the following are still more so. For example, Megasthenes says that the men who inhabit the Caucasus have intercourse with the women in the open and that they eat the bodies of their kinsmen; and that the monkeys are stone-rollers, and, haunting precipices, roll stones down upon their pursuers; and that most of the animals which are tame in our country are wild in theirs. And he mentions horses with one horn and the head of a deer; and reeds, some straight up thirty fathoms in length, 711 and others lying flat on the ground fifty fathoms, and so large that some are three cubits and others six in diameter.

Strabo, Ctesias’ Geography p. 67 Book XV, Chapter 1

Aristotele  identified the Oryx as an animal having a horn.

On the Parts of Animals, by Aristotle

Still there are some that have but a single horn; the Oryx, for instance, and the so-called Indian ass; in the former of which the hoof is cloven, while in the latter it is solid. In such animals the horn is set in the center of the head; for as the middle belongs equally to both extremes, this arrangement is the one that comes nearest to each side having its own horn.
Aristotele, Book 3 Chapter 2

The scimitar oryx or scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), also known as Sahara oryx, is a species of oryx which formerly inhabited all of North  Africa.  It has a long taxonomic history since its discovery in 1816, by Lorenz Oken  as Oryx algazel. This oryx is just over 1 m (3.3 ft) in height and may weigh up to 200 kg (440 lb). Now it is extionct in the wild.
Both sexes bear horns,  but the females are more slender. The horns are long, thin, and symmetrical, and curve backwards (a distinct feature of this species) and can reach 1.0 to 1.2 m (3 ft 3 in to 3 ft 10 in) on both the males and the females

 Oryx dammah

Ctesias’  Strabo’s, or  Aristotle’s description doesn’t match that of the bull. Oryx has two symmetrical horns.

Finally, we may look at Physiologus as the author wrote about unicorn. Unfortunately, I could only find Physiologus in Middle English that does not contain the chapter about unicorn.
The Physiologus is a didactic text written or compiled in Greek by an unknown author, in Alexandria. It is accepted that the initial work entitled Physiologus originated in Alexandria,Egypt around  the year  140 A.D.   However,  other scholars such as  Carl Ahrens, M. R. James, and Max Wellman, argue that the Physiologus was was composed much later in the fourth century.

Written in Greek, the original Physiologus  (Greek for “The Naturalist”)  described the characteristics of animals and birds—both real and fantastical—and provided allegorical interpretations of the characteristics enumerated.

The Physiologus is not to be confused with a work of natural history such as Aristotle’s Historia animialiumAristotle’s.  Historia animalium  had  aimed at a systematic investigation of nature, the Physiologus tried to explain and justify the ways of God to men.

The sources and roots of this animal lore, description and allegory are difficult to determine.  As Michael Curley notes in his recent edition of Physiologus, “we  know of no single source which provided [the  author of the  Physiologus] with the material  for his work,” as it draws upon pseudo-science, folk legends, and animal lore that was common to a number of Eastern Mediterranean cultures—Roman,  Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek,  Indian (xxi). The descriptions of the animals featured in the Physiologus, for instance, are informed by and can be traced to ancient sources, including Aristotle (4th c. B.C.), Pliny (1st c. A.D.), Oppian (late 2nd c. AD), Aelian (2nd/3rd c. AD), Solinus (3rd c. AD),  Horapollo (4th or 5th c. AD), and others.

The hunt of the unicorn

One traditional method of hunting unicorns involved entrapment by a virgin.
In one of his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.

The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn (from the Unicorn Tapestries)

 The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries

 Francesco di Giorgio, Chasity With The Unicorn

 Domenico Zampieri, A Virgin with a Unicorn

Giorgione, 'Allegory of Chastity

 Moretto da Brescia, Saint Justyna with the Unicorn

Francesco Pesellino (1422 – 1457), Triumphs of Love, Chastity, and Death, c. 1450,

Maiden with Unicorn, tapestry, 15th century

Wild woman with unicorn, c. 1500–1510

Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych National Museum Warsaw

The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn Representing Annunciation

 Raffaello Sanzio,  The Creation of the Animals,  Vatican

 Raffaello, Young Maiden with Unicorn

 Hieronymus Bosh, The Garden of Earthly Delights, central panel, detail.

Hieronymus Bosh, Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (left wing)

Gustave Moreau - The Unicorne

This woodcut is an illustration from the book The history of four-footed beasts and serpents by Edward Topsell

Red Deer and Unicorn in a forest - Alchemic engraving - Lambspring, Theosophie & Alchemie 1678

Unicorn can also be found in The Dictionnaire Infernal (English: Infernal Dictionary),  a book on  demonology, organized in hellish  hierarchies

Image of Amdusias from Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal (1863)

Amdusias (also AmdusciasAmdukias or Ambduscias) has 29 legions of demons and spirits under his command and has the rank of  Great King. He is depicted as a human with claws instead of hands and feet, the head of a unicorn,  and a  trumphet to symbolize his powerful voice.

Amdusias is associated with thunder and it has been said that his voice is heard during  storms. In other sources, he is accompanied by the sound of trumpets when he comes and will give concerts if commanded, but while all his types of musical instruments can be heard they cannot be seen. He is regarded as being the demon in charge of the cacophonus music that is played in  Hell. He can make trees bend at will.

He is mentioned as a King in Johann Weyer's Pseudomonarchia Daemonum (1583).

Johann Weyer  (1515 - 1588) was a Dutch physician, occultist, and demonologist,  disciple and follower of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. His most influential work is Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Venificiis (On the Illusions of the Demons and on Spells and Poisons, 1563) Sigmund Freud was engrossed in the Praestigiis Daemonum, calling it one of the ten most significant books of all time.

A grimoire  similar in nature to the Ars Goetia, the first book of  The lesser key of Solomon,  contains a list of demons, and the appropriate hours and rituals to conjure them.
Some scholars have said that Weyer intended to mock the concept of the helish hierarchy that previous grimoires had established by writing those two books and entitling his catalogue of demons Pseudomonarchia Daempnum (The False Kingdom of the Demons).
Nevertheless, while he defended the idea that the Devil's power was not as strong as claimed by the orthodox Christian churches in De Praestigiis Daemonum, he defended also the idea that demons did have power and could appear before people who called upon them, creating illusions; but he commonly referred to magicians and not to witches when speaking about people who could create illusions, saying they were heretics who were using the Devil's power to do it, and when speaking on witches, he used the term mentally ill.

Pseudomonarchia Daemonum was written before known copies of The Lesser Key of Solomon, and has some differences. There are sixty-nine demons listed (instead of seventy-two), and the order of the spirits varies, as well as some of their characteristics. The demons Vassago Seere, Dantalion and Andromalius are not listed in this book, while Pruflas is not listed in The Lesser Key of Solomon.Pseudomonarchia Daemonum does not attribute seals to the demons, as The Lesser Key of Solomon does.