Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Determining the Identity of the Unicorn

Before I get into this post, let me first give a very basic overview as to what a constellation is. If one looks toward the sky he will be able to see hundreds, if not thousands, of stars (unless it is cloudy, daytime or he lives close to a city with lots of lights and pollution). It would be virtually impossible to discuss the different regions of the sky if they were not divided into smaller units. Throughout history, humankind has recognized different areas of the sky as being distinct sections. Each defined grouping of stars was pictured as an object (i.e. a lion, bull, etc.) and these formations (like connect the dots) are constellations. It is similar to looking at a map of the U.S. and then subdividing it into fifty states.

In the times of the Greeks there were forty-eight constellations, and the Ibn Ezra contends that Chazal agree with both this number and the actual division. These were considered to be Divinely created and to exert influence on life on this planet. As time continued, people decided that they needed to subdivide the sky into more regions (without any Divine intervention) otherwise it would be too difficult to converse with one another. The new divisions, which became standardized, provide a framework for both scientists and laymen to discuss the sky with relative ease. These constellations were generally created by astronomers interested in contemporary science and not astrologers who were interested in the influences of these regions. As such, the names of these often reflect more scientific objects such as Microscopium, etc. Currently, there are eighty-eight recognized constellations.

Now, let's talk about unicorns. There is a constellation called Monoceros. Monoceros is Greek for unicorn (mono = one and ceros = horn; interestingly, often times if you exchange the "c" in a Greek word for a "k" you get the Hebrew word, for example, Okaynus, and Oceanis for the word for Oceans. In this instance you get keresh) and that is what this constellation depicts. There is a discrepancy as to when this constellation was "created", but it seems that it was in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. It appears that Plancius is the first confirmed source for it and Bartsch(ius) definitely included it in his later work. A notable point is that there is discussion as to whether the, slightly earlier and very reputable historian, Joseph Scaliger allegedly claimed to have seen this constellation in a much earlier ancient Persian source. If so, that would, perhaps, place it as far back as the time of Chazal. If the Persians' unicorn was similar to that of the ones mentioned by Chazal, then this information could be used to ascertain this beast's identity.

About a year ago I made, what I feel, is a big discovery. I was learning the Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma for my upcoming sefer (sorry, I had to put in another shameless plug). When the Ibn Ezra delineates the constellations he only mentions the standard forty-eight of Chazal. However, he constantly refers to other segments and star patterns in the sky. This would be comparable to looking at the map of the U.S. and, in addition to the states (our constellations), we could also see some counties and regions. These are currently referred to as asterisms (i.e. the Big Dipper which is a segment of the constellation Ursa Major). When discussing Gemini, the constellation associated with the upcoming month of Sivan, the Ibn Ezra discusses some nearby asterisms. One of them is, you guessed it, Monoceros!!! At first I was completely amazed. It seemed that I had historical proof that this "constellation" did, in fact, predate (since the Ibn Ezra lived hundreds of years before) and that Scaliger's claim may have validity. Not only that, but the Ibn Ezra also refers to all the objects mentioned in his work as having influence on the planet, a suggestion implying that these are Divinely created asterisms. Since the only Reishis Chachma that I was able to get was a translation I set out to find a copy of the original Hebrew (something I had wanted to do anyway).

I finally located a copy published in 1939 that contained the original Hebrew as well as a French and English translation. The Hebrew reads "חיה בעלת קרן" which does sound like unicorn, but, I must concede, is not definitive anymore since one could argue that it just means a horned animal. I do find it very unlikely to be something other than the unicorn, though, because what is the likelihood of that happening in the exact location of the modern Monoceros which Scaliger claims predates its "modern creation".

Based on Scaliger's testimony and the above proof, it seems that Plancius and Bartsch were aware of the older asterism and decided to include it into the sky as a constellation (by the way, there is no reason to suspect that they intended to present this as their own creation, rather, it is very possible that they just intended to upgrade an asterism of ancient to the status of constellation in order to divide the sky into smaller parts). Scaliger's alleged sighting in the Persian source would have included a picture of the animal (it was common to draw the stars with fancy artistic representations of their associated items behind them) and it stands to reason that Plancius was aware of this information. Therefore, they would have known the Persian unicorn's true identity, which would probably be identical to the Ibn Ezra's.

There has been speculation as to the possibility of the unicorn being a giraffe. The giraffe has two horns on the top of its head, but another bump in the middle of its head. If it is the unicorn, then, what Chazal meant when they said an animal with one horn between its eyes was that in addition to two regular horns it had a third in between its eyes. The translation as unicorn would, then, be in error. If the giraffe is the only species of unicorn mentioned then, perhaps, the above stellar discoveries put a little doubt on this assertion (in addition to the asterism/constellation being called Monoceros as opposed to Triceros). There is another constellation created by Plancius and charted by Bartsch, Camelopardalis. In case you haven't figured it out, camelopardalis means giraffe in Latin (originating from the Greek) and Plancius was dedicating this region of the sky to this animal (once again, camel = gamal, o = u and pardalis = bardalis, a spotted cat like an ocelot; this would show the Hebrew equivalent of a mix between a camel and bardalis, a giraffe does look something like a mix of the two). The fact that there was another constellation created by the same people indicates that the two cannot be one and the same. The depiction that is in use, stemming from Plancius and Bartsch, is a horselike creature with a horn on its head.

1 comment:

Ari S. said...

I forgot to mention another point. In one of the instances when the Gemara mentions the unicorn it refers to it as residing in "Bei Ilai". (Chullin 59b) Perhaps, the Gemara also means that its residence can be found "in the place above" which is the literal translation of these words. If so, it may be referring to the celestial depictions in the sky and Monoceros depicts this creature. Interestingly, another creature that the Gemara says lives in Bei Ilai is a lion of enormous size. The constellation Leo is right near Monoceros (certainly according to the Ibn Ezra who describes Monoceros in the same place as the current constellation, but being somehwhat larger than its current size).