TWO POINTS: HOW SATAN’S HORNS HELP GET ME THROUGH THE DAY
In 2012, British art critic Alastair Sooke produced a documentary for BBC Four titled “How The Devil Got His Horns,” tracing the depiction of Satan across centuries of European art.
Sooke doesn’t actually spend much time on the horns question–which I guess is not all that important, but imagine sitting through two hours of How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Stella still doesn’t have her groove.
Honestly though, what interests me is less how the devil got horns so much as why–what exactly are they for? What, for lack of a better term, do they do?
The answer I’ve recently come to, unlikely though it may sound, is actually quite simple:
In 1515, Florentine sculptor and party dude Michaelangelo finished his statue of Moses, which oddly enough has horns.
Bizarrely, many people might really believe that the Egyptian prophet and original Ten Commandments ghostwriter actually did have horns, possibly based on a mistranslation of Exodus 34 that turns the verb “become radiant” to “become horned,” which is kind of like if the Ugly Duckling turned into an M1 Abrams at the end of the story.
However, Irish Catholic writer and Irish Catholic writer Colm Fitzpatrick points out that “in the ancient world, horns were seen as symbolic of power and authority,” so maybe people were actually just trying to burnish old Moses’ resume when they horned in on his image.
“The Sumerian gods Anu, Enlil, and Marduk wear horned headdresses, as do the Egyptian deities Hathor, Isis, Nut, Seth, and Amun,” religious studies professor Allison Coudert wrote in the 1987 Encyclopedia of Religion, also adding Pan, Dionysus, Hera, Io, Aphrodite, Ba’al, El, and even the Virgin Mary to the horn section.
Coudert also points out that the very shape of a crown, the most enduring symbol of political power/future neck problems, and of a mitre, the textbook trapping of presumed/conferred religious profundity, both owe their design to horn imagery.
But this just brings us back to the standing question of why give horns to the devil?
Modern scripture doesn’t provide any physical description of Satan, except as a seven-headed dragon in Revelation (although he does indeed have horns there, so I guess there’s that).
In the past, I’ve suggested that it’s actually the popular image of Jesus-as-lamb that grants Satan his pointed profile.
As urban goat farmer Genevieve Church pointed out in a 2020 episode of Black Mass Appeal, sheep and goats are often raised side by side, and have complimentary grazing patterns.
Being some of the most common herd animals in the world, both creatures appear often in religious practice and iconography. If people imagine Jesus as the pure, innocent lamb, then it’s not surprising Satan favors the hearty, lusty goat–it’s the sheep’s natural foil.
And it probably helped that there was a long history of goatish demons, gods, and nature spirits to work off of. “This image emerges from a complicated history wherein Greco-Roman Pan, Jewish seirim, and other mythological figures graft themselves and their imagery around the forces of the demonic,” humanities professor Alexander Kulik wrote in 2013.
But others disagree: Marina Montesano, professor of Medieval History at the University of Messina in Italy, told Live Science in June that the goat imagery is actually relatively novel and that “the goat, until the Middle Ages, was barely linked to demonology.” Rather, the imagery “comes mainly from its association with Nordic myths” instead of any kind of Semitic cultural tradition.
People can argue about this for any length. There’s even controversy over who pioneered the popular “horns sign” in rock music and what it means: While onetime Black Sabbath vocalist Ronnie James Dio popularized the gesture, Sixties shock rock band Coven claimed to have thrown up the horns first, and some music critics even trace the gesture to the Beatles of all people.
Point being, where there are horns, there is evidently controversy, or at the very least disagreement–the horns of dilemma, as they used to say.
Be all that as it may, I’m glad the horns are there. I’ve come to find them comforting.
Last week I started a new job. A job so strange and complex that even during the interview for it they told me that they couldn’t really adequately describe the position, they could only assure me that, like the 90s Matrix, I would understand once I experienced it.
Saying yes to a job that nobody can describe sounds like a great way to end up working on some kind of top-secret Cube project and then presumably being killed to keep you quiet later. But nobody ever said I make good decisions, so I went with it.
Two days into my training, I found myself uncertain and a little overwhelmed, because life decided to become entirely predictable about this one point if nothing else.
In the midst of a long Zoom call, feeling anxious and frustrated, I spotted a devil Funko doll that Tabitha gave me on my desk.
Without quite knowing why, I reached out and put two fingers on the points of its horns. Then I closed my eyes and–just for a second–concentrated on that tactile sensation.
Shortly, I started to feel a little more calm–grounded, perhaps, by this tiny moment of affirmation. Thinking about it later, I started to consider the horns in terms like stability and balance: Upon two even points, almost anything can be made to stand.
It’s not an ideal setup, of course: A tripod is actually a much stronger and more stable shape, for example.
But life rarely gives us what’s ideal: Very, very often, we make do not with what would work best, but simply with what works.
In the travails of day-to-day life, we don’t often get what we want. And, contrary to Mick Jagger’s suggestions to my parents’ generation, neither do we get what we need. Probably, we just get the minimum.
And while I can say with authority that I deserve more, I also know that if need be, I can work with that. I can balance all of the world’s expectations on as little as two points–on the horns, as it were.
So, however they got there, I’m grateful to have them.