Taking the bull by the Horns!

Within the context of ancient history, Rino Barbieri explains that double-edged, Italian gesture  that can mean either good luck or that your partner is cheating on you.

Cornuto is an offensive term in Italian to inform you that your loved one is busy loving someone else. The horns of an animal are translated as corna and a literal rendition of the expression would be “horned”. The shape of the hand gesture, with the index finger and little finger pointing skywards, mimics the horns of a bull. The thumb can be either folded in on sticking out.

However, if we turn the same gesture upside down and point the index finger and little finger down towards the ground, the gesture becomes a superstitious plea to ward off bad luck. For extra good luck, this gesture can also be repeated several times with a stabbing motion downwards.

So what is the reason behind this very Italian gesture? Intuition tells Rino Barbieri, that the reason dates back to prehistoric times. He was looking at the carvings  on an Etruscan sarcophagus housed at the Volterra Guarnacci Museum in Tuscany, when he noticed that the deceased was clearly portrayed with his hand and fingers in the famous gesture. The care, details and intricacy of the sculpting work must surely mean that gesture was not carved by chance. And the same gesture can be seen on numerous Etruscan funeral urns. Until now, the gesture has always been translated as a superstitious symbol of good fortune but Signor Barbieri decided to dig deeper and find out a little more about the gesture’s real meaning.

In ancient art the non-castrated bull represented a vital force with phenomenal reproductive powers. In prehistoric times, images of bulls were portrayed in caves associated with the first hunters and the cult of the Great Mother, their fierce horns representing the regenerating power of nature. Plus the rich, red blood of the bull represented the force of life and the tasty meat was certainly revitalizing after a hard day’s hunt. Given the sheer size and brute force of the animal, the hunters were unlikely to kill one on a daily basis and thus the creature held a quasi-unobtainable status. When man moved out of the caves and became more farmer than hunter, he needed the tamer ox, or castrated adult bull, to pull the plough and plant the seeds of a new agricultural era. From the female cow, man took milk for food. The animal was considered extremely useful and honoured in all its forms.
In neolithic times, the bucranium, or head of a bull, had a powerful meaning. The Lithuanian archaeologist and anthropologist Marija Gimbutas wrote of a connection between the bull and the Mother Goddess in her book “The Language of the Goddess”.  Her theory was that the head and horns of the bull had an extraordinary similarity to the shape of the female reproductive organs, the Fallopian tubes and the uterus. The egg has always symbolised rebirth, indeed Christian civilisations today still give chocolate eggs at Easter. From neolithic times onwards, the head or full figure of the bull was seen on countless small statutes and vases to symbolise the concept of regeneration. In ancient Egypt, Apis was considered the most important bull deity of the three, great, bull cults. In the Minoan civilisation, the head and horns were used as a symbol in the Knossos Palace, whose labyrinthian rooms were said to have been home to the mythical, half man, half bull Minotaur. The ancient Greek Minotaur mythology tells us just how much the beast was idolised. Youngsters of both sex have been immortalised in frescos and on ceramics as grabbing the horns of the bull as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. The idols in the form of a veal calf are mentioned in many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Christianity talks about the sacrificial animal as a symbol of Christ. The Running of the Bull and Bull-fighting competitions are a more modern testimony still practiced today in various countries in Europe and America.

In the world of the ancient Romans, the bull was their sacrificial animal of choice. Taurobolium, which refers to practices involving the sacrifice of a bull, was common and the blood of a freshly killed bull was spread over the fields to ensure longer, greener grass next spring.

The bull was sacrificed to mythological Mars, the god of war, thunder, rain and fertility. And let’s not forget Mithraism, the Roman religion centred around the god Mithras, which was popular in Rome from the 1st century AD and showed Mithras killing the sacrificial bull. One could argue that they were mythological figures but then again, as Rino Barbieri says, all mythological stories have a pinch of truth in there somewhere.

The Etruscan Tomb of the Bulls in Tarquinia, Southern Italy, dates back to around 530BC and was discovered in 1892. It is named after the two bulls which appear in one of its frescoes. The erotic scene pays homage to the importance of the beast and clearly expresses the connection between the bull and sexuality. The prehistoric Domus de Janus tombs (Fairy Homes) in Sardinia show the heads of bulls with horns that are often interlaced with spirals and concentric circles, which represent water.

These are symbols of regeneration and therefore added to ease the dearly departed’s process of rebirth.

Rino Barbieri firmly believes that the corne hand gesture sculpted onto sarcophagi and Etruscan funeral urns is not there to simply ward off bad luck. To him, it was more a symbol of hope: a hope of a successful rebirth with the help of the regenerative force of the bull. It was a positive gesture when the dead were depicted using it. The gesture can be only understood to hold superstitious value when it is used by the living.