The three-horned campsite menace
The following passage is from the Old English translation of Alexander the Great’s letter to his tutor Aristotle. The letter is recorded in the same manuscript as the poem Beowulf, in the Nowell Codex (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV).
During his adventures in the east, Alexander comes across many strange creatures, one of which is the dentes tyrannum, the Teeth Tyrant. But what is a Teeth Tyrant? R. D. Fulk says that dentityrannus is a ‘semi-Latinization’ of Greek odontotyrannos, a rhinoceros.
But, as you will see from Alexander’s letter, this creature three horns. African and Sumatran rhinos have two horns, while Indian and Javan rhinos have only one. Do three-horned rhinos exist? (According to the Daily Mail they do.)
There is one illustration of Alexander’s mysterious three-horned creature in a fifteenth-century French manuscript, Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre.
This animal looks nothing like a rhinoceros, so I have taken the liberty of including medieval images of some different animals below. These images don’t exactly match the description either, so in the end we’ll just have to rely on our imaginations.
Translation and glossing by Hana Videen. Hover over words to see how they’re pronounced. More about this project here.
Then all at once there came a very micel deor, bigger than any of the others we had seen. The deor had þrie hornas on its foran-heafde, and with those horns it was horrifically endowed with weapons.
The Indeos call that deor dentes tyrannum, the Teeth Tyrant. The deor had a heafod like a horse, and it was blæces heowes.
When this deor wætres ondronc—the mere beside which we had camped—it then beheld our encampment…
…and semninga it rushed upon us and our wic-stowe!
It did not shrink from our bonfires, the burning of the hatan flame and fyres that was facing him, but went over it eall wod.
 R. D. Fulk, ed. and trans., The ‘Beowulf’ Manuscript: Complete Texts and ‘The Fight at Finnsburg’ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 349. [back]