Psalm 91 (92) : horns, oxen, strength and honour

My horn shalt thou exalt (Ps 91/92:10)

The psalm for this week is one that just keeps on giving.  It starts with  a fine mission statement for the entire Book of Psalms : ‘It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to make music to your name’,   and then goes on to list some musical instruments (which I blogged about before).   Later in the psalm, there is some beautiful tree imagery which nagged at me until I sat down and worked through it on another blog which you can find  here.   But even so I am still worrying away at this week’s psalm because of another group of images and symbols, to do with young wild oxen, horns, vigour, strength and majesty .

Sculpture of ox
Paul Bunyan’s ox as the image of strength
Hunting for an image in places where it’s been taken out

I nearly missed it, because it isn’t in the group of verses which we use this week.   It is interesting because it’s a rather odd image, striking when you first hear it.  However, you will only catch it in some translations, usually the older versions of the psalms, and it doesn’t occur in the Grail translation, which is the base for the verses (as opposed to the Responses) for the UK and Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, and Canada.  So it comes up in the US settings,  not (usually) in the others in the Sunday Missals, but it is there of course in the Anglican psalter.

How many horns do the Psalms have?

There are about half a dozen psalms where this image of the horn appears, starting with Ps 17/18:2f.  Here is a link , so that you can see how it is present in many different translations.  God is described as ‘the horn of my salvation’, but in the Grail Psalter, this is rendered as ‘my mighty help’.  Next Ps 74/75:11, where God threatens to cut off all the horns of the wicked, but the horns of the righteous will be lifted up (Grail uses ‘power’ and ‘strength’).   Ps 88/89 has two examples : our horn is exalted by God’s favour in v17, and God promises to exalt the horn of the just man in v24 (Grail ‘might’ both times).  Ps 91/92 expresses gratitude ‘for you have exalted my horn like that of a wild ox’ (Grail ‘To me you give the wild ox’s strength’) and so on in Ps 111/112:9 (Grail ‘head’), in Ps 131/132:17 (Grail ‘stock’) and in Ps 148:14 (Grail ‘strength’).

Jesse tree with descendants pictured
The Jesse tree : a ‘stock’ bringing forth the Saviour

It is usually linked to the word ‘exalt’ or ‘exalted’, which was very helpful when looking for examples in the Grail psalter.  It’s hard to prove a negative, and it’s even harder checking references to something that isn’t there!  There are obviously other examples in the Bible, because the metaphor of power can be extended even as far as meaning ‘kingdom’, plus there are the horns of the mythical animals in Daniel and in Revelation, but I’m trying to keep to the Psalms most of the time here.

Stop sniggering there in the back

The meaning is clear, but it’s a tricky metaphor for us in our post-Freudian era.  I think, though I am no Hebrew scholar, that it must be a dead metaphor in Hebrew, not provoking any mental picture of oxen or anything else, the way that people use ‘under way’ with no sense of a ship, or choose an airline seat ‘over the wing’ with no idea of feathers.  That’s why the animals appear only occasionally in the text.

Different ways of handling it

Cruden, in his great Concordance of the Old and New Testaments, says valiantly; ‘[the word ‘horn’] is often used metaphorically to signify strength and honour, because horns are the chief weapons and ornaments of the animals which possess them’, but Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (revised, John Murray 1974) admits that the horn is a phallic symbol, believed to promote fertility, and associates it with pagan religions.  Some translations of the word in the Psalms use the happy chance of a horn also being a musical instrument, and the Aramaic Bible in Plain English offers ‘trumpet of redemption’ as a possible translation, which is effective though a bit heavy, and certainly wouldn’t produce unseemly mirth.  Someone else translates ‘horn of my salvation’ as ‘peak of safety’, on the grounds that many languages use ‘horn’ as a name for a mountain, and of course they do (the Matterhorn is the obvious example).

Great white rhino (endangered)
A two-horn rhino, for purposes of comparison

To go outside the Psalms for a moment, there is evidence in 1 Samuel 2 that it is a dead metaphor if phallic, because Hannah starts her song by saying ‘My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high’ – and she’s a girl.  Usually though, it is God or the righteous man or his enemies who have horns (singular or plural), so I was glad to find the Hannah example.   Jesus himself is described as ‘an horn of salvation for us’ (Luke 2:69) in Zechariah’s Benedictus after the birth of John the Baptist.  That’s the KJV; the new Revised Jerusalem says ‘a saving power’.  It is a shame to lose the image completely, because it is arresting and powerful, more than the abstract nouns which replace it, partly because it does surprise us slightly.

Buffalo at bay
Horns as a display of strength : buffalo
Lots of animals have horns

The animal with the horn(s) varies too, some opting for buffalo, bison or oxen, but the young wild ox is the favourite generally.  By far the best, though, is the unicorn. The early versions of this psalm all use the unicorn (Wycliffe, Coverdale, DouayRheims, Geneva and Luther) and you can find them all here, if you rootle about on the site.   The Scottish metrical psalter has a unicorn, even though the translation is a bit clunky.  The King James Bible came out in 1611 and was then the official (so influential) translation.  There this verse is : ‘But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of a unicorn’, and immediately we have a wonderful image.

Armoured rhino and multi-coloured unicorn
Clear distinction between a rhino and a unicorn

Unicorns are special because they are uni-corns, and this is quite rare in nature (even a rhino has two, though of different sizes), but also because they are unicorns, rare, magical and mythical. Cruden says (but I think this must be the person who revised the Concordance, it doesn’t sound like the man himself),’ This animal is mythical. The word as used in the Bible probably means the wild ox, as the Revised Versions render it’.

Stand up for unicorns

I think we should keep the unicorn.  This is poetry, not the Discovery Channel.  I want the dragons, the Leviathan, and I want the unicorn.  Not those ghastly cutesy rainbow things so popular at the minute, but something like the little white horse in Elizabeth Goudge’s eponymous book, the tragic unicorn in T.H.White’s The Once and Future King or the Licorne in the tapestry, with overtones of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  Unicorns are liminal animals : they have only two feet in this world, and this makes them very powerful as an image.

French unicorn tapestry
The lady and the unicorn, in the final tapestry of the sequence

Unicorns are wild, eerie, potentially dangerous, bringing together the animal and the spiritual.  Only virgins need apply to get near them.  (What does that remind you of?)  There’s a whole package of possible mystical imagery appearing here, and Marina Warner unpacks it deftly in her study of Our Lady, Alone of all her sex,with Christ as the unicorn captivated by his virgin mother (pp 200f).  This takes us some distance away from the original metaphor, but I think anyone would rather be a unicorn than a young wild ox (or a buffalo).

woodcut of maiden with unicorn
Maiden with unicorn, with a less-exalted horn than usual
The Sidney psalter

While I was working on this psalm, I came across, quite by chance, Mary Herbert’s translation of it.  She was Sir Philip Sidney’s sister, and when he died without finishing the translation of the psalms (into a metrical, singable version, like the Scottish Psalter) which they were working on together, she finished it alone.  I can’t find the whole psalm in the public domain on the net, so I’ll just quote this verse :

Fresh oiled I

 Will lively lift my horn,

And match the matchless unicorn:

Mine eye shall spy

My spies in spiteful case;

Mine ears shall hear my foes’ disgrace.

Like cedar high

And like date-bearing tree,

For green, and growth the just shall be.

She presented a copy of the completed version to Elizabeth I in 1599, but the book was not published until much later, because the KJV had the effect of suppressing alternative translations (the Sidney psalter is freer, and uses different metres etc).  It is thought that it had an influence on Tallis and George Herbert (you can see that, even in the verse I quoted), and I’m trying to find out more about it;  watch this space.  I hadn’t even heard of the Sidney Psalter before this; now I am trying to get hold of a copy.  As I said, this psalm just keeps on giving.

Unicorn in round enclosure
The matchless unicorn


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