Unicorns in the Holy Land?

Is it possible that the unicorn, that graceful and noble mythological creature, in fact originates from the Land of Israel?

Amit Naor

For thousands of years, unicorns have intrigued the human soul. Generations of writers have described a large beast with a single horn, its features varying from one account to the next. Great myths were attributed to it and are still a part of today’s popular culture. Unicorns didn’t always appear as we imagine them today – a white horse bearing a large horn. At times it resembled more the image of a goat, donkey or even a combination of different animals, sometimes there were no horses involved at all. Depictions of unicorns come from all over the world; Chinese figurines can be found, for example, in the shape of single-horned dragons. Stories about unicorns were told everywhere, though somehow, the beasts were always said to come from a far away place.

Could it be that the myth of the unicorn originally emerged here, in Israel? That is one assumption. Ancient descriptions point to locations such as the Indus Valley in India; others claim that the beast’s depictions are based on the African rhinoceros or Narwhals from the Arctic Ocean. In addition, a common theory ties the stories of unicorns to an animal whose natural habitat is the Negev desert in Southern Israel, its name appearing for the first time in the Bible – the re’em. We know it today as the oryx.

A white oryx (re’em) in Israel’s Arava desert. Photo: Shlomi Chetrit

The re’em/oryx, is a type of large antelope; there are several different species of oryx living around Africa and the Middle East. The kind found in Israel and the surrounding Arab countries is the white oryx, or the Arabian oryx, its coat mostly white, with two long, straight horns on its head.

Wait a minute – two horns? Here we are, discussing an elusive, mysterious creature whose name clearly suggests a single, majestic horn, and now you tell me we’re dealing with a plain old antelope?

Bear with us for a moment please…

It may be that the confusion surrounding the re’em and its identification with the unicorn first appeared due to a translation issue: Ancient translations of the Bible into Greek (the Septuagint) and Latin (the Vulgate) interpreted the Hebrew word re’em as ‘unicorn’ (monoceros/unicornis). The re’em is mentioned in many verses in the Bible; it was associated with virtues of strength and power; it is also one of the symbols of the Tribe of Ephraim. Some Hebrew sources, however, have suggested that the Tahash mentioned in the Bible, often translated as “badger”, was in fact the unicorn we have in mind.

An illustration of a unicorn in the 14th century Duke of Sussex Bible, held in the British Library

Yet it could be that the link between the re’em and the mythical unicorn is based on actual sightings. The Holy Land was always a desired destination for pilgrims and tourists who came to walk the paths traveled by Jesus of Nazareth. Some of the travelers, among them various monks and artists, described their arduous journeys in vivid detail, including accounts of the region’s geography, as well as its flora and fauna. Some of these accounts, primarily from the early modern period, contain depictions, occasionally illustrated, of a mysterious unicorn.

An illustration of a unicorn, Gershom Bar Eliezer Pentateuch, 14th century. The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford

For example, in one of the first books (as opposed to manuscripts) containing an account of a journey to the Holy Land, composed by the German traveler Bernhard von Breydenbach, we find an illustration of various animals he spotted during his travels. The book was written between 1484-1486. Von Breydenbach traveled from Venice to Jaffa, making his way to Jerusalem before later heading south to the Sinai desert. The illustration shows a number of exotic animals including a camel, a crocodile, a goat, a salamander and – a unicorn. Von Breydenbach wrote that he got a brief glimpse of one in Sinai. Could this have been the re’em, whose natural habitat is the Negev and the surrounding desert areas?

An illustration from Bernard von Breydenbach’s book, 15th century. The Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

Felix Fabri, a Dominican friar who traveled to the Land of Israel around the same time, also left a detailed description of a unicorn. Fabri’s sighting also occurred in the Sinai desert, with the friar describing a noble animal, with an energy like no other, its horn over one meter long. He quoted locals who told him it was nearly impossible to hunt the unicorn, though he noted that earlier writers expressed the belief that the wild beast could be tamed by the hand of a virgin.

During the 16th century, the Franciscan friar Noe Bianco made his own pilgrimage and, naturally, wrote a travel journal describing his journey. He too retraced the pilgrims’ path mentioned above, beginning in Venice before traveling to Jerusalem and then Mount Sinai. In his book we find an engraving similar to the one in Von Breydenbach’s book, depicting exotic animals spotted along the way. The engraving features an illustration of a baboon next to a unicorn, which in this case resembles a large goat.

An image from Noe Bianco’s book, Viaggio da Venetia al Santo Sepolcro, et al monte Sina, 16th century

What might explain these sightings? According to one theory, the re’em‘s long, straight horns may appear as a single horn if the animal is viewed from the side. A viewer who is only able to get a quick glimpse from such an angle might mistake the oryx for a large horse with a single horn. Nonetheless, the locals who hunted the beast were clearly aware it possessed two horns. Therefore, another theory suggests that the stories are based on re’ems who lost one of their horns at some point, as these protrusions never grow back.

What, then, were the unicorns that appeared in the records of travelers to the Land Israel? Were they indeed the large, noble re’ems, who nonchalantly chewed the leaves of desert shrubs as they stared at the excited onlookers? Did the travelers truly encounter mythical horses who surrendered to the touch of a young virgin? Or are these all figments of imagination and campfire legends? We will probably never know. Luckily, we can still search for unicorns today: If you wish to relive the experiences of these early European pilgrims, make your way south to the Arava desert; there you will find, at the Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve, approximately 200 oryxes who have been reintroduced to nature as part of a local reacclimation project. We prefer to call them ‘unicorns’.   If you liked this article, try these: The True Story Behind Harry Potter, Abraham the Jew and the Philosopher’s Stone No Children Allowed: Introducing Lilith, the Jewish Vampire Queen Harry Houdini: The Skeptical Son of a Rabbi  

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