What Are the Unicorns and Satyrs Mentioned in the Bible?
Why does the Bible contain references to such mythological creatures as the ‘unicorn’ (Num. 23:22), and the ‘satyr’ (Isa. 13:21)?
How can such allusions be harmonized with the claim that the Bible is the infallible word of God?
The “Unicorn” of the Bible
The term “unicorn” is found nine times in the King James Version of the Bible (Num. 23:22; 24:8; Dt. 33:17; Job 39:9-10; Psa. 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; Isa. 34:7).
However, unicorn does not appear at all in the American Standard Version, nor in most other more modern versions. This should be a signal that the “problem” is one of translation, rather than a problem with the original, biblical text.
In ancient mythological literature, the unicorn was a horse-like animal with a prominent horn protruding from the center of its forehead. There is no evidence that this creature is alluded to in the scriptures.
In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word that is found in the texts referenced above is
re'em, which is translated “wild ox” in the later versions. Most scholars believe the term refers to a large, fierce ox of the ancient world — a beast that now is extinct.
The translators of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) rendered
re'mes by the Greek term
monokeros (“one horn”), on the basis of certain pictographs which were among the ruins of ancient Babylon. The carvings depicted the “wild ox” in profile form, thus seeming to suggest that the creature had but a single horn (Pfeiffer et al, 1999, p. 83). Out of this background derived the “one horn” perception.
Biblical evidence, however, indicates otherwise. Note that in Deuteronomy 33:17, the
re'em is described as having “horns” (plural), not a single horn.
No mythology can be charged to the Bible in connection with the term unicorn.
In Greek and Roman mythology, the satyr was a half-man/half-beast god, a companion of Bacchus. There is absolutely no relationship between this pagan concept and any passage in the Bible.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word
sa'ir is found about fifty-two times. It is related to the term
se'ar (“hair”), which means a “hairy one.” Mostly the word is used of the male goat that was employed as a sin-offering — especially that solemn sin-offering of the day of atonement (Lev. 16).
In two cases,
sa'ir is translated “satyr” in the King James Version (Isa. 13:21; 34:14). In those passages it clearly alludes to wild goats of the sort that lived among the ruins of Babylon and Edom.
Twice the term is rendered “demon” (Lev. 17:7; 2 Chron. 11:15 — KJV), where it actually signifies a pagan god that takes the form of a goat (see ESV — 2 Chron. 11:15). Of this latter passage, noted scholar J. Barton Payne wrote:
“Far from being mythological ‘satyrs,’ as claimed by ‘liberal’ criticism, the
sirimappear to have been simply goat idols, used in conjunction with the golden calves” (Pfeiffer et al, 1969, p. 400).
And so, once more, careful investigation demonstrates that the writers of the Bible have not lowered themselves to the superstitions of paganism. Critical charges ever destruct upon the shoals of truth.
- Pfeiffer C., Vos H., & Rea J., Eds. 1999. Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Pfeiffer, C., Ferguson E., Eds. 1969. Wycliffe Bible Commentary. London: Oliphants.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.