The Guardian Strikes Again

Here’s an interesting article about a book on visiting illuminated manuscripts. Hopefully the content doesn’t reflect the book.

Moses is described as “horned” throughout the Middle Ages, and of course Michelangelo’s famous statue shows Moses with horns. This was not because people thought Jews had horns.

(Obviously an idea that couldn’t survive any city where Jews lived. Jews got their hats knocked off a lot; it was a common harassment thing. However, it is true that people in the waybacks always seem to tell kids that various minority ethnic or religious groups who don’t live around them have tails and horns, like the Russian eretik (“heretic”) monsters. You sometimes hear people on the Internet who say that their grandparents were taught that about Catholics.)

The reason Moses was called “horned” was because the Vulgate said the same thing. This was how St. Jerome, who studied Hebrew with Jews, translated Exodus 34:35:

“Qui videbant faciem egredientis Moysi esse cornutam, sed operiebat ille rursus faciem suam, siquando loquebatur ad eos.”

“Upon Moses coming out, they saw his face was horned, but he covered his face back up whenever he spoke to them.”

The usual English translation these days is that “the skin of Moses’ face shone.” So what people think is, “How dumb St. Jerome was! What a terrible translation error!”

But the Hebrew word used in this passage for “shine” is “karan,” which literally means “horn.”

As this gentleman Taylor Marshall explains, the Hebrew idea was that a ray of light was shaped like a horn. Horns were also symbols of power, as we see again and again in the Books of Daniel and Revelation. So after seeing God, Moses suddenly had some kind of frightening light of power coming out from his head. Horns.

Mr. Marshall also points out that Hebrew altars had horns, and altars were veiled. He suggests that the wording means that Moses was now a living altar of God.

UPDATE: Hello, Instapundit visitors! You might want to buy my brother’s steampunky science fiction novel, The Sculpted Ship, which today is on sale for #2.99. My commenter below, Peter J. Floriani, has several entertaining novels out, as well as some enlightening non-fiction. Finally, I have translated several medieval and early modern books which you can buy.


Filed under Church

6 responses to “The Guardian Strikes Again

  1. Very interesting… horned as a description of light-emitting. Talk about sounding powerful…

    And of course all our “radio” and “radiation” and related words come from the Latin for “the spoke of a wheel”. (I also like how “antenna” is a technical term somehow relating to the mast of a sailboat (I forget exactly what).)

    Every time I hear the Sequence for Pentecost in Latin (well, I mean, when I read it – I almost never hear it, even in English, since who would ever want to make the HOLY SACRIFICE OF THE MASS longer? [*] [sigh]) But the Latin actually uses the name of that famous Curie-purified element named RADIUM…. Speaking of long and tiresome… a ten-million-fold increase in concentration which took (at least by one report) over a year of doing the same dull and boring ritual OVER AND OVER.

    and so my next book will include this curious Nomaly. (yeah, that’s “anomaly” without the “a-“.)

    [*] “…the Mass is very long and tiresome unless one loves God.”
    From GKC, The Ball and the Cross.

  2. Doesn’t the presence of horns also mean Godlike, or divine? Alexander the Great was often depicted with horns, and the Egyptians actually proclaimed him a God (to avoid being conquered).

    • Alexander the Great was going for something different. On the occasion of his visit to the oracle temple of Amon at Siwa, Libya, he was claimed by the local Egyptian priests to be a son of the god Amon or Amon-Ra. (Specifically, of Zeus-Ammon, worshipped in Greek colony areas in Libya.)

      Among his other traditional attributes, Amon was called “the two-horned” and was supposed to have ram’s horns on his head. (Possibly also as a symbol of light, but possibly also as a god of sheep and shepherds. And since Egyptian and Middle Eastern rulers commonly called themselves shepherds in a poetic sense, he became a god of rulers and ruling.) But you usually never saw the ram horns unless he was being depicted as a ram; he was drawn traditionally as a pharaoh, wearing a crown over all that. However, when the Greek colonists started worshipping local gods, they started drawing Zeus-Ammon as the hatless Zeus, except with ram’s horns curling around his ears.

      So just like it was common to show a pharaoh’s queen as being part of Bastet by drawing her with cow horns on her head, Alexander got drawn with ram’s horns. The major difference is that Hellenic Egyptian artists were not drawing Alexander in the traditional Egyptian art style, but in the Hellenic art style.

      Here’s a page about Alexander’s Ammon adventure, with some nice pictures of the coinage that ensued. It also provides references to the Greek histories that talk about it, including skeptical ancient explanations.

  3. Grace

    As a lover of history, and more so religious history, this is a gem!

  4. thewerewife

    With regard to Michelangelo’s Moses: Those projections on his head AREN’T horns, but something far more exciting. According to R. Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner, Michelangelo knew very well what proper horns looked like; the things atop Moses were invisible to the viewer in the statue’s original location … but worked to scatter the light that fell across them, and thereby create the dazzling effect described in Scripture! You absolutely must read their book on the subject, which is now available on the Kindle for dirt cheap. Heck, if you buy it, I promise to buy your brother’s book!

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