You Can Find Unicorns in Frappuccinos, but What About in the Bible?

Scripture mentions strange visions of nameless single-horned beasts. But what did the ancient word translated as 'unicorn' really mean?

A Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino drink sits on display, Thursday, April 20, 2017, in Philadelphia.
Matt Rourke/AP

With Starbucks’s release of its new “Unicorn Frappuccino” Wednesday, the latest in a growing trend of bright multi-colored foods, we thought it an opportune moment to answer the question on everyone’s minds: are there unicorns in the Bible?

Only one creature is explicitly described in the Bible as having a single horn, and can thus be said to be a unicorn. It is nameless and is a figment of the Prophet Daniel’s imagination: “And as I was considering, behold, an he goat came from the west on the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground: and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes” (Daniel 8:5). Later in the chapter this goat-unicorn fights a ram, beats it, and then things really get crazy.

This goat-unicorn was not a real unicorn, though. It was just something Daniel possibly hallucinated. But are there any real unicorns in the Bible?

Reading Numbers 23:22, the answer seems like a Yes: "God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn." In addition to this verse, there are another eight mentions of unicorns in the Bible (Num. 24:8; Deut. 33:17; Job 39:9; 39:10; Ps. 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; Is. 34:7).

But the Bible wasn’t originally written in English. The original Hebrew (and Aramaic) were translated into Greek, then into the Latin Vulgate by St. Jerome in around 400 C.E., which was then translated onwards into English. Thus the original Hebrew word re'em was rendered in the Greek translation of the original Hebrew, the Septuagint, as monokorus; onwards into Latin as ūnicornis or rhnocerō; then in the King James Bible, as unicorn. But did the original re'em really refer to a unicorn?

The Bible isn’t clear about what this re’em exactly is, and the word fell out of use after the biblical period, so that it is difficult to know.

But the rabbis of the Talmud asked themselves what the re’em is, and the answer of Rabbah bar bar Hana of Babylonia is preserved in Bava Bathra 73b.

Newly deciphered clay tablets with Akkadian cuneiform that tell the story of the Babylonian Exile for the first time
Clay tablets from Al-Yahudu archive, "By the rivers of Babylon" exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. Courtesy: Cindy and David Sofer Collection, Photographer: Moshe Caine

According to this strangest of Talmudic rabbis, the re’em is a mountain-sized creature, of which only two exist in the world at any given period, a male and a female, each at an opposite side of the world. Every 70 years, the two meet, mate, and then the female kills the male. After an 11-year pregnancy, two re’emim are born, a male and a female. The mother re’em dies, and the two offspring go to opposite sides of the world, where they bide their time for their incestuous rendezvous 70 years later. The rabbi doesn’t say whether or not they have a single horn.

Modern scholars disagree with Rabbah bar bar Hana, however. They think the re’em was possibly an aurochs, the wild ancestor of the ox.

Their rationale is a cognate in Akkadian – rimu, which meant "wild ox.” Or the animal could have been a kind of antelope, which is what the modern Arabic word ri’m means.

Hans Hillewaert

In modern Hebrew, re’em is an oryx, a kind of antelope. Modern translations of the Bible to English replace unicorn with “wild ox.”

When badger just isn’t right

The third and final candidate for the Bible’s unicorn is the takhash, mentioned in the Book of Exodus, which the King James Bible translates as badger: "And thou shalt make a covering for the tent of rams' skins dyed red, and a covering above of badgers' skins" (Exodus 26:14).

Why a badger? The grounds are weak. King James’s translators were following Luther’s lead, and Luther in his translation to German in the 1530s translated takhash as “Dachs,” German for badger – apparently because the two words sound alike. So if the takhash isn’t a badger, what is it?

Once again, the word fell out of use after the biblical period, and there is very little to go by in the Bible to identify it. So the rabbis of the Talmud asked themselves what a takhash might be, and the Talmud preserves the answer of Rabbi Meir in Shabbat 28a.

Wikipedia

According to Rabbi Meir, a takhash was a unicorn that appeared during the time of Moses, who killed it, skinned it, and used its hide to build the Tabernacle, the mobile Temple of the Israelites during their travels from Egypt to the Land of Canaan. So if Rabbi Meir is correct, there was one unicorn in the Bible and Moses killed it.

Modern scholars think the takhash might be a dugong, a kind of sea mammal, based on the fact that some Bedouins in the Sinai Peninsula were recorded as using this creature's skin to build tents and have a name for it that sounds something like takhash. Perhaps. Whatever the case, in modern Hebrew, a takhash is a dachshund.

Wikipedia