Where does the Vulgate use the word “unicorn”?

In the King James Version of the bible, the unicorn is mentioned in Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9,10, Psalms 22:21, 29:6 and 92:10, and in Isaiah 34:7.  As I understand it, in 1611, in current English, the words “unicorn” and “rhinoceros” referred to the same, vaguely known, animal.  The two go back to the Latin bible, the Vulgate, which uses both in these passages, to represent the two Greek words “monokeros” (“one-horn”) and “rhinokeros” (“nose horn”), again both referring to the same obscure animal.[1]  The KJV translators knew that a single Hebrew word, rē’em, lay behind both words, and (correctly) chose to use just one term.  Unfortunately they chose the “wrong” word, at least as viewed from our own days, because subsequent science instead standardised on “rhinoceros” for this odd animal.  At least, this is what I have read, although I could wish for more confirmation of this.

A correspondent asked me just which passages in the Vulgate used “unicorn”.  This was harder work to discover than I should have liked.

The standard critical edition of the Latin Vulgate is the Weber-Gryson 5th edition of the Biblia Sacra iuxta vulgata, versionem, which appeared in Stuttgart in 2007.  Thankfully a number of copies may be found at Archive.org here.  It’s not the right version to use for general reading, if you want a Latin bible.  But it is certainly the right one to use for scholarly purposes.

A search in a text-file version of the Vulgate (I found one here) revealed a number of references, which are below.

Note that St Jerome made two versions of the  Latin translation of the Psalms, one based on the popular Greek translation, the Septuagint (the “versio iuxta LXX” or Gallican psalter), and one based directly on the Hebrew (“versio juxta Hebraicum”).  The former is the normal version found in Vulgate bibles, for historical reasons.

I link to Bible Gateway with parallel Douai translation.  Bible Gateway uses the LXX-based psalter found in the Clementine text, as it says here.

Psalm 21:22: (both the LXX and Hebrew versions)

Salva me ex ore leonis, et a cornibus unicornium humilitatem meam.

Save me from the lion’s mouth; and my lowness from the horns of the unicorns.

The apparatus gives variants of unicornorum, unicornuum, and unicornuorum.  This is clearly not a common word in Latin.

Psalm 28:6:

et comminuet eas, tamquam vitulum Libani, et dilectus quemadmodum filius unicornium.

And shall reduce them to pieces, as a calf of Libanus, and as the beloved son of unicorns.

But the Vulgate version based on the Hebrew reads:

et dispergit eas quasi vitulus Libani et Sarion quasi filius rinocerotis.

Psalm 77:69: (based on the LXX)

Et aedificavit sicut unicornium sanctificium suum, in terra quam fundavit in saecula.

And he built his sanctuary as of unicorns, in the land which he founded for ever.

But the Vulgate version based on the Hebrew reads:

Et aedificavit in similitudinem monoceroton sanctuarium suum, quasi terram fundavit illud in saeculum.

Psalm 91:11: (based on the LXX)

Et exaltabitur sicut unicornis cornu meum, et senectus mea in misericordia uberi.

But my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn: and my old age in plentiful mercy.

But the Hebrew-based psalter has “monocerotis” in place of “unicornis”.

Isaiah 34:7:

Et descendent unicornes cum eis, et tauri cum potentibus; inebriabitur terra eorum sanguine, et humus eorum adipe pinguium.

And the unicorns shall go down with them, and the bulls with the mighty: their land shall be soaked with blood, and their ground with the fat of fat ones.

It’s useful to know.  But it’s also a reminder that the biblical “unicorn” is merely a Latin form of “one horned animal”, rather than the dainty creature of Disney.

  1. [1]Allen H. Godbey, “The unicorn in the Old Testament”, American Journal of Semitic Languages 56 (1939), (JSTOR) 290: “literature. But Jerome’s half-and- half division again means that the Christian scholarship of his time considered monokerôs and “rhinoceros” identical.”

13 thoughts on “Where does the Vulgate use the word “unicorn”?

  1. It depends a bit on your scholarly purposes whether or not the Stuttgart Vulgate is the right one to use. It seeks to establish the text in its oldest forms, so it’s not so useful for medievalists. It seems a bit counter-intuitive, but the so-called Clementine or Sixto-Clementine Vulgate (published in 1592) is in many ways a more useful text for medievalists like me, because it is based on the 13th-century Paris text which became standard throughout the rest of the Middle Ages (cf. Lean Longère, La prédication médiévale, Paris: Etudes Augustiennes, 1983, p. 180; Jacques Berlioz, Identifier sources et citations, Turnhout: Brepols, 1994, pp. 15-16).

  2. This is extremely well-put, and of course you are right. Do we have a critical edition of this version, do you know?

    I think the Clementine is the version I would recommend to people today wishing to read the Vulgate, complete with i’s and j’s. It is the natural form of the text in modern garb.

  3. Biblia sacra iuxta Vulgatam Clementinam, ed. A. Colunga and L. Turrado, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 14th ed., (Madrid: La Editoriál Catolica, 2015). There are a number of online versions, usually based on this version.

  4. off the cuff (if more detailed cites are required, please say so…)

    1. Rabbinic sources (e.g. bShabbat 28b) read “Tachash” [Ex. 25:5 and other loc.] to be a unicorn – however this animal also seems to be an ungulate. Thus no rhinos or equines.
    2. Rav Saadia Gaon (d. 942) trans. the instances in Numbers as a member of the deer family while the Deut. passage he translated as rhinoceros. I hope to research this at some point.
    3. The Hebrew version of Psalms 22:22 (and not 22:21 etc) should be translated as “and from Re’ems’ horns you have answered me (heb. anisani)”. Does the Latin “humilitatem” reflect a reading of “my destitution”?

    perhaps an inquiry of the Aramaic translations to the above lemma would be of service?


  5. No, no critical apparatus in the BAC edition. The extensive apparatus is to parallel biblical passages. I think for a full critical apparatus you have to go to the big St Jerome edition, where the 13th-century Latin text is represented by an Omega, and the 16th-century Clementine by a fraktur c. If I not mistaken, the Stuttgart edition contains a subset of this apparatus. Open to correction, of course.

  6. @YM Dubovick – thank you for this! I thought about looking at the LXX, but this starts to be a larger area study, so I thought we’d just limit it to the LXX.

    @Paul Chandler – thank you. Which is the “big St Jerome edition”?

  7. Yes, “humilitas” can mean “lowliness, low estate” as well as “humility.” The Greek is “tapeinousin,” which is “lowliness, low estate, humiliation, vileness”.

  8. In late antiquity I believe people were either honestiores (rich and corrupt) or humiliores (poor and heavily taxed). Which relates in a way.

  9. Based on the Akkadian cognate *rīmu* or *rēmu* it would seem that the Biblical Hebrew *re’em* which is rendered either as the unicorn or the rhinoceros is in fact the aurochs, the wild ancestor of domestic cattle. Fittingly, in passages where the word is used, it is associated with strength or savagery (Psalm XXI) or else used in parallelism with cattle (Psalm XXVIII, Isaiah 34).

    That the Seventy and St Jerome all missed this ancient meaning is an understandable thing, given that the aurochs was long extinct by the time of the former. Perhaps the rhinoceros was the LXX’s choice of translation because it was the next best equivalent known to them, a wild beast of great strength that sported a fearsome horn.

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