One of the most unfortunate aspects of modern life is that the world is no longer populated by fantastic things. For the ancients the universe was still teeming with monsters great and small, wonders of both flora and fauna perhaps just out of reach of all but the most daring (or the most foolish.)
Of all ancient mythical beasts, the unicorn is one of the most fantastic and beloved. It is indeed somewhat fascinating that this particular creature, although visaged in many different guises, is nevertheless a nearly universal staple of mythical zoology. Indeed, for ancients in the West it was not necessarily a mythical creature at all, but rather something more exotic, a rare beast whose climes were beyond the Indus. Only someone as star-blessed as an Alexander could not only discover such a creature, but even make it his own, as some of the stories go.
The Rise of the Unicorn
For the West, the unicorn began as a beast of great strength and fortitude, which was purportedly unable to be taken alive. But not only are they resilient, they were also said to have medicinal properties, specifically in the horn:
In India there are wild asses as large as horses, or even larger. Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and they have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length. The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red. Those who drink out of cups made from it are proof against convulsions, epilepsy, and even poison, provided that before or after having taken it they drink some wine or water or other liquid out of these cups. (Ctesias [from Library of Photius: Indica])
According to Aelian the horn of the unicorn (which he terms the Monokerta) is also used ornamentally and decorated with golden rings:
From these variegated horns, I am told, the Indians drink, but not all, only the most eminent Indians, and round them at intervals they lay rings of gold, as though they were decorating a beautiful arm of a statue with bracelets. (Aelian, On Animals, 4.52)
But even though the unicorn’s horn was supposed to cure diseases and provide proof against poison, not everyone was allowed to drink from one; in fact, according to Philostratus to drink from a unicorn’s horn was the stuff of royalty. The horn’s medicinal prowess even receives a slight boost in allaying even physical wounds:
the Indians make this horn into a cup, for they declare that no one can ever fall sick on the day on which he has drunk out of it, nor will any one who has done so be the worse for being wounded, and he will be able to pass through fire unscathed, and he is even immune from poisonous draughts which others would drink to their harm. Accordingly, this goblet is reserved for kings, and the king alone may indulge in the chase of this creature. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 3. 2)
We are often prone to think the ancients gullible, but evidently not everyone was convinced that the unicorn’s horn had such seemingly magical properties. Apollonios the 1st century Greek prophet was asked his opinion on the tales, and offers a fairly reasonable response:
I will believe it, if I find the king of the Indians hereabout to be immortal; for surely a man who can offer me or anyone else a draught potent against disease and so wholesome, he not be much more likely to imbibe it himself, and take a drink out of this horn every day even at the risk of intoxication? For no one, I conceive, would blame him for exceeding in such cups.’” (ibid.)
By the time of Pliny and Apollonios the unicorn’s horn seems to have grown about a foot in length, for Pliny has it at a yard long and seems to add the characteristics of some other animals:
But that the fiercest animal is the Monocerotem (Unicorn), which in the rest of the body resembles a horse, but in the head a stag, in the feet an elephant, and in the tail a boar, and has a deep bellow, and a single black horn three feet long projecting from the middle of the forehead. They say that it is impossible to capture this animal alive. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 8. 31)
All of this is of course interesting, but even more so when one considers that the unicorn came to be seen as a theological symbol for much of Christian history. At first glance this might seem odd, but a cursory examination of theological art from the Middle Ages on demonstrates a rather peculiar integration of a seemingly mythical beast with theological symbolism. And, of course, unicorns even made it into the Bible.
How did that happen?
When the translation of the Septuagint was being undertaken- according to tradition by the seventy two elders at Alexandria- an (at least then) unknown animal term was encountered in the Hebrew- the re’em. In modern times comparative zoology and philology have identified it as the wild ox or aurochs (which modern translations employ), but for the people during the time of the translation of the Septuagint such zoological information was difficult to come by. Very few people had much observational experience with much of animal life, especially with species in other lands. Thus, the only information which one might ever glean about an exotic beast would be from the writings of someone such as Ctesias and his interpreters (including such luminaries and authorities as Aristotle).
In fact, this seems to be what happened. While it may be plausible that the animal Ctesias has in mind in his description was something closer to the rhinoceros, Aristotle and Pliny interpreted him to mean that the wild ass, while larger than a horse, actually had the body of a horse. And while this might be an unfortunate interpretation, they would not be the only ancients who understood the unicorn to be an equine.
At any rate, given the descriptions of the strength and power of the re’em in the Hebrew, along with the equally impressive descriptions of the monokeros in the literature of the then-current natural philosophy, it was perhaps inevitable that the translators would choose monokeros to classify this otherwise unknown animal. Nor would such a thing be that fantastic, for while an Apollonios might balk at the creature’s medicinal powers, no one seems to have been suggesting that it didn’t exist. After all, even Ptolemy had displayed one during a festival, something the translators of the Septuagint could hardly have not noticed. (Godbey, The Unicorn in the Old Testament, 264)
From there Jerome employed unicornus for monokeros, both of which meant “one-horn.” (Jerome also seems to have used rhinocerotis where re’em was used, lending weight to the notion that the rhino was originally intended by Ctesias.) And both monokeros in the LXX and unicornis in the Vulgate led to the utilization of “unicorn” in later English translations.
While many treat the utilization of “unicorn” as a mistranslation, this does not actually seem to be the case. True, the LXX scribes may have mistranslated re’em, but it might be better termed a misidentification, since the reason for choosing such a term was that they seemed to not have known what the re’em actually was or was meant to identify.
For all the antagonism that existed between Jewish and Christian believers and the surrounding pagan culture, most Jews and Christians seem to have readily accepted the authority of the natural philosophy of the day, including its zoology, at least as far as it did not make theological encroachments. For most people in antiquity the unicorn (whether of the horse or rhinoceros variety) was a reality in one way or another. Horns had always been a symbol of power, and a single horn denoted a unity of strength. The unicorn was said to be able to utterly crush its foes:
Now the strength of these horns is such that nothing can withstand their blows, but everything gives way and snaps or, it may be, is shattered and rendered useless. They have in the past even struck at the ribs of a horse, ripped it open, and disembowelled it. For that reason the horsemen dread coming to close quarters with them, since the penalty for so doing is a most lamentable death, and both they and their horses are killed. (Aelian, On Animals, 4.52)
For early Jewish and Christian believers the unicorn thus came to symbolize the strength of God, an unrelenting and overwhelming power. In fact, early Christians saw the unicorn in this respect as a type of Christ. Tertullian analyzes the various aspects of Christ and compares them to the characteristics of the unicorn:
“His glory is that of a bullock; his horns are the horns of a unicorn; with them shall he push the nations to the very ends of the earth,” Deuteronomy 33:17 — he [Joseph] was not, of course, designated as a mere unicorn with its one horn, or a minotaur with two; but Christ was indicated in him— a bullock in respect of both His characteristics: to some as severe as a Judge, to others gentle as a Saviour, whose horns were the extremities of His cross. For of the antenna, which is a part of a cross, the ends are called horns; while the midway stake of the whole frame is the unicorn. By this virtue, then, of His cross, and in this manner “horned,” He is both now pushing all nations through faith, bearing them away from earth to heaven; and will then push them through judgment, casting them down from heaven to earth. (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book III, 18.)
Later Basil the Great sees in the unity of the horn a type of the unity of the Father and Son in that the Son is the power of God:
On the whole, since it is possible to find the word ‘horn’ used by Scripture in many places instead of ‘glory’, as the saying ‘He will exalt the horn of his people’ (Ps 148:14) and ‘His horn shall be exalted in glory’ (Ps 112:9), or also, since the ‘horn’ is frequently used instead of ‘power’, as the saying ‘My protector and the horn of my salvation’, Christ is the power of God; therefore, he is called the Unicorn on the ground that he has one horn, that is, one common power with the Father. (Basil the Great, Homilies on the Psalms 13.5)
And Ambrose of Milan takes up a similar theme in outright asking:
“Who then is this unicorn but the only-begotten Son of God?” (St. Ambrose, Patrologia Latina, Commentary on the Psalms)
Whatever they may have thought of the unicorn and its purported powers and characteristics, the point is not whether it is a zoological fact in every respect but rather how thew unicorn furnishes one with an idea of Christ. In other places in the Scriptures animals and their traits are invoked to describe a relationship between the divine being and creation or to explain the ways of God; here these church fathers take a (to them) zoological reality and try to draw out of it a moral or spiritual perspective.
But where the theology really starts to get interesting is later on in the Middle Ages as the unicorn sort of transforms into an even more fantastic creature. For that we have the bestiary of Physiologus to thanks. The Bestiary (as it would later be called) contained the descriptions of various animals and had the added bonus of included moral or theological lesson to be drawn from their traits. For many in the Middle Ages the Bestiary was essentially an authoritative tract on zoology.
Another twist in this tale is that the Bestiary exists in quite a number of versions, so the descriptions of the animals therein tends to vary from version to version, with some animals gaining more powers. The unicorn, of course, is among those endowed with greater power.
We have already seen how (some) ancients believed the unicorn horn to be possessed of some healing properties, but in the Bestiary the unicorn comes to be seen in an almost guardian-like manner, for its horn is able to purify the waters for the other animals to drink. For the snake was thought to expel its poison either into a pit before drinking or into the water itself rendering it unfit any other animal to drink.
But before they are gathered, the snake comes and throws his poison in the water. So many animals notice the poison and dare not to drink, and they expect the unicorn. It comes and it goes immediately to the lake, with its horn making the sign of the cross, it makes the poison harmless. All other animals drink then. (Physiologus)
The spiritual application is of course obvious, in that the snake symbolizes sin and the devil, which casts its venom into the water, promising death for those who mist come to drink. But the unicorn as a type of Christ purifies the water with his strength (the symbol of the horn) and with the sacrifice on the cross (making the sign of the cross), thus rendering the waters life-giving once again. In fact, the obvious reference to baptism is hard to miss. For those who have patiently waited, they need only drink of the waters to have their thirst quenched. And as the unicorn’s horn was reputed to be proof against poison, to drink from these waters (which is the same as drinking from the horn) will cleanse the poison from one’s life and render its effects harmless. In the theological manner to be baptized washes away ones sins and purifies one from its effects; but additionally the grace received in baptism becomes proof against future poison, and allows one to no longer live in terror of the serpent.
Another fascinating characteristic of the unicorn in the Bestiary is that it was impossible to capture alive, save for one way:
Men lead a maiden virgin to the place where he most resorts and they leave her in the forest alone. As soon as the unicorn sees her he springs into her lap and embraces her. Thus he is taken captive and exhibited in the palace of the king. (ibid.)
For the Physiologus this trait of the unicorn is applicable to Christ in regards to his Incarnation. The unicorn is envisioned as wild and untamed, powerful and unapproachable. To attempt to capture him is to invite death, and is a futile proposition. But where strength cannot beckon or overtake him, the purity of chastity will compel him to come. The virgin’s lap is seen as a symbol for the Virgin Mary, and how Christ the unicorn descended into her womb and took on flesh. He is powerful and mighty, but comes at the beckon call of humility, and takes upon himself the same condition.
The unicorn thus formed an image of the Incarnation, a symbol of the unity of the Father and the Son, and served as a moral and spiritual example of salvation. It is probable that the traits of the monokeros grew in proportion to their spiritual applicability, but regardless it is hard to beat the wonder that such a fantastic creature can evoke.