Mythological and Mysterious Creatures in the KJV


Unicorns make an appearance nine times in the KJV. Here's the verses, compared with some popular versions:

Numbers 23:22unicornwild oxwild oxwild oxwild ox
Numbers 24:8unicornwild oxwild oxwild oxwild ox
Deuteronomy 33:17unicornswild oxwild oxwild oxwild ox
Job 39:9unicornwild oxwild oxwild oxwild ox
Job 39:10unicornhimwild oxwild oxit
Psalms 22:21unicornswild oxenwild oxenwild oxenwild oxen
Psalms 29:6unicornwild oxwild oxwild oxwild ox
Psalms 92:10unicornwild oxwild oxwild oxwild ox
Isaiah 34:7unicornswild oxenwild oxenwild oxenwild oxen

Small side note: The Spanish RV 1909, which some KJV-only supporters claim is the God's only word in Spanish, has "unicorn" in Deut 14:5 where the KJV has "pygarg" (get out your fallible dictionaries to help you understand the infallible translation, everyone!). All 9 other verses above also have unicorns in the Spanish RV 1909.

A Look at the Hebrew

The Hebrew word translated "unicorn" in the KJV is "reem" (Strong's #7214, and defined as a "wild bull" in Strong's Dictionary). Its exact identity is not known. The "wild ox", the rhino, the "unicorn", and various other creatures (bison, antelope, etc) have been suggested. Perhaps this word is one of the cases the KJV translators had in mind when they said,

" 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...".

Deut 33:17 - A Big Piece of the Puzzle

In the comparison chart above, you'll see that the KJV has "unicorns" (PLURAL), while the other translations have "wild ox" (SINGULAR - "oxen" is the plural as in Psa 22:21). Why the difference? The answer is simple. In the Hebrew, the word is SINGULAR. But notice the verse says "the horns of unicorns" (KJV). In other words, in the Hebrew, the horns are plural while the creature is singular. It appears the KJV translators saw the contradiction this would create by using the singular "unicorn", so instead of using a different creature, they pluralized the word! Thus, in there effort to retain the identity of the unicorn while eliminating a "contradiction", they in fact produced two changes in this verse within the same word:

A Look at the Greek

However, when we look at the Septuagint (LXX - the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the early church), we see something quite interesting! In all nine verses above, the LXX supports the idea of a single-horned creature, using the word "monokeros" (derived "mono-" meaning "singular" or "one", and "keras" meaning "horn"). Thus, the idea of this creature being a single-horned creature is very old. But should it be translated "unicorn"? There are other single-horned animals that qualify as a "monokeros", as we shall see below. It should be remembered though, that a single-horned creature seems to create the Deut 33:17 problem mentioned above.

The Wild Ox?

Most versions around today have "wild ox" or something similar, in the verses above. This is due largely in part to Deut 33:17 as mentioned above - the creature in question has more than one horn.

Both Easton's Bible Dictionary and Unger's Bible Dictionary say the Hebrew reem was a two-horned animal, most likely a now-extict wild ox of some sort. Easton's also says "The word thus rendered has been found in an Assyrian inscription written over the wild ox or bison".

The Rhinoceros?

Indian Rhinoceros One popular idea as to the identity of this creature, when trying to find one-horned animals, is the rhinoceros - specifically the greater Indian rhinoceros or the Javan rhino (the white rhino, the black rhino and the Sumatran rhino all have two horns). In fact, the Genus and Species of the Indian rhino is Rhinoceros unicornis. "Rhinoceros" is derived from "rhino-" (nose) and the Greek "keros" (horn).

Also of interest is a marginal note made by the KJV translators. On Isa 34:7, they put a marginal note indicating the "Unicorn" may be a Rhinoceros:
Isa 34:7 in 1611 KJV

The Latin Vulgate, the "standard" for almost 1000 years (~400 A.D. to ~1400 A.D.), also lends support to the Rhinoceros idea. In Num 23:22, Num 24:8, Deut 33:17, Job 39:9, Job 39:10 the Vulgate has rhinoceros (and thus perhaps the reason for the KJV translators marginal note). Isa 34:7 is the only instance in the Vulgate of unicorn. Also note that the English word "unicorn" is derived from Latin - Latin "unus" (one) and Latin "cornu" (horn). Technically, in Latin any one-horned creature (not just a horse) is a "unicornes".

Lastly, rhinos can have one or two horns depending on Species, as mentioned above. This may allow for the creature in the Bible to have been a general "rhinoceros", for some verses make it sound like possibly a single-horned animal, and others have a two-horned animal (Deut 33:17, mentioned above).

The Narwhal?

The narwhal is another example of a single-horned creature that has been suggested - its single horn usually ranges from 5 to 8 feet. It is a sea creature that has been nicknamed the "whale unicorn". Its Genus and Species is Monodon monoceros (remember the Septuagint's "monokeros" from above?)

However, the possibility of the creature in question being a narwhal is incredibly doubtful for the following reasons:
  • The creature in scripture is a land animal.
  • The creature in scripture has multiple horns (Deut 33:17).
  • The narwhal's horn isn't really even a horn at all - it is a tooth (or tusk if you prefer).
Although it is quite clear that the creature in question cannot be a narwhal, the narwhal has much to contribute to the subject of how "unicorn" may have ended up in the KJV:

The narwhal is believed by many to be the source of the unicorn legend. In fact, several have claimed to own "unicorn horns" which under later inspection couldn't be found or turned out to be the tusk of a narwhal. One reputed unicorn horn was kept in the Cathedral of St. Denis in France, and believed to have incredible healing properties. An Italian who visited England early in the reign of Henry VIII, commenting upon the riches of the religious houses and monasteries, wrote: "And I have been informed that, amongst other things, many of the monasteries posses unicorns’ horns of an extraordinary size." Centuries ago, The Vatican, Queen Elizabeth I, King Charles I, and even King James I himself all had unicorn horns listed in the inventories of their possessions. In fact, once when the son of King James was ill, the doctors had him drink some powered "unicorn" horn to heal him (it didn't help). The possession of these "unicorn" horns (narwhal tusks) contributed much to the then popular belief in unicorns.

In fact, a few of these ancient "unicorn horns" are now on display at some museums, like this carved narwhal tusk at the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (Liverpool, England):
A 'unicorn' horn?
800 Year-old "unicorn horn"

The "Elasmotherium"?

Elasmotherium The Elasmotherium (Elasmotherium sibiricum), or "Giant Unicorn", is a now-extinct mammal, similar to a modern rhinoceros but much larger and covered in wooly fur. It was up to 26 feet long and had a single horn up to 7 feet, which was sometimes split at the tip. An extremely powerful animal, the little-known elasmotherium is the prime candidate (in my opinion) for the indentity of the Hebrew "reem". Elasmotherium

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