Horns and horned figures are often tattooed as lucky charms, but they can also be linked to the animal world, magic, social challenge, sex or spirituality.
Horns are part of an ancient tradition representing a celebrated legend that continues to live on today.
In the tattoo world there are many different types of horned figures, each with its own distinct message. We can see demons and evil characters; women and she-devils, who are usually very sexy; heroic or aggressive representations of Celtic, Viking, Germanic or fantasy warriors; good luck charms; horned animals and even Pagan gods, who go way back. As a symbol horns are in fact connected to a truly ancient story, in which they star as an age-old form of respect and veneration. But what do horns mean today and are they really happy?
Horn hand gestures
In many parts of the world people ward off bad luck by making a gesture with their index and little fingers pointing out, as if lowering their horns against a threat or enemy, which may be real or imaginary. So when Italian motorists and bikers show one another their horned hand signals as a rude gesture, it actually derives from a magical, ancestral heritage. However, the hand signal used by punk rockers and metal-heads as a show of victory – depicting the index and little fingers as horns, with the thumb held open too – harks back to an archaic use of the symbol as a sign of supremacy. In all cultures horns symbolise power, devastating strength, and victory. An animal with horns can defend itself, attack, assault and defeat its opponent. For those who believe in the occult, horns have the power to break up negative manifestations that are invisible to the human eye, created by witchcraft and curses.
The lucky horn-shaped amulet was in use as far back as Roman times. It has remained popular ever since and is probably the most common lucky charm in Italy. Horns, horn-shaped amulets and horned figures are still used to protect against the evil eye and there is a long historical tradition of them in the south of Italy, especially Naples. This tradition has influenced tattoo designs and the classic Neapolitan style is full of symbols meant to ward off bad luck with horns playing a central role.
The cornucopia or Horn of Plenty is also popular. It consists of a large, upside down horn, overflowing with flowers, fruit, wheat, precious stones and gold coins that Fortuna (one side of the Great Mother) offers as a gift. It is a symbol of happiness, good luck, health and youth, which is a traditional lucky charm to give as a wedding present or gift for a new baby.
The unicorn is the perfect lucky charm; this little white horse has a long pointed horn on its head, which it can use to destroy enemies yet its touch can also heal any wound. According to legend, powdered unicorn’s horn is an aphrodisiac.
Stories from the herd
In a herd of deer the stags fight for possession of the females and only the winner will keep his splendid branched antlers, as well as his sexual supremacy. The antlers of the stag that loses will weaken and fall off only to grow back again the following year. What is the connection between these and the metaphorical “horns” of matrimonial infidelity? They are both horns of a sexual nature but their meaning is a little bit different in northern and southern European cultures. When Italians speak about a person who has horns they mean that his or her partner has been unfaithful but in English to say that someone is “horny” means that they are sexually aroused.
Horns and horned figures have always symbolised fertility, they evoke the status of vital strength and life that cannot be extinguished, representing the majesty and benefits of royal power and in ancient times they characterised the great gods of fertility. The “horned god” is a modern definition, invented to connect the male gods of nature that have developed in the mythology of various cultures: the Celtic Cernunnos, the Welsh Caerwiden, the Hindu Pashupati, the Greek Pan and satyrs in general, as well as horned spirits of the forest and nature such as Puck, Robin Goodfellow (a sort of elf in English folklore) and the Green Man (similar to the Wild Man of the Alps), whose head has horns and is covered in leaves. He is often carved into the stone of churches in Britain.
In all cultures these horned male gods are connected to woods, wild animals and hunting and are often associated with virility, as a symbol of sexuality they represent one of the most basic Forces of Nature and every “horned god” is matched by a goddess of fertility, one facet of the Great Mother. Another name of the “horned god” is the Hunter (he sometimes has a crossbow) and since he not only gives life as a Father but as a Hunter he takes it away too, together with the Great Mother he is an integral part of the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
In the past horns signalled the presence of divinity and animals such as bulls, cows, goats, rams and stags were sacred. Animal horns are full of propitiatory meanings warding off bad luck, so the “horned god” of the ancients is often depicted with cow’s horns or large, branched stag’s antlers. The horns of the god are considered to be a symbol of masculine strength, resistance, protection and sometimes they are a phallic symbol too. The Celtic god Cernunnos, the Lord of the Animals with stag’s antlers, clasps a snake with ram’s horns as if it were a sceptre. It is the sacred, mythologized form of the fertile male being with all its attributes, from unbridled sexuality to sperm.
Not all the horned divinities with an ancient history are male; the goddesses Astarte and Isis, for example, are often depicted with horns. Isis, like many Mother Goddesses, bears a crescent moon or cow’s horns on her head, and a cow that is white like her milk (and like the moonlight) is the sacred animal for the Egyptian goddess Hathor and the Celtic Brigitor or Brighid. The Greek Artemis, who the Romans called Diana, unites many symbolic elements: she rules the woods, is accompanied by deer, is a hunter armed with a crossbow and a lunar goddess. One of her symbols is the crescent moon that we also find next to other goddesses and even the god Pashupati, the Indu protector of the cattle.
Introducing the devil
With the arrival of the Christian era, the Satan figure became widespread, depicted as a cross between a man and a goat in the image of the Greek Pan. Once Pan was transformed into the figure of the Devil with the intention of teaching people that Paganism was bad, then it was the turn of the witches: a god of theirs was horned and so the Inquisition burned them and accused them of being devil-worshippers, but in reality witches were entirely Pagan. Appearances aside thought, the two figures are different: while Satan is described as a fallen and essentially evil, angel, the Pagan’s horned character is a force of nature, neither completely evil nor entirely benign. Some aspects of the ancient “horned divinity” have been reattributed to Satan by modern Satanism, although we have to make a distinction: the cult of the Devil is a monotheistic religion that only exists as an opposite force to Christianity. While Paganism, which is much more ancient than monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Satanism) involves a sacred world with many gods. Careful though: a lot of people with devil tattoos are not Satanists, they just choose it as an alternative symbol and in our still deeply Catholic society, a devil still represents, rebellion, anti-conformism and challenge.
by Mary Tiussi
English translation by Victoria Edmenson