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.”

Searching for the Vulgate: one genuine text and two “fakes”

What do you do if you want a reading copy of the traditional Catholic Latin bible, the Vulgate?  The unwary purchaser may easily end up with something unsuitable.

First, some necessary background.

The original Vulgate Latin bible was created by St Jerome in the 5th century out of a mass of earlier “old Latin” translations, of variable quality, complete with a preface to many of the books.  It was then transmitted by copying down the centuries, becoming the standard medieval bible in the west, and the source for a vast amount of Dark Age and Medieval writing.  Along the way it acquired a certain amount of copyist errors – I have no idea what these are – and it also acquired punctuation and other forms of reader helps.  At the counter-reformation, with the arrival of printing, the Catholic church felt the need for an official text.  After Pope Sixtus V made some clumsy attempts at this, Pope Clement VIII produced four editions: in 1590, 1592, 1593 and 1598.  The last of these is referred to as the “Clementine Vulgate”.  This was the official version of the Bible in the Catholic Church until 1979.  This is what you probably want.

Title page of the 1598 Vulgate edition.

There is a copy of this edition at Google Books here.  Here is Genesis 1:11 in that volume, where “juxta” is still printed as “iuxta”.

Over the following centuries, the text of the Clementine Vulgate was reprinted many times, and the readability improved with better fonts, text layout, and the modernisation of orthography by getting rid of the long-s (ʃ) form of the consonant “s”.

One innovation that has affected all printed books is to divide the Latin letter “I”, which represented two sounds, into the modern vowel “i” and the modern consonant “j”.  This was proposed by Gian Giorgio Trissino in a letter in 1524,[1].  It was advocated and adopted in an English book in 1634, in Charles Butler’s English Grammar.[2]  We still use this convention today.  The Vulgate was intended to be read, despite being in Latin, so copies began to appear in this form also, such as in the 1688 edition here.

The standard 19th century edition of the Vulgate, as far as I can tell, is that of Samuel Bagster.  It seems to have been created for his Biblia Sacra Polygotta, and then reprinted separately.  I have an undated copy (probably late 19th century) in my possession, with very tiny text, designed to be placed in a pocket.  The typeface is visibly worn.  The Bagster edition continued to be printed into the 20th century.

The modern equivalent is the A. Colunga – L. Turrado edition, Biblia Vulgata, BAC (1991), ISBN 978-8479140212, available for 45 euros (or equivalent) at the BAC site, and also at Amazon.com ($55) and Amazon.co.uk (£56).  I’m not sure why it is so much cheaper in the USA.  I’ve not seen this, so I can’t say whether it uses “j” or not; but I think not.

In 2002-2005, Michael Tweedale and friends created an electronic text of the Clementine Vulgate, Biblia Sacra Juxta Vulgatam Clementinam, which was authorised by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.  This can be found online here.  The styling of the site is a little odd; the files are only visible from the left-top menu.  But they are all there.  It is a splendid piece of work, undertaken for the benefit of everyone.  It seems to be based on the Colunga edition but with corrections and it does use “j”.

Another very useful site is the SacredBible.org, which contains online scans of the Leander van Ess edition which compares all four Clementine editions, and also includes a 1914 Hetzenauer edition (no “j” in this tho).  All this material is free and public domain.

These are all “real Vulgates” – the book actually used by people who used the Latin bible for reading and liturgy, right down until recent times.

But by the late 19th century various academics were getting restless.  The Clementine Vulgate was a practical useful book, but it was not a critical text.  It reflected 15 centuries of tweaking, but had started to drift – allegedly – from Jerome’s original.  In 1878 John Wordsworth started the Wordsworth-White edition of the Latin New Testament.  In 1907 a Benedictine edition was started.  Neither produced an edition of the complete text, but the work done fed into the “Stuttgart Vulgate”.  This is the standard critical edition of the Vulgate, aimed at giving us the text as it was ca. 500 AD, with an apparatus of manuscripts. It is a very valuable thing to have, of course.

All this means that someone wishing to purchase a Vulgate, for practical reading purposes, may be led astray by what I have seen called – rather unfairly – “fake vulgates”.  There are two possible candidates: books that will appear in a Google search but are probably not what you want.

The first “fake vulgate” is the critical text, the Stuttgart Vulgate, edited by R. Weber and now – in its 5th edition –  by Roger Gryson.  Of course it isn’t really a “fake”! This is a real critical edition of Jerome’s text of the Vulgate, as I understand it, based upon text-critical principles and early mss.  It has an apparatus.  But it isn’t the text that most people using a Latin bible would think of.  It lacks punctuation, capitals, or paragraphs, just as books did back in Jerome’s time.  This makes it nearly unreadable, even before the language barrier is considered.  For the half-dozen people who need to work, not with a medieval text, but the text of the 500s, it is a useful tool.  It can be found at Archive.org.  It is, indeed, not a book at all.  It’s a tool, a reference item. It’s invaluable, but if you want a Vulgate for reading, it’s not what you want.

The second “fake vulgate” is the “Nova Vulgata”.  This is a secondary consequence of the massive loss of confidence in traditional Catholicism by the Catholic hierarchs after WW2, a process that led to Vatican II.  The Nova Vulgata uses a great deal of Jerome’s Vulgate, derived from 20th century critical editions, but it revises them in line with the Greek and Hebrew original.  It is, in reality, a new Latin translation of the bible, rather than a Vulgate.  It is officially approved, since 1972, as the standard Catholic Church Latin bible.  I’m not sure how successful it is, or what most of us would use it for.  But anyone wishing to buy a Vulgate for reading needs to be aware of it, if only to avoid it.  The text may be found online here.

There is an interesting discussion of both by Ron Conte, a traditionalist Catholic, here.  Another interesting comment is that the text of 4 Esdras in the Stuttgart Vulgate is 140 verses as compared to 70 in the Clementine Vulgate, as a portion of the text was only recovered in the 19th century.

You can most easily distinguish the three texts by looking at Genesis 3:20.  Eve’s name is different in each:

  • Heva: the Clementine Vulgate.
  • Hava: the Stuttgart edition of the Vulgate.
  • Eva: the New Vulgate.

A rather useful parallel Greek, English and Clementine Vulgate in parallel columns is at NewAdvent.org here.

It’s all rather confusing.  I would like a pocket-size Clementine Vulgate, in a nice soft leather binding, properly sewn.  Does such a thing exist?


  1. [1]Thus Wikipedia which links to the text of the letter.
  2. [2]Lilo Moessner, “Chapter 10: Standardization”, in: Alexander Bergs &c (ed.), Early Modern English, p.171.