Unicorns, Dragons, and Other Animals You Meet in the Bible
The KJV translation of the OT mentions unicorns nine times and dragons over 30 times — translations that go back to the LXX, which features the monokeros (“one-horn”) and the drakon. The Hebrew words behind these animals — r’em and tanin, respectively — are more obscure. But the real question, in seems to me, is whether we are talking about actual animals or not.
In his entertaining and informative book Sacred Monsters, Natan Slifkin suggests that the monokeros may have been a rhinoceros, which, apparently, was not unknown to the translators who gave us the LXX. King Ptolomy, who commissioned that translation, apparently had one on display (p. 46 of Sacred Monsters, citing older sources.) And it seems that the Greek physician Ctesias described the rhinoceros as a “wild ass” with “a horn,” in the 5th century BC, so there’s precedent for the mistake; Marco Polo offered a similar description.
However, Slifkin doesn’t think that the r’em was a unicorn or a rhinoceros, and, in fact, he doesn’t think that it had only one horn, because of the reference in Deuteronomy 33:17 to “the horns of the r’em.” (The LXX doesn’t have this problem because it refers to “the horns of the monokeroses. Similarly, the KJV fudges with “the horns of unicorns,” noting with delightfully quaint grammar that the original Hebrew reads, “an unicorn.”)
The Greek drakon and the Hebrew tanin have popped up recently on Dr. Claude Mariottini’s blog (here) and, a while back, on my own (here). It’s complicated to compare the Hebrew tanin, the Greek drakon, and the KJV “dragon” and other translations (including “whale”) because there is some disagreement about the original text, as I describe here.
Furthermore, sometimes the Greek drakon and KJV “dragon” are translations of a different Hebrew word altogether: livyathan, commonly “leviathan” in English.
Dr. Mariottini notes in a response to a question to his post that, “The use of ‘dragon’ by the KJV [for tanin, rendered in the LXX as drakon] is not correct. There were no dragons in ancient Israel.”
His statement is interesting because there are no dragons at all: not in ancient Israel, but also not in ancient Greece, King James’ England, or 21st century America. I think his point, though, may be that ancient Israel didn’t even have the myth of dragons, in stark contrast to some other cultures, including our modern one.
The myth of mermaids and mermen may be older. Some people think the description of Dagon in I Samuel 5:4 refers to an idol of a fish-person. The Hebrew word dag means fish, and -on is a suffix in Hebrew that can mean “like.” The text reports that Dagon’s “head” and “two hands were cut off,” with “only the dagon” left. Perhaps the point was, “of that fish-person … only the fish-part was left.” (Other scholars connect dagon to dagan, “grain.”)
The prophet Ezekiel had no name for the creatures he saw. According to his description, they looked like a person, but with four faces (human, lion-like, ox-like, and eagle-like, each pointing in a different direction), four wings, straight legs, calf-like feet, and human hands. But I don’t think these were real in the same sense that, say, horses are.
There are dragons in Revelation, too, including the one that ends Chapter 12. Chapter 13 begins with a ten-horned, seven-headed beast. Like Ezekiel’s creatures, I don’t believe that the animal in Chapter 13 is supposed to be something that exists in this world. But what about the dragon in Chapter 12?
More generally, I think the real translation question with all of these creatures is whether they were intended to be mythic or — for want of a better word — real.
Even if they were intended to be real, “dragon” and “unicorn” may have been right once. It seems that people thought that both existed. (As late as the 17th century, scholars in Europe argued that griffins were real, and the only reason we didn’t see them was that, quite naturally, these magnificent creatures tended to stay away from people who would steal their gold). But now those translation wrongly take the real and turn them into fantasy.
On the other hand, if they were not meant to be real, then attempts to identify the exact species may be misguided, and maybe we should stick with “dragon” and “unicorn” and so forth.
If they were mythic, though, who’s to say that “dragon” back then had the same impact as “dragon” now (something I address briefly here)? For that matter, even if they were real, maybe “serpent” or what-not represents something today that it didn’t in the past.
But — and there’s nothing you can do but sit back and wait for the word-play to assault you — that a different kettle of fish.