Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cuckolds, Horns and More


I mentioned last week how the horned Moses in artistic depictions came about. I wonder if anyone equated Moses’ wife playing up on him because of that depiction.

In many cultures the term for a husband whose wife is cheating on him is that he is a “cuckold”, deriving from the old French word for the cuckoo bird, "cucu". It refers to the alleged habit of the female cuckoo bird of changing its mate frequently and its factual practice of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. 

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(There is a cartoon which shows a man at his desk using a typewriter. The door behind him has signage “P Smith, Divorce Lawyer”. The caption underneath the cartoon reads “Dear Editor, Today I saw the first cuckold of spring. . . “).

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In Western traditions, cuckolds have sometimes been described as "wearing the horns of a cuckold" or just "wearing the horns". There are various explanations as to how this has come about.  

On explanation holds that it is an allusion to the mating habits of stags, who forfeit their horns when they are defeated by another male. 

According to Desmond Morris in his book The Naked Man , the horns symbolise the castrated bull, so by giving someone the horns you are calling their manhood, their ‘ballshood’ into question. 

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In many cultures and countries, but especially in Italy, it is a great insult to place one’s hand on the forehead with first and fourth fingers extended, indicating that the person to whom the sign is directed is a cuckold, without knowing it. In Italy it is referred to as “fare le corna”. 


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Portuguese Economy Minister Manuel Pinho shows an opposition MP what he thinks of him during a 2009 debate

Silvio Berlusconi makes the horns sign over the head of the then foreign minister Josep Piqué at a European summit meeting in 2002

Actress Meryl Streep gives the sign over the head of "Angels in America" director, Mike Nichols. 

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The cuckold sign should not be confused with the American Sign Language hand gesture for "I love you":




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Chaucer refers to cuckolds, as does Shakespeare in many of his plays, the latter also often including references to horns, as in Much Ado About Nothing:

"No but to the gate; and there will the devil meet me, like an old cuckold, with horns on his head, and say 'Get you to heaven Beatrice, get you to heaven; here's no place for you maids . . .'" 

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A cuckold who knows of, and accepts, his wife’s infidelity was known as a “wittol”. The term harks back to the 15th century when the word “wit” meant awareness and knowledge. It survives today in the modern meaning of wit. In the context of a husband being cuckolded, it included the sense that the husband who was aware was dim witted and a fool. Shakespeare used the terms cuckold and wittol in the Merry Wives of Windsor:

"My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at... 
Cuckold! Wittol!—Cuckold! the devil himself hath not such a name."

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Which raises another related aspect: the origin of the word “horny”.


Apart from the similarity in shape between a phallus and a horn, powdered horn was also considered an aphrodisiac in many cultures. The use of the term in literature can be attributed to 16th century writers, including Shakespeare, who used it as a means of referring to an erect penis. Witness, for instance, The Taming of the Shrew

"Am I but three inches? Why thy horne is a foot and so long am I at the least". 

Melville in Moby Dick writes;

"The Earl of Leicester, on bended knees, did. . .present her highness with another horn." 

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The Shakespeare quote above brings to mind a joke posted in Bytes in April last year but which is worth repeating. (Tom C, this one's for you).

Sophia just got married, and being a traditional Italian was still a virgin. On her wedding night, staying at her mother's house, she was nervous. But mother reassured her. "Don't worry, Sophia. Luigi's a good man. Go upstairs, and he'll take care of you."

So up she went. When she got upstairs, Luigi took off his shirt and exposed his hairy chest. Sophia ran downstairs to her mother and says, "Mama, Mama, Luigi's got a big hairy chest."

"Don't worry, Sophia", says the mother, "All good men have hairy chests. Go upstairs. He'll take good care of you." 

So, up she went again. When she got up in the bedroom, Luigi took off his pants exposing his hairy legs. Again Sophia ran downstairs to her mother. "Mama, Mama, Luigi took off his pants, and he's got hairy legs!" 

"Don't worry. All good men have hairy legs. Luigi's a good man. Go upstairs, and he'll take good care of you."

So, up she went again. When she got up there, Luigi took off his socks, and on his left foot he was missing three toes. When Sophia saw this, she ran downstairs. "Mama, Mama, Luigi's got a foot and a half!" 

"Stay here and stir the pasta", says the mother. "This is a job for Mama!"



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