Following my (relatively) recent post about dragons and mermaids in the Bible, today I want to explore another subject that has to do with mythical beasts: the symbolism of horns and unicorns in Judaism. If you thought that unicorns are just honor members of a much-later medieval bestiary, you will be surprised to know that the King James Bible uses the word “unicorn” no less than six times (Num 23:22, Num 24:8. Job 39:9-10, Psalm 29:6, Psalm 92:10), although surprisingly other versions of the Bible translate the same word as “ox,” “wild-ox” or other horned animals. The problem is that these oxes seem to have a single horn, as implied by a text we recite twice every Shabbat: “you raise my horn (not ‘horns’) like that of the triumphant ox (or unicorn).” So these are the questions: are there unicorns in the Bible? And how do we read the metaphor of raising somebody’s horn in Jewish culture?
The Hebrew word usually translated as “unicorn” is ראם (re’em), a term of uncertain meaning. G. Dennis defines the re’em as a mythic giant ox-like animal with horns, or perhaps with a single horn. Let us explore what rabbinic literature and Jewish myth tell us about these unicorns. Very strong and agile, the re’em is so big that its horn touches the clouds and its droppings can dam the river Jordan (Yalkut II: 97d). The re’em was created on the sixth day of creation, that is, at the same time that the Divine created human beings and the rest of animals not included on the 5th day. Apparently, the legend says that there are only two re’emim (plural of re’em) at a time, and that they only mate every 70 years. After mating, the female re’em kills the male. The next pair gestate in the female for at least 12 years, and then the female dies while giving birth. It is said that King David inadvertently mistook a re’em for a mountain and climbed on it (B.B. 73a). Of course, the biblical and rabbinic legends about the re’em are later conflated with popular beliefs about unicorns in medieval writings.
The essence of this mythological beast is, obviously, his prominent horn, in Hebrew קרן, keren. Horns are the symbol of power, of alarm and of other-worldliness. A midrash says that Cain sprouted a horn from his forehead as a mark given by God in order to protect him, but his semi-blind grandson Lemach accidentally killed him thinking he was a game animal. Based on Ex. 34:29, early Christians depicted Moses as having horns, as light was radiating from his face, and because the Hebrew language uses the word keren also to mean “rays of light” (קרני אור). This representation of a horned Moses (see, for instance, Michelangelo’s sculpture) influenced the Christian myth that Jews were minions of the Devil. Popular belief was that Jews actually had real horns under their head cover, a myth reinforced by the mandatory wearing of horned hats.
The fact is that in medieval Europe Jewish males were forced to wear a single-horned skull cap or pilleus cornutus. It begun by being just another shape of the traditional head covering, but quickly became mandatory in order to distinguish Jews from Christians. The law was based on the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), which ruled that non-Christians must at all times be distinguishable by their dress, less Christians engage in sexual intercourse with them by mistake. Through the centuries, the wearing of the horned hat was substituted in other countries by the wearing of a badge, a trend that continued down to Nazi Germany. Rules of distinctive garb for Jews were also enforced in the Muslim world continuously at least until mid 19th century. In European art, the wearing of the horned hat is often symbolic: Egyptian magicians are depicted wearing it too, as a sign of being “like Jews,” that is, on the wrong side of the dispute depicted in Ex. 7:10-12; in scenes of Judgment Day conversions, removing the Jewish hat is a symbol of abandoning infidelity and recalcitrant Jewishness. On the other hand, antisemitic depictions of the male Jew –not unlike later prejudices against black males in our country— regularly included being a sexual predator that targeted gentile women, and some authors argue that a long “shapely” nose was nothing but a code for the Jewish phallus.
The point is that, for some primal, etiological reason, many cultures have equated the symbolism of the horn to that of the phallus, with implications of strength and ruling power. Going back to the Bible, the word “horn” appears often in the text in a literal, functional way, but also in a metaphorical sense. Here and there we have faint hints of horns and magic-ritual uses in the Bible. Thus Zedekiah made for himself (or perhaps for the king) a cap with horns of iron, saying “thus says Hashem: with these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed” (1Kings 22:11), the idea being that the wearer of the horns would be transformed in an invincible, triumphant bull. The concept of kings as “young bulls with horns” was quite common in the ancient Near East (Shalmeneser III, Thutmose III and Seti II all receive this epithet). The whole tribe of Efraim is poetically described in these terms: “his glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together” (Dt 33:17). Once again, the King James Bible’s “unicorn” is none but the re’em in the original Hebrew.
In another interesting biblical epithet God is described as “the horn of my salvation” (Ps 18:2, 2Sam 22:3). This implies that horns not always have the connotation of attack or destruction, but also positive implications of deliverance and not-so-veiled phallic allusions, as the texts imply vertical representations of raising horns. Such is the case of “my horn is lifted up like the horn of the wild-ox (or unicorn, re’em), I am anointed with fresh oil,” which arguably could represent the erection as a symbol of power and victory. Redemption and strength for the future messiah are reflected in the phrase “I will make a horn to sprout for David” (Jer 48:25). One can easily read a castration metaphor when “the horn of Moab is cut” (meaning that Moab’s political domination is over). Note that in all of these cases, the texts mention one single horn, not a pair of them.
Despite the contemporary commercialized, sanitized version of the unicorn myth, unicorns also have a close link to phallicism, that is, the veneration of the generative principle in the form of a phallus. As both phallus and horn are symbols of primal masculinity (only male animals have horns), as such they have connotations of both destruction-agression (the horn as a weapon) and generative powers. The cornucopia –the “horn of abundance,” a classical symbol of Western art, often related in America to Thanksgiving– is depicted as a horn-shaped container overflowing with produce, flowers and nuts. This is an interesting symbiosis, as the masculine/horn symbol has a fecundity effect in the feminine/earth abundant harvest. Of particular interest are the many mythical beings depicted with horns, often inspired in anthropomorphic gods, as many of the moon-cult (think of the inverted crescent shape in the head of a figure) and bull-cult deities are represented with horns. Pan, Apollo Carneus and Dionysus are all horned gods with phallic implications, and they have been linked to fertility, a certain ritual madness, and religious ecstasy. We find similar connections in the myths related to Shiva, Osiris, Priapus, Hermes, Cernunnos, etc. It is quite interesting that Christianity turned the images of these horned gods into representations of the devil, the antithesis of God and incarnation of destructive passions as much as of unruly sexuality. To me, it is a symbol of the Christian discomfort, if not plain rejection, of anything related to the body and to sexuality.
And thus we close the circle. In this totum revolutum of popular imagination, Jews –perceived as horned creatures of insatiable and disorderly sexuality— conflate with images of alterity, of ancient gods and modern devils, sitting together around the fire, dancing the primal, generative dance of the unicorn.
Bienstock Anolik, Ruth and Douglas L. Howard, edit. The Gothic other: racial and social constructions in the literary imafination. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2004, p. 188.
Davis, Christian. Colonialism, antisemitism and Germans of Jewish Descent in Imperial Germany. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015, p. 103
Dennis, Geoffrey W. The Encyclopedia of Jewish myth, magic and mysticism, Woodbury MN : Llewellyn, 2007, pp. 117, 122-123.
“Jewish hat,” Wikipedia [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_hat, accessed Dec. 29, 2015]
Mystery, Mel, “Unicorns and phallic horns,” Discovering the male mysteries podcast, episode 10, May 18, 2014 [http://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-xp64u-4ec73a/download, accessed Dec. 29, 2015]
Süring, Margit L., “The horn-motifs of the Bible and the ancient Near East,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1984, Vol. 22 no. 3, pp. 327-340