There are Jews still alive who can remember being told that they could not possibly be Jews because they had no horns on their heads. Until recently this belief was fairly common in backward rural areas both in Europe and in the United States—areas where normally no Jews were to be seen. It may well persist in remote corners even today.
The fantasy of the horned Jew is an old one and its history in Europe can be traced back to the Middle Ages. There are 15th-century woodcuts that depict Jews in their ordinary garb but crowned with horns. Even ecclesiastical and secular authorities sometimes allowed this popular fantasy to influence the ordinances by which they regulated the dress of Jews. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council had decreed that, in order to make intercourse—particularly sexual intercourse—between Christians and Jews as difficult as possible, all Jews must wear a distinguishing mark on their clothing. This decree was generally observed; and although the distinguishing mark was usually a wheel of yellow felt sewn on to the front and back of the robe, sometimes it took the form of horns. Thus an ecclesiastical synod meeting at Vienna in 1267 ordered Jews to wear a horned hat and authorized the secular lords to fine any Jew who failed to do so. The ordinance was repeated as late as 1418, and in still sharper terms: any lord who failed to enforce it was to be excommunicated. In France too, for a generation before their expulsion in 1306, Jews had to wear a horn, in this case fixed to the middle of the yellow wheel itself. This horn was felt to be so shameful that rich Jews used to buy exemption from wearing it, even though they still had to wear the wheel. It was thanks to a special act of royal clemency that Jews were permitted to remove the horn when traveling.
Yet on the head of one particular Jew horns were a symbol not of infamy but of majesty. One has only to recall the famous figure of Moses which Michelangelo executed for the sepulchral monument of Pope Julius II and which is now in the church of S. Pietro in Vinculi in Rome. The Lawgiver is grasping the tables of the Law in his right hand, his head is raised and turned to the left with an air of overwhelming authority. From the midst of the thick clusters of hair there stand out, as though in menace, two short, pointed horns.
Michelangelo was conforming with tradition, for throughout the Middle Ages Moses had been portrayed with horns. The authority for the practice lay in the passage in the Book of Exodus which describes the lawgiver’s final descent from Mount Sinai. Here the English versions of the Bible, both Authorized and Revised, tell how the children of Israel were afraid to approach Moses until he had put a veil on his face, because “the skin of his face shone.” But the Vulgate, the only official Bible of the medieval Church, says “quod cornuta esset facies sua,” “because his face was horned.” It has been argued that this reading is based on a misunderstanding of the Hebrew text or else that the Hebrew text itself is corrupt, but both arguments can be contested. The interpretation given in the Vulgate is to be found in the Midrashim too, and it may well represent the original sense better than the English Bible does. It is more than likely that the horns of Moses came straight from a symbolism that was already ancient when Moses was alive. And from that same symbolism, though by strange and devious routes, came the horns that medieval Christendom imposed upon its Jews.
If one tries to trace the symbolism of horns to its origin one finds oneself led very far back indeed. The marvelous cave paintings which are the glory of the Magdalenian culture that flourished in France and Spain toward the close of the last Ice Age abound in horns and horned figures. A celebrated painting in the cave of the Trois Frères in the French Pyrenees shows a figure standing erect on human feet, but with the body or at least the skin of a hairy animal; the head is surmounted by a massive pair of antlers. This painting is perhaps twenty thousand years old. To the same period belong the so-called bâtons de commandement, sticks of bone or horn, some of which are carved with figures of men dancing in the skins of chamois; here too the most striking features are the horned heads. It would seem that what these figures represent is the god or spirit whose task it was to insure the multiplication of horned beasts; or else perhaps human magicians who themselves represented that god or spirit.
In their sub-arctic environment the Magdalenians did in fact live by hunting the mammoth, the rhinoceros, the bison, and the reindeer, which provided them not only with food but also with their clothing and their weapons of bone and horn. And meanwhile their highly skilled artists, working sometimes two miles beneath the ground, in darkness lit only by a feeble flame from a lump of fat and moss, painted and engraved multitudes upon multitudes of horned beasts. Here the motive was certainly to multiply and obtain control of the animals on which men depended for their survival. In these paintings too it is the head of the animal that is emphasized, as though the representation of that alone were enough to bring the animal into being. Many paintings show the horned head alone—at Lascaux there is a series of heads of bulls and red deer arranged in file.
It is certain that already in those early times horns themselves possessed a special symbolic value. In the art of the Magdalenian period one sometimes finds an antler painted by itself, with no context at all. Sometimes reliefs showing horns were combined with sculptures of vulvae, those stock symbols in fertility cults. And these works in turn recall a sculpture dating from a still earlier period, the Aurignacian. In a rock shelter at Laussel in the Dordogne there is a bas-relief carved perhaps fifty thousand years ago and showing a female who has been called the most ancient goddess known. This extremely maternal figure is about to drink from a bison horn, which archeologists have interpreted as a horn of plenty, filled perhaps with some liquid of life intended to make the drinker, a fertility goddess, conceive.
Horns were indeed valued for purposes quite other than the multiplication of horned beasts. They were for instance regarded as helpful to the dead. This was the case already with that forerunner of homo sapiens known as Neanderthal man, who flourished from about one hundred thousand to about twenty-five thousand years ago. Inside a mountain cavern in the region of Bokhara there has been found the grave of a young Neanderthal man—and it is encircled by five pairs of large, branching goat horns, carefully arranged. Many Magdalenian graves present a similar appearance. At graves in Wales and France and in Central Europe there have been found, obviously deliberately set with the dead, mammoth skulls with their tusks, a rhinoceros skull with its horn, and numerous skulls of deer and reindeer with their antlers. Sometimes a body was buried in a stone hut and then scores of antlers might be heaped against the wall. In the Middle Stone Age burial grounds on the islands of Téviec and Hoëdic, off the coast of Brittany, some of the skeletons are crowned, and others covered, with stags’ antlers.
The same use of horns at burials is to be found today in some primitive tribes, and its meaning is known: the horns are conceived as guardians of the dead, ever ready to protect them and supply their needs. Similarly in many parts of the world, including Europe, horns and especially the horned skulls of bulls are still fixed on the gables of houses, or over the doorway, as a protection against evil spirits and a guarantee of prosperty. The mano cornuto, the making of horns with the fingers, is an age-old device for warding off the evil eye. Horn amulets, often portraying a bull’s skull, have been very generally used as a defense against sickness and all misfortune. Still widespread among Africans today, this form of protective magic was familiar to the Jews of 17th-century Europe. Thus we read in the Sefer Zekira of Zakaria Plungian, written about 1700: “If a child cries ceaselessly, put a goat’s horn under its pillow, then it will stop. If a pregnant woman has bad labor pains, let her hold the right horn of a goat in her hand, then she will give birth easily.”
As late as the 19th century Jewish communities in Eastern Europe tended to attribute similar magical properties to the shofar, precisely because it was a horn. The shofar would be blown in order to ease a difficult birth. In cases of demonic possession the sufferer would be taken to the synagogue and the shofar sounded; this was intended to put the demon to flight. A restless ghost that was disturbing the living could also be laid by sounding the shofar. In such practices Eastern European Jewry was faithfully following a tradition reaching back to the medieval Cabbala, which prescribes that before the sounding of the shofar one must pray: “O destroy Satan!” And beyond the Cabbala the tradition goes back to the Babylonian Talmud. For in one passage in that Talmud the sounding of the shofar at the New Year is presented not as a royal salute to the Divine King but as an ingenious method of outwitting Satan. When Satan hears the first blast of the shofar he is overcome with panic, and when he hears the second he is convinced that it is the trump of the Last Judgment. This plunges him into such confusion that he is utterly helpless.
That a horn used as a drinking vessel brought good fortune was very commonly believed in antiquity, and by peoples as diverse as the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Celts, and the Germans. This fantasy survived into the last century in Scotland, where it was believed that medicine was efficacious only when drunk out of a horn, especially one taken from a living animal. It was precisely because of this pagan belief in the supernatural potency of a drinking horn that the Church in the early Middle Ages forbade converts from paganism to drink from a horn. Only if there was no other vessel at hand might a horn be used, and even then only after the sign of the cross had been made over it.
And always the horn retained that peculiar virtue as a repository of rich productive power and a source of fertility that it had possessed when Aurignacian artists sculpted their goddess at Laussel. The cornucopia was originally associated with the goat Amaltheia, from whose horn fruits were presented to the infant Zeus; but as a symbol of fruitfulness it could be associated with any being who was a bountiful and abundant provider. How many fairy tales tell of a magic drinking horn from fairyland! Nor is the cornucopia merely a local European symbol; there is a Bantu story of an ox whose right horn produces food on demand. Sometimes the horn of fruitfulness has been raised to a cosmic scale. In ancient Iranian belief fruits sprang endlessly from the horn of the primal ox Gayomart; while in Germanic mythology water trickles perpetually from the horns of the stag Eikthyrnir to feed the rivers of the underworld.
The significance of horns was vast and one may reasonably ask why. On the living animal horns were certainly powerful weapons—but the value that human beings attached to them was too manifold to be explained in these terms alone. Rather, the explanation would seem to lie in a complex of pre-scientific notions concerning on the one hand the nature of the cosmos and on the other hand the body and its functioning. The cosmos was conceived in terms of a life-power which was concentrated in certain specific types of object. These objects included, for instance, the vulva, the phallus, the bull, the snake, blood—and also horn. The reason why horn was felt to be a focus of life-power seems to be that it was thought of as solidified semen. It was believed (as it is still commonly believed in India) that semen was stored in the head; and as horns grew out of the head, they must be an issuing of the semen inside it.
Semen itself was held to be the very stuff of life, the vehicle of that psyche that was the source of all strength. The possession of semen made a male, whether beast or human, not only potent in procreation but also fierce and aggressive. Horns were therefore a concentration of life-power, powerful to generate life, powerful also in defense and attack. It is because it has been regarded as a uniquely potent concentration of life-power that powdered rhinoceros horn has always been highly prized both as an aphrodisiac and as a strength-giving tonic for warriors. The horn of that fabulous creature of medieval folklore, the unicorn, seems to have had a similar significance, for a unicorn could never be taken by force but would run gladly to a maiden’s breast.
Horns were power: so gods were imagined with horns as soon perhaps as they were imagined at all. Admittedly it is uncertain whether the erect, horned being who for the past 20,000 years has been presiding over the mass of horned beasts in the cave of the Trois Frères is a god or merely a magician. But certainly many of the gods who were worshipped in the Bronze Age civilizations of the Fertile Crescent were horned; and this was true not simply of animal gods but also, and most significantly, of gods who had never had animal forms. The very ancient Egyptian god Khnum, who created the bodies of men and gods on a potter’s wheel, is represented as a man with the head of a ram, with horns either curved or long and projecting, sometimes even with two pairs of horns. And the two great gods Re and Osiris, whose rival cults overshadowed all others, were both sometimes portrayed with horns.
The chief god of the Hittites, the weather god, lord of rain and thunder, was originally represented as a bull and always remained associated with a bull as his sacred animal. In Babylonian religion those gods who have human form normally wear, as a sign of their divinity, a headdress with two pairs of horns; the god Ramman even has four pairs, two in front and two behind. Many of these Babylonian gods carried the epithet “bull” after their names; and this is true also of the old Indian gods as they appear in the Rigveda. And what specifically symbolizes the power of the god is always the horns. Thus in the Rigveda we find the god Agni invoked in these terms: “Pierce the vexatious foe with your two horns, which are perdurable and sharpened by Brahma; pierce the oncoming monster with your flame!” In the Buddhist lore of Tibet the death-god Yama has bull’s horns; he is stopped from depopulating the land only when he meets a Bodhisattva who is similarly equipped. In the Persian Avesta it is explicitly stated that the divine power of the god is concentrated in his horns. Of the god of victory, the son of the supreme god Ahura, it is said that he appears now as a wild boar, now as a ram, now as a buck, and now as a bull “on whose horns divine power manifests itself.”
Horned gods survived into the Iron Age. Dionysos-Bacchus was originally represented by a bull, and in Macedonia his train of ecstatic female devotees wore horns in imitation of the god. Given human shape this god retained his horns and the epithet “bull-horned.” Pan, who represented nature above all in its lustful, animal aspect, was originally a goat; and when later he became human he never lost his horns. The same is true of that multitude of lesser folk who were associated with Pan, the fauns and satyrs. Among the Celts who inhabited France during the four centuries preceding the Roman conquest, the horned god seems to have been the greatest of the gods. An altar stone dug up at Paris shows him as a bearded figure with stag’s antlers, from each of which hangs one of those twisted rings of gold that signified wealth. Above the figure is inscribed the name Cernunnos, which itself seems to mean “the horned one.” In a monument found at Rheims the same god squats, an antique and majestic figure, between the younger gods Apollo and Mercury, who have to stand. He is pouring out a stream of acorns and beech mast that falls between the watchful figures of an ox and a stag, carved beneath him. On other monuments from France and Jutland the same horned god appears and always he is accompanied by symbols of plenty: rings of gold, purses and bags, horns and horned beasts. From a tablet found in Hungary we learn that a funerary college held its meetings in the temple of Cernunnos. Like Pluto, this Celtic god is lord of the underground world and at once giver of plenty and patron of the dead. And by his appearance he recalls strikingly that mysterious antlered figure in the cave of the Trois Frères.
There was of course one religion in the Ancient World in which the horned god could have no place. Because the God of Israel was pure being, absolutely transcendent, not immanent in nature at all, Israel was bound to regard the symbolic representation of divinity through “graven images” as irrelevant and blasphemous. But the peoples who lived on all sides of the Israelites worshipped horned gods. Even apart from the pantheons of Egyptian and Babylonian religion, it was in the form of a bull that Ba’al was worshipped by such peoples as the Canaanites. For Israel too the temptation to turn to the worship of horned beasts was always present and it was regarded as the most deadly of temptations. The power which had brought the people up out of Egypt could only too easily be identified with that power which for countless thousands of years men had felt to be concentrated in horns. It was because of this that the Lord had such good cause to complain to Moses: “They have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” It was because of this that Jeroboam, trying to secure his rule over the people of Israel, “made two calves of gold, and said. . . . Behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” And it was natural for the Gentile prophet Balaam, when impelled to salute the great deliverance, to use that same symbolism of horns: “God hath brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn”—meaning, it seems, “a wild ox.”
In the religion of Israel itself horns were fraught with symbolic meaning. They were integrated into the ritual, and not only in the form of the shofar. The so-called “horns of the altar,” those peculiarly sacred objects that were sprinkled with the blood of sacrifices at the consecration of priests and at the sin-offering, have been recognized as originating in real horns. A fugitive seeking the sanctuary of the altar would take hold of these horns. Indeed the age-old belief in the power of horns to protect and save—the belief that once placed antlers on Paleolithic graves and that still makes people wear amulets of horn—finds expression even in the very praise of God: “He is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my savior; thou savest me from violence. . . .”
The power of the horn could be displayed by human beings. It was the power that gave victory and glory to individuals and to nations; the loss of which brought defeat and shame. In the “visions” of Daniel and of Zechariah the various horns stand for particular princes, mighty and victorious in battle. Here we have to do with metaphors so consciously elaborated as to be almost a code, but elsewhere the same metaphors have all the vigor of spontaneity. To Israel threatened by enemy nations the Lord says: “Arise and thresh, O daughter of Zion: for I will make thine horn iron, and I will make thy hoofs brass: and thou shalt beat in pieces many people. . . .” And of Jacob’s line it is prophesied: “His horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth. . . .”
It is the same thought that lies behind the dozen or more passages in the Scriptures which refer, some to the exalting of horns, others to the cutting off of horns. God can exalt the horns of men, as in the praises of the psalmists: “In thy favor our horn shall be exalted”—“My horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn”—“He also exalteth the horn of his people, the horn of all his saints. . . .” And God can cut off the horns of men, as in the warning of Amos: “Ye . . . which say, Have we not taken to us horns by our own strength? But, behold, I will raise up against you a nation, O house of Israel, saith the Lord God of hosts. . . .”; in the warning of the psalmist: “Lift not up your horn: Lift not up your horn on high: speak not with a stiff neck. . . . All the horns of the wicked also will I cut off; but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted”; or in the despairing cry of Jeremiah: “He hath cut off in his fierce anger all the horn of Israel. . . . The Lord . . . hath caused thine enemy to rejoice over thee, he hath set up the horn of thine adversaries.” On this last passage a Midrash of the 7th century B.C. comments: “There are ten horns in Israel: 1) the horn of Abraham, 2) the horn of Isaac, 3) the horn of Joseph, 4) the horn of Moses, 5) the horn of the Law, 6) the horn of the priesthood, 7) the horn of the Levites, 8) the horn of prophecy, 9) the horn of the Temple, 10) the horn of the anointed King. All these horns were set on the head of the people Israel, but when the people had sinned they were taken away again, as one puts it.”
The man of extraordinary, god-given power imagined as a horned animal—this is a truly archetypal fantasy, and one that can be traced in the most diverse cultures. In early Egyptian monuments, Pharaoh is shown as a huge bull smashing walled towns with his horns and impaling his foes on the points. The Iliad tells how Agamemnon stands out from his fellow kings as a bull stands out from the grazing cows. Celtic kings and heroes bear such titles as “Bull of the Province,” “Bull-Phantom,” “Prince Bull of Combat.” And in the most varied cultures men have worn horns as a symbol of the power within them. The warriors of many peoples of antiquity wore upright horns on their helmets; the same custom obtains amongst some African peoples today and can be detected also in the spiked helmets of Imperial Germany. In the cathedral of S. Gennaro at Naples there is a 13th-century fresco showing twenty-one knights of the family of Minutoli; twelve of these have curved bull horns on their helmets and these were the knights who had distinguished themselves in combat.
One single warrior of antiquity was believed to have possessed bodily horns—Alexander the Great. In a 6th-century Syrian legend Alexander says to God: “I know that you have made horns grow on my head so that I might overthrow the kingdoms of the world”; while later authorities, including the Koran, refer to Alexander as “the two-horned one.” Now this surely throws much light on the origin of the horns of Moses. For like Alexander, Moses was seen as a unique, semi-divine being, as preeminent among prophets as Alexander among conquerors. It was because he was set apart from all men by the immediacy of his contact with God that he was granted in concrete form and as part of his person what others could only possess figuratively: the horns in which divine power was concentrated. And these horns were also intended to insure the safety of Israel and to overwhelm its foes—a thought which, strangely enough, is preserved in the formula used when the miter is set upon the head of a newly consecrated bishop of the Roman Catholic Church: “We set on the head of this Bishop, O Lord, Thy champion, the helmet of defense and salvation, that with comely face and his head armed with the horns of either Testament he may appear terrible to the gainsayers of the truth, and may become their vigorous assailant, through the abundant gift of Thy grace, who didst make the face of Thy servant Moses to shine after familiar converse with Thee, and didst adorn it with the resplendent horns of Thy brightness and Thy truth. . . .”
But what of those other horns, the horns that medieval Jews had to wear as a badge of infamy? Those were borrowed directly from the demons of medieval Christianity, and these in turn were descended directly from the horned beings who had played so large a part in earlier world pictures. More specifically, medieval demons are the horned gods and spirits of Roman religion, rejected and converted into evil monsters. Augustine, writing early in the 5th century, identifies fauns and suchlike with devils; many trustworthy folk, he adds, swear that these creatures are continually pursuing women and having intercourse with them. And just as Pan had headed the train of goatlike nature spirits, so now the hordes of demons had their king and captain in the Devil, Satan.
The Scriptures tell of a Satan who, when he assumed animal form, took that of a serpent or dragon; it knows nothing of a Satan who is half human, half goat. That shape is taken over from Pan. The horned, hairy monster so familiar in medieval art is in fact recognizably Pan, only a Pan who has shed his carefree joviality and whose passionate animality has acquired a terrible ferocity. At times one even encounters in medieval records, under the name of the Devil, a horned god who is far older even than Pan. In the 4th century a companion of Martin, Bishop of Tours, was gored by the Devil in the form of a bull.
Now whatever the views of theologians and the upper clergy, the populace of medieval Europe did not see Jews as unambiguously human. They thought of them as uncanny beings, helpmates of Satan and like him incessantly striving after the ruin of Christians and of Christendom—“dyables d’enfer, ennemys du genre humain” (“devils from hell, enemies of mankind”), as a French miracle play has it. In the synagogue Jews were believed to worship the Devil in the shape of a cat or a toad, invoking his aid in making black magic. True, when they were seen Jews seemed to have human forms like anybody else, but this was merely an added ground for vexation. What nature had imprudently obscured human ingenuity could make plain; and so in popular art and drama, and in the ordinances of bishops and princes, horns were imposed upon the Jews.
In the symbolic language of the time Jews were thereby pronounced to be demons. In vastly older symbolic languages what had been wished upon the Jews was the outward sign of an indwelling force which at different epochs had been potent to multiply and control wild beasts, potent to protect against sickness and danger, potent to overthrow embattled hosts, potent finally as a vehicle for the will of the one God. But that was something suspected neither by the Christians who bestowed the horns, nor by the Jews who wore them.