> I've always been fascinated with the traditions
> which depict Moses with horns. If I recall
> correctly, this comes from the fact that the
> Hebrew word for 'shining' used to describe Moses'
> face as he descended Sinai also means 'horned.'
> Alexander the Great is another figure that is
> often depicted with horns, this time in Islam.
Here is a short extract of my notes on the symbolism of horn.
Horns convey a feeling of eminence and loftiness. Their symbolism is that of power, which is, in any case and generally speaking, that possessed by the animals which bear them. This symbolism is linked to Apollo-Karneios and to Dionysos and was used by Alexander the Great when he adopted the emblem of Amon, the ram, whom the Egyptian Book of the Dead calls the Lord of the Two Horns. It recurs in the Chinese myth of the terrible Ch’e Yu, with his horned head, whom Huang Ti could only defeat by blowing on a horn. Huang Ti used his rival’s standard, which bore his portrait and was infused with his strength, to impose his own power. In many countries - and especially in Gaul - warriors used to wear horned helmets. The power of horns is not, however, restricted to the temporal sphere.
Guenon observes that rams’ horns possess a solar quality, while bulls’ horns have a lunar character. The association of bulls with the Moon is a well known characteristic of both Sumerian and Hindu culture. A Cambodian inscription describes the Moon as a ‘perfect horn’ (Crescent) and emphasizes the ‘horned’ aspect of Shiva’s bull. The Mahabharata talks of Shiva’s ‘horn’, since Shiva is identified with Nandi, the bull on which he rides (K. Bhattacharya, Les religions brahmaniques dans l’ancien Cambodge, M. Granet, Chinese Ciivlisation, Rene Guenon, Symbols of Sacred Science).
‘The horns of oxen, for instance, which are used to characterize the great divinities of fecundity, are an emblem of the divine Magna Mater’ (Menghin quoted in Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, p. 164). Horns suggest the prestigious aura of the life force, the cycle of creation, the inexhaustible well of life and fertility. Hence they have come to symbolize the majesty and the munificence of kingly power. Like Dionysos, Alexander the Great was depicted horned to symbolize his power and genius which established his kinship with the gods and to which the prosperity of his rule was due.
If horns often derive from a lunar and therefore a female symbolism (bulls’ horns), they may also carry a solar, male symbolic force (rams’ horns). This explains why they are so often seen as a symbol of the powers of virility, and this other aspect of the symbol naturally applies in the case of Alexander the Great.
Marie Bonaparte has observed that in Hebrew queren means simultaneously ‘horn’ and ‘power’ and ‘strength’, as does lingam in Sanskrit and cornu in Latin. Horns, through their strength, suggest power, while their natural function evokes the thrust of the male sexual organ (corno is Italian slang for ‘penis’).
In Jewish and Christian tradition, horns symbolize strength and have the meaning of a ray of light or a lightning flash, as in the passage where Habakkuk (3: 4) describes the glory of God: ‘And his brightness was as the light: and he had horns [lightning] coming out of his hand.’ Similarly, when Moses is described coming down from Mount Sinai (Exodus 34: 29), ‘he wist not that his face shone’, the verb ‘shone’ translating the ‘horns’ of light which the Vulgate says came from his head. This is why medieval artists depicted Moses with horns jutting from his forehead. These two horns bear the aspect of the crescent Moon. The four horns of the altar of sacrifice in the Temple denote the four quarters of space, that is the limitless extent of God’s power.
In the Psalms, the horn symbolizes God’s strength, which is the most powerful defence available to those who call upon it: ‘The Lord is my rock . . . my buckler, and the horn of my salvation’ (Psalms 18: 2). But it may also symbolize the aggressive and vaunting strength of the proud whose arrogance the Lord will bring down: ‘Lift not up your horn on high: speak not with a stiff neck’ (Psalm 75: 4). On the other hand the Lord imparts strength to the righteous: ‘There will I make the horn of David to bud’ (Psalm 132: 17). The word ‘horns’ is sometimes used to denote the cross-beams of the Cross.