Usually, in these Facts of Faith, I talk about something that’s real, factual, and a part of our Catholic life and culture. But sometimes it’s instructive to look not just at the facts, but at our legends and cultural heritage. Take, for example, the unicorn.
For most of our history, unicorns weren’t considered mythological. In fact, the most ancient references we have to the aren’t in Greek mythology, but in ancient Greek natural histories. In the middle ages they were regarded as the rarest of wild animals, and could be lured into traps and captured if the traps were baited with a young virgin.
There are eight references to unicorns in the Old Testament. At least, there used to be. The translators of the King James version of the Bible in 1611 followed the usage of the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate texts in translating the old Hebrew word Re’em as “unicorn.” Modern translations usually render “Re’em” as a wild bull or oxen. In much of ancient art, oxen were depicted in profile, appearing to have just one horn.
Medieval spiritual writers used the unicorn as a symbol for the Incarnation of Christ, which only makes sense if you believe the part about unicorns being captured when they fall asleep with their heads in the lap of a virgin. In the early 15th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo described an encounter with a unicorn this way:
“scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead… They have a head like a wild boar’s… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.”
He was evidently describing a rhinoceros.
The unicorn is a great example of the evolution of an idea from mistaken zoology to religious symbol, to mythological creature. They speak to our desire to see our faith reflected in the natural world, and our ability to transform ideas from errors to meaning-laden symbols, to mythic cultural artifacts.