Creationist Says Unicorns Are Real. Dinosaurs Everywhere Roll Their Eyes

Don't believe that a one-horned, four-legged animal once roamed the earth? God won't be happy with you says the organization run by the fellow who debated evolution with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Virgin and Unicorn by Domenichino

The Christian Post reports that unicorns walked among us, though they may not have had one horn in spite of a name that means one horn:

Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis group has said that believing that unicorns are fantasy and were not once a real animal is to "demean God's Word." Elizabeth Mitchell pointed out in an article posted on Friday that unicorns are specifically mentioned in the Bible, such as in the book of Job.

"To think of the biblical unicorn as a fantasy animal is to demean God's Word, which is true in every detail," Mitchell's article said.

... The unicorn mentioned in the Bible was a powerful animal possessing one or two strong horns — not the fantasy animal that has been popularized in movies and books," Mitchell argues.

Read the rest.

Since I'm inclined to defend faith, science and unicorns, here's my take.

The Christian Post article reports on an essay written by Answers in Genesis published in its "answers" section. AiG is a Christian fundamentalist organization that promotes creationism.

The reporting is weak, trying to spin a non-story as news about AiG's controversial founder, Ken Ham (Mr. Ham is popularly known for debating creationism with Bill Nye the Science Guy in 2014). The Christian Post doesn't do more than grab copy from AiG's site, bracket it with mentions of Mr. Ham, and splash a big picture below the headline of him next to a dinosaur display.

It's hard to get around the original article's muddy thesis on unicorns. I parse it as: The Bible says unicorns existed. Because they're extinct we don't know what they looked like but they're definitely not the one-horned, goat-like creatures of fantasy stories. To believe otherwise offends God.

Uh huh.

OK, where do we start?

The Bible doesn't mention unicorns. But of course that depends on the Bible you have in your bookshelf.

The AiG essay uses Job 39:9-12 to prove its point. My New American Bible Revised Edition (the translation used by the Catholic Church in the United States) says this:

Will the XXXXX consent to serve you, or pass the nights at your manger?

Will you bind the XXXXX with a rope in the furrow, and will he plow the valleys after you?

Will you depend on him for his great strength and leave to him the fruits of your toil?

Can you rely on him to bring in your grain and gather in the yield of your threshing floor?

I put XXXXX in place of an animal's name, which is sometimes attributed to a unicorn, sometimes not.

Putting aside for a moment modern biblical criticism which helps us understand the text's meaning by looking at the context of the author's world, the Hebrew used refers to now-extinct wild cattle, often identified as a rimu, not a white, one-horned, goat-like animal with solid hoofs.

The misinterpretation used in some versions, such as the King James Bible, may have come from ancient depictions by Assyrian artists. They were fond of side angles that seemed to show wild ox of the region as having a single horn. When that image met the bestiary influenced world of early biblical translators -- KABOOM -- the unicorn is there. Of course old language habits die hard and so the word persists in some translations. (How many of us still say "dude"?)

The AiG article says this could be a possible interpretation but dismisses its probability because "the linguistics of the text cannot conclusively prove how many horns the biblical unicorn had." Well, the linguistics of "bird" can't do that either.

This passage in Job is part of a speech by God to Job about God's role as creator of the universe (and Job's role as not the creator of the universe). Along with unicorn/wild ox, the biblical author mentions a bunch of other animals both wild and tame: ibis, lion, raven, mountain goat, wild donkey, ostrich, horse, hawk, eagle (all according to the NAB translation).

Each uses a formula to move God's argument forward, and sounds roughly like this: Do you, Job, know or influence the animals? I do. Each case depicts a snapshot of the animal's life.

The behavior of animals which are good candidates for domestication are clear (the horse and its reaction to battle; the wild donkey which has been released from domestication). But a unicorn as a candidate for plowing a field? Wild cattle are clearly reasonable candidates here, a unicorn not so much. (That's +1 for the wild ox.)

Even if you're not convinced that the bible is talking about extinct cattle, is belief in unicorns a test of faith as AiG argues? No, it points to the natural, not the supernatural. Unicorns would not have been creatures of pure spirit like angels -- no one argues that. They would have been temporal beings with blood and hair and skin and poop. To say they did exist requires proof not faith. Even AiG, which says the Earth and universe are 6,000 years old, believes dinosaurs walked the planet. Find a bone (better yet find a horn) and then we'll talk.

Finally, we have to look at taxonomy. AiG's argument rests on the word unicorn. Even if there was a Hebrew word for unicorn (as there is in Greek), would the author of Job and we be talking about the same creature?

We would not. The unicorn of myth and fairy tale is a European creation, having its basis in stories from India at about the time of Alexander the Great (who lived at least a couple of hundred years after Job was written). Once Aristotle got hold of it, Europeans never let go. Its place in popular imagination was cemented by Christian iconography which made the unicorn a symbol of Christ. (That's a story for another day.) And where castles are built, so live princesses and the princes who rescue them from kings with evil designs.

To sum up my objections to AiG's assertions:

  • "unicorn" is a persistent mistranslation for wild cattle
  • the Job example refers to an animal related to domestic cattle
  • belief in temporal creatures is not a test of faith
  • the unicorn we know (and love!) was not a part of Job's culture

AiG says the stories in Genesis are factual events in history. If unicorns did exist in biblical times and they became extinct, how might that have happened? Consider this explanation from French studio Canal+ about Noah and the great flood:


My take is a bit different, and I can imagine unicorns end up at church once in a while under different circumstances.

Here's an excerpt from my upcoming story that continues the adventures of Charles, Lexi and the potty mouthed unicorn:

It finally felt like Christmas. 

The Eagles "Please Come Home for Christmas" played on the radio. A few flakes hit the windshield as I drove by the college polylith (which is a sort of monument to mining), past Civil War headstones in the old cemetery, and into a rear lot of the church, the lot used for funeral parking.

I backed the pickup truck into a spot next to a white shed that housed the backhoe. No one else was parked in this end of the lot yet. They would be soon. Today was Christmas Pageant day.

People were gathering in the parking lot's opposite end. Lexi and her friends were there, Katie, Maggie, Kimmie, Danni and Marley. Marley was named after Bob Marley, which was cool. The others were clearly named from random selections in some baby naming book, and frankly, knowing their parents, I'm surprised they weren't named Dodge Van, Mustang Back Seat, Diner Men's Room Toilet Stall and Copy Closet. The girls were holding their "unicorns."

Earlier in the day I dropped Lexi at Maggie's house. Maggie met us with a bag. In it was a pack of colored tissue paper, a Styrofoam cone, duct tape and yellow poly rope, like the kind used for tying down tarps. The girls loved the idea of dressing their horses like unicorns. Danni and Kimmie loved it so much they bailed on a scheduled basketball game to be in the church pageant. They never miss games.

Lexi quietly told me to decorate the unicorn so he looked like a horse wearing a fake horn, and she brought the bridle to make it look authentic. 

"The unicorn won't wear this," I said to Lexi.

"Tell him it's a favor for me," she said.

Lexi stayed with Maggie. She had brought her angel costume for the pageant with her.

I returned to the house to dress the unicorn. The unicorn was waiting by the front door. "You like parades?" I said. "You're marching in one."

He didn't talk to me, except about the bridle. "No harness," he said.

"Lexi's orders, you're a horse," I said.

He didn't resist. I wrapped the horn in scarlet, azure, sea-foam green and purple tissue paper. The colors were deep and intense. I tied a the yellow poly rope around his chin, and fastened both ends around the horn with duct tape so it appeared to be held in place by the poly rope. I threw the Styrofoam cone in the bushes.

Back in the church parking lot, the pageant's horses, dressed as unicorns, were each held by a girl in a white angel costume just like Lexi's. Their Styrofoam horns were also covered in colored crepe paper and held up by yellow rope. But they were different, better. The girls used whimsical and oddly cut shapes. They added streamers, sparkles and pompoms. These were fairy book unicorns, unicorns in celebration, unicorns fit for a little girl's room or a merry-go-round. My work was all utility, like an 80s mall bathroom.

I opened my pickup's bed cap door. The unicorn, hardly struggling, wiggled out onto the cemetery lawn. We headed for the group of girls.

"See the brown one on the left? I think I'm in love," the unicorn said.

"It's not your species," I said.

"Close enough. She's got great t-t-t-tinsel" he said.

"How about the white one to the right? She's kind of cute," I said.

He grimaced. "A double feed bagger."

Lexi met us halfway. "Can you look and act more like a horse?" she said to the unicorn. "Like an old one?" The unicorn was smaller than the horses and looked more like a beefy deer with a weird tail than a horse.

"Start polishing the Oscar," he said. He distended his stomach, concavely arched his back, dropped his head, and misaligned each eye into a distant, waiting-for-death look. He walked slower, almost submissive and plodding. The sound of his hooves took on a metallic clickity-clack sound. The transformation was remarkable, but next to real horses he was different, not like them. He was a unicorn pretending to be a horse pretending to be a unicorn.

"You going to behave?" I said.

"Shut up, I'm in character," he said.

"Will you?"

"Probably not."

Lexi shushed us. "Quiet, you two."

We approached the girls and their unicorns. "Oh, my God, he's so cute," said Danni.

"That's a funny looking horse," Marley said. "It looks strange."

"It's a Chincoteague pony. They're different, they're from a wild island in Maryland and live on salt grass," Lexi said.

"I love him," Kimmi said. All attention was on the unicorn. "What's his name?"

"Moros," I said.

"Morose?" Katie said.

"No, Moros. It's Greek, it means dull," I said.

The unicorn sneezed, and then my head hurt. The unicorn had swung his head sideways and hit me with his horn. The girls laughed.

"I don't think he likes that name," Maggie said. "I'll name him something better, Prince Kisses. Hello, Prince Kisses, I'm pleased to meet you. I'm Maggie." Maggie curtsied to the unicorn. Her horse, the white one, nickered and moved a step towards the unicorn. The unicorn moved to avoid the white horse and put his lips against Maggie's cheek.

"He kissed you," Katie said. "He really likes that name."

"I know," Maggie said.

"I'll call him Mr. Snuggles," Kimmi said. The unicorn moved to Kimmi and nestled his forehead in her shoulder. "Wow," Kimmi said.

"How about Lovebuttons," said Marley.

"Or King Cutie," said Danni.

The unicorn moved to Marley, then Danni. I pulled his reins. He tried to fake a neigh, which sounded more like a smoker's cough. "OK, OK, I think Prince Kisses has heard enough," I said.

Other animals, their costumed owners and costumed kids without animals were arriving. Camels, a donkey, chickens in cages, bunnies in cages, a pot-bellied pig on a leash, two llamas, lots of dogs including a Yorkie, a Jack Russell terrier and a boxer. No cats, one black goat, and two plump, grimy looking sheep with orange numbers spray painted on their backs, "6" on one and "40" on the other. Their handlers were dressed as Magi (there were eventually seven Magi).

More angels arrived, as did shepherds sans sheep, and some kids dressed as the more difficult to handle animals that weren't present: cows and bulls. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were waiting, we hoped, in the wings of the manger stage to which the kids and their animals would parade.

And then it was time for final inspection. The pastor arrived. He was reviewing animals and costumes up and down the parking lot. Few children escaped criticism. He yelled at a boy, who looked away from the pastor as young kids do when they're confronted by adults for reasons they are not aware. The pastor yelled at him more. A girl ran away in tears after her review. The girl was one of the Magi, we were now down to six. If there was nothing to say he tweaked costumes or picked off some microscopic fuzz. And there was admonishment for poor footwear choices which seemed to plague girls, most of whom wore Ugg-style boots.

It was our turn. "How are we today?" the pastor said. He knew how he was, happy to make little girls cry.

"Good morning, pastor," the children said.

The pastor looked more at home in the cemetery than the rectory. His face was narrow. His skin was thin, or at least had an opacity that hid in the presence of daylight. He looked like he hadn't slept in a century. When he preached about Gehenna, you believed he had insider knowledge. The dude was gruesome.

"So our horses aren't horses, are they? They're little unicorns," the pastor said.

"That's correct, pastor," Lexi said.

"Lexi, my dear, horses are supposed to be horses. These are not," the pastor said.

"You told me to take charge. I did," Lexi said.

"I see a very sloppy operation here. You are responsible for the parade. I expected more," he said.

The unicorn pulled me toward the pastor. I pulled him back.

"There were no unicorns in the bible," the pastor said.

"Then what animals were in the manger with Jesus?" Lexi said.

"You know, donkeys and horses and goats and sheep. The Magi brought camels, of course," the pastor said.

"Why are pigs here? Jesus was Jewish, pork isn't kosher," Lexi said.

"Pigs are farm animals. You find farm animals in a manger,"

"Jimmy Mahoney brought a llama. How does that make sense?"

"There were no unicorns," the pastor said.

"But pastor, Luke didn't say there were animals in the manger at all," Lexi said. "If you say there were and he didn't name them, how do you know there weren't any unicorns?"

"Because there's no such thing as a unicorn," the pastor said.

That was a huge mistake. Maggie started to sob, then Katie, then Marley and finally Danni and Kimmie and Lexi. All the girls were crying. The unicorn started to tear, too. I smacked him in the rear.

"What do you mean unicorns don't exist?" Maggie said. "How can you say that?"

"Stop, stop, it's just that I don't like surprises," the pastor said.

The girls kept crying. It was a beautiful moment: Pastor Grave Digger was buried by five girls holding horses dressed as fake unicorns. And behold! the sixth was real. Lexi looked up at me and winked.

"OK, OK. The unicorns can stay. Next year they're horses. And you look like a butterfly. Perk up those wings," he said and walked away.