The teeth tyrant (dentes tyrannum)

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).

The beginning of Alexander’s letter to Aristotle. Top portion of folio 107r 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.[1]

Rhinoceros in Bardiya, Nepal. Photo by Krish Dulal. licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. []
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.

Alexander the Great’s battle with a three-horned beast and other strange animals. Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre. France (Paris), c. 1420. British Library, Royal 20 B XX, f. 51v. []
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 deorlarge animal, bigger than any of the others we had seen. The deoranimal had þrie hornasthree horns on its foran-heafdeforehead, and with those horns it was horrifically endowed with weapons.

The Indeospeople of India call that deoranimal dentes tyrannum, the Teeth Tyrant. The deoranimal had a heafodhead like a horsehorse, and it was blæces heowesblack in colour.

Leucrota. Bestiary of Ann Walsh. England, 15th century. Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, f. 14v. []

When this deoranimal wætres ondronchad drunk the water—the merelake beside which we had camped—it then beheld our encampment…

…and semningaall at once it rushed upon us and our wic-stoweencampment!

It did not shrink from our bonfires, the burning of the hatanhot flame and fyresfire that was facing him, but went over it eall wodall enraged.

Crocodile. Bestiary of Ann Walsh. England, 15th century. Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, f. 61v. []


[1] 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]

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