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.”

The translators of the KJV speak! What they did about obscure words etc

The Translator’s Preface to the Authorized Version is online here, yet few are aware of it, or refer to it.  It begins with many tedious pages justifying their task.  But then it becomes more interesting.

First, on p.25, they discuss marginal notes, or variants as we would call them.  I’ve over-paragraphed and modernised the language slightly.

Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point. For though “whatever things are necessary are obvious,” as St. Chrysostom says; and, as St. Augustine, “In those things that are plainly set down in the Scriptures, all such matters are found, that concern faith, hope, and charity.”

Yet for all that it cannot be dissembled, that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their every where plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it 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, and if we will resolve, to resolve upon modesty with St. Augustine, (though not in this same case altogether, yet upon the same ground,) Melius est dubitare de occultis, quam litigare de incertis: “It is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to argue about those things that are uncertain.”

There be many words in the Scriptures, which be never found there but once, (having neither brother nor neighbour, as the Hebrews speak,) so that we cannot be helped by conference of places.  Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts, and precious stones, &c. concerning which the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgment, that they may seem to have defined this or that, rather because they would say something, than because they were sure of that which they said, as St. Jerome somewhere says of the Septuagint.

Now in such a case, does not a margin do well to admonish the Reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident; so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St. Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification, and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good ; yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.

We know that Sixtus Quintus expressly forbids that any variety of readings of their vulgar edition should be put in the margin; (which though it he not altogether the same thing to that we have in hand, yet it looketh that way;) but we think he has not all of his own side his favourers for this conceit. They that are wise had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than to be captivated to one, when it may be the other. …

Their point about obscure technical terms is well-taken.  This seems to be the reason that the King James Version uses the word “unicorn” for what we today would call a “rhinoceros”.  The translators in 1611 had no way to know how best to render the Hebrew, and lacked our dictionaries of species, which were yet to be compiled.  So they preserved what came down to them, and rendered the Greek “monokeros”, “one horn”, as “unicorn”.  I have read that in 1611 there was no agreed term for this animal, nor any certainty as to what it looked like, although I have not been able to locate a source for it.  But it is quite possible that this is so.  A.H. Godbey, “The Unicorn in the Old Testament”, in: American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 56 (1939) 256-296 (JSTOR) states that in antiquity “monokeros” and “rinoceros” were understood to mean the same thing; and that monokeros was the older Greek usage.  No doubt the KJV translators just made a stab at finding an English word for this odd creature, and chose “unicorn”.  Unfortunately for subsequent readers the word for it that actually won out, in English, was “rhinoceros”.  I would prefer to have a proper source for this last point, though.

They then discuss whether the same English word should always be used for the same Hebrew or Greek word in the original.  This is quite hard to ensure, even today.  They defend themselves against this criticism as follows:

Another thing we think good to admonish thee of, gentle Reader, that we have not tied ourselves to a uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men somewhere have been as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places, (for there be some words that be not of the same sense every where,) we were especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty.

But that we should express the same notion in the same particular word; as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by “purpose”, never to call it “intent”; if one where “journeying”, never “travelling”; if one where “think”, never “suppose”; if one where “pain”, never “ache”; if one where “joy”, never “gladness”, &c. Thus to mince the matter, we thought to savour more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the atheist, than bring profit to the godly reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables?! Why should we be in bondage to them, if we may be free? use one precisely, when we may use another no less fit as commodiously?  A godly Father in the primitive time shewed himself greatly moved, that one of newfangledness called “krabba/ton”, “ski/mpouj”, though the difference be little or none; and another reports, that he was much abused for turning “cucurbita” (which reading the people had been used to) into “hedera”. Now if this happen in better times, and upon so small occasions, we might justly fear hard censure, if generally we should make verbal and unnecessary changings. …

…we cannot follow a better pattern for elocution than God himself; therefore he using divers words in his holy writ, and indifferently for one thing in nature: we, if we will not be superstitious, may use the same liberty in our English versions out of Hebrew and Greek, for that copy or store that he hath given us.

It’s an interesting position, although their practice may have been better than their position.  Every reference to “unicorn” in the KJV translates the same Hebrew word, whereas the Latin vulgate mostly used “rhinoceros” and used “unicorn” only in the Psalms.  It’s clear that they did at least attempt some consistency.  So this is perhaps mainly intended to deflect captious criticism.

Lastly, we have on the one side avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old Ecclesiastical words, and betake them to other, as when they put “washing” for “baptism”, and “congregation” instead of “Church”: as also on the other side we have shunned the obscurity of the Papists, in their azymes, tunike, rational, holocausts, prepuce, pasche, and a number of such like, whereof their late translation is full, and that of purpose to darken the sense, that since they must needs translate the Bible, yet by the language thereof it may be kept from being understood. But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.

Here we see a conscious decision not to depart from the ecclesiastical language that had grown up over the centuries.  Opinions on this may vary, of course.