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HORNS . The physical power and reproductive potency of horned animals, which were so important in the economy of ancient hunting and agricultural societies, made them ideal symbols of strength and fertility. The primitive use of horns as plows and the symbolic view of plowing as the impregnation of Mother Earth led to the belief that horns were charged with sexual power. The association of horns with fertility was further encouraged by their phallic shape and symbolic identification with both the rays of the sun and the crescent moon.

The association of horns with power and fertility accounts for the proliferation of horned gods and goddesses in both the East and the West. The Sumerian gods Anu, Enlil, and Marduk wear horned headdresses, as do the Egyptian deities Hathor, Isis, Nut, Seth, and Amun. The Hindu god Śiva and the Greek god Poseidon share the same emblem, a trident, a symbolic representation of horns. In Greek mythology, Dionysos, Pan, the satyrs, the river gods, Hera, Io, and Aphrodite all have horns as attributes. The Cretan ceremony of bull vaulting involved grasping the horns, the source of fertility and power; and the Cretan symbol of the double ax is probably a pair of stylized horns.

The Canaanite gods Baal and El were horned bull gods as was, originally, Yahveh, which is why horns decorate the altar described in Exodus 27. Moses, too, has been associated with horns. In Exodus 34:2935, the Hebrew verb qaran, which means either "to send forth beams" or "to be horned," occurs three times in the phrase qaran ʿor panav, describing the beaming face of Moses upon his descent from Mount Sinai. In the Vulgate, however, this phrase is translated as facies cornuta ("horned face"), and the symbolism of this mistranslation has persisted over the centuries. The horns on the head of Michelangelo's Moses, sculpted about 1515, are one well-known example.

In Christian iconography, the foremost association of horns is with devils and demons, although the Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted with the "horns" of the moon. The Vedic and Buddhist divinity Yama is horned. In ancient China, Shen Nong, one of three legendary divine emperors, is traditionally pictured with two horns on his head, as a symbol of his connection with nutrition and animal life. Celtic gods and goddesses are often horned.

The horned headgear of the gods was appropriated by humans to indicate their divine mandate and power. Babylonian and Assyrian kings wore rounded caps with horns. Alexander the Great identified himself with the horned god Amun and appears on coins with ram's horns. Etruscans, Celts, Vikings, and Anglo-Saxons wore horned headdresses, as did American Indian chiefs and shamans. Medieval crowns, and even the miters worn by Christian bishops, owe their shape to earlier horned headdresses.

The association of horns with fertility accounts for the metaphoric use of horn for "phallus" (Ps. 132:17, Jer. 48:25), as well as for the worldwide consumption of powdered horn as an aphrodisiac. The image of cornucopias, or horns of plenty, is a well-known symbol of abundance. Horn amulets have been found on every continent. One of their most important uses was in detecting poison, because horned animals, particularly unicorns, were thought to be the natural enemies of venomous serpents. The Chinese still use ivory for this purpose, reserving carved rhinoceros horns for the decorative function of symbolizing prosperity and strength. The prophylactic properties of horn extends to the sounds made by horned instruments, which have been valued throughout the world for their ability to ward off evil spirits, ghosts, demons, and devils.

Not all associations with horns are positive. Horned animals are dangerous. From the Stone Age on, horns were used as weapons. (The curved shape of swords and daggers reflects this primitive usage.) Potions made from powdered horns may be poisonous. The association of horns with fertility made them the ideal symbol of cuckoldry. The symbolism connecting horns with the moon has negative, as well as positive, implications. While the waxing of the moon is a sign of rebirth, the waning moon symbolizes death, darkness, and the underworld. Horns are, therefore, ideal attributes for evil and libidinous demons, devils, and monsters. Aside from the Devil of Christian folklore, sometimes known as "Old Hornie," the Babylonian demon Pazzuzu was horned, as were the libidinous satyrs of ancient Greece. Japanese oni are evil spirits depicted as humans with bull horns. Most monsters have horns or horny scales.


A full appreciation of the ramifications of horn symbolism requires a look at mythology and religion throughout the world. A good way to start is by consulting Jack R. Conrad's The Horn and the Sword: The History of the Bull as Symbol of Power and Fertility (New York, 1957) and Frederic T. Elworthy's Horns of Honour (London, 1900).

Allison Coudert (1987)

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