Kurt responds to SF Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik


November 20, 1990

Leah Garchik
Editor, "Personals"
San Francisco Chronicle
901 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Dear Leah Garchik,

As a faithful reader of "Personals," I am delighted to accept your invitation (November 19, 1990) to respond "with authority on the derivation of the two-fingered tiara," such as our Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is reported to have made recently before the cameras of the National Geographic Magazine.

The principal authority of reference to which I immediately turned upon reading your query "Is He the Devil Or a Bunny?" was the scarce but nonetheless remarkable book dedicated to the memory of his father by the Hildred Carlile Professor of Latin in the University of London, Richard Braxton Onians, The Origins of European Thought About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate; New Interpretations of Greek. Roman and kindred evidence also of some basic Jewish and Christian Beliefs (Cambridge, at the University Press, 1951; 2nd edition 1954). This book by Onians is a fertile source of information about etymologies, a serendipidist's veritable cornucopia, or horn of plenty for our curious brains.

Onians informs us that the words for "horn" and "brain" are related not only because they are both associated with the head, but because of a deeper association with the idea of fertility and procreation. In antiquity the horn itself became a symbol of procreative power as an embodiment of the seed, the stuff of life. And Onians indicates that, as naturalists from Democritus to Darwin have observed, "there was a further reason why horns should be connected with procreation. Not only does castration produce marked change in the growth of horn but also, just as hair was believed to be an outcrop of the procreative power since it grows upon the face and pubes at puberty, so it was observed that horns tend to develop fully at a similar stage." (p. 238-239)

A footnote suggests "The use of horns as amulets in Crete and elsewhere (and the making of horns with the fingers, the mano cornuto, as a sign with protective power) should probably be related to this." (p. 240, n.1) But a subsequent note questions the use of the sign to ward off evil: "MacCulloch (s.v. Horn in Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics) suggests that the practice of making horns with the fingers to avert the evil eye gave rise to the phrase 'to give horns'. But we have no evidence that the making of horns with the fingers to the cuckold was not an insult concerning his condition, but an attempt to avert the evil eye. In any case the evil eye was not a monopoly of cuckolds, to whom alone horns have stuck, and the origin, so far as the earliest evidence shows, is in the saying about a wife, that she makes horns for her husband." (p. 244, beginning n. S p. 24$)

Aristotle and even earlier Greek writers such as Archilochus "referred to the male organ itself as 'horn.'" But it was the man's wife who made horns for him, thus supplementing his sexual potency or, jokingly, working for his benefit. "Medieval poems...show a belief that a horn grew upon the forehead of him whose wife had received a lover. Presently it was the custom in England and elsewhere in Europe for neighbors to put actual horns upon the head of the husband, apparently to show with what his wife had supplemented him. Possibly on occasion the association of horns with the pugnacious anger of the sexual element played a part. ...The putting of horns upon the head of the patient cuckold might by some be intended to endow him with that which he seemed to lack, sexual power and pugnacity, what belonged to the element in his head." (p. 243)

The "rabbit ears" of the Associated Press' reaching euphemism does, however, have something to say for it beyond the immediate association of rabbits with prolific breeding. The great art historian Erwin Panofsky, with whom I once had the privilege to study, writes about the rabbit that appears in the German artist Albrecht Durer's 1504 engraving, The Fall of Man, there representing sanguine sensuality. (The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer, Princeton University Press, 1955, p. 34 f.) Paraphrased, the distinguished scholar (and father of the former Director of the Stanford Linear Accellerator, the physicist Wolfgang Panofsky) reports that, according to a widespread scholastic doctrine formulated in the twelfth century, the Fall of Man--in Durer's work showing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with several purposefully selected plants and animals--was connected with the theory of the "four—humors" or "four temperaments."

Professor Panofsky explains, "Before Adam had bitten the apple, man's constitution was perfectly balanced...and he was therefore both immortal and sinless. It was believed that only the destruction of this original equilibrium made the human organism subject to illness and death and the human soul susceptible to vices." Lechery, for example, was one of the vices caused by sanguine imbalance, i.e., an excess of the blood. "The animals, however, were mortal and vicious from the outset. They were by nature either melancholic or choleric or phlegmatic or sanguine--provided that the sanguine temperament, always considered more desireable than the others, was of identified with perfect equilibrium. For in this case no sanguine animal could be admitted to exist, and it was assumed that man, originally sanguine pure and simple, had become more or less severely contaminated by the three other "humors" when biting the apple."

In Durer's engraving, the cat stands for the choleric humor and the associated personality imbalance of cruelty, wrath and pride; the ox symbolizes phlegmatic sluggishness and sloth as well as gluttony; and the beast shown with the horns is naturally the elk, representing the melancholic humor thought to be caused by an excess of black bile. It was in looking at this print--with the problem of rabbits and horns in mind--that I was reminded (the proper past participle) of the well-known postcard joke featuring a critter known as the "Jackalope." Can you imagine my surprise when-- just the other day--one of my art history students delivering a report for a class in Occidental Art and Mythology presented a page from Peter Dance's The Art of Natural History (Overlook Press, New York, 1978, p. 118) showing a "horned hare." The image was a copper engraving "from Gaspar Schott's Physica Curiosa sive Mirabilia Naturae et Artis, 3rd edition, Herbipoli (i.e. Wurtzburg), 1697." With thanks to Miss Stephanie Hanway, I enclose a copy of (part of) the page in question with the illustration and its accompanying legend, although I reserve my own considerable doubts that the marvelous Lepores cornuti is to be found—if at all these days--as Dance maintains "almost exclusively on the high plains of Wyoming," since I seem to recall as well the state of New Mexico having claimed the species as native. About this, of course, I could be very much mistaken; but you only asked for "authority" (I have cited mine), and wisely did not demand anything like guarantees of verity (since a fat lot of good that usually does.)

Professor Panofsky's superb text also identifies "the wise and benevolent parrot and the diabolical serpent." But nothing much is said about a tiny chamois goat balanced on the top of a mountain crag in the far distance of the extreme upper right hand corner of the engraving. As a matter of purely personal interest, a chamois with its curiously hooked horns and in very much like the same posture is shown on the family coat of arms, Das Alte Wappen der Meier von Glarus, from which, through my father, I inherited the Americanized and shortened version of the surname, "von Meier." Although Durer is known to have made two separate trips to Italy (and two return trips to Germany) it is extremely unlikely that he would have traversed the alps through the Canton of Glarus, since even today the road dead-ends up the Linthal on the northern slopes of the Glarner Alpen. But there are other chamois in Switzerland he could have seen; and who knows what vices this animal might have represented for the Renaissance master.

I could not help noticing that in the photo adjacent to your "Devil or Bunny" item the Reagan husband and wife team delivered their respective mano cornuto signs, one convex, the other concave; but sadly, Onians does not provide us with further illumination on what may here be a meaningful iconographic distinction. Of course, former President Reagan borrowed this sign from one of his GOP predecessors in that high office, the now-disgraced Richard M. Nixon, who inherited it by reason of his formal association with the late General and President Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike adapted the sign to serve his political purposes, having originally earned his right to use the "V for Victory" salute by virtue of having commanded the Allied armed forces. Among the political leaders of the Allies was the British Prime Minister (and later Sir) Winston Churchill, credited by many with having coined the modern gesture. My scholarly skepticism (perhaps a chamois vice) says Churchill couldn't have "thought it up," but I do not know from whence he might have profited.

In the present context, we should perhaps note at least two other digital variants. In one form, the horns are made with the index finger and the little finger extended, as could be seen in the rooting section of the University of Texas when their football team, the Longhorns, recently played on national TV. Baseball infielders also hold up pinky and index finger to indicate "two outs" with enough clarity for an outfielder to discern. A related gesture can be made with the little finger and the thumb extended, and--as before--with the other fingers curled up. This is used in the surfing subculture and especially in Hawaii, where it means "Hang Loose." On the island of Maui, the sign may also be tantamount to the verbal expression, "Maui no ka oe," meaning "Maui is the best, numbah one!"

There is at least one great example that also should be mentioned, in which the problem of horns has confounded many students of art history: the magnificent marble statue of Moses that forms a part of the Tomb of Julius II, in the Roman church of San Pietro in Vincoli, by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The qualities of divine, righteous anger expressed by this figure render meaningful and appropriate the extraordinary representation of horns that Michelangelo has sculpted protruding from the head of Moses. The figure has been described eloquently by another of my former teachers --and also curator of the Casa Buonarroti in Florence--Charles de Tolnay, in his masterful multi-volume study of Michelangelo published in 1954 by the Princeton University Press:

"The Moses is the figure of a seated colossus, trembling with indignation: a cataclysm made man. The overriding force of passion unleashes here elemental powers. The swell of the enormous beard, the strength of the rugged knee which breaks through the flowing cloak as through boiling lava, are only emanations of an internal agitation set up by the anger and indignation. ...The pathos of the inner spiritual drama is conveyed by the volutes of the flamelike hair, the swelling of the taut and furrowed brow, and the heavy glance falling from the hollow orbits; but the trembling of the strong sensual mouth with its drooping corners, the angry dilation of the nostrils, express the sovereign disdain felt by this giant before the spectacle of human depravity. Moses is here the symbol of an eternal attitude; he does not represent a transitory moment of his life. ...This figure, however, is more than the image of a human character: it is also an epitome of the elemental powers of the universe." (vol. 4, p. 39, 41)

Again, Onians may augment this with etymological edification and classical prototypes. "The conscious self, the animus and its organs, cor and praecordia, in the chest are concerned in ordinary anger; but when a man becomes frantic, the head is obviously affected. It becomes 'inflamed,' red; the eyes glare and flash (e.g. ardent oculi as if mad) and in some cases the hair bristles. Later such frenzy was treated by bleeding the head." And he proceeds to discuss a passage frm Virgil's Aeneid, in which "Turnus raging for battle 'is stirred by these furies and from all his face, as he burns, leap sparks; from his fierce eyes dart fire.'" (p. 147) For Michelangelo's wrathful Moses, Professor de Tolnay informs us, there are two different traditional interpretations, that his anger is impending or that it represents the Law Giver just as his ire, the righteous anger of a chosen spirit, charged with a high mission, confronting the world," has been calmed. "The horns go back to an erroneous translation of the Hebrew word 'light' in the Latin Vulgate (Moses II, 34, 35). They became after that traditional emblems of Moses." (p. 41, 104) Presumably, what should have been read as tongues of fire symbolic of divine inspiration was instead erroneously thought to indicate horns.

It may help us decide how serious a misreading this may or may not be if we consider precisely what kind of anger, wrath and ire--or more properly indeed what kind of "light"--Moses was meant to show. Guidance is offered by an essay, "The Neoplatonic Movement and Michelangelo," again by the late Professor Erwin Panofsky, and published in his book Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. (Oxford University Press, 1939; Harper and Row, 1962, 1972) "For, though Moses lives in the memory of mankind as a lawgiver and ruler rather than as a visionary, he, too, 'saw with the inner eye,' and it is in the capacity of both a leader and an inspired prophet that he has been portrayed by Michelangelo. Given the fact that in the sixteenth century the word 'contemplative' had come to be used as a Neoplatonic term, Condivi's naive description of the Moses as 'the captain and leader of the Hebrews, shown in the attitude of a contemplative thinker, his face full of light and the Holy Spirit, inspires the beholder both with love and fear and does infinitely more justice to Michelangelo's most famous sculpture than the still popular conception that Moses, after having sat down for unaccountable reasons, was angered by the dance around the Golden Calf, and was lust on the verge of jumping up and shattering the tablets--an interpretation which would never have been invented had not the statue been banished from its predestined place." (p. 192-193)

In one of the major revisions (in 1513) of this huge tomb project for Pope Julius II, the Moses figure was apparently intended for the right front corner of a platform that was to hold six other figures of comparable scale; instead, the sculpture—however grand--wound up in a composition tragically reduced and given to confused readings. "The erroneous interpretation of the action of the Moses," Panofsky adds in a note, "seems to have originated in the late Baroque period, when popular interest was focussed on the dramatic, and the Neoplatonic tradition had fallen into oblivion." And Panofsky's text then continues, "Michelangelo's Moses sees nothing but what the Neoplatonists called the 'splendour of the light divine.' Like the Sibyls and the Prophets on the Sistine ceiling and the medieval Evangelists who are the ancestors of both, he reveals by his suddenly arrested movement and awesome expression, not angry surprise but that supernatural excitement which, to quote Ficino, 'petrifies and almost kills the body while it enraptures the soul.'" (p. 193)

Indeed, it may have been originally just the "splendour of the light divine" that crowned the head of Lucifer, the Devil before his Fall, symbolizing that angelic aspect of his name meaning "Bearer of Light." But I do not propose to delve into further devilish matters in what has already become too long a note. And yet, while we have often heard that you cannot tell every book by its cover, I see that the dust jacket of Dennis Wheatley's book, The Devil and All His Works (American Heritage Press, New York, 1971) features a detail from one of those sublime and disturbing frescoes Francisco Goya painted for his Quinta del Sordo outside of Madrid (now in the Prado), called "The Witches' Sabbath" with a dancing goat (but pot a chamois!)

In appreciation, Ms. Garchik responded to Kurt as follows: