Thursday, January 05, 2023

"Unicorn" in the KJV should be Wild-Ox, Wild Bull, Aurochs or the like

1. What did the KJV Translators Mean by "Unicorn"?
There are multiple reasons to oppose the translation of "unicorn" for the Hebrew word Reem (רְאֵם).  The first and, to my mind, the most significant is that "unicorn" conjures up images like the one at right ("The Virgin and the Unicorn," circa 1602, caution regarding the theology at the linked page).  That's not what the Scripture means.  Moreover, while more zealous advocates of the King James than myself will sometimes argue that the King James translators had in mind a rhino or the like, the term "unicorn" in English by the 1600s was associated with the mythical animal (see this link of a tapestry from around 1500, for example).  There are cases where the language has changed, such that the meaning of a word in 1611 is different from the meaning of the same word today.  This does not seem to be one of those cases.    

The kind of animal shown in the painting at right is mythical in the sense of being the stuff of fables, not histories.  While the ancients do sometimes write about such an animal, it is not a real animal.  That is to say, we have no good reason to think that there has been a species of white horse with a narwal's tusk on its forehead, with or without the magical properties ascribed to unicorns in European folk/fairy-tales.

We can see the meaning of the word "Unicorn" in 1611 in several ways.  One way is by looking at English literature that was contemporary to 1611.

Shakespeare (d. 1616) makes reference to unicorns in several of his plays.  For example, in Timon of Athens, Act 4, Scene 3 (link), Shakespeare has Timon state: "Wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury."  This refers to the idea that the way to capture a unicorn is to infuriate it whilst standing in front of sturdy tree, wait until the last second, and dodge aside, leaving the unicorn to impale itself in the tree. (see this discussion) For a more complete discussion of Shakespeare and unicorns see this interesting (and well-illustrated) page (link to page).  Shakespeare used "rhinoceros" when the means "rhinoceros," and "unicorn" when he means "unicorn," as can be seen in the appendix below.

Edmund Spenser (ca. 1552 - 1599) makes reference to the same legend of the Unicorn in his epic poem, "The Faerie Queene" (Book II, Canto V): 

Like as a Lyon, whose imperiall power

A prowd rebellious Vnicorne defies,

T'auoide the rash assault and wrathfull stowre

Of his fiers foe, him to a tree applies,

And when him running in full course he spies,

He slips aside; the whiles that furious beast

His precious horne, sought of his enimies

Strikes in the stocke, ne thence can be rel[e]ast,

But to the mighty victour yields a bounteous feast.

Spenser also refers to Monoceroses at Book II, canto XII, which contextually appears to refer to a sea-unicorn (link to source).

George Chapman's play, "The Tragedy of Bussy D'Ambois," (1607) similarly states (source):

An angry unicorne in his full career

Charge with too swift a foot a jeweller

That watch'd him for the treasure of his brow,

And e'er he could get shelter of a tree, 

Nail him with his rich antler to the earth.

Background theological literature also formed the understanding of the common person and provides evidence of what the term, "unicorn," meant to the man on the street in the early 1600s. 

The early modern notions of the unicorn spring out of medieval legends. For example, the manuscript illustration at right shows a unicorn as imagined around 1250.  In the medieval understanding, this savage beast was a threat to elephants but was tamable by a virgin.  One book of beasts (or bestiary) in the Bodleian Library explains the story of the unicorn and follows it with a quotation from Psalm 92:10. (see this discussion with further illustration)  So, the link between the Biblical animal and the illustrated animal was a pre-existing link, something that the King James translators inherited, rather than creating.

Furthermore, we can see the understanding of the terms "unicorn" and "rhinoceros" reflected in the textbooks of the day. 

For example, the difference between "rhinoceros" and "unicorn" was well known at the time, as further evidenced by Konrad Gesner's book from 1551, which is shown in an appendix below.  In 1398, "On the properties of things," by Bartholomaeus Anglicus suggested that there are three kinds of unicorns: rhinoceros, monoceros, and aegloceron. Stephan Batman, a professor of divinity, published an amended version of the book in 1582 ("Batman upon Batholomew").  This amended version makes sure to clarify in the margin: "The Rinocerot is one, and the Unicorne another," in the notes for chapter 90 of  book 18 (Of Animals in General) (link). Indeed, you can see on p. 378 that the original author (Bartholomew) waffles a bit, but begins the discussion by drawing a clear distinction between the Rhinoceros and Unicorn: "Rinoceron in Greek, is to meaning, an horn in the nose, and Monceron is an Unicorn, and is a fierce or cruel beast, and has that name, because he hath in the middle of the forehead an horn of four foot long, that he throweth down all or pierceth all that" he encounters, citing Isidore, book 12. In the next paragraph, Batholomew quotes Gregory the Great in his Morals on Job as saying that "Rinocero the Unicorn is a wild beast by kind, and may not be tamed in no wise" and that if he is captured he dies quickly. (another way to access the book is here)  This lends credence to the idea that some folks did confound or conflate the rhinoceros and the unicorn, but that by the late 1500s, educated folks like Batman (his actual name) knew better.

John Amos Comenius textbook, written in the 1620, similarly distinguishes between Rhinoceros and Unicorn.  This textbook was found widely useful in Europe, and was quickly translated into numerous European languages, including English.  The Rhinoceros as a distinct animal from the Unicorn reflects the times.

The 1914 "Glossary of Tudor Words" confirms that the "unicorn's horn" was thought to possess magical properties (link to page).  That same page suggests we check out the 1884 "Bible Word-Book," which explains that something similar to a bison is the actual meaning of the Hebrew word, but also explains what the term "unicorn" was meant to be, citing Blundeville's Exercises (link to relevant page).  Blundeville's Exercises is a textbook from the late 1500s (published in 1594).

The King James version tried to translate Scripture into the "vulgar tongue," meaning into words that ordinary people would understand.  The translator's preface states: " But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar."

The term, "unicorn," does not make the list of hard words in 1602 (link to work)(link to 1617 edition) Indeed, the earliest English dictionary that I could find that lists the word (from 1708) provides exactly the definition one would expect from the discussion above: "a Beast said to be as big as an Horse, having one white Horn in the middle of the Fore-head, about Five Handfuls long." (link to definition)(link to 1708 dictionary).  A "more complete" dictionary provided in 1730 has essentially the same definition (link to relevant page).

Samuel Johnson's 1768 dictionary (link)(link to 1792 ed.) does not hint at a broader meaning of unicorn, but simply does not explicitly define it on fabulous terms.  There is one exception: Johnson suggests that the word could also refer to a bird. The absence of a more narrow explanation of the term is best explained by the fact that Johnson was aiming to provide etymology, and the etymology of unicorn is fairly obvious and straightforward "uni" (one) "corn" (horn).

In 1828, there is a dictionary that suggests that the term could be used for a beast "real or fabulous" with one horn, hinting at the possibility of referring to something other than what we think of as a unicorn (link to relevant page).  

Preceding dictionaries similarly say:

Vnicornis, Vnicornius, & vnicornium,

a beest callyd an vnycorne.

The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght (Elyot, Thomas, Sir, 1490?-1546) (link to page) published 1538.

Usage by influential theologians is also noteworthy.  Obviously, John Calvin did not read the King James Version and did not write his commentaries in English, but in his commentary on Psalm 29:5-8 he explains: "like a unicorn, which, we know, is one of the swiftest animals."  This seems to describe better the legendary beast than the lumbering rhino.[See Speed Appendix, below] 

Likewise, Thomas Watson's Body of Divinity treats of the word, "unicorn," as referring to the mythical beast not in exegeting a text, but in the use of the analogy: "When the dragon has poisoned the water, the unicorn with his horn extracts and draws out the poison; so Jesus Christ has drawn out the poison of every affliction, that it cannot injure the saints." (link)

Similarly, John Flavel (1627-1691) used the term to refer to the supposedly medicinal horn: "There is as much difference betwixt death to the people of God, and others, as betwixt the unicorn's horn, when it is upon the head of the fierce beast, and when it is in the apothecary's shops, where it is made salubrious and medicinal." (link)

Even the coinage of the time reflected the common understanding. The Scottish coins at the right were from the predecessors of Kings James (in Scotland) and were called "unicorns" (or half-unicorns for the half-size ones).

So what did the well-educated King James translators mean by "unicorn"?  Actually, it appears that they did mean basically what we think of when we see the word "unicorn." That was the established meaning of the word in 1611.

2. What about "Rhinoceros" as a meaning for "Unicorn" in the KJV?

At Isaiah 34:7, the King James Version has a marginal note "Or, Rhinocerots."  In my debate with Nick Sayers (more responses to Nick can be found in an appendix), I argued (for example, here) that the King James translators did not use the word "unicorn" as a synonym for rhinoceros.

As can be seen at right, there are a number of indications that the 1611 provided to the reader.  One of the indications was a font change to indicate words provided by the translators without explicit basis in the original language.  Examples on the right include "is" and "his" in verse 2 and "figge" (fig) in verse 4.

Another indication is the asterisk (*) indication, which is used to provide a cross-reference.  Revelation 6:14 and Revelation 6:13 are identified as cross-references in verse 4.

A further indication is the dagger (†) indication.  This indication is used to indicate a more literal translation of the Hebrew or Greek, where the translators felt that a less literal translation conveys the sense better to the reader.  For example, in verse 1, the translators put "all the that is therein" but noted that the Hebrew literally is "the fullness thereof."  

The final indication is the double vertical line (||) indication. This is used for indicating alternative readings.  There seems to be some debate over the implication of this form of  notation.

Nevertheless, the King James translators provide an explanation/justification for indicating a diversity of senses in the margin. 

Here's the section from the translators' preface that is relevant to the question:  

Reasons moving us to set diversity of senses in the margin, where there is great probability for each

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point. For though "whatsoever things are necessary are manifest," as St. Chrysostom saith, and as St. Augustine, "In those things that are plainly set down in the Scriptures, all such matters are found that concern faith, hope, and charity" ; yet for all that it cannot be dissembled, that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from the loathing of them for their everywhere plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God's Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in His divine providence, here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain), but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve upon modesty with St. Augustine (though not in this same case altogether, yet upon the same ground), Melius est dubitare de occultis, quam litigare de incertis, --"it is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to strive about those things that are uncertain." There be many words in the Scriptures which be never found there but once (having neither brother nor neighbor, as the Hebrews speak), so that we cannot be holpen by conference of places. Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones, etc., concerning which the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgment, that they may seem to have defined this or that rather because they would say something than because they were sure of that which they said, as St. Jerome somewhere saith of the Septuagint. Now in such a case, doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident, so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St. Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures ; so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good--yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded. We know that Sixtus Quintus expressly forbiddeth that any variety of readings of their vulgar edition should be put in the margin --which though it be not altogether the same thing to that we have in hand, yet it looketh that way--, but we think he hath not all of his own side his favorers for this conceit. They that are wise had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than to be captivated to one, when it may be the other. If they were sure that their high priest had all laws shut up in his breast, as Paul the Second bragged, and that he were as free from error by special privilege as the dictators of Rome were made by law inviolable, it were another matter; then his word were an oracle, his opinion a decision. But the eyes of the world are now open, God be thanked, and have been a great while. They find that he is subject to the same affections and infirmities that others be, that his skin is penetrable; and therefore so much as he proveth, not as much as he claimeth, they grant and embrace.

In other words, the marginal notes are not clarifications of the meaning, they are alternative meanings because there is some uncertainty (or was uncertainty in the minds of the KJV translators).

Thus, at least in the case of Isaiah 34:7, the KJV translators were not saying that "rhinocerots" is another word for "unicornes," but that it is a viable alternative reading at this place.

The KJV translators were almost certainly aware of the fact that the Vulgate did not always translate Reem as "unicorn," but sometimes translated it as unicorn, and sometimes as rhinoceros.  

Numbers 23:22 Deus eduxit illum de Ægypto, cujus fortitudo similis est rhinocerotis.

Numbers 24:8 Deus eduxit illum de Ægypto, cujus fortitudo similis est rhinocerotis. Devorabunt gentes hostes illius, ossaque eorum confringent, et perforabunt sagittis.

Deutonomy 33:17 Quasi primogeniti tauri pulchritudo ejus, cornua rhinocerotis cornua illius : in ipsis ventilabit gentes usque ad terminos terræ. Hæ sunt multitudines Ephraim : et hæc millia Manasse.

Job 39:9 Numquid volet rhinoceros servire tibi, aut morabitur ad præsepe tuum ?

Job 39:10 Numquid alligabis rhinocerota ad arandum loro tuo, aut confringet glebas vallium post te ?

Interestingly, Isaiah 34:7 is not one of the places where the Vulgate uses rhinoceros rather than unicorn:

Isaiah 34:7 Et descendent unicornes cum eis, et tauri cum potentibus ; inebriabitur terra eorum sanguine, et humus eorum adipe pinguium.

You may note that "drunk" (inebriabitur) is there, though, the other marginal reading found in the 1611 KJV at this verse.

On his web page, Nick argues: 

Unicorn[1] in the King James Version is not a mythical creature as many have falsely assumed, but is most probably a Rhinoceros [2](or a similar creature) as stated in the margin of the original 1611 King James Bible in Isaiah 34:7 where it reads: “And the unicorns shall come down with them.” In the margin it says; "or Rhinocerots" which was the exact term for the Rhinoceros in 1611, derived from the Latin unicornis and the Greek monokeros, both meaning one-horned, and both referring emphatically to the Rhinoceros.

The [1] and [2] are links to a 20th century Oxford English dictionary, as mentioned above.  Contrary to Nick's implication, the margin indicates just the opposite of what Nick has said.  The "or Rhinocerots" means that "unicorns" doesn't mean "rhinoceroses," but that the alternative is a possible alternative interpretation.  Moreover, while the Greek word "monokeros" or "monoceros" may have a broad meaning in Greek today, Vulgate Latin distinguishes between unicorn and rhinoceros by using two different words, as we noted above.  Moreover, it appears that the Greek word did typically refer to a mythical beast as evidenced by the quotation from Pliny the Elder in his "Natural History."  The word "rhinoceros" in English comes from the Greek words for "nose" (rhino) and "horn" (ceros).  

Aquila's translation substitutes "rhinoceros" for "monoceros" in Job 39:9 and Psalm 29:9, according to the LSJ lexicon (link).  Nevertheless, the Septuagint (LXX) seems to use monoceros throughout.

The Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB, as updated in 1752) has "unicorn" at Psalm 91:11 (corresponding to Psalm 92:10 in the KJV) and "unicorns" at Psalm 21:22 (KJV Psalm 22:21), Psalm 28:6 (KJV Psalm 29:6), Psalm 77:69 (KJV Psalm 78:69 And he built his sanctuary like high palaces, like the earth which he hath established for ever.), and Isaiah 34:7.  On the other hand the DRB has "rhinoceros" at Numbers 23:22, Numbers 24:8, Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9, and Job 39:10.

On the other hand the DRB was originally published in 1582 for NT and 1610 for OT.  The 1610 edition has "unicorne" at Numbers 23:22, quite curiously has "hornes (pl.) of an unicorne (s.)" in Deuteronomy 33:17, but has "rhinocerot" at Numbers 24:8.  At Job 39:9-10, the 1610 edition has "rhinoceros" but with a marginal note suggesting a possible alternative of "unicornes."(link)  The other references to "unicorns" are the same.

The relevance of the DRB translation is relatively minor, but provides two interesting tidbits of evidence.  First, it shows that there was a distinction in the minds of educated English-speaking folks in the early 1600s between unicorn and rhinoceros.  While there was some question as to which animal was intended in some places, this question was addressed through the use of a marginal note in both translations.

I could not quickly locate a digitized version of the 1534 text of Luther's first edition Old Testament.  That said, the "Luther Bibel 1545" lists eight references to the German word for unicorn, einhorn, the same verses as the KJV, except that Job 39:10 uses a pronoun to refer to the Einhorn in verse 9, rather than repeating the word.

The 1588 "Bible Geneve" has "licorne" (the French word for unicorn) with a marginal suggestion of "rinocerot" at Numbers 23:22.  Numbers 24:8 is on the same page and has a cross-reference to Numbers 23:22, but not a separate marginal reading. (see here)   Likewise, "licorne" is in the text and "rinocerot" in the margin for Deuteronomy 33:17 (as with the DRB, this translation oddly but accurately keeps the word for "horns" plural while the beast name is singular).  The versification in Job 39 is different from the KJV, but "rhinoceros" is offered as a marginal reading next to the verse pair of Job 39:12-13 which both have "licorne." ("licorne" also makes it into the chapter 39 summaryPsalm 22:22 (corresponding to KJV Psalm 22:21) has "licornes" without any marginal alternative.  Similarly, Psalm 29:6 and Psalm 92:11 (KJV Psalm 92:10) have "licorne" without a marginal alternative.  Likewise, Isaiah 34:7 has "licornes" without a marginal alternative.

In short, while the KJV translators, DRB translators, and French translators in Geneva were all aware of both unicorns and rhinoceroses, they usually translated as "unicorn", with "rhinoceros" becoming an occasional marginal reading for the KJV, a more frequent marginal reading for the French Geneva Bible (not to be confused with the English Geneva Bible), and sometimes the main reading for the DRB.  It's less clear whether Luther recognized the distinction.

3. "Rhinoceros" or Aurochs as a meaning for Reem in the Masoretic Text?

As you may infer from my comments above, I do not share the optimism of the early Reformation period that there were actual unicorns.  However, Nick and others have suggested that the word "unicorn" could be a reasonable translation since a rhinoceros is also a one-horned animal, and has the advantage over the unicorn of not being merely mythical or legendary.

There are several great reasons to reject the rhinoceros hypothesis.  The most obvious is that today, at least, the rhinoceros is not indigenous to the middle-east (research on ancient rhinos is on-going).  Today, rhinoceroses are found primarily in the grasslands and floodplains of Eastern and Southern Africa, with smaller versions found in the swamps and rain forests of Southeast Asia.  Is it conceivable that they were once in Canaan?  Was it possible that they were part of zoos or other exhibits? We can hypothesize scenarios, but there does not seem to be much concrete evidence that rhinos were a common animal in or around Israel.

On the other hand, Aurochs were formerly present and provide an excellent fit to the Biblical usage.  Additionally, several related languages to Hebrew use a word similar to Reem to describe this best, which is shown at right, but generally resembles a giant bull. (Woodcut illustration of an aurochs by Sigismund von Herberstein, published in 1556 - found at this link, which I do not recommend)

Likewise, there are several other animals that fit the description in the text as well as or better than a rhino.  However, before coming to them, how does a rhinoceros line up with the text?

A. Numbers 23:22 and Numbers 24:8

The first pair of verses from the same context come from Numbers 23:22 and Numbers 24:8.  In this context, Balaam has been trying to curse Israel, but has only succeeded in blessing them.  In the midst of his discussion, Balaam praises God's strength as being like that of a reem (which the KJV identifies as unicorn).  

It's possible that the KJV translators thought "unicorn" was a good fit because the next verse says "Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel:" which might be thought to align well with the late medieval conceptions of the unicorn as a magical creature.  This view would suggest that God's strength was a strength for warding off spells.

On the contrary, though, instead the better contextual clue is that God "brought them out" from Egypt.  The image is of God pulling them out by his great strength, much the same way that oxen pull heavy carts.  There is also a lot of oxen/bull/cattle imagery in the context.  In Numbers 22:4, Moab said to Midian that they were worried about the Israelites wiping out the nations "as the ox licketh up the grass of field" (Numbers 22:4).  Balak offered oxen and sheep as an initial sacrifice (Numbers 22:40) and then Balaam demanded seven altars with seven oxen and seven rams to be sacrificed (Numbers 23:1-2) and then again the same in a different place (Numbers 23:14), and then a third time (Numbers 23:29-30). 

Furthermore, in the second instance of Balaam praising God as having the strength of a reem, he adds: "he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows."  Notice the similarity to the worry that Israel would eat up the nations like an ox (Numbers 22:3).  Moreover, the term translated as "arrows," while usually having that sense, is basically a term for a thing that pierces, which would also refer well to horns.  In this case, even if it usually means "arrows," we can extend Balaam a little poetic license because he is saying "וְחִצָּיו יִמְחָֽץ׃", "wə·ḥiṣ·ṣāw yim·ḥāṣ", or "with his piercers pierce."  The very next sentence compares God or the people to a lion, just as Numbers 23:24 did. 

Recall also that the image of God that was made by the Israelites when coming out of Egypt was a molten calf made from gold.  Likewise, recall that the altars of the tabernacle of the Lord had horns (Exodus 29:12, Exodus 37:25, Leviticus 4:7-34, 8:15, 9:9, and 16:18), which were coated with blood (see the same passages) and were used to tie the sacrifice to the altar (Psalm 118:27).   Similar horns are described in the altar of Ezekiel 43:15&20, as well as the altar at Bethel (Amos 3:14)  While representations of God as a bull (or the like) were prohibited by the second commandment, the analogy or metaphor is there.

In this context, an animal such as a wild ox (for example, the Aurochs) fits the description very well.  Volume 14 of the Assryrian Dictionary (link), starting at p. 359 (p. 389 of the pdf) describes "rīma" as a wild bull. These were apparently sufficiently impressive animals that Assyrian kings bragged about hunting them and apparently described the animal as having an uplifted head and as being of similar danger to a lion.  Apparently statues were made of them in silver and copper.  You can peruse the entry at your leisure.

Obviously, the similarity of sound between "Reem" and "Rīma" is a persuasive argument that it could be the same animal, by itself that similarity of sound should only carry small weight.

Thus, considering the first two verses, namely:

Numbers 23:22 - God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

Numbers 24:8 - God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.

We can conclude that although rhinos cannot be ruled out absolutely, they do not seem the most likely animal for Balaam to mention in the context.  Instead, an aurochs or other wild bull or wild ox is a better fit, both because they fit the reference back to an ox eating the nations like grass and because "arrows" better fits with the multiple horns of a wild ox than with the single horn of a one-horned rhinoceros.

B. Deuteronomy 33:17

When we come to Deuteronomy 33:17, the meaning of Reem becomes more clear.  

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.

Notice that in this context, we are dealing with the blessing of Joseph by Moses (Deuteronomy 33:13-17):

And of Joseph he said, 

        Blessed of the LORD be his land, 

for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and 

for the deep that coucheth beneath, and 

for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and 

for the precious things put forth by the moon, and 

for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and 

for the precious things of the lasting hills, and 

for the precious things of the earth and fulness thereof, and 

for the good will of him that dwelt in the bush: 

        let the blessing come 

upon the head of Joseph, and 

upon the top of the head of him that was separated from his brethren.

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.

Notice the repeated poetic parallels throughout this passage, which I've highlighted using bold and italics for the second of each couplet.  Each half of the couplet doesn't say exactly the same thing as the previous one, but it says something similar.  Sometimes they are the same thing "ancient mountains" and "lasting hills" and sometimes they are opposites "sun" and "moon" or "heaven" and "deep" but the points are basically the same.

Furthermore, notice that there is a transition when it comes to blessings on Joseph's head.  In scripture, glory is associated with the head (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:15), although also the laying on of hands on the head of the person is associated with blessing (cf. the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, Genesis 48:8-22).  

What is the blessing to Joseph?  The blessing is horns with which Joseph will push (cf. Exodus 21:29) to the ends of the earth.  This similar to the image invoked by Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah who falsely prophesied victory to Ahab in 1 Kings 22:11/2 Chronicles 18:10 by making horns of iron and saying that with those horns, Ahab would push Syria until it was consumed (Compare Micah's use of an iron horn and brass hooves for the daughter of Zion in Micah 4:13).  

Similarly, people are pictured as having horns like cattle for various purposes (see, Ezekiel 34:21, Psalm 75:10, Amos 3:14, Zechariah 1:18-21).  I pass over the use of horns in Daniel and Revelation, as I think they have a different significance there.

In this case, the "bullock" is parallel to the Reem.  Thus, given the poetic context of a blessing, and given the extensive use of parallel imagery, it's quite natural to think of the bullock and the Reem as being similar yet different animals.  This is where "wild ox" or Aurochs becomes a fairly obvious choice, as opposed to an antelope, goat, or rhinoceros.  While those are also horned animals, they are not as neat a parallel as a domestic bull and a wild bull.

Furthermore, there is another defect in the King James translation that obscures the matter.  The KJV has this:

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.

But the word translated as "unicorns" is singular, not plural.  We noted above that both the French Geneva Bible and the DRB, whilst translating as "unicorn" use the singular form together with horns (plural).  An animal with horns (plural) is not properly a unicorn, which is presumably why the King James translators pluralized it.  The Septuagint translators have the same: "κέρατα μονοκέρωτος" (kerata monokerotos) horns (plural) of the unicorn (singular).  Because of Latin declension, "of the rhinoceros" and "of the rhinoceroses" is the same, so the Latin does not have this same ambiguity.  

The easiest and best resolution of this problem is to recognize that the Reem is not a unicorn or any kind of one-horned animal, but rather it is a horned animal with at least two horns, such as a wild ox or Aurochs or the like. This makes sense when it is considered in parallel with the bullock, and also fits well with the context in Numbers.

Additionally, some folks have pointed out an additional argument that I had originally overlooked.  Joseph has two horns: Ephraim and Manasseh.  The crest for Joseph at page 10 of the 1611 KJV (I've reproduced it at right) shows an ox-like animal with two horns, which is a traditional symbol of Joseph.

Gerard Mussies, in "The Interpretatio Judaica of Serapis" (pp. 212-14) found in "Studies in Hellenistic Religions," M.J. Vermaseren ed. (Brill: Leiden, 1979) suggests that Deuteronomy 33:17 may be the basis for this emblem.  Mussies relays a story that claims (we have no reason to accept this story as authentic) that Joshua had coins minted to celebrate the conquest of Canaan, the coins bearing a bull on the obverse and a  wild ox on the reverse. (link to relevant page

It does make sense that Joseph is being compared to a wild bull with horns, rather than being compared to a unicorn or several unicorns.  So, while the portrayal in the front matter of the KJV is not authoritative, it is interesting and supports this particular point.

While the 1611 KJV did not indicate the distinction between the main text and the Hebrew, at least some later editions did.  The excerpt at right, which says: "Heb. an unicorn." was included in a 1714 printing (link to source).  

C. Job 39:9-10

Job's verse couplet provides the next context in which to consider Reem.  In Job 39, God speaks of wild goats and hinds (1-4), wild asses (4-8), reems (9-12), peacocks and ostriches (13-18), horses (19-25), hawks (26), and eagles (27-30).  This is part of God's speech to Job from the whirlwind, which begins at Job 38:1 and transitions from weather to fauna at 38:39 (lions) also mentioning ravens (41) before the start of chapter 39.

Within this discussion on fauna, God asks Job about how goats/hinds give birth, which of course Job doesn't know. Likewise, God points out the freedom of the wild ass, which God explains lives in the desert away from crowds and without a driver.  Turning to the Reem, God asks whether Job would use the Reem to pull a plow or conduct other agricultural tasks.  God points out the folly but speed of the Ostrich.  God then asks if Job can terrify a horse or can he command an eagle.

Keep in mind that these are not absolute statements.  While Job did not necessarily understand calving of wild goats and deer, we have studied this more since his time.  Do wild asses always avoid crowds and ignore animal trainers?  That's not the point.  Similarly, we have found ways to terrify horses and to train eagles, things that were presumably beyond Job's ability at that time. So likewise, whilst the Reem may have gone extinct, this text is not an absolute statement that the Reem is utterly untamable. 

Instead, in context, it's good to recognize that just as the wild ass is the wild equivalent of the donkey (which worked in the cities and harkened to the orders of its driver, albeit not always joyfully), so also the Reem is a wild equivalent of the kind of animal that in its domestic equivalent would do the things God describes. This is not just serving us, abiding in our barns (crib), and ploughing, as stated in verses 9-10:   

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

Job 39:10 - Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?

But also being trustworthy, capable of unattended or lightly attended work, and bearing burdens as laid out in verses 11-12:

Job 39:11 - Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?

Job 39:12 - Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?

These are the tasks associated with oxen.  So, a wild ox or aurochs, a wild animal similar to (and perhaps even the pre-domesticated form of) the ox, is the best fit here.

A rhinoceros is not a great fit here.  Notwithstanding a rather bizarre and seemingly fake video from Georgia (the country), it does not seem reasonable even to try yoking up a rhinoceros.  The idea of substituting a rhinoceros for an ox is farfetched not least because of the problem of the rhino's neck being seemingly larger than its head.   While that means Job couldn't do so, it would be an odd thing even to suggest.

D. Psalm 22

Psalm 22 provides another use of Reem, this time in the plural.  This is the Psalm that Jesus quoted on the cross, which begins: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"   As the first indicates, the Psalm begins on a down note.  The Psalmist expresses woe, suggesting that God is not listening to him (1-8), then calling for help based on his past experience (9-10) and in view of his present situation (11-18), once again he calls for help in his present situation (19-21), this time with expectation that God will save him leading to his praise of God and many other blessings (22-31).

In short, vss. 1-21 relate to Jesus on the cross, while vss. 22-31 relate to the resurrection and other triumphs of Christ.

When we consider that the first 21 verses are about the same situation, an interesting pattern emerges:

Psalm 22:12 - Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.

Psalm 22:13 - They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.


Psalm 22:16 - For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.


Psalm 22:20 - Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

Psalm 22:21 - Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.

Notice the triple parallel between 12-16 and 20-21, of dogs, lions, and bulls/unicorns.  David (speaking for Jesus) describes three threats at verses 12-16 and asks for deliverance from all three in verses 20-21.  The best harmony between these is to see the "unicorns" as an animal similar to or equivalent to the bulls of Bashan.  Bashan is the land of giants (Deuteronomy 3:13).  Whether or not these bulls are themselves giant, they are described specifically as "strong".  The comparison to Aurochs/wild-oxen fits extremely well, while a comparison to rhinos in verse 21 would break the parallel.

E. Psalm 29

Psalm 29 provides an even more compelling case.  While calves are sprightly, rhinos (even young rhinos) are ungainly.  The text says:

Psalm 29:6 - He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

During our recent debate, Nick stated "if you google leaping rhinoceroses you'll see footage of goats and rhinoceroses chasing one another and acting exactly the same"(link to relevant portion of debate).  I believe that the still at right corresponds to the video that Nick mentioned. It's only 3 minutes long (available here).  The narrator describes "run hops" but this is about the extent of any jumping.  There is definitely some joy there, but the jumping is really nothing to speak of.  There are some adorable moments, but the hopping is only surprising because of how generally clumsy the rhino seems to be (see 1:10 or so, where she manages to trip on what appears to be dry grass of some sort).  In another video, you can see a Rhino calf "jumping and playing around" (link to video).  Again, while it is very adorable, it's extremely insignificant within the animal kingdom. 

For a night and day contrast, see how playful a calf can be (link to video)(link to another video).  Even more than that, though, look at how bulls jump (link to video) "that's 1800 pounds jumping five foot straight up in the air - wow" is the narrator's comment from the first example in that video. 

I'm not suggesting that cattle are the most graceful of beasts, and there are goats and deer that jump even more than a bull, but bulls are leapers in a way that rhinos just are not.

Notice that the parallel in this verse is between a calf and a "young" reem.  The Hebrew word translated "calf" is especially used of a steer, namely a nearly-grown calf, according to Strong's.  Thus, in keeping with poetic parallelism, it makes sense that a juvenile or adolescent Reem is intended, which presumably jumped something like a bull, not with a tiny one-inch or two-inch vertical, like an adorable baby rhino.

If this were the only verse, we could reasonably rule out rhinos, while not necessarily excluding wild goats or antelopes, or the like.  However, considering the other preceding verses, the wild bull interpretation is a lot more sound.

F. Psalm 92

In Psalm 92, we see the verse that is the most likely go-to verse for someone seeking to identify the Reem as a unicorn or one-horned rhinoceros.  The Psalm has an interesting ambiguity in that musical instruments are mentioned at verse 3, and a horn is another example of musical instruments.  

Let's look, though, at the immediate context of Psalm 92:10, namely verses 9-11:

Psalm 92:9 - For, lo, thine enemies, O LORD, for, lo, thine enemies shall perish; all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered.

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

Psalm 92:11 - Mine eye also shall see my desire on mine enemies, and mine ears shall hear my desire of the wicked that rise up against me.

The idea of scattering enemies with horns is something discussed above.  Here, though, the Psalmist says my horn (singular) will be exalted like, in the words of the KJV, the horn of a unicorn.  As you may be able to see at right, the words "the horne" in the 1611 KJV are in a different font because they are supplied by the translator, not by the original.  So, the initial force one might expect from the singular reference to horn is lost.  The singular horn is the Psalmists.

It is an interesting question in what sense this horn of the Psalmist is intended.  As mentioned above, the horn can be a musical instrument as in Joshua 6:5.  One could easily imagine that a horn would be lifted up for the purposes of blowing a triumphant blast, such as the lifting up of the horn mentioned in 1 Chronicles 25:5 (perhaps also in Psalm 75:4-5 and 10).  None of the horned animals, however, use their horn this way, as a musical instrument.  So, the comparison to a Reem would be confusing, unless the intent was that a Reem's horn would serve as the trumpet.  

There is another use of horns in Old Testament times, however, and that is as a flask for oil. This use is seen in 1 Samuel 16:1 and 13.  Moreover, that specific horn of oil was used to anoint David.  We are not told whether David is the author of this specific Psalm (and it comes after Psalm 72, so it is less likely to be David's), but certainly many of the Psalms are David's.  Moreover, the use of horns of oil did not end with Samuel.  Zadok took a horn of oil from the tabernacle to anoint Solomon (1 Kings 1:39)

This seems like the most likely sense, in context, since the verse concludes "I shall be anointed with fresh oil."  Of course, there can be multiple related senses.  For example, the term "horn" sometimes seems to refer to one's head, as in Job 16:15 (or as an alternative sense in Psalm 75:4-5 and 10) in a horn budding (Ezekiel 29:21).  Psalm 132:17-18 seems to combine these senses, describing the horn of David budding, there being a lamp (presumably oil) for his anointed and his enemies being shamed, but David's crown flourishing.  Of course, since oil goes on the head in anointing (see Psalm 133:2), this can justify the cross-over use as well.

To further complicate things, Psalm 92:9-11 has various similarities to a portion of Hannah's prayer.  Hannah prayed:

1 Samuel 2:1 - And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoiceth in the LORD, mine horn is exalted in the LORD: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation.


1 Samuel 2:10 - The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall he thunder upon them: the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.

While Hannah's joy is clear and undeniable, the precise use of this expression of having an exalted horn is not completely clear.  In the first case it almost seems to suggest the musical instrument, since it is parallel with her mouth being enlarged.  In the second case, it seems to suggest either the horn as a symbol of military power (parallel to strength) or as the mechanism of anointing.  

As an added twist, the word Reem has as its apparent root, the concept of exaltation.  Thus, it is a natural poetic choice rather than "bull" or "ram".  In some ways it seems to be poetified form of a Hebrew idiom, in which case the choice of animal is not particularly significant. 

For example, at verse 12, the Psalmist says that the righteous will flourish "like the palm tree" and will grow "like a cedar in Lebanon."  This seems to be a poetic way of saying "grow up big and tall." 

Here too, therefore, it seems like the metaphor is not that the Psalmist is to be a one-horned creature (nor that the reference to "mine eye" means he's a cyclops) but that his head or perhaps the horn of his anointing or even his trumpet would be lifted up in joy, similar to the way that a tall beast, like an Aurochs or wild-ox, is lifted up.  In fairness, the horn of a classical unicorn or an Arabian Oryx is even more exalted.  A rhinoceros horn is typically close to the ground, but sweeps up, particularly as the rhino ages.  Moreover, when a rhino lifts his head, the horn does go fairly high, I believe.  

On the other hand, I don't think a rhino's horn is the most suitable, either for musical instruments or for oil flasks.  The structure of the rhino's horn is interesting but different from that of most other horned animals (link).  Thus, the horn of a rhinoceros is not a "true" horn by typical biological definitions (see here, for example).  Accordingly, a rhinoceros horn is not particularly suitable for flask/trumpet purposes.

Now, of course, the Bible doesn't have to follow modern zoological definitions.  The ancients considered the rhino's horn a horn, hence the name "rhinoceros" (nose-horn).  The point is just that when it comes to a case like this, it seems more likely that an anointing horn would be made from a true horn with a bony exterior that has been hollowed out.

So, why a Reem here? It could be because they had relatively large horns (thus containing a lot of oil), because they were relatively tall (hence lifted up) or simply that they made a great wordplay with "exalted."  In the case of the Palm/Cedar simile in verse 12, the choice seems to be less about wordplay and more about the appearance: palms grow fairly straight up, and cedars grow to be huge.

In conclusion, while this is the verse that works the best for a rhinoceros of any of the verses, it is not an excellent choice, even here.  Likewise, while a legendary beast could be made to work here, it is not the best choice, since there are real animals that fit the bill.

G. Isaiah 34:7

The final place where Reem appears in the Masoretic text is in Isaiah 34:7.  The context is a description of judgment:

Isaiah 34:1 - Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people: let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come forth of it.

Isaiah 34:2 - For the indignation of the LORD is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter.

Isaiah 34:3 - Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come up out of their carcases, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood.

Isaiah 34:4 - And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.

Isaiah 34:5 - For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment.

Isaiah 34:6 - The sword of the LORD is filled with blood, it is made fat with fatness, and with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams: for the LORD hath a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Idumea.

Isaiah 34:7 - 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 34:8 - For it is the day of the LORD'S vengeance, and the year of recompences for the controversy of Zion.

Within this judgment statement, there is mention that is not necessarily to be understood literally.  Thus, in this context, even a mythical beast would work, but that is not the most likely explanation. Instead, notice the similar parallelism we have seen in previous examples:

The sword of the LORD is filled with blood, 

it is made fat with fatness, and 

with the blood of lambs and goats,

with the fat of the kidneys of rams: 

for the LORD hath a sacrifice in Bozrah, and 

a great slaughter in the land of Idumea.

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.

Similar to Deuteronomy 33, the "unicorns" here are in poetic parallel to bulls, just as "rams" are in poetic parallel to "lambs and goats."  So, the best understanding of "unicorns" is that they are something similar to bulls, though not necessarily the exact same thing.  As in the previous cases, the Aurochs or other wild-ox is the best candidate for the meaning of the word Reem here.

Could a rhinoceros work?  I don't think so. The rhinoceroses that we know about seem to be suited (adapted, designed) for relatively flat surfaces, not hilly or mountainous areas (Nick Sayers has noted that there are some rhinoceroses living in somewhat hilly regions, so take this point about their usual habitat with a grain of salt).  Their short legs and enormous weight are not a great match to be up a mountain from which to "come down".  With God all things are possible, but looking at the verses without being forced to keep with the older translations, we can conclude that Reem is an Aurochs or wild-ox (or the like) rather than a rhinoceros or worse, a unicorn.

Another caveat I should add is that we do not know the exact habitat of the Aurochs.  While fossils have been found at high elevations, the last surviving Aurochs seemed to favor marshes and low-lying lands.

Additionally, others have noted that the animals are coming down to be sacrificed (see Isaiah 34:6).  This not only confirms that the Reem is a real animal, but also that the Reem is a clean animal.  While the Aurochs is a clean animal for the same reasons that the Bull is a clean animal, the rhinoceros (like other pachyderms) is an unclean animal (because it does not chew the cud and does not have a split hoof).  I will note that the gazelle is a clean animal, so this aspect of Isaiah 34 does not eliminate the gazelle.  Thus, the rhinoceros is not a potential animal here.

4. What about "Wild Ox" / "Wild Bull" in the KJV?

At Deuteronomy 14:5, the King James uses "wild ox" to translate teo (תְּאוֹ).  

Deuteronomy 14:4-5 - These are the beasts which ye shall eat: the ox, the sheep, and the goat, the hart, and the roebuck, and the fallow deer, and the wild goat, and the pygarg, and the wild ox, and the chamois.

Likewise, at Isaiah 51:20, the KJV translates the same word "wild bull."

Isaiah 51:20 - Thy sons have fainted, they lie at the head of all the streets, as a wild bull in a net: they are full of the fury of the LORD, the rebuke of thy God.

Without getting into a more detailed argument about this point, it is certainly possible that the KJV is also wrong in these translations and that these should refer to a gazelle as others have suggested.  As another option, though, it's also possible that the Old Testament can use multiple words to refer to the same animal, in the same way that places and people sometimes have multiple names.

I note, however, that Wikipedia states that "Aurochs were hunted with arrows, nets and hunting dogs," citing an article that I have not yet accessed.

Nick noted that the word translated "pygarg" in Deuteronomy 14:5 is translated as "unicorn" in a Spanish translation.  That word dison (דִּישׁוֹן) probably does relate to some kind of gazelle, with the word "pygarg" being a transliteration of the Septuagint.  It's not completely clear which animal the Septuagint translators had in mind.

5. Anything else?

Nick's website also has a link to Will Kinney's article (link) on the subject.  It does not add much of substance to Nick's page.  I may update this section at a later date to address some of the odd remarks found there.  

Nick's website links to an article at "KJV Today," but the link is broken.  If someone finds that link and lets me know, and if there is anything else of substance there, I may update here.

Nick's website links to an article from Answers in Genesis, which seems to acknowledge the general reasonableness of the Aurochs view, while urging caution regarding phonetic similarity (link).

6. Appendices

1.  John Calvin's Comment 

Regarding the identification of the unicorn, rather than the rhinoceros, as the animal built for speed, a challenge has been presented to more thoroughly prove this point. 

A. Historical Documentation

John Amos Comenius work, Janua Linguarum (with an English translation), was printed in 1670.  The original textbook was written in 1629, printed soon after and widely accepted (see the website).  It documents the contemporary understanding, both of the Unicorn and Rhinoceros as different animals, but also of the legendary swiftness of the unicorn.

(p. 40, items 175 and 177) (link to source)

B. Rhinoceros Speed

As noted above, rhinos are are lumbering beasts.  For their size, though, they are fast.  For land animals that weight what they weigh, they are in the top group.

By way of comparison, though:

Top speed of a lion: 50 mph

Top speed of a German Shepherd dog: 30 mph

Top speed of an Hippopotamus: 19 mph

Top speed of an African Elephant: 25 mph

Top speed of a gazelle: 60 mph

Top speed of a cheetah: 50-80 mph

Top speed of a thoroughbred horse: 44 mph

Top speed of a quarter horse: 55 mph

Top speed of a rhinoceros: 31-34 mph

Top speed of a cape buffalo: 35 mph

Top speed of Aurochs: Unknown (possible re-kindling of species proposed here)(link to horn of the last 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.” (Julius Caesar in Commentarii de bello Gallicoas, provided at the species rekinding link above)

It should be noted that the Scriptures do not require that the Reem be a particularly speedy animal.  So, the lack of speed of the Rhinoceros is just evidence that Calvin didn't mean Rhinoceros, not that Reem doesn't mean Rhinoceros.

2.  Aurochs as Better Candidates for the Reem

Gallic Wars, Book 6, Chapter 28 (translated by McDevitte and Bohn)

There is a third kind, consisting of those animals which are called uri. 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 kind 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.

3. Early Opposition to "Unicorns" and "Rhinoceroses"

As noted above, there was already some measure of disagreement about whether Reem should be "unicorn" or "rhinoceros" in the early 1600s.  By the late 1600s, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Unicorn was a legendary animal, not a historical reality.

4. What did King James think a Unicorn was?

The most obvious answer is to look at King James' coat of arms, which in the English version had one unicorn, and in the Scottish version had two unicorns. 

Likewise, a 1650 edition of the KJV has this in the front matter:

5. What about 16th and 17th Century Scholars? (Section in progress)

A. Donato Bertelli, Paolo Forlani, and Giacomo Gastaldi (1568) "Universale Descrittione Di Tutta la Terra Conosciuta Fin Qui" (Published in Venice)

This is detail from the unknown land in the lower right quadrant of this 16th century map.  A more complete view of the map with the animals highlighted is shown below:

A. Conrad Gessner (reprint 1603, originally 1551), who makes note of Rabbis Kimhi and Salomon (link to section) distinguishes between Unicorns and Rhinoceroses, "Tiguirini Historiae Animalium" Book 1 of Quadruped Mammals ("Lib. I. de Quadupedibus vivparis").  1551
The first entry, the entry for Unicorn, is from page 781:
The second entry, the entry for Rhinoceros begins at page 952:
As the entry for Unicorn explains, there was some confusion between the two beasts:
The entry on the Rhinoceros contains a similar explanation.  The book may be found here (link to book).

B. Philemon Holland (1601) and Edward Topsell (1607). "The Elizabethan Zoo" (1926) opens with this introductory explanation:  "This is not a 'child's book of bad beasts': it is composed of selections from the most serious and substantial books of zoology that were available for educated Englishmen in Shakespeare's day."  The Elizabethan Zoo contains extracts taken from Edward Topsell's "Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes" (1607) and his "Historie of Serpents" (1608) as well as translation of Philemon Holland's, Pliny's Natural History (1601).  As the introduction to the Elizabethan Zoo explains, Topsell's book was essentially a translation of Gesner's work, although he claimed to have researched the writers referenced by Gesner. The Elizabethan Zoo represents an abbreviation of Topsell's work. Philemon Holland (1552-1637) was a medical doctor and was known for translating the classics.  He does not seem to have been (at least I could not find any indication that he was) a close relative of KJV translator, Thomas Holland. Edward Topsell (1572-1625) is most known for this pair of works.  It should be noted that Topsell included the same rhinoceros image as Gesner (aka Dürer's Rhinoceros).  Sadly another (seemingly more accurate) drawing was not used (link to drawing).  If we take the King James translators to be well-educated folks, they would have been familiar with the distinction between Unicorn and Rhinoceros offered by Gessner and reiterated by Topsell.(Alternate Link to Topsell)

C. Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) a KJV translator says (in a sermon published after his death, but apparently preached at his church), p. 104 (link to source):
Now of Dominamini. Plenitudo terrae est jam hominis. In dominis sunt haec quatuor, usus, fructus, consumptio, & alienatio. First for Use, we have power to tame some, as the Horse, for all his strength; yea even the Lyon; for all his courage; and the Elephant for all his hugeness. Those which will not be tamed, we rule over them by imprisoning them. In regard of fruit, We have the wool of Sheep, the teeth of Elephants, and the horn of Unicorns. For consumption, or spending, They are some unto us for meat, and others for medicine. In respect of alienation, we buy and sell them daily.

Note Lancelot's sincere belief that people of his day had Unicorn horns.

D. Sir Thomas Browne's "Vulgar Errors" (read this article about the author and work) or as it was formally titled: "Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths" (web page on the book itself) The first edition was 1646.

In his first edition, Book III, Chapter 23, he attacks the myths associated with the Unicorn's horn (link to page).  In the process of doing so, Dr. Brown notes arguments already circulating that the references in the English Scriptures to "Unicorn" may actually only refer to the Rhinoceros, and that some doubt the actual existence of the Unicorn.  Brown cleverly argues that there are many kinds of unicorns, both quadrupeds and even beetles.  However, Brown (a medical doctor) focuses his attention on the claims of the unicorn's horn.  He notes that the alleged unicorn horn of his day was white, not black like Pliny described.  Moreover, Brown argues that some of the horns are those of the "sea-unicorn" (i.e. the narwhale - literally a "corpse-whale") and that some of the supposed "horn" material is not horn at all.   

E. Arnold Boot (aka Boate, aka Botius) (1650) in "De textus Hebraici Veteris Testamenti certitudine et authentia contra Ludovici Capelli criticam," Book 3, Chapter 1 (link to section) argues that the Reem is an Urus, which we know as the Aurochs.  Boot specifically distinguishes the Reem both from the Unicorn and from the Rhinoceros.

F. Alexander Ross (1652), "Arcana Microsemi ... with a Refutation of Doctor Brown's Vulgar Errors" (pp. 127-130) Chapter VI, section 3, "The true Unicorn with his horn and vertues asserted." (transcription includes updated spellings and punctuation, see the link for the original):
Men's bodies are obnoxious to many dangers, by reason of the many sorts of poisons in the world, some killing by occult, some by manifest qualities; but God out of his goodness to mankind, hath ordained as many remedies and antidotes as there by poisons, whereby their malignity is either prevented or expelled. Among all these Antidotes, there is none more wonderful than the Unicorn's horn, which hath been so much questioned and doubted by diverse Writers, some denying the existence of the Unicorn as it is ordinarily painted & described; Others denying that there is any such horn, and some disallowing the virtues thereof; among whom is Doctor Brown (Book 3.c.23) in his Vulgar Errors: But that there are Beasts with one Horn in the Indies, as Bulls, Asses, Horses, etc. I think none will deny. 
2. The Unicorn or Monoceros, is not the same with Rhinoceros or Naricorn, for this is of an Elephantine bigness, with short legs, whose bodies is covered with shells, the Elephant's enemy, which he overcame at Lisbon, in that public combat exhibited by Emanuel of Portugalanno 1515. He hath a short Horn on his shoulders, another longer on his nose; but that Rhinoceros, whose picture Scaliger saw, (Exerc. 205.) had an head like a Hog, with two horns, one upon his nose, the other upon his forehead, called by Martial (in AmphitEpig. 11,) Ursus gemino cronu gravis. But the true Unicorn hath the proportion and bigness of a Horse, the head, legs and feet of a Stag, and the mane of an horse; he hath a horn in his forehead, saith Cardan (de Subtil. l. 10.) three cubits long; two of these Unicorns were seen at Mecha, of which see Parry in his 21 Book of poisons, Munster and Fernandus de Cordova, [l. 4. dididas. c. 9.
3. The reason why the Unicorn is differently described, is, because diverse Authors confound him with the Naricorn, or else because there be diverse species of Unicorns, as there be of Dogs and other Animals, or else because they vary the color and bigness of their horn according to their age and climate wherein they live, as other beasts do; but from variety of descriptions and circumstances, we must not infer a nullity of the substance, as Parry doth; for so we may deny the Rhinoceros, which is diversly described; Strabo makes him like a Bear, [lt. 16. de sub. l. 10] Cardan, like a Bull, others like an Elephant. [See Parry, Cardan, Fern. de Cord. Pausanias, Scaliger, Munster, Pliny, Solinus, Caesar, Aelian, Polyhistor. ] Some give him but one horn, some two, which some is crooked, with others straight. I therefore make no question of the true Unicorn, as he is commonly painted, because Veromanus saw two of them, as Scalinger withnesseth, and so did Lewis Bathema, who as some say, is the same with Vertomanus, Justin Martyr, Basil, and other of the Fatheres; Yea, the holy scriptures seem to favor this description, Job 39.0. Will the Unicorn be willing to serve thee, etc.? The Hebrew word Rem is by Hierom, Montanus, and Aquila, translated Rhinoceros; but by the 70 Monoceros. Yet in another place Heirom and Montanus translate the word Unicorn: and in this place it cannot signify Rhinoceros, because this beast hath been oftentimes subdued by man, and bound, as we read in the Roman stories, but so was never the Unicorn brought into subjection, as God sheweth to Job: And when David saith, He shall be exalted like the Horn of an Unicorn, he cannot mean the Rhinoceros, who of all conured Animals, hath the shortest Horn; but the true Unicorn, whose Horn is the highest of all others; for else David's comparison had been childish. 
Now for the Horn itself, and virtues thereof, they are rejected by Rondeletius, Parry, Brown, and some others. Rondeletius, [l. 21. de venenis, c. 61] found no more virtue in this Horn than in an Elephant's Tooth. Parry found no virtue in the French King's Horn. Brown rejects the Horn, [because it is divesly dsecribed. 2. The Ancients ascribed no virtue ot it. 3. It cannot resist Arsenic, and poisons, which kill by second qualities.] To these I answer,
1. If it is sufficient to deny the Hart's Horns, for there are great differences of them, some bigger and higher than others, some more branchy, some harder, some are clothed with a soft Doun, others are not; and they have not all of them exactly the same color. Neither do I allow, that all which are called Unicorns' horns, are true; for some are fictitious. 
2. If the Ancients ascribed no virtue to this horn, why was it of such account among them? Why did the Indian Princes drink out of them, and make Cups and Rings of them, which either they wore on their fingers, or applied to their breasts, but that they knew there was in them an antidotal virtue against poison, as Andreth Baccius [l. de Unicor.] sheweth, and the Doctor denieth not [ an Antidotal efficacy, and such as the Ancients commended in this Horn] and yet two lines before, [he denies that the Ancients ascribed any virtue to it.]  But sure it is apparent, that not only there is an occult quality in it against poison, as in the Elk's Hoof against the falling sickness, but also by manifest qualities it works; for Baccius proves it to be of an excessive drying quality, and therefore good against worms and putreficiation. And that Riccius the Physician did use sometimes the weight of a scruple, sometimes of ten grains thereof in burning fevers with good success.
3. That it can resist Arsenic, the same Baccius proves, by the experiment which the Cardinal of Trent made upon two Pigeons, [l. de Unic.] to which he caused some Arsenic to be given; shortly after he gave some scrapings of his Unicorn's horn to one of them, which after some symptoms recovered and lived, the other died two hours after it had eaten the Arsenic. The same Horn cured diverse pestilential Fevers, and such as were poisoned. Hence then it appears, that this Horn was both commended by the Ancients, namely by AElian, Philostrates, and diverse others, as also by modern Physicians, as Ficinus, Brasavolus, Matthiolus, Mandella, and many more. It is true, that some might find the virtue of it, either because it was not the true Horn, or the true dosis was not exhibited, or due time was not observed, or else the malignancy of the disease would not yield. For Interdum docta plus valet arte malum. But from hence to deny the Horn or its virtue, where all one as to deny Rhubarb, Agarick, Sena, or other Simples, because they do not always produce the wished effect, or work upon all bodies at all times alike. The means to discriminate the true Unicorn's horn from the false, are two, to wit, if it causes the liquor in which it is put, to bubble; and secondly, if it sweat when the poison is near it, as Baccius tells us.

Alexander Ross (c. 1591 - 1654) was a chaplain to Charles I.  Like Francis Turretin, Ross opposed Copernican theory based on his understanding of science at the time.  (link to his web page)

G. John Trapp (1657) (lived 1601-1699) in commentary on Job 39 (as part of his commentary on the whole Bible), wrote, regarding Verse 9, "The Rhinoceros, saith the Vulgar: but that's another kind of beast, so called from the growing of his horn from his nose. This is the Monceros or Unicorn, which cannot be taken alive (interimi potest, capi non potest) as the Rhinoceros may."  Trapp goes on to mention various accounts of the Unicorn, which Trapp takes to be of traditional Unicorn.  Trapp mentions Boot's view, without mentioning him by name: "Some conceive that by the beast mentioned here is meant the wild-Bull, as oppose to the tame Ox, and elsewhere joyned to Oxen, Deut. 33.17. Isai. 34.6. Whatever it is, it will not be brought to do man service, though fitted by stature and strength to do much, but lives at liberty, and is provided for by God." (link to pdf - see p. 277 of the pdf, corresponding to pages 338-339 of the book) Similarly, at Psalm 22:21, he says: "This here mentioned, whether the Unicorn, or Rhinoceros, or some other wild Beast (See Job 39:9 &c.)" (p. 635 of the book, p. 327 of the pdf) In his commentary on Isaiah 34:7 (1660), after quoting Unicorns and describing them as "Monocerotes" he mentions, "or Rhinocerotes, as the Margent hath it...." (link to pdf, pdf p, 276, p. 122 of the Isaiah commentary, which is separately numbered from the preceding commentary in the same book)

H. George Caspard Kirchmayer (1635-1700) makes a valiant attempt to rescue the Unicorn (link to start of argument).  The work was originally printed in 1661 and the linked translation in English is from 1886, I believe that the footnote is the product of Edmund Goldsmid, the translator, who I believe is the one who titled the collection as "Un-Natural History, or Myths of Ancient Science."  Kirchmayer goes so far as to say that "the existence of one-horned horses is beyond all manner of doubt" (p. 61).  Quite unexpectedly, Kirchmayer refes us to die Uhrochsen (the Aurochs), which he insists is a one-horned ox that lives in Russia (p. 63), and a footnote identifies as the Urus.  Without any sense of irony, Kirchmayer continues (p. 66): "Care must be taken, however, not to confound the Rhinoceros with the Monceros, a mistake the student of ancient times frequently falls into." He goes on to quote an example of Scaliger so chiding Cardanus (pp. 66-67).   

I. Samuel Bochart (1663) in Hierozoicon Sive bipertitum opus De Animalibus Sacrae Scripturae, argues that the Reem is a Goat or Goat-ish creature, namely the Gazelle.  Bochart specifically argues with Boate's view that it is an Urus, insisting that it is an Oryx. (link to page)
His waifish drawing (col. 955-56) of these beasts do not inspire the impression of a strong, powerful animal, though they do give the distinct impression of a single horn.  The relevant chapter of Bochart's book is explicitly interacting with Boate ("Bootio" in the text of Bochart) (link to chapter 27).
More impressive, of course, is the proffered skull drawing (col. 957-58) of the beast that Bochart suggests, as well as his arguments from Arabic.  The arguments from Arabic are less persuasive today, now that we have greater access to Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Assyrian.

J. Joseph Caryl (1666).  Caryl was one of the Westminster Assemblymen (sometimes called the Westminster Divines) and was the predecessor of John Owen as pastor of an independent congregation in London after Caryl's ejection under Charles II's restoration.  In his commentary on Job, Caryl quotes Arnold Boate (link to bio), his slightly older contemporary, after providing Caryl's own thoughts.  The commentary begins at p. 346 of the work and continues.  

Caryl himself states: "Our late Annotators seem to incline, that by the word Reem here rendred Unicorn, is meant the wild Bull rather than the Unicorn, because as the wild Ass is here oppos'd to the tame, so the wild Bull seems to be oppos'd to the Oxe, which is a tame creatore and fitted for the service of man."  

Regarding the KJV marginal note, Caryl explains: "in our English translation (Isa. 34.7.) we put the word Unicorns in the Text, and Rhinocerots in the Margin." He goes on to point out: "Some to carry the sense of the word Unicorn to this other creature, say, the Rhinoceros hath but one horn; whereas others affirm confidently, that the Rhinoceros hath two horns, one upon his Nose, and another upon his Brow, though not so big as that other." Caryl quotes a Roman poet who refers to the "double horn" of the Rhinoceros.  

Caryl recognizes that "every one knows" what a Unicorn looks like as it is painted in the Royal Arms, and cited Pliny as support for this kind of animal. Caryl also acknowledges that there are people who "doubt whether there be, ye who deny that there is an such beast in the compass of nature, as is commonly called an Unicorn".  These unicorn skeptics, says Caryl argue that "therefore in all those Scriptures, wherein this word (Reem) in the Text translated Unicorn, is used, They who are of that opinion, translate Rhinocerote, as not being satisfied that there is such a creature as that other in the world."

Caryl also acknowledges that "One of the Rabbines" objects that Deuteronomy 33:17 speaking of the Reem ascribes multiple horns to the beast.  Caryl dismisses this argument, because he thinks that the scriptures frequently put the singular for the plural.

Satisfied to say that he thinks it's an actual unicorn, Caryl quotes as something that will please the learned reader, the words of Arnold Boate, who concludes that the Reem is the Urus (which is described by Julius Caesar above, and corresponds to the Aurochs). Caryl then also acknowledges that Samuel Bochart (link to his page) seems to have a similar disapproval of the Unicorn or the Rhinoceros, but settles on the Oryx or other "goat-ish" beast.

His conclusion is shown at right.

In summary, Joseph Caryl leaves the question of the true identity of the Reem to his readers, after providing a somewhat waffling explanation of his own.  He acknowledges that there are unicorn skeptics who don't think the unicorn exists and who argue that it should be Rhinoceros instead.  Caryl acknowledges that the English translation puts Unicorn as the text, with Rhinoceroses in the margin at Isaiah 34:7.  Although Caryl does not express any negative view of the "Unicorn" reading, he provides more than give pages of arguments (pp. 348-57) that he translates from Albert Boate who argues (along similar lines to what I have said above) that it is a wild Ox known as Urus (the same known as Aurochs and identified by Julius Caesar above).  Caryl also acknowledges that our "Late annotators" had the same opinion as Boate (I think Caryl was referring to Matthew Poole).   Caryl then also notes Bochart's opinion that it is not the Unicorn, not the Rhinoceros, and not the Urus, but rather the Goat or "Goat-ish" creature known as the Oryx. (p. 357)  Caryl concludes, pp. 357-8 that he will stick with Unicorn because that's what the English translation has and "many others of great authority" but that he leaves the matter to the reader's judgment. (link to beginning of section)  Joseph Caryl was a member of the Westminster Assembly, a companion of John Owen, with John Owen (upon Caryl's death in 1673) taking over the pulpit that Caryl had filled. 

K1. Matthew Poole (1684) "Synopsis Criticorum"  Then, as now, writing in Latin prevented the ordinary reader from understanding what Poole was saying.  I hesitate to give my own faltering translation of the Latin.  Poole lays out the characteristics of the Reem from the Scripture texts, eliminates the the Rhino because his horn is not high, and eliminates the Unicorn (separately) on the grounds that it is not indigenous to Canaan and because it does not have two horns, which also further eliminates the Rhinoceros.  Poole then notes the options raised by Boate (the Uru/Aurochs) and Bochartus (the Oryx), respectively without eliminating them, but expressing some question about whether Boate's option is viable, since Caesar seems (he thinks) to be the earliest attestation.  I will await a better translation of Poole's Latin than I can provide, but I believe he ultimately favors Bochart's view (link to source)

L. Adam Olearis (1674) is not English, but German, but also takes note of the issue and of Bochart's arguments (link to source)

M. Johannis Cypriani (1688) (lived 1642-1723) writing in Latin, provides a "Historiae animalium" in which chapter 11 is titled "De Monocerote et Rhinocerote" (of Unicorns and Rhinoceroses).  I won't try to summarize what he wrote, but suffice to note that he takes notice of the arguments of Boot and Bochart in his analysis.

N. John Edwards (1694) (lived 1637-1716) A Discourse concerning the Authority, Stile and Perfection of the Books of the Old and New Testament. With a continued illustration of several difficult texts of Scripture, etc., Vol. 2, Chapter VIII discusses some translation challenges in going from Hebrew to English. Edwards notes that the marginal reading "wild bull" has been added to "our Margin" at Deuteronomy 33:17 because of the multiple horns of the reem mentioned there.

K2. Matthew Poole (1696) "Annotations Upon the Holy Bible" at Isaiah 34:7 argues that it's not really important what kind of animal it is.  He says: "Heb. the Reemim. But what kind of Beast is this, whether that Beast which is commonly called an Unicorn, which seems to be but a Fiction in the Judgment of the Learned; or a Rhinoceros, or a wild Ox or Bull; it is needless to trouble the ordinary Reader about it; and the Learned may consult my Latine Synopsis upon Numb. 23.22. about it." (link to source)

(Note the marginal reading "of a wild bull" in place of "of unicorns".)

Note that Poole says Urus "may seem most probable" as the meaning.

Note that Poole argues that the type of beast isn't important for the average Joe.

Note dismissal of the importance of the animal here also.

Note dismissal of the importance of the animal here as well.

O. Simon Patrick (1699) acknowledges the problem with the translation: "The only difficulty is, what Creature it is which is here called Reem; which we translate (as many others have done) an Unicorn: which though most now take to be a fabulous Creature, that is not in being, yet ..." (he goes on to cite a naturalist report claiming to have seen a carcass of a unicorn.  He continues: "But if this be supposed to be true, it is not the Creature here meant; for it is plain by the Scripture that the Reem hath two Horns" (citing Deuteronomy 33:17). (link to source)  Simon Patrick was an influential Arminian Anglican and Bishop of Ely.  He provided ten volumes of commentary on the Old Testament Historical and Poetical Books, which was reprinted in 1810.  His collected works were published in 1858.  He should not be confused with the French-English translator who died in 1613.  (Link to Simon Patrick's page)

Appendix 6 - Unicorns in Shakespeare

Since it has been suggested that my previous post didn't delve enough into Shakespeare studies, here is a list of all places where Shakespeare mentions unicorns by name (search results and formatting courtesy of OpenSourceShapkespeare):




Line number



Julius Caesar
[II, 1]

Decius Brutus


Never fear that: if he be so resolved,
I can o'ersway him; for he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betray'd with trees,
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils and men with flatterers;
But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flattered.
Let me work;
For I can give his humour the true bent,
And I will bring him to the Capitol.


Rape of Lucrece



'To show the beldam daughters of her daughter,
To make the child a man, the man a child,
To slay the tiger that doth live by slaughter,
To tame the unicorn and lion wild,
To mock the subtle in themselves beguiled,
To cheer the ploughman with increaseful crops,
And waste huge stones with little water drops.


[III, 3]



A living drollery. Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix' throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.


Timon of Athens
[IV, 3]



A beastly ambition, which the gods grant thee t'
attain to! If thou wert the lion, the fox would
beguile thee; if thou wert the lamb, the fox would
eat three: if thou wert the fox, the lion would
suspect thee, when peradventure thou wert accused by
the ass: if thou wert the ass, thy dulness would
torment thee, and still thou livedst but as a
breakfast to the wolf: if thou wert the wolf, thy
greediness would afflict thee, and oft thou shouldst
hazard thy life for thy dinner: wert thou the
unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and
make thine own self the conquest of thy fury: wert
thou a bear, thou wouldst be killed by the horse:
wert thou a horse, thou wouldst be seized by the
leopard: wert thou a leopard, thou wert german to
the lion and the spots of thy kindred were jurors on
thy life: all thy safety were remotion and thy
defence absence. What beast couldst thou be, that
were not subject to a beast? and what a beast art
thou already, that seest not thy loss in

Likewise, Shakespeare knew of, and used a different word for, the Rhinoceros:


[III, 4]



What man dare, I dare:
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm'd rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble: or be alive again,
And dare me to the desert with thy sword;
If trembling I inhabit then, protest me
The baby of a girl. Hence, horrible shadow!
Unreal mockery, hence!
[GHOST OF BANQUO vanishes]
Why, so: being gone,
I am a man again. Pray you, sit still.

I looked for references to horns that could potentially be of unicorns.  I found a reference that I think is intended to be the bulls of Bashan, but no more unicorns:


Antony and Cleopatra
[III, 13]



To let a fellow that will take rewards
And say 'God quit you!' be familiar with
My playfellow, your hand; this kingly seal
And plighter of high hearts! O, that I were
Upon the hill of Basan, to outroar
The horned herd! for I have savage cause;
And to proclaim it civilly, were like
A halter'd neck which does the hangman thank
For being yare about him.
[Re-enter Attendants with THYREUS]
Is he whipp'd?

Appendix 7 - Responses to Nick Sayers
Nick Sayers, in our recent debate, suggested that "unicorn" was an umbrella term (link to first relevant part from our debate) at the time, that broadly encompassed a rhinoceros.  His evidence mentioned during the debate was a linked definition on his webpage (link to his webpage).

The linked definition (here's the link) points us to volume 11 of the Oxford English Dictionary of 1913.  That dictionary, however, does not support Nick's position.  First, the dictionary explicitly says that the term refers to the fabulous or legendary creature, which it says was "monoceros of the ancients." The dictionary then goes on to say, "The unicorn has at various times been identified or confused with the rhinoceros, with various species of antelope, or with other animals having a horn (or horns) or horn-like projection from the head." Nick also offered a linked definition of rhinoceros (link), which does not seem to be particularly relevant, except to confirm that the mention about identification/confusion with the rhinoceros is talking about the same thing we call rhinoceros now.

Moreover, Nick may want to take note of the fact that the entry for "Unicorn" refers one to go check out the entry on Reem, found in volume 8 of the same dictionary set.  That entry, reproduced at right, says "The identification of the Hebrew reem with the wild ox (Bos primignius) is one of the most certain of all Bible animal names." (emphasis added)

Nick's major theme is supported by the Middle English Dictionary, which provides the following entry for rhinoceros: "A horned beast, sometimes regarded as a species of unicorn; a rhinoceros." (link to source).  Certainly the Rhinoceros has sometimes been considered a kind of unicorn (we see that in Bartholomew Angelicus in 1398 (1505 printing here) as well as Dr. Brown's "Vulgar Errors" both discussed above).  The question, though, is not whether the Rhinoceros has ever been so considered, but whether what the KJV translators meant by "unicorn" was "rhinoceros." Given that the common conception of the unicorn was the horse with a horn, that the literature of the time distinguished between the unicorn (proper) and the rhinoceros, and that the KJV translators listed "rhinoceros" as an alternative translation in one place, we can see that if they wanted to put "rhinoceros" in the main text, they could have, but instead they put the name of a different animal, the unicorn.

Nick points to Cole's 1717 dictionary definition of "unicornous" (link), which is an adjective meaning "of one horn." I searched to find any usage of the term in the 1600s and I only found it in reference to "unicornous beetles" (Sir Thomas Brown, 1646).  Even there, however, Sir Thomas seems to recognize that there is a clear distinction between the unicorn and the rhinocerous.  

The first dictionary definition of "unicornous" (that I could find) says: "that hath but one horn, as the beast called Unicorn is said to have" (Thomas Blount's dictionary, 1661). In short, while the term "unicornous" may mean "one-horned," in the 1600s, the term "unicorn" still referred to the mythical beast, rather than being an umbrella term.

Nick further referred to Webster's 1828 dictionary definition of unicorn (link to the entry).  This great American dictionary from 1828 does say: "1. an animal with one horn; the monoceros. this name is often applied to the rhinoceros."  Nick does not cite, but perhaps should have done so to prove his point, the entry for rhinoceros (link to entry), which states: "A genus of quadrupeds of two species, one of which, the unicorn, has 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." 

Now, had this been the usage in the 1600s (rather than two centuries later), we would still have the problem that the term, while "applied to the rhinoceros" is only relevant there when distinguishing one type of rhinoceros from another.  In other words, "rhinoceros" is a genus (or umbrella) term for two species of rhinoceros: a one-horned or unicorn variety and a two-horned or bicorn variety.

Nick further noted that Aristotle wrote of a horse-like creature in India with a horn on its forehead and that Pliny the Elder described a beast with a large horn on its forehead.  Nick placed these under the "correct definition" category, though they seem to refer to the same fabled beasts.  Moreover, while the King James translators had no knowledge of 1800s Americans, they had some familiarity with Aristotle and Pliny the Elder.

Nick cited the "Treasury of Scripture Knowledge," which says that the Reem is "most probably" a Rhinoceros and Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, who apparently say that Reem means Rhinoceros.  While I ultimately disagree about that point, key to our discussion is the fact that the KJV says "unicorn," rather than "rhinoceros." (And compare the JFB commentary on Psalm 22: "21. Deliverance pleaded in view of former help, when in the most imminent danger, from the most powerful enemy, represented by the unicorn or wild buffalo." (link))

Finally, under his "correct definitions," Nick cited Wesley's Notes on Numbers 23:22, where Wesley wrote: "An unicorn - The word may mean either a rhinoceros, or a strong and fierce kind of wild goat. But such a creature as an unicorn, as commonly painted, has no existence in nature."  Wesley (1703-1791) probably means not that the English word "unicorn" means a rhinoceros or wild goat, but that the Hebrew word translated as "unicorn" has such a meaning.  

Nick also mentioned a number of definitions that Nick says are incorrect.  I don't see how these help his position, though I will note some of them and comment on them briefly here.

I note that Wesley's Note at Job 39:9-10 states: "9. Unicorn - It is disputed whether this be the Rhinoceros; or a kind of wild bull." (link

Nick indicated that D.A. Waite in his "Defined King James Bible," provides a note to "unicorns" in Deuteronomy 33:17 that suggests: "Heb probably the great aurochs or wild bulls which are now extinct."  I do not have copy of that work to confirm this citation.

Nick also indicated that the Trinitarian Bible Society provided a "Bible Word List" that indicates that "unicorn" means "wild bull" (link).

Nick noted that Strong's Concordance similarly defines the Hebrew word as "wild bull" (link).

Nick noted that Smith's Bible Dictionary confirms "wild ox" is right and no one-horned animal is correct (link).

Nick noted Easton's Bible Dictionary, which is similar to Smith's in concluding that it is a wild ox or bison (link).

Nick doesn't note Torrey's Topical Textbook, which, with its comment of "generally had a single horn," could seem to suggest a rhino (link). 

I do not think Nick mentioned but the so-called "King James Dictionary" of Philip Kapusta defines unicorn as "wild ox." (link)

I could go on, but there are numerous definitions of the Hebrew word or late explanations of the King James word as "wild ox" or the like.  The few sources that seem to suggest rhinoceros seem to be offering an alternative to the obvious meaning of the literal text.

While I find a lot of those later explanations persuasive, they do not seem to address the issue of the usage in the early 1600s, when the King James was written.  When the King James was written, "unicorn" meant the kind of unicorn illustrated above.  That was the usual meaning, as illustrated by the writings of folks from that era, including Shakespeare himself.  

For additional reading, here is a list of "Early Modern English" dictionaries (link).

Nick asked: "So which other bit of literature would have influenced people away from the unicorn/Rhinoceros concept apart from the Revised Version?" 

1) The unicorn concept is one thing, and the rhinoceros concept is another thing.  The widespread acknowledgement by the end of the 17th century that the unicorn was not a real animal after all led to the adoption of other alternatives, including the "rhinoceros" option.

2) The opposition both to the unicorn view and to the rhinoceros view began in the 17th century with Botius and Bochart (for example), whose views were incorporated into both Matthew Poole's popular annotations and into Caryl's work.  

3) As you know, the next major revision of the English Bible was the Revised Version.  However, even before that edition, there were the independent translations (a) by Robert Young (aka Young's Literal Translation), which replaced "unicorn" with Reem and corrected the noun number error at Deuteronomy 33:17 and (b) by Julia E. Smith Parker (completed in 1855, with the Old Testament being published in 1884), which replaced "unicorn" with "buffalo" in most places, but with "the high" in Psalm 22, and with a simple correction from "unicorns" to "unicorn" in Deuteronomy 33:17.   

4) I have not done an exhaustive search in other languages, but by way of example, the Russian Synodal Bible was translated through Ruth before 1830, but was finalized in 1876.  It, like JESP's translation, adopted the Russian equivalent of "buffalo" not the Russian equivalent of "unicorn" (nor the Russian equivalent of "rhinoceros")(it is consistent with the Makariya 1825 on this point).  Likewise, the Elberfelder Bibel (1871) used the German equivalent of "buffalo." 

5) "Wild bull" was already a marginal reading in the KJV by the 1690s, as seen in Poole and John Edwards (not Jonathan).

6) Carteret Priaulx Carey (1858) provides extensive notes on Job 39:9, in which he concludes that the meaning is "wild ox" primarily from the same kinds of arguments I have presented above (link to start of notes at p. 391 of the work), such as the use of Hebrew parallelisms to a bovine creature, the reference to pushing, the plurality of horns in Deuteronomy 33:17, and the unwieldiness of the rhinoceros ("Further, one can scarcely imagine the young of the unwieldy rhinoceros being so skittish as to be compared in his gambols with a young calf, as in Ps. xxix. 6." p. 394)

Carey makes a further interesting argument from the Egyptian syllable rn, which I don't think contemporary Egyptology supports (the syllable probably represented the adjective "young" in those cases). Nevertheless, Carey points out that he had just that morning seen in the "Illustrated London News" (January 19, 1856) "a copy of a very remarkable sculpture lately discovered at Nimroud."  (I found it and reproduce it on the right. - I did not find a photo of the exact carving, but found this similar one)  As he notes, in that image, the cattle each have a single horn that looks as though it is in the center of their foreheads, which seems to be a stylized way of depicting these cattle.  Carey speculates that this stylization may account for the Septuagint use of "monoceros" (lit. one-horn) to translate reem.

Carey does not mention it, but there are similar images of Aurochs in Babylon (for example, at the Ishtar gate)(another example, at the processional way) (see similar Assyrian imagery)

In short, while the RV was certainly keeping up with Bible translation trends, it was not the trend-setter when it came to this particular issue.

Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature: (Vol. 1) A, B (John McClintock, James Strong eds.)(1867)  Under the Buffalo entry, the editors say that "This animal is often regarded as the same with the wild bull ([reem]) of Scripture ([citations to Scripture]). See Unicorn. This opinion is lately advocated in extenso by Dr. Conant (Book of Job, in loc.); while Dr. Thomson (Land and Book, i, 384 sq.) prefers to identify the Oriental buffalo with the Behemoth (q.v.) of Job ((xl, 15), on account of his wallowing in the mire and reeds of Jordan. See Ox; Bull." (link to "Buffalo" entry)(link to "Bull" entry)(link to Animal entry showing cladation of Reem)  The Ox and Unicorn entries were, of course, not included in the A, B volume.

Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature: (Vol. 7) NEW - PES (John McClintock, James Strong eds.)(1877) Under the entry for "Ox," there is a section on "Natural History of the Bovidae (chiefly from Kitto)," which explains (at the top of the left-hand column of p. 501) a potential connection between the Uri and Reem and speculates about a linguistic connection between them and points the reader to the entry on "Unicorn" (link to beginning of Ox entry)  The Unicorn entry was, of course, not included in this volume.

Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature: (Vol. 10) SU-Z (John McClintock, James Strong eds.)(1889) Under the Unicorn entry, the editors state: "Unicorn is the invariable but unfortunate rendering in the A.V. of a Heb. word which occurs nine times ...." The editors go on to mention the Scriptural characteristics of the Reem, Bochart's arguments and Boot's arguments, as well as those of Russel, Robinson, and Gesenius who "have little doubt" that a buffalo is the reem. The editors go on to state: "we think there can be no doubt that some species of wild-ox is intended," based on the Scriptural evidence. (link to start of Unicorn entry) The entry also directed the reader to the "Wild Bull" entry.  The entry even took note of the identification of the Rhinoceros with the Unicorn based on the work of Dr. Andrew Smith as well as the mailing to England of a trophy rhinoceros head by the missionary John Campbell, from South Africa.  (TurretinFan note: This is, of course, why the 1910 Oxford English Dictionary correctly notes that the unicorn (the fabulous beast) has sometimes been identified or confused with the Rhinoceros.  I've provided the illustration from this encyclopedia at right.)  The "wild bull" entry appears, in fact, to be a reference back to the Bull entry in Volume 1, as there is no separate entry for "Wild" anything in this volume.  (link to Mr. John Campbell's report regarding the alleged "Unicorn" from 1821)

Knight's "Pictorial Bible" (Vol. 2, 1837) suggested that the correct understanding of Reem is "buffalo" but also mentioned for the reader's interst "Campbell's Unicorn," the skull and horn of which were apparently deposited in the Museum of the London Missionary Society - the sketch is produced at right (Link to commentary at Job 39:9)  The commentary at Job 39:9, referred the reader to check out the reproduction of a rhinoceros at the commentary for Deuteronomy 33:17.  That commentary is found in Vol. 1, 1836, and has a woodcut of a Rhinoceros, with the label: "Unicorn"--Rhinoseros--Verse 17 (link to page)

Appendix 8 - Marginal Notes Additional Resources

John Mark Johnson's video from 2016 or so (link to video).  His video focuses on one example where the KJV translators performed textual criticism and noted the other possible reading in the margin and another example where the KJV translators relied on the Septuagint.  He also mentions Revelation 16:5 in this brief video.

Appendix 9 - Interesting Tidbits

Some sources indicate that Baal was sometimes worshipped as "Baal-reem," which is sometimes explained as meaning "lord of thunder." (secondary source, Arthur Young from 1734) Baal was typically depicted as a ram or bull, although sometimes as a human.

This also fits with other usage in Akkadian, Ugartic, and the like.  

Akkadian and Ugaritic evidence

Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Volume XIII (Eerdmans, 1974)(source)(excerpt)

Ge'ez (aka Aethiopic / Ethiopic) evidence:

Wolf Leslau's "Comparative Dictionary of Ge'ez" (link to source)

Note, by contrast, that there are several words distinctively for rhinoceros in Ge'ez:

(p. 48)

(p. 244)

(p. 291)

(p. 509)

(p. 732)

Arabic calls the Oryx (a type of gazelle) by the name, "reem," and indeed the Arabic name Reem ("ريم") is typically a woman's name, for which the stated meaning is gazelle.  Moreover, the Oryx does have very lofty horns.  So, it has been sometimes suggested that the correct understanding could be the Oryx, as Arabic and Hebrew are both Semitic languages. Compare the description of the Arabian sand gazelle (link) and Rhim gazelle (link).

Appendix 10 - Origins of the Unicorn

The image at right is from Joannes Jonstonus (1603-1675), an image created in 1655 (link to page of image).  Obviously of limited relevance to the 1611 KJV, except to demonstrate the continued view of the Unicorn as a possible viable real animal even in the mid-1600s.

In the linked blog post, Mimi Matthews provides an interesting account of the origins of the Unicorn (link to post).

History of Unicorn in Western Art (link to article from BBC)

Discussion of Beastiary books and their connection to botany (link to article).  The article mentions a myth related to beavers that Dr. Brown addresses in his "Vulgar Errors" book, mentioned above.

Discussion of some history of unicorns as related to the Middle East, with speculation regarding the Oryx as the potential basis for the myth of the Unicorn (link).

Interesting discussion of the artistic portrayal of unicorns as zoo animals: "The Schotts of Strassburg and the Their Press" in Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, Vol. 11 (1912) (pp. 180-81): "In this same year Schott moved his printing house to the place called "Zum Thiergarten" - the house in the warren - a curious name of which none of my German friends have been able to give me a satisfactory explanation. As I have found the word applied to an enclosure within a mediæval fortress I take it that in its old sense it means rather a paddock for cattle. By the 16th century apparently it had acquired its modern meaning of a zoological garden, for a border round a title page used in some of Schott's books, depicting a wood peopled with lions and other wild beasts, not excluding the unicorn, is said to allude to the Thiergarten.[FN1: Marks used by Prüss and Beck during their tenancy of the Thiergarten have the same play upon the name.]

Appendix 11 - Efforts at Re-Creating the Aurochs

The Aurochs went extinct in the 1600s, as far as we know (it seems unlikely that it has survived unnoticed).  There have been recent efforts to re-create the Aurochs, since it is believed to be related to numerous other cattle (link to study of effort).

Appendix 12 - Links to KJV Copies

High resolution scan of 1611 KJV (link to site)(second copy, apparently)

Appendix 13 - Unicorn History

Odell Shepherd (1884-1967) wrote "The Lore of the Unicorn," (available here)  Chapter 5 notes the interesting historical detail that although unicorns have been hard to find, unicorn horns have been abundant.

Shepherd traces the development of the lore of the unicorn starting with Ctesias (416 BC, p. 26), touching upon Aristotle's brief mention of it (p. 34).  The legend continued to grow during the five centuries from Aristotle to Aelian, according to Shepherd (p. 34).  Thus, Shepherd says: "Aristotle knew of only two unicorns, but Aelian and Pliny between them muster seven: the rhinoceros, the Indian ass, the oryx, the Indian ox, the Indian horse, the bison, and the unicorn proper and par excellence." (Ibid.)

Odell notes that "there is no reason to believe that the Hebrews themselves thought of this animal as one-horned." (p. 43)  Odell further notes: "After the general abandonment of belief in the unicorn during the eighteenth century there was a return to Jerome's view that the Re'em was the rhinoceros; but as this animal became better known it was felt that he was not fierce and swift enough, and there was doubt whether the Hebrews were likely to have known him." (p. 44)

Ultimately, while I could quibble over some of the details of Shepherd's work, it provides an excellent framework for someone wishing to advance the understanding of the history of the development of the unicorn legend, covering many of the points addressed in this post.

Chapter 5 of Shepherd's work discusses the unicorn horn (pp. 101-54).  Shepherd uses the word "alicorn" to describe the Unicorn's horn (not to be confused with a pegasus-unicorn hybrid in today's juvenile fiction).  Shepherd explains: "By the year 1600 Europe and England contained at least a dozen famous alicorns that were known to all travellers, were frequently exhibited on state occasions to the people, and were carefully described again and again. Most of these were kept in great churches or monasteries. They were regarded as sacred objects, and were sometimes used as pontifical staffs." (p. 105)

Unicorn's horn was also thought to have medicinal value, and quacks took advantage of this fact.  An advertisement of these wares is reproduced by Shepherd at plate XI (after page 128), which I've partially shown at right.  You can see from the shape that the horn (as well as the text) that the claim here is "true" Unicorns Horn. (a partial transcription is here)

Incidentally, Shepherd cites Andrea Marini for the idea that "the rhinoceros horn had no reputation whatever in his time except that which it owed to the unicorn," but then goes on to suggest that some cups made from rhinoceros horn were of value at that time. (p. 133)

Apparently walrus tusks were one of the materials passed off as unicorn horn (p. 133).

Unicorn Horn (Additional comments, discussion, materials) 

Discussion of a unicorn's horn that was kept in the Tower of London and highly valued (in the Oxford Reference Dictionary of English Folklore

Discussion of the Tower's Unicorn Horn and the alleged medicinal benefits of unicorn's horn (link).  The article also discusses some of the myths and legends of the unicorn.  The article illustrates a unicorn statue that can be found outside Parliament in London.

I got excited by this claim that another(?) unicorn horn was recovered under the White Tower at the Tower of London by folks doing maintenance work (March 31, 2011).  However, as the article notes, this was posted as an April Fools effort.

Unicorn Watermarks

The gist of these references is that unicorns were used as watermarks in paper in the 15th and 16th centuries.  There are many more such references.  As stated in Paper, volume 28 (1921) (link): "The unicorn appears in watermarks throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in numerous forms, both in full body and head alone."

Laurentius, Th. and Frans (2018) "Watermarks in Paper from the South-West of France, 1560-1860" (p. 7

Acts of the Lords of Council 1501-1503 (Calderwood; Scottish Records Office) (Appendix, pp. xxxix, xl, xli, xliii; see discussion at p. xxxviii)

"Notes on English Books Printed Abroad, 1525-48" in Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, Vol. 11 (1912) (p. 222 and 230)

Appendix 14 - Reem Resources

Article on the Re'em in Beit Mikra: Journal for the Study of the Bible and Its World (link).

Answers in Genesis Article on the Unicorn - "Chapter 32 Unicorns in the Bible" which discusses the Aurochs as one of the explanations for the word, Reem (link).

Article on the Reem from the Jounral of Biblical Literature, pointing out that the Reem is not a unicorn or a large antelope, but an aurochs or mountain-bull (link to article).

Appendix 15 - Pelicans and Cormorants

This should probably be in a different post on the margins in the KJV, but the KJV identifies cormorant as the main text reading at Isaiah 34:11, but lists pelican as the alternative reading.  These are similar animals as evidenced by the following link (link).  The uncertainty as to which is intended by the Hebrew word should cause no one any heartburn, except for the error-free KJV folks.  Other translations have suggested some very different animals from those provided in the KJV (see this list).  As with the improvement of the translation of "Unicorn" these changes are neither theologically motivated, nor theologically significant.

Appendix 16 - Jewish Resources

The Jewish Encyclopedia has a number of interesting entries that are broadly related to the topic of the Reem. They are as follows:

  • Unicorn  
  • Ox or Bullock (note the: See Unicorn)
  • Ark of Noah (note the curious legend about the Reem having to be tied to the outside of the ark)
  • David (note the curious legend of David climbing up a Reem, thinking the Reem was a mountain)

The above are mostly for curiosity sake, though they do highlight the fact that even Jewish studies generally point toward the Reem being a giant bull, which fits best with the Aurochs.

Appendix 17 - ??

John Lightfoot's 13 volume set of works only seem to refer to unicorns in one place (vol. 5, p. 312, discussing Hebrews 5:7), and there without any comment on the word "unicorn" as such.

Hough Broughton (1540-1612) was excluded from the King James version translation committee (and was apparently critical of the final product), although he had proposed a revision committee as early as 1597 ("An Epistle to the learned Nobilitie of England, touching translating the Bible from the Original").  Nevertheless, some have suggested that the King James translators adopted his translation of Job in portions.  Job 39:9-10, at least as it regards the question of "unicorn" lines up with Broughton (link to Broughton's translation of Job from 1610).

Henry Ainsworth (1571- c. 1622), "Annotations Upon the Five Books of Moses, the Book of the Psalmes and the Song of Songs" (1639)(link to source).  Henry Ainsworth was a leader of the separatist congregation at Amsterdam (link to his bio).  He was noted for his scholarship, though it appears he did not graduate one of the leading universities of the day (though he may have attended Cambridge for a time). According to Roger Williams: "That most despised (while living) and now much honoured Mr. Ainsworth had scarce his peere amongst a thousand academicians, and yet he scarce set foot within a colledge walls." (Muller has a chapter on his relation to Protestant Exegesis)  According to one paper (link to paper), Henry Ainsworth was perfectly fluent in both Old Testament and Rabbinic Hebrew.  Exiled under the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I for his separatist, Anti-Anglican views, he was not among the King James translators.  Nevertheless, as an Englishman (he was born in Norfolk) and a professing Christian from the time period, his comments reflect an understanding of English.  He also had a degree of freedom to say what he wanted, since he was already in exile in the Netherlands.

The jewel of Ainsworth's work was his Annotations, which continued to be published after his death.  The copy I found is from 1639, which is the date of publication, although obviously not the date of original composition, since he passed away in 1622 or 1623.

Ainsworth had the opportunity to comment on several places where the King James translators rendered Reem as Unicorn. His comments on Numbers 23:22 (and other unicorn-related Old Testament passages) can be found at pages 153 and 154 of the section on the Pentateuch (with a brief mention at 24:8 on page 157).   Ainsworth makes the connection between magical powers of the Unicorn and the "enchantment" in verse 23.  Psalm 22 is discussed at page 38 of the section on the Psalms, and Psalm 29 is discussed at page 47 of the same section. 

Ainsworth notes a textual variant issue at Psalm 78:69, where the Masoretic text has "Ramim" (High places), the Greek and Chaldee apparently have translated as Unicorns based, as Ainsworth suggests, on reading instead "Remim" (the plural of Reem).

Ainsworth does not place Unicorns in the main text at Psalm 92:11 and notes that the Chaldee instead of rendering "horn," renders "strength." 

Ainsworth does not mention rhinoceroses.  


Adam Clarke (1817?) in his Biblical commentary, suggests that the Arabic word "reim" refers to the rhinoceros (link to 1821 source) (link to 1825 source)(link to 1836 source).  Everything else I've seen suggests that the Arabic word actually refers to a gazelle or oryx.  Thomas Harwell Horne made the same claim in the fifth edition to his "Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures," in 1825 (link to source).  He may be Clarke's source, but neither he nor Clarke cite any authority for this claim.  James Grey Jackson (1809) makes the same claim in "An Account of the Empire of Marocco" (link to 1809 printing).  The reader may notice the similarity between "Kirkadune" (which he says is the Arabic name for the horn of the Rhino) and Karkadann (link to Karkadann entry) Jackson proposes the interesting idea that the name "Huaddee" (which he says is another name for the rhinoceros) sounds like the name for "mare" and may have led to a mix-up in the description. In any event, my best guess for Clarke's misleading claim is that he or Horne or both read it in Jackson.

In the 1817 edition of Clark's work, at Numbers 23:22, he comments on the word Reem: "Septuagint  translate  the  word  [monokeros],  the  unicorn,  or  one- horned  animal ;  the  Vulgate,  sometimes,  unicornus ;  and  in the  text  rhinocerotis,  by  which  the  rhinoceros,  a  creature whitch  has  its  name  from  the  horn  on  its  nose,  is  supposed  to be  meant.  That  no  single-horned  animal  can  be  intended  by  the reem of  Moses,  is  sufficiently  evident  from  this,  that  Moses, speaking  of  Joseph,  says,  "  he  has  the  HORNS  of  A  unicorn," or  reem;  where  the  horns  are  spoken  of  in  the  plural,  the animal  in  the  singular.  The  creature  referred  to  is  either  the rhinoceros,  some  varieties  of  which  have  two  horns  on  the  nose, or  the  wild  bull,  urus,  or  buffulo :  though  some  think  the  beast intended  is  a  species  of  goat ;  but  the  rhinoceros  seems  the  most likely." (link to source)  His comment on  Deuteronomy 33:17 is reproduced at right (source of Deuteronomy commentary). 

Heironymous Megiser (1603) provided a Thesaurus Polyglottus that has an entry for "Rhinoceros" with "Hebr. Reem, rem." as one of the meanings, but with the usual English (Ang.) meaning. (link to source) Hundreds of pages later, Megiser's entry for "Unicornis" does not have a Hebrew word associated, though it does have the Greek "monokeros" and many other European languages including, naturally: "that that one borne, a unicorne." (link to source)

John Rider's Dictionary (1640) similarly seems to distinguish between unicorn and rhinoceros (link to rhinoceros entry).

Contrary to Horne/Clarke 's view on Arabic, this Arabic dictionary (1806) lists karg (and various forms thereof) as the Arabic equivalent of rhinoceros (link to entry).  Note that this kind of horn is thought to react to poison.  

Likewise, contrary to Horne/Clark, Thomas Scott (1771) in his commentary on Job 39:9 argues that the Arab Reem is a kind of roe, but that the Hebrew word Reem most likely means "wild bull" (link to source).

Thomas Bartholini (1st ed. 1645 - 2nd ed. 1678) (lived 1616-1680) published: "De Unicornu Observationes Novae" (new observations on the Unicorn).  Writing in Latin, Batholini provides an interesting discussion of various one-horned things, before arriving at "Monocerotis veri nomina" (the bizarre illustration at right is from the midst of his chapter on things called Rhinoceros). Durer's Rhino makes an appearance in the next chapter at p. 172 (erroneously labeled 272 in the book) under the description of the Rhinoceros.  The unicorn's horn illustrated later in the work is what one expect of the usual description of a Unicorn (shown below the bizarre illustration).  While his work is thorough, it merely serves to show the emerging state of the science of zoology at that time, particularly as it relates to cryptozoology.

John Fryer (1698) in his "A new account of East-India and Persia" (documenting travels from 1672 to 1682) in the section, "Travels into Persian" states: "Whether the Rhinoceros be the Unicorn, I suspend my belief, since I have seen an Horn turned with Furrows and Ridges from the Basis to the Point, and Tapering like that of our King's Arms ..." (link to source).  I mention this here mostly because as you can see, it's a great verbal description of Bartholini's unicorn horn illustration.

A pharmacy handbook, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis; or, the New London Dispensatory. In six books ... Also, the Praxis of Chymistry ... Third edition, corrected (1685), book 2, chapter 2, p. 220 describes the traditional Unicorn's horn, asserts its efficacy, and claims that Scripture demonstrates that unicorns are real. (link to page)  I have not investigated the years of the earlier editions.

For Future Study:

When was "wild bull" first added to the Margin?  It was there by the 1690s.

I have found very little from Luther relative to the subject.  It appears he took note of the fact that the unicorn and rhinoceros were believed to be different animals (link to the most relevant place).  In most places, he favored the German equivalent of unicorn.

Elasmotherium probably did not have a gigantic horn as is sometimes proposed (link to 2021 study so concluding).  

This is a work in progress.


Strong's listing of places where "unicorn" is found in the KJV (link to p. 233 of original 1890 edition). Link to Strong's entry for Hebrew word 7214 (link to p. 106 of the original 1890 edition), which says: "from 7213; a wild bull (from its conspicuousness):—unicorn."  As explained in the preface (link here) the material after the "—" is "all the different renderings of the word int he Authorized English Version, aka the KJV.  It is not the meaning of the word according to Prof. James Strong (link to biography of Strong).


Elisha Cole's English-Latin and Latin-English Dictionary (1679) lists "an Unicorn" as the English definition for the Latin word "Rhinoceros, otis" (link to source). 

John Maplet (d. 1592) had a section:

Of Rhinoceros.

RHinoceros in Gréeke is interpreted horned beast or Monoceron, and is englished the Vnicorne. Plinie in his .viij. booke saith, that his Horne is set aboue his nostrils. His continuall strife is with the Elephant, & vseth to defend himself thus. Whē he seeith his enimie come, he whetteth his Horne against sharpe stones, & then setteth on: and in his fight wardeth and foyneth at the Elephant his bellye, the most tender part that he hath, and so riddeth him.

as found in "A greene forest, or A naturall historie vvherein may bee seene first the most sufferaigne vertues in all the whole kinde of stones & mettals: next of plants, as of herbes, trees, [and] shrubs, lastly of brute beastes, foules, fishes, creeping wormes [and] serpents, and that alphabetically: so that a table shall not neede. Compiled by Iohn Maplet, M. of Arte, and student in Cambridge: entending hereby yt God might especially be glorified: and the people furdered. Anno 1567." (source)  Naturally, Maplet does not have a separate section on the Unicorn. (Original)

Regarding a Unicorn and its fighting ability, Thomas Blague (d. 1611) in his fables (allegedly translated out of various Latin and Greek authors) wrote:

124 Of a Leopard and an Vnicorne fighting with a Dragon.

THe Leopard sometime fought with ye Dragon, against whome (bycause he could not preuayle) he besought the Vni∣corne to ayde him, and sayd: Thou art a goodly beast, expert in fighting & valiaūt, wherfore I pray thée helpe me. The Vni∣corne hearing this commendatiō of him∣self, aunswered: Thou sayst truthe, for I haue skill in fighting, and therfore I wil valiauntly defende thée, for when ye Dra∣gon shall open his mouthe, I will thrust him into the throte with my horne. Whē they were both come to the Dragon, the Leopard gaue the onset, trusting to the strength of the Vnicorne, but the Dragō fought with them & spit fire at them. The Vnicorne séeing him open his mouth ran hastely to thrust him through, but he cast his head at one side, whereby ye Vnicorne missing him, smot his horne fast into the ground and died.

A schole of wise conceytes vvherin as euery conceyte hath wit, so the most haue much mirth, set forth in common places by order of the alphabet. Translated out of diuers Greke and Latine wryters, by Thomas Blage student of the Queenes Colledge in Cambridge. (source)(pub. 1569)

Richard Huloet (fl. 1570-1602.) provided the following entry for Unicorn:

  • Vnicorne, a beaste with one horne. Vnicornis, Vni∣cornius, Monoceros, tis. Ab antiquioribus Asi∣nus vel Onager, vel Equus Indicus appellatur. Vnicorne ou vne licorne. S.

Huloets dictionarie newelye corrected, amended, set in order and enlarged, vvith many names of men, tovvnes, beastes, foules, fishes, trees, shrubbes, herbes, fruites, places, instrumentes &c. And in eche place fit phrases, gathered out of the best Latin authors. Also the Frenche therevnto annexed, by vvhich you may finde the Latin or Frenche, of anye English woorde you will. By Iohn Higgins late student in Oxeforde. (1572)

Thomas Cooper's Latin-English dictionary has different entries for Rhinoceros and Unicorn, although (interestingly enough) citing Pliny for both.

Here is the entry for Rhinoceros (source):


pen. co. rhinocerôtis, pe. pr. m. g.

Plin.A beast enimy to the Elephant, and hath an horne in his snonte bend∣ing vpwarde.

The emtry for Unicorn is here (source):

Vnicornis, huius vnicornis, m. ge. siue Vnicornius, vnicornij, vel Vnicorniū, vnicornij.

Pli.The beast called an Vnicorne.

Thesaurus linguæ Romanæ & Britannicæ tam accurate congestus, vt nihil penè in eo desyderari possit, quod vel Latinè complectatur amplissimus Stephani Thesaurus, vel Anglicè, toties aucta Eliotæ Bibliotheca: opera & industria Thomæ Cooperi Magdalenensis. ... Accessit dictionarium historicum et poëticum propria vocabula virorum, mulierum, sectarum, populorum, vrbium, montium, & cæterorum locorum complectens, & in his iucundissimas & omnium cognitione dignissimas historias. (Cooper, Thomas, 1517?-1594.)(pub. 1578)

(link to Batman upon Bartholomew 1582) which includes "De Rinocerote. ca. 90." and the marginal correction by Batman: "*. The Rino¦cerot is one, and the Vni∣corne an other"(source)

Calvin's Sermons on Deuteronomy (as translated into English) include Deuteronomy 33:17 (link to source). The sermons of M. Iohn Caluin vpon the fifth booke of Moses called Deuteronomie faithfully gathered word for word as he preached them in open pulpet; together with a preface of the ministers of the Church of Geneua, and an admonishment made by the deacons there. Also there are annexed two profitable tables, the one containing the chiefe matters; the other the places of Scripture herein alledged. Translated out of French by Arthur Golding. Calvin, Jean, 1509-1564., Golding, Arthur, 1536-1606., Fleming, Abraham, 1552?-1607., Ragueneau, Denys. (Pub. 1583)

An Italian-English Dictionary has the following entries for the following Italian words:


a great beast or monster called a horne nose, hauing a horne in his snout bending vpwards, and is a great enemie to the elephant.


the beast called an vnicorne.

A vvorlde of wordes, or Most copious, and exact dictionarie in Italian and English, collected by Iohn Florio (Florio, John, 1553?-1625.) (pub. 1598)

The Annals of Great Britain is a poem to the glory of Brittania:

In yonder woodie groue and fertile plaine,

Remaines the Leopard and the watrie Badger,

The Bugle or wild Oxe doth there remaine,

The Onocentaure and the cruell Tyger,

The Dromidu•y and the princely Lion,

The Bore, the Elephant, and the poisnous Dragon.


The strong neck'd Bull that neuer f•lt the yoke,

The Cat, the Dog, the Wolfe, and cruell Viper,

The lurking Hare that pretie sport prouokes,

The Goatebucke, Hedgehogge and the swift foote P•nther,

The Horse, Cameleopard and strong pawd Beare,

The Ape, the Asse▪ and the most fearefull Deare.


The Mouse, the Mule, the Sow and Salamander,

That from the burning fire cannot liue,

The Weasell, Cammell and the hunted Beauer,

That in pursute away his stones doth giue:

The Stellio,  Camelion and Vnicorne,

That doth expell hot poison with his Hor•e.

The anuals [sic] of great Brittaine. Or, A most excellent monument wherein may be seene all the antiquities of this kingdome, to the satisfac ion both of the vniuersities, or any other place stirred with emulation of long continuance. Excellently figured out in a worthy poem. (Chester, Robert, 1566-1640., Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. aut, Jonson, Ben, 1573?-1637. aut, Chapman, George, 1559?-1634. aut, Marston, John, 1575?-1634. aut)(p. 108)(source)

John Calvin's Sermons on Job:

After mention made of wilde Asses, hee speaketh of Vni∣cornes, or some other such kinde of beast: how bee it men commonly agree that it is the Vnicorne which is spoken [ 40] of here. It is sayd, that the Vnicornes will not be in subiection too vs, and that wee cannot occupie them as wee do Oxen and Horses and Asses: nor by any meanes tame them, that they might till the ground, or drawe home our corne into the •••ne, or vnto the threshingfloore. Sith it is so, let vs vnderstand that it is not for vs too ouerrule Gods workes: wee may well streyne our selues to it, but we shall neuer bring it to passe. For if wee cannot tame a wilde Asse or some other wood beast: how shall we rule the whole worlde? And if wee cannot do that: how dare wee lift vp our neb against [ 50] our maker, who hath ordered all things with such wise∣dome, as no fault can be foūd with him?  (p. 780)

Now after that mention hath beene made in that sort of the wilde Asses: by and by there is speaking of the Vnicornes, which is a matter like vnto the other. God sayeth that the Vnicorne cannot bee tamed: that wee cannot vse him to our commoditie: that although be be strong and light, yet will bee not till the earth at our plea∣sure, nor drawe the plough, nother will be draw the carte to bring home come into the barne: too be short, hee is not too serue mans turne, but altogither for himselfe. Heere wee haue to note, first of all, that whereas the beasts do vs ser∣uice, it is bicause God tameth them, and putteth them in∣to our hands, to the end wee should inioy them. And for proofe thereof, why doth a horse suffer himselfe too bee ruled by a man, and draw the plough or the harrowes, and carie a rider or other burthen on his backe? How happe∣neth it that men do breake Mules, Asses, and Oxen? For a horse is strong ynough to withstand a man, and wee see hee is a stoute and coragious beast. Howe then doth man get the maystrie of him? And surely if a man were not ac∣quaynted with the taming of Oxen, their hornes were a terrible thing too look• vpon: the very shaking of their head were ynough 〈…〉 abashe a man: their great eyes and thicke neckes [would agast him:] and if they should bend their hornes at him, they were ynough too runne him through if he came neere them. Againe we see what huge bodies they haue. And how could men haue any vse of them, if it pleased not God too giue vs the maystrie of them? For as well might the Vnicornes be tamed as hor∣ses and oxen, if God had not giuen them that [diuerse] nature. So then let vs behold Gods goodnesse in apply∣ing those beasts to our seruice, which otherwise were able to amase vs with their only looke, so as we durst not come neere them. A little childe will rule oxen, in somuch that when they be accustomed to the yoke, he shall keepe thē there with a little sticke, hee shall make them bow downe their thicke neckes, and stoupe with their brode hornes, and (to be short) he shall weelde them in such sorte that whereas they were able too beare downe all things afore them, there shall be no resistance at all. Sith wee see this, let vs acknowledge that God hath shewed himself boun∣tifull towardes vs, seing hee hath after that maner made such beasts subiect to vs, as were able to haue made vs a∣frayde (as I sayd afore) and will neuerthelesse haue them apply themselues too our seruice, so as menne may tame them. Beholde, the Elephant is tamed, which is a passing terrible beast: for the very looke of him ouercommeth all other beasts. Truly he is as a mountayne, and seemeth too serue of purpose to destroy vs: and yet notwithstan∣ding▪ when he is subdued, he becōmeth after a sort tame: not that hee keepeth not still some incling of his owne kinde: but yet is it a wonder to vs that mā can after some maner ouermayster him, and make him too serue their turne. On the contrary part, the Vnicorne being but a small beast, and hauing no more but a certaine nimble∣nesse in him, keepeth alwayes his sturdinesse, in somuch that all the men in the world cannot by their cunning and strength bring him to subiection. Sith wee see this, let vs be conuicted at leastwise by such comparison. And when [ 10] we haue learned to acknowledge Gods goodnesse in that he applieth the beasts to our vse and profite, which do vs seruice: lette vs marke also on the other side, that it were not in vs too rule a Snayle, (as ye would say) if our Lord did not giue vs power ouer him. True it is that at the Creation of the worlde all beasts were giuen vnto Adam to haue Lordship and dominion ouer them. But we haue lost the possession thereof in that we be gone away from God, like as when a subiect committeth any lewdnesse or treason agaynst his Prince, his goods are forfeyted and he [ 20] himselfe is quite out of fauour. Euen so is it with all men. For we should haue reigned peasably ouer all beasts, if we had not beene vnthankefull to our God, in breaking the allegeance which wee ought vnto him. That then is the cause why wee be bereft of the Lordship and souerayntie which was giuen vs ouer all beasts. Nowe seing that the beasts should rise vp against vs, and wee could not inioy them, but that God reserueth the vse of them vntoo vs, yea and subdueth some of them too vs according as wee haue neede of them: thereby wee be warned, that it is an [ 30] exceeding great madnesse for vs too lift vp our selues a∣gainst our maker, and that the beasts can well ouermaister vs if neede require, and God needeth not to arme the Li∣ons or Vnicornes, but can giue vs battell by lyce and fleas if hee thinke good, and so make a scorne of all our pryde. (pp. 781-82)

Sermons of Master Iohn Caluin, vpon the booke of Iob. Translated out of French by Arthur Golding (Calvin, Jean, 1509-1564., Golding, Arthur, 1536-1606. [London]: Imprinted by [Henry Bynneman for] Lucas Harison and George Byshop, [1574])

Richard Brett, KJV Translator:


Richard Brett's translation included a section on the Rhinoceros:

(Greek, pp. 42-45; Latin pp. 49-50)