Around 250 B.C. amidst the smoke from the frankinscense and the haunting melody of the Vesper prayers a group of Greek scholars sat perplexed. Tasked with the holy duty of translating the bible they encountered the Hebrew word re’em. It probably referred to a wild ox with one horn, possibly a one-horned Rhinoceros, but no one had ever seen such a beast.
I was at an Ecumenical center trying to film, in bad lighting, restrictive location, constant noise, the essence of being part of a Christian center and how 5 denominations were working together. As I was setting up my gear and mumbling how even 4K wouldn’t cut it, Fr. Simon proceeded to tell me a joke: Abridged, it was too long…
A man dies and goes to heaven and meets God and making his case as to why he should be let into heaven he says, “I believe in the literal word of God, the bible and have kept the Sabbath holy my entire life.”
God then asks him, “So you took the Bible literally did you? Alright then tell me do you believe in talking snakes?”
“Ohh yes, Genesis 3”
“Ohh yes Numbers 22:21-35!”
“Ohh yes, Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, Job 39:10 and 39:10…”
“So did you sell all your possessions and give it to the poor?”
“Surely you meant that metaphorically?”
While the joke is meant to delve into Mankind’s, namely devout Christian’s, tendency to pick and choose and thereby steer completely away from the core message, I was intrigued by the unicorn quote. Obviously, I am a typical Christian.
Apparently, the word unicorn is used only in the Catholic Douay-Rheims (pub. 1609) or the Protestant King James (pub. 1611) and other (later) Bible translations refer to the said unicorn as a wild bull. Biblical scholars who had the mammoth task of translating the Bible into Greek came across the Hebrew word re’em (רְאֵם). Puzzled as the creature, now extinct, was interpreted variously as representing an oryx, an aurochs (wild ox), or a mythical creature. In Jewish folklore, the re’em was larger than a mountain and could dam the river Jordan with its dung. There is even a story about King David, mistaking its horn for a mountain climbed it, then there’em got up, carrying David up to the heavens!
They resorted to a literal translation of the re’em into the Greek monokros meaning one-horned (mon -one and Keros- horn). When St. Jerome proceeded to translate the Bible into Latin he used the word unicornis which in Latin means “one horn”, uni-, “one,” and cornu, “horn.” In 1611 a group of scholars who translated the Bible into English coined the word Unicorn.
A quick google search reveals that the history of the unicorn:
Ludovice de Bartema, a Roman patrician who visited Mecca in 1530, gives this account, “On the other side of the Kaaba is a walled court in which we saw two unicorns that were pointed out as a rarity and they are indeed truly remarkable. …This animal has the color of a yellowish brown horse, a head like a stag, a neck not very long with a thin mane; the legs are small and slender like those of a hind or a roe (small deer); the forefoot hoofs are divided and resemble the hoofs of a goat.”
Don Juan Gabriel, a Portuguese colonel, who lived several years in Abyssinia, assures us that in the region of Agamos, in the Abyssinian province of Darners, he had seen an animal of the form and size of a middle-sized horse, of a dark, chestnut-brown color, and with a whitish horn about five spans long upon its forehead; the mane and tail were black, and the legs long and slender.
So why did we lose the mention of such beautiful magical creatures? Apparently, biblical scholars, the guys with PhDs, reasoned that a one-horned beast did not signify a horse with a horn, it might as well been a wild goat with a horn or a wild bull, or possibly a one-horned Rhinoceros.
Which begs the question how much have we lost in our attempt to be relevant, and error-free? It always upsets my sensibilities when I discover a group of intelligent well-meaning individuals who take upon themselves to decide what the masses should or should not be told. This sort of authoritarian dictatorship is exactly what has driven people away from the true teachings of Christ; truth, love, and acceptance. It breeds suspicion and is a fertile ground for conspiracy theories.
This tendency to sanitize, redact and edit is the source of all conspiracy theories. If the scientists and doctors had been open and honest about all the side effects of drugs, vaccines, and treatments; had been honest about the fact that they were still discovering, perhaps our world would not have spiraled into this self-destructive cloud of conspiracy theories.
So in the quest to retain the Bible as the infallible word of God, mere mortals decided to replace the unicorn with ‘possibly a Rhinoceros’ or a ‘wild ox’. Knowing all too well that the word Rhinoceros is based on the Greek rhin-, “nose,” and keras, “horn” they settled for wild ox. As I bring my unicorn research to an end and I sip my green tea I wonder, “If God has to adapt to the imaginings of the mortal man, what of me?”