Unicorns, satyrs and centaurs, oh my!

It’s not often anymore that one hears the Psalms read from the King James Version of the Bible.  But some years ago, I heard a Cathedral choir singing a setting of Psalm 22, in which the Psalmist cries out that “thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.”  I raised my eyebrows.  Unicorns?  Really?  But what got me from raised eyebrows to downright cranky was a conversation with a visitor after the service.  He was not a Christian, and he looked at me with a mixture of puzzlement and pity as he asked, “Christians don’t really believe in unicorns, do you?”

Well, this one certainly doesn’t.  So what were they doing in Psalm 22, as a piece of inspired Scripture?  I decided to investigate, and was fascinated by what I found, and the light it shed on Biblical translation and interpretation.

It turns out that unicorns are in quite a few places in the King James; Numbers, Deuteronomy, Job and Isaiah as well as several Psalms.  And Isaiah also boasts a couple of mentions of satyrs,  figures more commonly associated with Greek mythology.  So what are they doing here?

The use of these terms goes back to the translation choices made by the Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, producing the Septuagint, in about the second century B.C..  The translators of the Septuagint were faced with a problem of how to render obscure Hebrew words for animals into Greek with no exact equivalent.  When they thought that the use of the term was literal, they used Greek words for ordinary animals.  But when they thought the Hebrew was allegorical, they used Greek words for mythical creatures.  So, for example, in Isaiah 13:21, where the NRSV today uses the word goat-demons to render the Hebrew, the translators of the Septuagint used the Greek word “saturos,” or satyr.  (I’m relying on the scholarship of others – I don’t read Hebrew myself – but I’m told the underlying Hebrew term means something like, “wild or chaotic animals,” with nuances of evil and uncleanness).  Other similar terms used in the Septuagint were the Greek words for sirens and donkey-centaurs.

Unicorns in particular are used to translate the Hebrew re’em, which modern scholars think most likely referred to the wild ancestor of modern domestic cattle, Bos primigenius.  This species is thought to have become extinct at about the time of King David, so would have been known but already semi-mythical to the later writers and editors of Biblical text.  It was bigger and heavier than domestic cattle, and regarded as untameable and dangerous.  The Greeks believed that there was a real animal which they called a unicorn (“monokeros“).  Although it was one-horned, and therefore not an exact match for the mental image of a re’em, it was big, bovine (they thought of it more as a massive goat-like thing than our modern conception of a horse with a horn), and exotic, and I guess close enough for the translators of the Septuagint to agree that it was a reasonably close term when they were scratching their heads for the Greek equivalent of re’em.

Then, centuries later, when the translators of the King James Version sought to produce the best possible English translation of the Bible, they used the Septuagint as a reference point for some of these obscure terms.  Relying on the allegorical interpretation of the scholars who had produced the Septuagint, they echoed their use of both satyrs and unicorns, preserving the use of these terms in English.

So where does that leave a modern reader of the text?  Obviously a simple literal reading of the King James Version here would have you believing in unicorns and satyrs.  A deeper reading, though, would recognise that these are texts which have been understood in a more complex and nuanced way for much of their history, and that their translators have consistently pointed their readers towards allegory as an appropriate way of understanding these passages.

We ought to be careful, then, in how we present such passages, so that they can become not barriers (as in the example of the Cathedral visitor I met) but signposts on the way to faith.

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