Unicorns are not mythological creatures

New fossil evidence shows that an animal, which could be described as a unicorn, once lived on earth. Quite apart from any folklore about magical horses this means the use of the word ‘unicorn’ in early English translations of the Bible is valid.

Like giants, dragons and cockatrices, as it now turns out unicorns also are not mythological creatures. I believe the notion developed that these are mythological stems from the assumption, born from disbelief, that the Bible is not an accurate record of either history nor of science.

I have already examined the claim that giants, dragons and cockatrices are mythological. Here I examine the claim that unicorns are mythological. And it may surprise you to find that they are not the product of an overactive imagination as people have believed. But we must first separate out the facts from the fiction, which may have developed from folklore, where they are alleged to have had wings and magical powers.

Unicorn

Figure 1: The unicorn isn’t just a myth, but it didn’t look like this either. Credit: GETTY (modified).

The word ‘unicorn(s)’ is mentioned in the King James English Bible many times. See Numbers 23:22 and 24:8 states “He [literally Hebrew El, meaning God] has as it were the strength of an unicorn” (KJVER). It was an extremely strong animal. Deuteronomy 33:17 mentions “the horns of unicorns”, which may indicate a two-horned animal. In Psalms 92:10 we read “But my horn shall You [God] exalt like the horn of an unicorn:” (KJVER). Here it had a single horn. And in Isaiah 34:7 the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; …” (KJV).  Also it is mentioned in Job 39:9,10 and Psalms 22:21, 29:6.

The Hebrew word רְאֵם (r’em) is translated ‘unicorn’ in the earliest English translations. In other (old) language translations: Greek ‘μονοκερωτος’ (LXX, Septuagint, 200-300 BC), Latin ‘monocerotis’ (Jerome’s Biblia Sacra Vulgata Latina, or Latin Vulgate, 405 AD), German ‘Einhorns’ (Luther, 1545), Italian ‘liocorno’ (IDB, Giovanni Diodati Bibbia, 1649). Each of these may be translated ‘unicorn’.

The Hebrew word r’em is given the meaning ‘wild bull’ in the Mickelson’s Enhanced Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary. And in recent Bible translations it generally translated as ‘ox’ (BBE) ‘wild ox’ (ERV, ASV, NKJV, ISV) or ‘strong bull’ (NET) and in footnotes a synonym is sometimes given as a ‘wild bull’.

The Siberian unicorn

Towards the end of March 2016 the internet was a buzz with news that a newly discovered fossil was the remains of the famous unicorn.1-5 The stories state that a well-preserved fossilized skull found in Kazakhstan reveals that the unicorn was still alive and walking this earth a mere 29,000 years ago, according to evolutionary dating. The research was published in March in the American Journal of Applied Sciences.6 The researchers found remains of an extinct creature that had a single horn as shown in Fig. 2 (taken from Fig. 6 of their research paper).

Horn stem

Figure 2: Horn stem (taken from Fig. 6 Ref. 6)

Elasmotherium sibiricum (its scientific name) was thought to have vanished 350,000 years ago, but discovery of well-preserved skull indicates a somewhat more recent extinction. If we then take into account the global flood in Noah’s day, and the concomitant biblical dating scheme, divorced from evolutionary assumptions,7 it is reasonable to believe the fossil is further evidence of the global inundation. It is even possible that that the fossil resulted from some post-flood catastrophe.

A reconstruction of the animal, Elasmotherium sibiricum or the Siberian unicorn, from fossil evidence, as painted by Heinrich Harder, is shown in Fig. 3.

Painting of the Elasmotherium sibiricum or the ‘Siberian unicorn’ by Heinrich Harder. Credit: Public Domain

Figure 3: Painting of the Elasmotherium sibiricum or the Siberian unicorn. Credit: Public Domain

Elasmotherium-sibiricum-siberian-unicorn-002.jpg.838x0_q80

Figure 4: A Siberian unicorn’s reconstructed skull and horn. A two-horned (top) and one-horned (bottom) animal are shown. Credit: Ghedoghedo/Wikipedia. Image source.

Figure 4 shows a reconstruction of the skull and horn. From this it is easy to imagine some extinct rhinoceros type creature. One online article stated (my emphases added),3

After years of believing unicorns were nothing more than mystical fairytale creatures, researchers just definitively proved that they did actually exist — though, not as pretty horses with pearly white manes, wings, and horns.

Thanks to a newly discovered skull fossil found in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan, we now know that the unicorn — or “Elasmotherium sibiricum” — roamed the planet roughly 29,000 years ago and looked more like a rhinoceros than a horse.

The study … also revealed that these unicorns stood about six feet tall, measured 15 feet long, and weighed around 8,000 pounds— much larger than the horses we imagined them to be. The discovery is a total shock to scientists who initially thought they had gone extinct 350,000 years ago.

“Most likely, the south of Western Siberia was a [refuge], where this rhino had preserved the longest in comparison with the rest of the range,” Tomsk State University scientist Andrei Shpanksy noted in the research.

That means the Siberian unicorn stood nearly 2 metres tall, measured 4.5 metres long, and weighed about 3.6 tonnes. That means it was more like a woolly mammoth-sized ‘horse’. It would have had to have a very heavy bone structure to support that weight, and would have been very strong. No wonder the expression, in reference to God delivering the children of Israel from Egypt, used in Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, was “He has as it were the strength of an unicorn.” (my emphasis added)

But the Siberian unicorn may have been nothing more than just a glorified modern rhinoceros, and it is possible that contact with humans can explain the origin of the legend. Apparently Marco Polo’s called the Javan rhinoceros a unicorn because he didn’t know what else to call it. Perhaps the unicorn myth developed from the later embellishment of some genuine post-flood knowledge of living Siberian unicorns (rhinos) or even the discovery of some fossilized Elasmotherium sibiricum skull(s). This may have been in a similar manner to how some dragon myths developed from direct knowledge of or historical records of real live dinosaurs.

The word used for the Hebrew word r’em (translated unicorn in English in Psalms 92:10 and elsewhere) in the Greek Septuagint (LXX),8 — translated by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt between 300-200 BC — is μονοκερωτος (monokerotos). That word is found in the Latin Vulgate as monocerotis. Mono means ‘one’ and kerotos means ‘horn’. The English word ‘keratin’ (meaning a fibrous protein forming the main structural constituent of hair, feathers, hoofs, claws, horns, etc) is derived from this. So, possibly as far back as 2300 years it was understood to be some sort of one-horned animal, and when it came time for the translators of the early English Bibles, including the KJV the translators, to translate r’em they looked to the Septuagint.

This new fossil discovery, as exciting as it is, does not undermine the prior belief and knowledge that the Hebrew word r’em (or Greek monokerotos) was not validly translated ‘unicorn’, and understood to be some type of rhinoceros. There are currently five extant rhino species and amongst them are both single-horned and two-horned types.

Conclusion

When we put on the biblical glasses and look at the meaning of the Hebrew word r’em, translated as unicorn in early English Bibles, it is easy to see that it was once a real creature that had attributes similar to a very large 4-tonne woolly rhino, as an adult anyway. It may have come in both a single-horned and a double-horned variety. God used its strength as an analogy to His own in delivering the children of Israel from their Egyptian taskmasters.

Certainly the folklore of a winged magical horse has little to do with the real science of the unicorn but that is not what we find in the biblical texts. As with the disbelief in the existence of real dragons, it is only because of evolutionary thinking that the real unicorn has been discredited. But no more! It’s back! There now exists good fossil evidence that a creature that fits the requirements of a unicorn once lived in Western Siberia. It is therefore probable that the ancients had knowledge of this animal, which has since become extinct. Besides other rhino species have been around for as long as history records. Real unicorns are not mythological creatures.

References

  1. Josh Hrala, A fossilised skull has revealed when the last ‘Siberian unicorn’ lived on Earth, Science Alert, March 27, 2016.
  2. Rachel Dicker, Unicorns Were Real, and a New Fossil Shows When They Lived, U.S. News, March 28, 2016.
  3. Kayla Keegan, Yes, Unicorns Were Real — and Now We Have the Fossils to Prove It, Good Housekeeping, March 29, 2016.
  4. Juliet Perry, Real ‘Siberian unicorn’ remains found, CNN, March 29, 2016.
  5. Ellen Brait, Extinct ‘Siberian unicorn’ may have lived alongside humans, fossil suggests, The Guardian, March 30, 2016.
  6. Andrei V. Shpansky, Valentina N. Aliyassova and Svetlana A. Ilyina, The Quaternary Mammals from Kozhamzhar Locality (Pavlodar Region, Kazakhstan), American Journal of Applied Sciences, 13(2):189-199, 2016; PDF available here.
  7. No absolute dating of fossils is ever attempted as the only relevant radioactive species available is carbon-14 (14C) and that is assumed invalid due to its short half-life (about 5730 years). Therefore it is alleged that any remaining 14C would have to be modern contamination. Fossils instead are dated by the sedimentary layers they are found in and these are determined by evolutionary story telling. Hence the ages in the articles and the research paper. (Carbon-14 dating the bone would be a good idea though.)
  8. The earliest extant Greek translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew.

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