Should Christians Believe in the Existence of Unicorns?

Critics and skeptics love to mock Christians because some older translations of the Bible, such as the King James Version, mention unicorns in nine different verses. My employer, Answers in Genesis, has frequently been ridiculed on this point. Someone has developed a unicorn museum website to spoof the Creation Museum site. Many atheists and other skeptics have derided the Ark Encounter project by asking if there will be unicorns on the Ark. The video linked to in this article shows a few examples of skeptics mocking biblical creationists on this issue. So what is this all about?

The word translated as “unicorn” in the KJV, is often rendered as “wild ox” in modern translations (the Hebrew word is re’em). For example, see Psalm 22:21 and Job 39:9–12 in the KJV and then compare to a modern version like the NKJV or NASB.

Is this mystical creature what the King James Version refers to as a unicorn?
(Image courtesy of

Those who mock the Bible at this point are guilty of some pretty shoddy scholarship. Rather than spending their time mocking, they should try to understand why the King James translators used the word unicorn or its plural form nine times. Luther’s German Bible, translated nearly a century earlier than the KJV, also renders the Hebrew word re’em as Einhorn (lit. “one horn” or unicorn).

So all of these translators were guilty of believing in some make-believe animal, right? Not at all! The main problem is that several centuries ago, when people mentioned a creature called a unicorn they often had in mind something very different than the mystical horse-like creature pictured above.

Here’s an excellent video that explains why biblical translators used the word unicorn.

As explained in the video, the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary cites two different possible identifications for the unicorn:

  1. An animal with one horn; the monoceros. The name is often applied to the rhinoceros.
  2. The sea unicorn is a fish of the whale kind, called narwal, remarkable for a horn growing out at his nose.

Modern versions of Webster’s Dictionary describe the unicorn as a mythical animal. Are we just that much smarter than people 200 years ago who believed in mythical creatures? Of course not. The difference is now when most people hear the term “unicorn” they automatically think of the horse-like fantasy creature because our society has been so inundated with that imagery. However, Noah Webster recognized that the term unicorn simply referred to an animal with one horn, such as the one-horned rhinoceros (as shown in the video) and the narwhal.

Webster was not alone. Consider the following descriptions from some very old sources. During his vast travels, Marco Polo kept detailed records. He mentioned seeing unicorns while visiting what is now known as Sumatra. Here is what he wrote:

They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are 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 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. (Ronald Latham, translator, Marco Polo: The Travels (New York: Penguin, 1958), p. 253.)

Marco Polo specifically refuted the mystical notion of a unicorn by dismissing the creature of legends that could supposedly be captured only by virgins. This idea still persists in unicorn lore.

Illustration of an elasmotherium. Is this what Marco Polo saw?

So what did Marco Polo see? It certainly wasn’t the horse-like creature. He said it was very ugly to look at and was barely smaller than an elephant. The rhinoceros would be an excellent candidate for this, especially the extinct version known as elasmotherium (pictured here). Some argue that what Polo saw was the Javan Rhinoceros (a one-horned variety of the rhino). While this is possible, the Javan Rhinoceros does not have hair like a buffalo as the elasmotherium likely had.

In the twelfth century, a popular book on animals (a bestiary) was written. Known as The Book of Beasts, it offered descriptions of numerous animals, including the unicorn. Although this ancient book included an illustration of the mythical horse-like unicorn, the English translation by T. H. White includes the following information in a footnote:

To put it briefly, the idea of the unicorn probably originated in travellers’ tales about the rhinoceros whose horn was so much valued in Asia as an aphrodisiac. These tales about the scarce horn were given an impetus by the teeth of narwhal found on beaches. The famous medieval ones at Paris, Venice, Antwerp and in England, and those belonging to the King of Poland and the Duke of Mantua, with what Sir Thomas Browne calls their ‘anfractuous spires and chocleary turnings’, were narwhal horns. They were supposed also to have great virtue against poisons, particularly arsenic.” (T. H. White, translator, The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1954; 1984), p. 44.

“Chocleary” may be a misprint for “cochlear,” a term which describes a coiled shape like a snail shell. The description of the narwhal’s horn, which is actually a tooth, perfectly matches the horns on the popular drawings of the mythical horse-like unicorns. It is easy to see how legends were built upon the supposed magical or medicinal properties of these rare horns.

So let’s take a quick look at how the Bible describes the unicorn. The descriptions of this creature sometimes appear in the midst of discussions of other well-known animals and are treated as real creatures. As you read the descriptions here, notice how a real and extremely powerful animal like a rhinoceros is being described rather than the mythical horse-like creature.

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? Or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? Or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn? (Job 39:9–12)

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 to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh. (Deuteronomy 33:17)

The narrator of the video was not entirely correct that the King James translators made a mistake here; however, I think they could have been just a little bit more precise. The Hebrew term re’em almost certainly refers to the rhinoceros—both the single horn (rhinoceros unicornis) and two-horned (diceros bicornis) varieties. In this particular verse, it probably would have been more accurate to refer to the two-horned creature here, especially since the plural term “horns” appears twice in this passage while referring to a single creature.

This verse likens Joseph’s descendants to the horns of a rhinoceros. The larger horn represents Joseph’s son Ephraim, who had far more descendants than his brother Manasseh, represented by the smaller horn.

So should Christians believe in unicorns? Absolutely! They were very likely of the rhinoceros kind (perhaps including the elasmotherium). Many of them are still alive today. They were definitely not the mythical horse-like creature, nor did the Bible writers portray such a creature. Their descriptions match that of the rhinoceros. Some Christians propose that this refers to the “wild ox” or the extinct aurochs, whose symmetrical horns may appear as one in profile drawings.

All those critics who enjoy mocking the Bible on this point should perform a bit of research to see how foolish they sound for mocking Christians who believe in the existence of the rhinoceros and/or elasmotherium. But like I’ve said before, many of these scoffers are not interested in studying the Bible, they simply want to mock it and suppress what they know to be true because they do not like the idea of God being their judge when they die. Rather than willfully suppressing the truth and remaining in ignorance, I pray these critics will bury their pride, repent of their sin, and trust in their Creator, whose name is Jesus Christ.

Answers in Genesis has offered several responses to the critics on this subject, including a chapter in their popular New Answers Book series and web articles like this one.

What are your thoughts on this subject? If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it with your friends on facebook and/or twitter by clicking the appropriate buttons below. Thanks for reading.


Should Christians Believe in the Existence of Unicorns? — 9 Comments

  1. You need to read the bible more cause Deut 33:17- has nothing to do with unicorns. Its talking about him defending himself from what’s to come.
    Joseph has the majesty of a firstborn bull; he is as strong as a wild ox. He will stab other nations, even those nations far away. These are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and these are the thousands of Manasseh.”
    Deuteronomy 33:17 NCV

    • Hi Regina,
      I think you misunderstood the point of this post. I don’t believe it has anything to do with unicorns either…if by “unicorn” you are thinking about the white horse with a horn on its head that is popular in fantasy. Clearly, the passage is speaking about a real creature, and it is describing Joseph metaphorically as this creature. And it tells us that Joseph’s two children are like the horns of this creature.
      So, we need to try to identify what creature is being talked about. This is often very difficult in Bible translation, as can be seen when you compare how different translations handle the various lists of animals in certain passages. If we don’t have a description of the creature and the context doesn’t give us too much detail, then translators are kind of in the dark when trying to figure out what creature is being described. In this case, “wild ox” doesn’t really fit the descriptions of the creature in the various passages in which it is mentioned. But there is one creature that fits it very well, and that’s the rhinoceros. It’s too strong to hook up to your plow. You’d never put it by your child’s crib. The young can skip around. There is a one-horned variety and a two-horned variety, and the latter has one horn larger than the other (which fits the thousands v. ten thousands language perfectly).
      The fact is the KJV uses the word “unicorn” in several passages, which has led skeptics to mock the Bible by saying that it talks about mythical creatures when it is actually talking about a real animal — just not what most people think of when they hear “unicorn.” But when the KJV was published in 1611, unicorn was another name for rhinoceros (see the 1609 Douay-Rheims version of Dt. 33:17 — it translates it as rhinoceros). For all of those reasons, I think rhinoceros is the best translation of the Hebrew term that has been translated as unicorn or wild ox.
      Finally, telling someone, “You need to read the Bible more” is really a poor argument and not a good way to start a conversation. We all need to read our Bibles more, so I could just say the same thing back to you. For the record, I read through it once a year and have been doing this nearly every year for the past 21 years. And for the past 12 years, I’ve been reading a different version every year (I’ve now done a couple of them twice). And I’ve been blessed to work in various ministry positions where it’s been my job to read, study, and teach the Bible. That doesn’t mean that I’m always right (I’m not), and it doesn’t mean that I’ve studied enough (I haven’t), but it does mean that you shouldn’t assume I don’t read the Bible much or that your disagreement with this article is due to my supposed lack of Bible reading.

  2. Thank you for your excellent article! I shared it with my 14 year old son. We recognized in the video part of a debate with Kent Hovind, great idea to include this. We were saddened by the state of these Evolutionist debating Hovind.
    About the manga artwork…I have never bought the books because of this art(I was a ‘Speed Racer’ fan before coming to Christ and don’t care for the reminder of my past excesses, also I am familiar with its evil usage). I would consider buying the series if it had different artwork. Again, thank you very much for you hard work for the Kingdom!

    • Hi Nancy,
      Thank you for your kind words. I didn’t put the video together, but I thought the young man who did make it did an excellent job.
      Also, no worries about staying away from The Truth Chronicles. We knew that some people would avoid them because of the style of art, but we also knew it could be a very effective tool to reach and teach fans of that style.
      God bless!

  3. A lady in our church told me that I should get rid of a kids unicorn toy as is invited evil spirits And that it will bring money troubles?! What do you think about that?
    The same with any bat man or superman toy or costume.

    • Hi Alana,

      I have had a similar experience with my youth fiction series, The Truth Chronicles. At a convention booth one day, a woman stopped and told my wife that there were demons in my books. I’d like to know how she would know this. I’d also like to know why an allegedly demon-possessed book series promotes the gospel and defends the Christian faith. It seems to me that something possessed by a demon would do the opposite. I assume that she thought such a thing because we used manga artwork in the series, but there is nothing inherently evil in this style of art (even though many people use it for wicked purposes).
      There is nothing about a unicorn toy that would make it demonic. As mentioned in the post, the image of a horse with a horn, which is what I assume you are referring to, is probably not what the Bible referenced when speaking of a one-horned creature. So it’s possible that such a toy can give the wrong impression, it can also provide you with an opportunity to teach the truth. That’s how I would use it.
      I would say that the same thing goes for any Batman or Superman toy or costume. These things are simply pieces of material and there is no reason to fear them. As with everything else, be sure that you use every opportunity to teach the truth.

  4. Excellent excellent Job!!! Loved the article! Once again the critics of scripture don’t do their homework.

    • Kevin,
      Thanks for the link to Browne’s chapter. It’s very interesting. In response to his honest question in the second footnote, I’d like to point out that despite their size, rhinos are quite agile and can run up to 25-30 mph.

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