Mormon Horns 2/7: Meanings of “X has horns”

By February 2, 2010

If the desired outcome of verbal communication is that ideas/feelings in my head end up as the same ideas/feelings in your head, verbal communication is a miserably inefficient and strife-engendering process—it’s just better than everything else we’ve tried. If someone, somewhere writes, “Mormons have horns” or “Mormons wear horns,” what might the idea in their head be?

Horns as Physical and Metaphysical Anatomy

1. Literal horns caused by…biology, such as birth in polygamy (Pre-Mendelian genetics = more fun).
2. …supernatural processes, such as alliance with Satan
3. Literal horns in the physical, supernatural realm, which appear only with magic or after transformation
4. Literal, spiritual horns in the non-physical supernatural realm, which horns appear only by revelation  [1]

Horns as Idiom or Metaphor

5. Cuckoldry  [2]
6. Aggressiveness  [3]
7. Evil/Wickedness with metaphysical context (alliance with Satan, fulfillment of prophecy like Rev 13:11)  [4]
8. Evil/Wickedness without metaphysical context (greed, hostility, etc)  [5]
9. Otherness

Expressions such as “to pull in one’s horns” ran little risk of literalism and most educated conversants would understand biblical and classical associations among horns, power, hedonism, and/or sexual lust. [6] Further, movements, institutions, ideas, races, and so on could receive horns. [7]

Horns as Object, Costume, or Hairstyle

One could be said to “own,” “have,” or “wear” horns as an object in the sense of…

10.  Horns cut from or modeled on animals  [8]
11.  Clothes, styles, or costumes with horns  [9]
12.  Jewelry, amulets, and/or talismans with horn(s)  [10]

Horns as Phoneme

13.  Sometimes people speak imprecisely; they simply “parrot” phrases  [11]

Formulas for Horn Attribution

Not all horn attributions carried the same weight. Consider the following:

  1. I think/thought they have/had horns now or until very recently  [12]
  2. I thought they had horns but learned different some time ago  [13]
  3. They think/thought we have/had horns now or until very recently  [14]
  4. They thought we had horns but learned different some time ago  [15]
  5. They treat(ed)/view(ed) us as if we have/had horns now or until very recently  [16]
  6. They treated/viewed us as if we had horns but learned different  [17]
  7. That is as ridiculous as saying they had horns  [18]

Other variants included the negations of such statements, e.g., “I do not have horns like they think we have,” and third-party attribution: A says B believes C has horns, etc.


The idea that someone or ones “had horns” could mean multiple things and, with multiple formulas for expression, attributions could carry various weights. Of course, no expression is entirely immune to misinterpretation. Figurative expressions can make concrete impressions and vice versa. The risk of miscommunication increases across class, religious, ethnic, and other boundary lines and in situations of heightened emotion.

Mormon Horns 123, 4, 5, 6, 7. These horn posts continue earlier efforts analyzing ways of describing Mormons or using Mormons to describe something else. These include: India, Cows, Bluebeard, Lice, Crickets, Flies, Happy Valley, and sundry other beasts.

[1] Unlike the other possible meanings, for the four anatomical meanings  I have not attempted to demonstrate currency in the nineteenth century. I think I’ve covered all the theoretical possibilities. If we were focusing on the twentieth century, we would need to include an aliens-with-human-costumes option, but I am not aware of such a meme in the 19th century. To be clear, “spiritual” here refers to spirit bodies or forms rather than to moral attributes.

[2] A cuckold—a man whose wife has been unfaithful—has, since at least the 1400s and throughout Europe, been described as having, or at least wearing, horns. Associating horns with cuckoldry seems unrelated etymologically to the even older association of horns with fertility, virility, and sex (though it couldn’t have hurt). “Horn, n.,” definition 7a; “horn, v.,” definition 2, Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, accessed online 2009 Aug 23; Robert Bates Graber and Gregory C. Richter, “The Capon Theory of the Cuckold’s Horns: Confirmation or Conjecture?” The Journal of American Folklore 100:395 (1987 Jan-Mar): 58-63.

[3] “‘Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.’ ‘Harmless’ here means literally ‘hornless’—’hornless as doves.’ Some creatures have horns, with which they accomplish much mischief. But as for doves, they have no horns…. Similarly some men habitually wear horns, bringing vividly to our minds him who was pictured in our early school-books with horns and cloven feet…; in presbytery and synod they rush like wild buffaloes upon their brethren…, they are never happy except when they make others unhappy, never satisfied save when they are vigorously using their horns against people unable or unwilling to defend themselves.” John Cynddylan Jones, Studies in the Gospel According to St. John (London: Hamilton & Adams, 1884), 170. [I’m having trouble with Greek characters and don’t speak Greek anyway but… Jones and many others linked akeraios (KJV: “Harmless”) in Matt 10:16 (cf Philemon 2:15, Romans 16:19) etymologically to “a + keratos” = negation + horn, therefore, “hornless.”, Strong’s G185, with references to Richard C Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, 8th ed (London: Macmillan, 1876) and WE Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (1940).

[4] “The infidelity…of the present day has become pious…. Mr. Thomas Paine was a green hand at the work. … He showed his hoofs, horns, and tail, and supposed he could accomplish his end. … If he had become a doctor of divinity he would have shown more tact, and had more prospect of ultimate success” [A]; [Mormon commenting on a Millerite sermon]: “Some of Mr. Miller’s followers had said that the Mormons were the beast spoken of by John; if, indeed, they are, they have not got so many eyes, ears, horns and hoofs, as he has manifested” [B]. The “cloven foot” by itself could serve the same purpose. [Describing an anti-Mormon argument with (allegedly) fatal contradictions]: “Mr. Haynes in his great zeal to oppose the truth, has run himself into a dilemma. … I advise him in future to be more cautious, if he would not have the cloven foot appear” [C]; Rev 13:11 “…beast with two horns like a lamb….”

[A] Congregational Journal, quoted without byline in No author listed, “Modern Infidels,” The Ladies’ Repository 30 (1870 May): 340; [B] No author listed, “Millerism,” Times and Seasons 4:11 (1843 Apr 15): 171 [168-71]. [C] B Snow, “Inconsistency of Anti-Mormons,” Millennial Star 19:24 (1857 Jun 13): 382 [380-2].

[5] “[James Gordon] Bennett, it must be confessed, is no hypocrite. He does not, like many another journalist, hide his diabolical horns in an old woman’s night-cap, or his cloven hoof in a fashionable gaiter” [A]; [Criticizing the editor of the (Presbyterian) Christian Journal]: Though from the righteous castigations its Editor has received of late for his unprovoked assault and abuse of all who differ from him, he is a little more reserved in his own observations; and though the horns do not appear quite as conspicuous as they did a few weeks since, yet the cloven foot is equally obvious” [B];

[A] Lambert A Wilmer, Our Press Gang; or, A Complete Exposition of the Corruptions and Crimes of the American Newspapers (Philadelphia: JT Lloyd, 1859), 194; [B] No author listed, “Christian Journal,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate 1:16 (Utica, NY: 1830 Apr 10): 117.

[6] “We say, therefore, to Brigham Young and his deluded followers, that they had better… accept the laws of Congress in regard to polygamy, …and either haul in their rebellious horns or prepare to pack up their baggage for a tramp to some distant country….” New York Herald, “Brigham Young and Polygamy—Will the Prophet Take Sensible Advice?” quoted in full, with no byline, in No author listed, “Religion and State in Our Republic,” Catholic World 20:119 (1875 Feb): 619 [615-629], cited text all italicized in Catholic World. See also: John Stephen Farmer and William Ernest Henley, eds, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: A Dictionary, Historical and Comparative of the Heterodox Speech of All Classes of Society for More Than Three Hundred Years, 7 vols (London and Edinburgh: subscribers only, 1893 [1890-1904]), “horn,” 3.351-5; Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed, “horn, n.” 7a; “horn, v.” 2, accessed online 2009 Aug 23.

[7] “But what Friday of what gloomy week, of what gloomy month, of what gloomy year would be gloomy enough for the execution of this beastly outlaw? What grave deep enough for this stout, thousand-armed, thousand-footed, thousand-headed, thousand-horned, thousand-fanged corpse? What epitaph for that grave, unless it be this: ‘Here lies Mormonism, the outlaw, the libertine and the murderer, the hero of Mountain Meadow massacre. Born February 22d, 1827, died 1882, at the hand of the law and under the indignation of the Almighty’?” [A]; “The Union was not saved by sentiment. Our nation cannot live on gush. Hard work, faithful service is now demanded. At present I will not speak of the two-horned moral monster now growing fat beneath our flag. I mean Mormonism, with its bigamy and polygamy” [B]; “Congress has had the Mormon goat by the horns and the Mormon tiger by the tail for twenty years, and the creature seems likely to get the better” [C]; “Facts have shown that thousands of the American families are as gullible as other people: and while Mormonism is thriving in our soil, and planting itself for the purposes of secular empire and consequent bloodshed, the horns of this very Catholicism are growing up in our midst, and its draconic voice is preparing to be heard and obeyed” [D]; “It [caste] still exists, even here [Ceylon], and shows its sharp and ugly horns and cloven feet in the midst of us. We wish we were not compelled to add, that we see and feel its baneful influence in some of the members of our churches” [E]; [On Spiritualism]: “We do not simply mean to say that there are some features of skepticism about this ghostly wonder; but that, except the doctrine of a future life in a sensual heaven, it denies every leading doctrine and fact, of the Bible. From the bottoms of its hoofs to the tips of its horns it is infidel. It is soaked and saturated with infidelity” [F].

[A] T De Witt Talmage, “What I Saw of Mormonism,” Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine 40:4 (1882 Apr): 419 [417-20]; text also given as speech, New York, 1880 Sep 26; [B] TC Evans, Memorial Day speech, Farmington, IL, excerpted in John H Aughey, Tupelo (Lincoln, NB: State Journal Co, 1888), 445-6; [C] No author listed, “Has Congress Got a Goat by the Horns or a Tiger by the Tail?” from the New York World, reprinted in Millennial Star 44:32 (1882 Aug 07): 500-1; [D] Jason Darrow, The New Light; or, Discourses on the Christian Church; on the Evils of Sectarianism; and on the True Manner of Becoming Christians (Covington, KY: Licking Valley Register, 1846), 280; [E] Benjamin C Meigs, Daniel Poor, William W Holland, “Caste in the Island of Ceylon,” The Bibliotheca Sacra 11:43 (1854 Jul): 473 [470-489]; [F] William H Ferris, “The Theology of Modern Spiritualism, Its Infidelity,” The Ladies Repository 16 (1856 Jun): 364 [364-370].

[8] Such horns might be used for decoration, storing gun-powder, dispensing olive oil in Mormon temples, completing ox statues for Mormon temple fonts, and so on.

[9] For example: some Native American Peoples, Ku Klux Klan members, Druze women, Carnival revelers, Barbarians, and actors (allegedly) portraying Satan in secret rites. These examples will be discussed (I hope) in more detail in subsequent posts.

Hairstyles include the hennin, ram’s horn headdress, butterfly headdress, cornette, and some African tribal traditions. The “corn” in “cornette” means, of course, “horn.” [Describing the “ram’s horn” hairstyle and subsequent headdress]: “Particular care was taken to make the suggestion [of ram’s horns] as realistic as possible, the ends of the tails protruding from the centre of the scroll, to represent the tips of the horns” [A]. “In 1417…outraged preachers denounced the butterfly headdress as being similar to the horns of a devil and claimed that the rolls used to create it must have been stuffed with ‘the hair of dead women who may well be in hell.’ Some costume historians believe that the hennin could have been named after insults hurled at the elegant women wearing the tall pointed hats. The Bishop of Paris recruited people to shout at any woman wearing a hennin ‘Hurte, belin!’ which means roughly, ‘Nanny goat, use your horns!’” [B] [Describing people living near Abeokuta, (present-day) Nigeria]: “Many of them wore their hair upstanding in little tufts of wool, which coiffure, says a German traveller, ‘made them look more like horned fiends than human beings’” [C]; [Speaking of English hairstyles]: “And we are right in borrowing from our ancestors such modes as are admissible. If people subsequently chose to wear horns, as in Edward the Fourth’s time, when a lady’s head was as formidable to regard as a mad bull making the tour of Paddington direct from the New Cattle Market… why, let us pity this vile taste…” [D].

[A] Herbert Norris, Medieval Costume and Fashion (London: JM Dent, 1927; reprint: Courier Dover, 1999), 177-81; [B] Marie Botkin, “Medieval Clothing,” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing through World History: Prehistory to 1500CE, edited by Jill Condra (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008), 238; [C] Richard F Burton, Abeokuta and the Camaroons Mountains: An Exploration, 2 vols (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1863), 1.43; [D] The Author of “Few Out of Thousands,” “Facts of Fashion,” The Ladies’ Companion, and Monthly Magazine 22, 2nd series (London: 1862): 261 [258-62].

[10] Examples include the Italian corno, corno fica, and corno manuto. JM Campbell, “Notes on the Spirit Basis of Belief and Custom,” sub-heading, “Horns,” Indian Antiquary 24:302 (1895 Aug): 259-62 [221-31, 259-267, …]. [Discussing protections against the Evil Eye in Italy]: “But of all amulets there is none at once more common and more efficient than those which are made in the shape of horns—thus the head of a bull or goat with its horns, a single horn, the horned moon, are among the best of charms.” William W Story, Roba di Roma, 2 vols (London: Chapman and Hall, 1863), 2.331.

[11] I’m sure there is a technical term for things people “parrot” to try to fit in, but I don’t know it.

[12] I found no first-person horn attributions without qualification. The closest were statements that the speaker had believed someone had horns but had, in the process of the recorded conversation, learned the contrary. “Well, from reports, we had reason to think the Mormons were a peculiar people, different from other people, having horns or something of the kind; but I find they look like other people: indeed, I think Mr. Smith a very good-looking man.” Wilson Law, in conversation with Joseph Smith, Springfield, IL, 1842 Dec 31, as reported by Joseph Smith, HC 5:214. Note that even though Smith’s [and/or ghost-writer’s] narrative is in first person, the quote refers to Smith in third person rather than second; Charles Hemenway, writing in 1887 (while in prison for libel), claimed to have “heard a New England school mistress enquire, in all soberness, whether or not the polygamists had horns or looked at all like other people.” Charles W. Hemenway, Memoirs of My Day: In and Out of Mormondom (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co, 1887), 134-5; “He appeared at last—but how was I disappointed, when, instead of the heads and horns of the beast, and false prophet, I beheld only the appearance of a common man, of tolerable large proportions.” Samuel Prior, “A Visit to Nauvoo,” Times and Seasons 4:13 (1843 May 15): 196-8.

[13] [Canadian Corporal expecting to be punished for unauthorized absence]: “Then I was in front of the Discip [Station Disciplinarian or Station Warrant Officer, Royal Canadian Air Force], and right there and then I found out that he didn’t have horns and a tail, nor did he breathe fire.” GC Baily, “Sundry Travels,” Vox Lycei: A Student Publication 59 (Lisgar Collegiate Institute, Ottawa: 1946): 55 [55-7].

[14] “I am a Mormon Elder, without horns or hoofs—although many people have such an idea of us that they think they must see a horn sticking out of us somewhere.” No author listed, “The Mormons. Their ‘Branch’ in New York,” NYDT 1857 Jun 29, p4; “Catholics were supposed to be strange beings, unlike other people, and some of the more ignorant believed they had horns like animals.” Elizabeth B Smith, “Some Remarkable Kentucky Converts,” Catholic World 59:351 (New York: 1894 Jun):  388 [355-389].

[15] “Lots of people who had heard of, but had never seen him, found out, when he raised his hat repeatedly to the perfect salvoes of applause, that Jerry didn’t have horns or carry a knife in his teeth as they had been led to believe; no, they saw a find, courteous, up-standing, genial American gentleman….” [A]; “There still was hostility, but… some of the first money to come didn’t come to a medical school; it went to the California Medical Association. … And next to the California Hospital. And they became part of the program. They saw that we didn’t have horns or tails, and we started to work together pleasantly” [B]; “When our country threw off the yoke of Rome, the Spanish priests persuaded the people, that the English, in consequence of becoming heretics, were stripped of their former shape, and had horns like the devil, and satan’s cloven foot. It was therefore not without astonishment, that the first time an embassy was sent from England to Spain, the persons who composed it were seen to have undergone no change of form, in consequence of the change of their faith; but were as handsome and well shaped as if they had still continued within the pale of the Romish church” [C].

[A] Correspondent, “Millinocket Local No. 27, Millinocket, ME,” The Paper Makers’ Journal 14:10 (1915 Sep): 22 [21-22]; [B] Roger O Egeberg, interviewed by Diane Rehm, 1991 Jul 30, Bethesda, MD, for National Library of Medicine, “Profiles in Science,” <>, accessed 2009 Aug 20; [C] David Bogue and James Bennett, The History of Dissenters: From the Revolution in 1688, to the Year 1808, 4 vols (London: Williams and Smith, 1808), 183.

[16] “The children, electrified by this stupendous demand, stared as if Nina had suddenly developed horns and cloven hoofs.” Frances Courtenay Baylor, “Miss Nina Barrow,” St. Nicholas 24:9 (1897 Jul): 770 [763-770]; [A man dressed and (un)groomed as an indigent, asking for hospitality]: “…the man did not see me until I awakened his attention, by seizing a handful of bread… upon which he started back as if he had seen a hobgoblin. …[addressing someone who knows his true identity]: ‘I have asked for a basin of water, but cannot get it; the folks stare at me when I speak, as if I had horns and hoofs.’” John Mathers, The History of Mr. John Decastro and His Brother Bat, Commonly Called Old Crab, 3 vols (Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1815), 3.172-3; “Seeing Professor Martyn, then proctor, approaching, he [the letter writer’s friend] rushed out of the coffee-room… to avoid being seated near so great a man. This we both regretted; and Martyn said, ‘… I am very sorry that he was so scared at my horns and hoofs.’ In allusion to which, when my friend, in process of time, became Proctor himself, he pleasantly wrote me word, ‘That he was almost afraid of looking into a glass, for fear he should see his own horns and hoofs.’” Baptist Noel Turner, “4. Johnsonian Letter the Third,” 1819 Nov 15, in Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century: Consisting of Authentic Memoirs and Original Letters of Eminent Persons; and Intended as a Sequel to The Literary Anecdotes, 8 vols, edited by John Bowyer Nichols (London: Nichols, Son, and Bentley, 1831 [1817-1858]), 6.165 [164-71].

[17] “Well, I was surprised to see what sort of a man he really was. You know how the papers go on about him. You would think that he had horns and hoofs at the very least, but he is no scoundrel at all. He is a gentleman—a real nice man.” Kate Upson Clark, “Our Boys’ Politics,” The Home-Maker 3:1 (1889 Oct): 69-70 [67-70].

[18] “The most determined enemy of S. Cyran or Arnauld, who at this day affected to doubt their Tridentine faith about Penance and the Eucharist, would peril his character for candour; but the man who gravely pretends to maintain, and asks us to believe, that they were deliberate infidels, is far past criticism. He might as well prove that they had horns and tails.” No author listed, “Art. VI.—Les Provinciales; et leur Réfutation. Par M. l’Abbé Maynard, Chanoine Honoraire de Poitiers. Ouvrage dédié à Mons. De Vesins, Evêque d’Agen. Paris: 1851. 2 vols. 8vo.,” The Christian Remembrancer 24:77 (London: 1852 Jul): 243 [176-243].

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