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Unicorns in Religion

[Scotland’s National Animal Contents]

From the Dundee Evening Telegraph, 12th May, 1902, it tells us; 

“There was a time – not so long ago – when the existence of the unicorn was as implicitly believed in as the camel or any other animal not seen in these latitudes; and the translators of the Bible set their seal upon the legend by translating the Hebrew word “reem” (which probably meant a rhinoceros) as “unicorn.” Thus the worthy Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) came to consider the existence of the unicorn clearly proved by the mention of it in Scripture!” 

“When he strayed into Physiologus the unicorn entered a region not worthy of him. A creature imagined nobly as terrible, solitary, with the beauty of power, was transformed under Christian influence into a little goat-like animal eating out of the hand, going to sleep in maidens’ laps, and serving as a symbol of virginity. Nietzsche could not have asked for a more brilliant illustration of ‘slave morality.’ ” – p.60.  

The Edinburgh Evening Courant, 27th July, 1868, goes into the apparent mistranslation of the Hebrew Bible, which lent itself to the unicorn myth; 

“ ‘The Bible,’ as Mr Wood, the author of the work before us, says, ‘is rich in allusions to animal life; but without an acquaintance with these animals most of the passages in which their names occur are but imperfectly understood.’… 

‘The Septuagint translates reêm by the word monoceros, or the one-horned, which has been transferred to the Vulgate by the term unicornis, a word having the same signification. In an age when scientific investigation was utterly neglected such a translation would readily be accepted without cavil,..  

‘On turning to the Jewish Bible we find that the word reêm is translated as buffalo, and there is no doubt that this rendering is nearly the correct one, and at the present day naturalists are nearly all agreed that the reêm of the Old Testament must have been the now extinct urus. A smaller animal, the bonassus or bison, also existed in Palestine, and even to the present day continues to maintain itself in one or two spots, though it will probably be soon as completely erased from the surface of the earth as its gigantic congener. That the reêm was one of the two animals is certain, and that it was the larger is nearly as certain. The reason for deciding upon the urus is, that its horns were of great size and strength, and therefore agree with the description of the reêm; whereas those of the bonassus, although powerful, are short, and not conspicuous enough to deserve the notice which is taken of them by the sacred writers.’ ” 

However, this assertion came up against criticism from varying quarters; 

“Homilius has heard of the infidels who doubt the unicorn, and he wishes them to know that “if this animal were really fabulous it would not be mentioned in so many places of the Holy Scripture”… Like a true Fundamentalist, he will not allow that the unicorn or any other animal or thing mentioned in the Bible was intended as a symbol. He divides the enemies of the unicorn, and therefore of the Bible, into two groups: those who deny it implicitly by leaving it out of their descriptions of the earth’s fauna.” – p.181.  

“In the King James Version of the Bible there are seven clear references to the unicorn, all of which occur in the Old Testament. The animal is mentioned twice in the Pentateuch, once in Job, once in Isaiah, and three times in the Psalms. These passages read as follows:-  

‘God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of the unicorn.’ – Numbers xxiii. 22.  

‘His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.’ – Deuteronomy xxxiii. 17.  

‘Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.’ – Psalm xxii. 21.  

‘He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.’ Psalm xxix. 6.  

‘But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.’ Psalm xcii. 10.  

‘And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.’ – Isaiah xxxiv. 7.  

‘Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide in thy crib?  

‘Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?  

‘Wilt thou trust him because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?  

‘Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?’ – Job xxix.” – pp.41-42.  

“… If Martin Luther… wrote the word Einhorn in translating Deuteronomy xxxiii. 17, that was equivalent to divine assurance that the unicorn exists, and any doubt on that point might open the way to infidelity as the crevice in a Dutch dike may let in all the sea. If the people who believed this had been considerably cruder and more bigoted than they were, and if they had had the power, they might have enacted “unicorn laws” controlling public education like the so-called “monkey laws” of certain American states, for the controversy was in fact a tiny model of the great quarrel over Darwinian theory. However trifling the issue may seem in comparison, a real conflict was involved between Biblical authority and experience or observation, and this is precisely the conflict that has been going on since the appearance of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.” – p.184.  

Solinus, in Arthur Golding’s translation, related previously, calls the monoceros a “monster” – 

“an epithet vehemently exclaimed against by the pious of later ages, who considered it both sacrilegious and bad zoology to call any beast monstrous that was mentioned in the Bible.” – pp.38-39.  

“One might almost say that the cause of Fundamentalism was lost when the unicorn, vouched for by Scripture, was abandoned – for if we cannot trust the translations of the Bible as equally authentic with the original Hebrew, which few Fundamentalists take the trouble to learn, then the door is thrown open to Lower and Higher Criticism, to allegorical interpretations, to scholarship, to facts, to thinking, and, in short, to ‘infidelity’.” – p.185.  

Unicorns and the capture of them, with the help of female virgins, isn’t without connection to Christian Scripture. In fact there are interpretations that, 

“likens the unicorn directly to Christ: its one horn is said to signify the unity of Christ and the Father; its fierceness and defiance of the hunter are to remind us that neither Principalities nor Powers nor Thrones were able to control the Messiah against His will; its small stature is a symbol of Christ’s humility and its likeness to a kid of His association with sinful men. The virgin is held to represent the Virgin Mary and the huntsman is the Holy Spirit acting through the Angel Gabriel. Taken as a whole, then, the story of the unicorn’s capture typifies the Incarnation of Christ.” – p.48.  

It can also be seen as, 

“In the Provençal Bestiary, composed under Waldensian influences, [that] the “properties” of many of the beasts are changed, and the unicorn is made to represent the Devil, the signification of the virgin-capture being that evil can be overcome only by virtue.” – p.49.  

Even the water purification mythos of the animal is given a Christian colouring in the Greek Bestiary which, 

“says that when the animals assemble at evening beside the great water to drink they find that a serpent has left its venom floating upon the surface – a characteristic trick of serpents which is elsewhere vouched for. They see or smell this venom and dare not drink, but wait for the unicorn. At last he comes, steps into the water, makes the sign of the cross over it with his horn and thereby renders the poison harmless.” – p.60. 

The whole virgin capture thing also appears to have been something of a mistranslation, along with the Re’em being made to signify the unicorn itself; 

“The Physiologus or its source read virgo instead of virgae [staff], and thus produced the story of the unicorn which plays with its horn in the bosom of the virgo, maiden, and thus is caught. This, then, shows beyond a chance of doubt that the unicorn story arose only after the Arabs came in contact with Latin, which was after 711[CE], and thus the earliest date of the Physiologus is established.” – p.63.  

The Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser, 18th June, 1861, relates that; 

“The lion and unicorn (or their prototypes) may be seen crouching in peace at the feet of Buddha, as he sits on his marble throne at the entrance of the vast rock temples of Ajanta. The creature we vulgarly call a unicorn is more naturally pourtrayed there, for the people who chiselled out that cavernous cathedral knew its nature better than to present but one horn, though they well knew, as we know from Assyrian monuments, that it was often conventionally so represented.” 

The Chinese Ki-lin has Buddhist inspired attributes:  

“Unlike the Western unicorn, the ki-lin has never had commercial value; no drug is made of any part of his body; he exists for his own sake and not for the medication, enrichment, entertainment, or even edification of mankind.” – p.95.  

“Both in the East and in the West the unicorn comes to typify a Messiah. Shall we call this an accident, or shall we attribute it to the infiltration of Christian influence? A third possibility… is that the two legends came to a similar fruition because they sprang from a single root. It may appear that from the very beginning the unicorn has been conceived as beneficent, holy, in some sense divine, always striving for the healing of the nations.” – p.96. 

As mentioned, Persian Zoroastrianism seems to have had a hand in originating the unicorn myth; 

“The basic idea of Zoroastrian religion is an intensely conceived dualism worked out in the moral sphere as a perpetual conflict between forces of good and of evil captained respectively by the primal gods Ormuzd and Ahriman… ‘We worship the Good Mind and the spirits of the Saints and that sacred beast the Unicorn which stands in Vouru-Kasha, and we sacrifice to that sea of Vouru-Kasha where he stands.’ ” – pp.234-235.  

“John of Hesse even speaks of animalia bona and animalia venenosa exactly as though he were a Zoroastrian worshipper of Ormuzd instead of a Christian priest, and it would be hard to find a stranger tangle of cultures and beliefs than his Christian use of an ancient Persian symbol to illustrate and enforce a Hebrew tale.” – p.236.  

“We are told that the race of goats is divided into five orders of which sheep-goats form the second, and that these are subdivided into five kinds, the second of which is the Koresck, which has ‘one great horn and dwells upon separate hills and takes its pleasure there.’ We know also that the Koresck is of the fold of Ormuzd because it is said in the same passage that he educated one of the Zend kings. This helps to explain the fact that several of the one-horned animals represented at Persepolis have cloven hoofs and look far more like goats than like either the bull or the ass. From the time of Aristotle to that of the British College of Heralds scholars have been perplexed by the unicorn’s combination of caprine with equine charateristics. The unicorn of Albrecht Dürer, for example, is a horse in most respects, but it has cloven hoofs and a goat’s beard (see Plate XVII), and so has the unicorn of the British Royal Arms. This confusion, preserved by a surprising tenacity of tradition, may have been due originally to the effort of Zoroastrian artists to represent not any single species of animal but a combination of several species which they regarded as the leaders of the pure creation.” – pp.238-239.  

The Milngavie and Bearsden Herald, 7th June, 1918 gives us the apparent religious reasons behind the British heraldry; 

“ ‘The Psalms in Human Life.’ 




   Mr. Protheroe points out that the Psalms are inextricably mingled with our own national as well as with our private lives. The verse ‘Save me from the lion’s mouth: for Thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns,’ is the inspiration of our nation’s royal arms, the lion and the unicorn; while our National Anthem of ‘God save the King [or Queen]’ is built upon the Psalms, and our kings are all crowned with ceremonies taken from the Psalms. Thus, ‘on the Psalms, both in spirit (Ps. xx. 9) and language (Ps. lxviii. 1), is based our National Anthem, and from the lion and the unicorn of Ps. xxii. 21, are taken the supporters of the Royal Arms.’ ” 

The Scotsman, 9th August, 1932, in discussing the varying images extant within Roslin’s Chapel, gives us this; 

“The Lion and the Unicorn 

One pillar shows the lion and unicorn in combat. Both are favourite shapes in ecclesiastical symbolism. The lion was a symbol of the resurrection of Christ, as seen at St Laurence in Nuremberg, and in the choir at Augsburg and numerous other places. The unicorn typifies the Saviour’s incarnation, but, like his adversary, he has a twofold significance, and here he may stand for Satan, as his broken chain seems to show. It was not until late in James III.’s reign that the unicorns on the Scottish arms were depicted as chained, and it may be that this sculpture synchronises with the custom. But surely it is far-seeing to attribute a diabolical origin to a national emblem. The origin of the unicorn as a supporter of the tree of life is as old as Sumeria.”  

This brings us to the unicorn as it appears in our heraldry

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