Rightly, then, are those called children who know Him who is God alone as their Father, who are simple, and infants, and guileless, who are lovers of the horns of the unicorns.

Clement of Alexandria

“Are unicorns real?” my daughter Erin asks me.

“No girl. Unicorns are make-believe.”

“Yeah, I know, just like dinosaurs.”

“No, dinosaurs are real. They just don’t exist anymore. They lived a long time ago.”

“Did unicorns live a long time ago?

“No, girl. Unicorns are make-believe.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation with her. But she’s 4 years-old, and unicorns are an important part of her life. It makes sense that she’d want to double-check every now and then.

Now, for those wondering about what Clement was talking about, it is worth noting that there was a time in history when the existence of unicorns had not yet been settled. (Also true of dragons, for that matter.) Maybe the existence of rhinos, which one could describe as fat horses with a horn on their nose, found its way to Alexandria via the telephone game. Who knows? The point is, in his defense, real unicorns may have been within the realm of the possible.

However, he might actually be making an allusion to the Bible, which, of course, talks about unicorns.

If that’s news to you, it’s because most modern translations do not use “unicorn.” But the ancient Greek and Latin translations did. And the King James Version, following them, mentions unicorns nine times.

Since Clement specifically mentions the horn of the unicorns, that narrows the possible allusion to three verses:

“His [the tribe(s) of Joseph] 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)

“Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.” (Psalm 21[22]:21)

“But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” (Psalm 92:10)

A horn is a common symbol of strength in the Bible. Horns were also used as instruments, to call warriors to battle or the faithful to worship.

The first verse above seems to indicate the meaning of strength. Joseph’s descendants would be blessed with a large territory that they would acquire and defend by their strength.

The second verse above, from the same psalm Jesus quotes from the cross with the words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Psalm 21[22]:1; Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), instead seems to use horn in the sense of an instrument, except instead of raising a battle cry or call to worship, the psalmist signals for God’s help. It ends with the suffering psalmist, whom Christians understand to be a prophesy of Christ, gaining victory over those who persecuted him and drawing all the nations to himself, calling out from his Church: “I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly [Gk: ‘the Church’] I will praise You” (Psalm 21[22]:22).

The third verse above again seems to refer to strength, in this case a prayer that one’s strength would be renewed.

Clement, however, wants to describe to his readers what Jesus means when he teaches, “unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). He takes the Lord to mean that we need to imitate the innocence of children, the lack of pretense, the simplicity. But he cautions that this doesn’t mean foolishness. Rather, a child, even a toddler, has already come a long way as a human person beyond what any other animal can achieve: “We, then, who are infants, no longer roll on the ground, nor creep on the earth like serpents as before, crawling with the whole body about senseless lusts; but, stretching upwards in soul, loosed from the world and our sins, touching the earth on tiptoe so as to appear to be in the world, we pursue holy wisdom, although this seems folly to those whose wits are whetted for wickedness.”

When Clement says, “Rightly, then, are those called children who know Him who is God alone as their Father, who are simple, and infants, and guileless, who are lovers of the horns of the unicorns,” perhaps he means an admiration for the strength we wish we had, or an eagerness to fight for noble causes (what child doesn’t want to be a hero, after all?), or perhaps even a desire to hear the call to worship. Not every kid likes church all the time. But some do. And though they often struggle to behave appropriately, and they may complain that the prayers are too long or that they’re hungry or whatnot, yet when they do pray or light a candle or kiss an icon, they do so with all their hearts.

Well, I don’t know which of those, if any, Clement has in mind. In context, he could actually mean just what we might take it to mean today: a lover of beautiful — and innocent — fantasies. There is something pure and purifying in that, too. And perhaps, there’s even “holy wisdom,” though it appear to be foolish. It, at least, requires the willingness to learn, and the persistence to double-check what we’ve been told and ask our Father in heaven, “Are unicorns real?”

Unicorns may not exist, but I hope my daughter never gives up hope for beautiful and innocent things. Lord have mercy that I also would desire them, and so become beautiful and innocent, too.

Fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05 (Palazzo Farnese, Rome)