A while back I started what I thought would be a two part series on the issue of unicorns in the Bible. Well, today I present Part 2 of what I now think will be a three part series on the issue of unicorns in the Bible.
Warning: This post is overly long, overly tedious, and largely inconclusive. It does have a single illustration. I think the next post in the series will be shorter, less tedious, and somewhat more conclusive. It will also have at least two illustrations.
To summarize part one of this series: the Hebrew Bible does not mention unicorns by name. It does mention Aurochs. They are called רְאֵם, re’em or, in Job, רֵּים, rîm. But unicorns are in the Vulgate and many older translations into modern languages also use the word “unicorn.” And the Old Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible may reference unicorns. It surely uses the Greek word μονόκερως, “single horned” in most of the places that the Hebrew Bible mentions רְאֵם, re’em or רֵּים, rîm.
The main question for this post and the next one is, “Why did the Old Greek nearly consistently translate Hebrew רְאֵם, re’em, and רֵּים, rîm, with μονόκερως, ‘single horned’?”
It turns out that even the principle presupposition of this question is at least theoretically open to dispute. Perhaps, just perhaps, Greek μονόκερως reflects a tradition older than does רְאֵם of the Masoretic Text (MT).
The most common way to address the question of why the Old Greek reads “single horned” is to throw
wild ox s mud at it and see if anything sticks. I’m quite familiar with the methodology myself. Students of the question tend to throw five classes of mud: 1) ancient depictions of aurochs in profile appear to have but one horn; 2) remarks by Ctesias, Aristotle, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder among a few others about one horned animals may have influenced the Old Greek translation; 3) regional extinctions of wild oxen caused confusion as to what a רְאֵם, re’em or רֵּים, rîm is; 4) the goat with a horn in his forehead in Daniel 8.5 influencing the Old Greek translation; and 5) the Old Greek predated the Hebrew text. Sustained arguments for any of these options or any combination of them are hard to find.
Müller’s comments in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, XIII, 247, are typical of this mud slinging approach.
The LXX translates re’em as monókerōs everywhere except Isa. 34:7 . . . The source of this translation is disputed. It might have been suggested by (Babylonian) profile images of the wild ox, natural examples like the rhinoceros (note rhinókerōs in A [here Aquila] and a héteros in Job 39:9, . . .), fantastic imagery derived from Hellenistic speculation, or even Dnl 8:5. [extended references deleted]
To Müller’s list, I need to add a suggestion that Qohelet (the anonymous blogger at The Bible Critic, not that other one you may have heard of) left in a comment to my first post on all this and noted above, “It’s possible that the Old Greek preserves an earlier Hebrew text, which for some reason was systematically changed in future Hebrew manuscripts.”
A Brief History of Wild Oxen:
But before I take up the various suggestions, I want to say a little bit more about the best candidate for the Hebrew word רְאֵם. While there is certainly some small room for uncertainty, I develop what follows in this series on what I think to be two highly probable assumptions. 1) Hebrew רְאֵם is cognate with Akkadian rīmu. 2) Both, at least in origin, reflect a specific animal, the Bos primigenius, aurochs. See my first post on “On Unicorns, Rhinoceros And Wild Oxen” for as much support for these assumptions as I could muster at the time. These assumptions do not necessarily imply, on the one hand, that the most original, if one can speak in those terms, Hebrew text used רְאֵם, or, on the other hand, that the memory of what רְאֵם designated continued into Hellenistic times or beyond. I’ll try to address those issues below.
The most complete account of now extinct aurochs that I know of is van Vuure’s Retracing The Aurochs: History, Morphology And Ecology Of An Extinct Wild Ox. Most of the following details on the aurochs I gleaned from his book. Here is, more or less, what they looked like.
This public domain drawing is from the Wikipedia article on the beast. (I did consult this Wikipedia article and another in the preparation of this post. I did this to enlarge my knowledge of primary and secondary sources, each of which I consulted independently of the Wikipedia articles. To complete these parenthetical confessions, I also spent a lot of quality time with OGEL9)
If the beast looks somewhat like a domestic bull, it is because, long ago, domestic cattle were bread from the species. Domestic cattle are often taken as a subspecies but others now take them to be of the same species. The ancients clearly saw them as different species and that’s the most important point for this post. An adult bull aurochs was 160-180 cm at the withers. This is 10 to 30 cms taller than the typical modern domestic bull. van Vuure, 101-164, has a lot more on the aurochs’ anatomy. Their skeletal remains indicate that they were considerably bulker than typical modern domestic cattle and literary remains indicate that they were strong, mean, and often aggressive. Do you want to know the length of the metacarpus or the humerus or most of their other bones? van Vuure has all this nicely documented on page 114.
During the Pleistocene and most of the Holocene, aurochs ranged from Southeast Asia, throughout India, the Near East and most of southern Europe. They also inhabited Egypt and the northern Mediterranean coast of Africa. Their territory and population appear to have already begun to decline by the end of the Holocene period. van Vuure, 72, sees human hunting and habitat encroachment as the main reasons for their demise. He does acknowledge that climate change may have also played a role. By 1559 CE, their number was but 53 individuals, all in captivity. The last aurochs anywhere in the world, a cow, died in 1627 CE. It lived and died on a farm in the Polish village of Jaktorów. The last bull died in 1620. A Stockholm museum still preserves one of his two horns. See van Vuure, 71.
So when did they go extinct in the Near East? It is hard to be certain. Following van Vuure, 53-54, the last reference to them in Egypt is an account of a Ramses II’s hunting party in the Nile Delta. Depending on what you think of Herodotus’ account, IV, 183, of oxen, βόες, condemned to grazing while walking backwards because of their long, outward curving, horns, aurochs may have still been in Libia in his time, ~450 BCE. At best, this story is a legendary memory of some animal. Possibly even an extinct animal. The last reference to hunting rīmū in Mesopotamia comes from Senacherib’s time, 704-681 BCE. There are few very certain skeletal remains from the Near East and none from the first millennium BCE. After all, their bones are almost identical to those of contemporaneous domestic cattle so it’s hard to be sure of the difference. Still, there were likely aurochs around well after the mid 7th century BCE. Here’s van Vuure’s, 54, final word on the subject,
The lack of data clearly makes it difficult to determine how the process of the decline took place outside of Europe. The aurochs may be considered to have disappeared from the individual countries of the Middle East and North Africa roughly in the course of the first millennium BC.
The Assyrian references lead me to believe that critical decline in population did not occur until the second half of that first millennium. Assuming I can dispose of Qohelet’s suggestion, aurochs were likely still extant in pre-exilic times and perhaps later but were likely gone from the Near East by the end of the millennium if not a little before. Whenever regional extinction actually occurred, one can be certain that the population of aurochs was decreasing over much if not all of the first millennium BCE. I’d hoped for a more definitive answer than that but one must work with what’s there. I will have more to say on this issue because the ghosts of dying aurochs will haunt of what follows.
Text critical issues and the primacy of Hebrew רְאֵם:
Much of what follows is exceedingly technical and some of it is well outside my own comfort zone. In a formal paper, much of this would likely be in an extended footnote. If you find this too hard sledding, please skip down to the summary paragraph just above the heading “Unicorn: the word”.
I now turn to the question of whether the Old Greek preserves, in part or in whole, an earlier tradition than the Masoretic Text (MT) of the Hebrew Bible. I do this for two reasons, first to address the question raise by Qohelet and, second, to provide a place to unfold the extent of ancient confusion over the meaning of רְאֵם or רֵּים.
Did the Hebrew “originally” have some other word(s) equivalent to Greek μονόκερως, “single horned,” in some or all of the places were the MT now has רְאֵם or רֵּים and that the MT tradition systematically replaced that word with the words רְאֵם or רֵּים, words whose meaning they knew to be wild oxen or even with cognate words whose meaning they did not know? A related and perhaps better question is, “Were there two Hebrew traditions, one reflected by the MT with the Hebrew word(s) that are now preserved in that tradition and the other preserved in the Old Greek reflecting some Hebrew word(s) meaning ‘single horned’?”
It is not impossible that Old Greek reflects a Hebrew tradition differing from the MT tradition but of equal or greater antiquity. Biblical material from the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) demonstrates this possibility on a number of occasions. So let’s start with the relevant texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of the nine occasions where the words רְאֵם or רֵּים appear in the MT, only Numbers 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; and Isaiah 34:7 are in the known Biblical texts among the DSS. All three reflect the MT; they have רְאֵם or a properly parsed derivative. There is also an Aramaic Targum of Job (11Q10) that reads היבא ראמׄ[א ל]מפלחך at Job 39:9a. I thank Daniel McClellan and Pete Bekins for bring these DSS passages to my attention. At a minimum, this evidence indicates that the MT tradition is at least as old as the DSS. But it does not answer the question the primacy of the MT tradition definitively. All it says is that if the MT tradition substituted רְאֵם and רֵּים for whatever the Old Greek is based on, it did it before the period of the DSS. At least one of the scrolls providing evidence, 1QIsaa, often thought to be from the ~100 BCE, is clearly of the MT text-type but in some places it is closer to the Old Greek than the MT. See for example Isaiah 2:18 and 11:15. But this only points to the complexity of the issue rather than to its solution.
A closer look at the Old Greek text of Job 39:9a is instructive. The overwhelming number and, in general, the oldest Old Greek manuscripts read μονόκερως, “one horned” where the MT has רֵּים, rîm, and the Vulgate has rinoceros. Remember the text: “Would the wild ox/unicorn/rhinoceros agree to serve you? Would he spend the night at your crib?” Three sources, Codex Venetus, miniscule 261 from Florence, and Julian the Arian’s commentary on Job, have (α)τραπελος. On the surface, the most significant witness is the 4th century CE commentary by Julian but we only know it from much later sources. (Α)τραπελος is a vary low frequency Greek word whose meaning is not clear but something like “one who is hard to get along with” would not be too far from the mark. See OGEL9 272 and 261. By the way, I wouldn’t waste my time adding ατραπελος to my Greek vocabulary list or making a special flash card. If these variants do not represent an independent attempt to translate the Hebrew and the may, they at least indicate some difficulty on the part of these early Greek sources in understanding the word μονόκερως in context. Of course, the variant may also be under the influence of the MT tradition even if they didn’t understand the exact meaning the MT or רֵּים in Job 39:9a.
Other Old Greek variants of passing significance include: Codex Ambrosianus, Numbers 24:8a, where hand Fb, 6th century CE(?), corrects μονόκερως of hand Fa, 5th century CE, to read ρινοκέρωτος; Aquila, 2nd century BCE, apud Origen, 3rd century BCE, reads ρινοκέρως at both Psalm 28(29):9 and Job 39:9.
The once great blogger Bishop NT Wrong, in a comment to an earlier post, directed me to Mitchell’s paper on 1 Enoch 90:37-38. Here the Ethiopic text, the only one available for this section of 1 Enoch uses the word nagar. Suggesting 1 Enoch 90:37-38 depended on Deuteronomy 33:17, with its reference to both a domestic bull and a רְאֵם, re’em, alone with other considerations, Mitchell argues that we should understand a nagar as representing a wild ox, an aurochs. He translates 1 Enoch 90:37-38,
And I saw that a white bull was born, with large horns, and all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air feared him and made petition to him all the time. And I saw till all their generations were transformed, and they all became white bulls, and the first among them became an aurochs (the aurochs was a great beast and had great black horns on its head), and the Lord of the sheep rejoiced over them and over all the oxen.
While the Ethiopic manuscripts from which this comes are quite late, Mitchell argues that the image of the messiah as aurochs goes back to the 2nd century BCE. His argument involves issues that are well beyond the scope of this post or any other post I am likely to write. I am more or less persuaded by Mitchell’s argument for the identification of the nagar in 1 Enoch 90:37-38 with the second bovine animal in Deuteronomy 33:17 and likewise his argument for a 2nd century BCE setting for the image as applied to a messianic figure seems sound if not definitive. My question is, “Is nagar here properly understood as an aurochs?” Here’s what Mitchell says,
The Ethiopic term nagar . . . generally signifies ‘thing, word, deed’. However, such a reading is hardly satisfactory, being inconsistent with the theriomorphism of the passage. The Ethiopic translator recognized this. For he brought the nagar back to the theriomorphic realm by telling us that it is a great beast with great block horns on its head. Such a beast, then is a nagar.
While Mitchell is certainly thinking in the right direction here, I worry that he conflates a couple of steps. It appears to me that some copyist in the early(?) tradition of the Ethiopic text (or even before the Ethiopic translation of the text) felt a need to explain what this nagar, this “thing,” was that he found in his vorlage. Like Mitchell, I see the explanation as secondary to and a gloss on nagar, “thing.” Earlier in the tradition within which these scribes and/or translators worked, they had no idea what kind of animal was involved and called it a “thing” in much the same way the Old Greek translator of Isaiah 34:7a, called them, with perhaps better perception, “fat ones.” Even without knowing the reference of the word nagar, “thing,” someone, likely working from Deuteronomy 33:17, concluded that it was a bovine but, because of the apparent contrast between the white bull and the nagar, not a domestic bovine. That same someone provided it with a description that fortuitously matches some of what we know of aurochs. If this is correct, then the path would be aurochs > thing > a great beast (that) had great black horns on its head. As far as I can see, none of this undercuts any of Mitchell’s conclusions.
The real deciding issues as to the relative age of the MT tradition versus the Old Greek tradition are not text critical ones. Most of the evidence in that realm can cut both ways. Rather, I see two other issues as decisive. First, we need to ask, “Is it more likely that a literary tradition adopts a reasonably well understood word for an animal on the path to regional extinction earlier or later in that extinction process?” It is clear that the correct answer is “earlier.” Second, if the use of רְאֵם or רֵּים is a product of the MT tradition, even that part of the MT tradition that predating the DSS, I think the scribes in that tradition would have been consistent in using the same Hebrew word. But instead, they used רְאֵם most places but the cognate רֵּים in Job alone.
I imagine that some vague understanding of the רְאֵם and רֵּים continued into the mid 3rd century BCE, the approximate period of the earliest translations from Hebrew to Greek. But this understanding was not reinforced by direct familiarity with the animal in question. If it had been completely lost, the translators would have likely simply transliterated רְאֵם or רֵּים as they did with several other lexemes whose meaning they did not know or did not know how to translate. Yes, there may have been a few cases where they chose to transliterate rather than translate Hebrew words for cultic reasons but I don’t see that as relevant to this case. But that doesn’t mean that they were completely clear on its referent either. Thus, we find άδροι “fat ones” in Isaiah 34:7a in a place that other passages have μονόκερως. I will return to this issue when I look at a couple of rabbinic sources in the next post.
QED: According to me, I have thus far shown the likelihood of the following: 1) The Old Greek μονόκερως is an attempt to translate רְאֵם and רֵּים and not part of an older, per MT, or pre DSS parallel tradition. 2) Various ancient traditions used different words to translate (or gloss) רְאֵם and רֵּים: μονόκερως, “one horned;” άδροι, “fat one,” ρινοκέρως, “rhinoceros (nose horned);” (α)τραπελος, “one who is hard to get along with(?);” and even Ethiopic nagar, “thing.” Some of these renderings are closer than others to the proper understanding of the Hebrew but all of them exhibit, at a minimum, some considerable lack of clarity. Of course some of these renderings, ρινοκέρως for example, may be more an attempt to explain Greek μονόκερως than a translation of the underlying Hebrew.
Unicorn: the word and the animal(s):
The earliest description of a supposed one horned animal in Greek comes from the writings of the early 4th century BCE physician Ctesias of Cnidus who wrote a work on India. We know his work by way of excerpts of his Indica preserved by Photius. The most relevant excerpt reads in Freese’ translations,
In India there are wild asses [rhinoceroses] 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. The domestic and wild asses of other countries and all other solid-hoofed animals have neither huckle-bones nor gall-bladder, whereas the Indian asses have both. Their huckle-bone is the most beautiful that I have seen, like that of the ox in size and appearance; it is as heavy as lead and of the color of cinnabar all through. These animals are very strong and swift; neither the horse nor any other animal can overtake them. At first they run slowly, but the longer they run their pace increases wonderfully, and becomes faster and faster. There is only one way of catching them. When they take their young to feed, if they are surrounded by a large number of horsemen, being unwilling to abandon their foals, they show fight, butt with their horns, kick, bite, and kill many men and horses. They are at last taken, after they have been pierced with arrows and spears; for it is impossible to capture them alive. Their flesh is too bitter to eat, and they are only hunted for the sake of the horns and huckle-bones.
I have not been able to get my hands on the Greek text of this passage so I’m not completely clear on exactly what Freese translated as “wild asses” and glossed as “rhinoceroses” but based on Aristotle, I would guess that ονος was involved. Freese’s gloss perpetuates the common notion that Ctesias is referring to Indian rhinoceroses. I wonder.
In any case, it seems likely that Aristotle was aware of this account. He wrote in On Parts of the Animals, III 2 (663a: 20-34),
Most of the animals that have horns are cloven-hoofed; but the Indian ass (ονον), as they call it, is also reported to be horned, though its hoof is solid. Again as the body, so far as regards its organs of motion, consists of two distinct parts, the right and the left, so also and for like reasons the horns of animals are, in the great majority of cases, two in number. Still there are some that have but a single horn (μονοκέρατα); the Oryx, for instance, and the so-called Indian ass (ονος); in the former of which the hoof is cloven, while in the latter it is solid. In such animals the horn is set in the centre of the head; for as the middle belongs equally to both extremes, this arrangement is the one that comes nearest to each side having its own horn. Again, it would appear consistent with reason that the single horn should go with the solid rather than with the cloven hoof. For hoof, whether solid or cloven, is of the same nature as horn; so that the two naturally undergo division simultaneously and in the same animals. Again, since the division of the cloven hoof depends on deficiency of material, it is but rationally consistent, that nature, when she gave an animal an excess of material for the hoofs, which thus became solid, should have taken away something from the upper parts and so made the animal to have but one horn (μονόκερων).
Here I use Ogle’s translation but add a couple of the underlying Greek words. The thing to notice is that, however preposterous (not “consistent with reason”) some of this may seem to us, Aristotle and, for that matter, Ctesias are talking biology, not mythology. They are talking about what they took to be real animals alive in this world in their own time. It is also clear the Aristotle claims that there are two species of animal with but a single horn, the Oryx and Indian ass. Quite clearly, he had not seen an Oryx or an Indian ass even if the latter is indeed a rhinoceros.
I should add that Aristotle in History of the Animals, II 1 (499a4) also writes of a species he calls οί βοες οί αγριοι, “wild oxen/cattle” While discussing the ίππέλαφος (hippelaphus), nylghau(?) of Baluchistan, a region of modern southwest Pakistan, southwest Afghanistan and southeast Iran, Aristotle says,
This latter animal [the hippelaphus] resembles the stag in size; it is found in the territory of the Arachotae [Baluchistan], where the wild cattle (οί βοες οί αγριοι) also are found. Wild cattle differ from their domesticated (ήμέρων) congeners just as the wild boar (οί ύες οί αγριοι) differs from the domesticated one. That is to say they are black, strong looking, with a hook-nosed muzzle, and with horns lying more over the back.
Aristotle’s description of the horn configuration of these οί βοες οί αγριοι raises some small doubt about them being aurochs. But he does relate them to domestic cattle. Such things are always hard to tell for sure. Thompson’s translation is a little free here, particularly with the use of the word “congeners,” but the idea is clear enough. However, this passage does show that within the Greek language there were ways of describing the wild version of domesticated animals, ways that were no doubt available to the Old Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible, ways they did not take up, for whatever reason. I should note that this passage from History of the Animals is followed in close proximity by one of several other passages in which Aristotle discusses single horned animals. As in the passage that I quoted from On Parts of the Animals above, here in History of the Animals, II 1 [499b6], Aristotle notes the Indian ass and the Oryx as examples of single-horned animals, the first single hoofed and the second with cloven hoof. He clearly sees the οί βοες οί αγριοι as a separate species, from either of these single horned animals.
Strabo, Geography, XV, 1: 56, first century CE, citing Megasthenes, a late 4th-early 3rd century BCE world traveler, as his source, tells of “horses (ίππους) with one horn (μονοκέρωτας) and the head of a deer.” Strabo/ Megasthenes appears to place these strange animals in the Caucasus where the men “have intercourse with the women in the open and . . . they eat the bodies of their kinsmen.” It is a place where most of the animals that Strabo/ Megasthenes knew as domesticated were still wild and monkeys role stones in self-defense.
Notice the amazing lack of consistency among the ancients as to the nature of one horned beasts. They are variously wild ass like, Oryx like, horse like and if we include the implications of the Old Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, aurochs like. They come from India, the Caucasus, Arabia/Africa (here I’m thinking of the Oryx like unicorn) and possibility Mesopotamia/Palestine. More than one species of animal is involved. No one seems to have questioned their existence but no one seems to have very reliable information about them either. These two observations will play large in Part 3 of my reflections on unicorns, rhinoceros and wild oxen in the Bible. I will also attempt to deal with the brut fact that the Old Greek translated רְאֵם, re’em and רֵּים, rîm, μονόκερως and not, as one might reasonably expect, βοΰς something or other, or βοΰς alone or even using ταϋρος.
With that, I will leave you impaled until I get around to posting Part 3. There, using some of the material developed here, some rabbinic material and a couple of pictures of animals appearing to have but one horn, I will directly address the various attempts to explain how the Old Greek came to translate Hebrew רְאֵם, re’em or רֵּים, rîm, “wild ox” with μονόκερως, “one horned.” But before I do, I need to track down a couple of other wild things and see if I can domesticate them.
Update: October 4, 2009
Fixed a couple of typos
Mitchell, David C., “Firstborn Shor and Rem: A Sacrificial Josephite Messiah in 1 Enoch 90.37-38 and Deuteronomy 33.17,” Journal for the study of the Pseudepigrapha 15.3 (2006), 211-228 .
Müller, H. P. “רְאֵם, re’em,” in G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, eds, David Green, trans, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977- ).
van Vuure, T., Retracing The Aurochs: History, Morphology And Ecology Of An Extinct Wild Ox (Sofia: Pensoft, 2005).