Moses by Michelangelo, c. 1513-1515

Moses by Michelangelo, c. 1513-1515

If you are extraordinarily perceptive, you may have noticed that Moses is sometimes depicted as having horns. Like, full on demonic horns. If you noticed this and didn’t immediately Google the answer – caring, yet not caring enough to overcome a lifetime habit of laziness – this is the post for you!

(I suppose it’s possible that you’re reading this several months from now and this is you actually Googling it, in which case, good job! You’re not lazy! Or you have a smartphone!)

Sometimes, these are real horns, the kind we see in popular depictions of demons, as in Michelangelo’s carving of Moses pictured to the left. Other times, the horns look more like two beams of light shooting out from Moses’s forehead, as you can see in the image further down this article.

So why does Moses have horns? Well, it’s all the Vatican’s fault.

In Exodus 34:29, the second time Moses came down from the mountain after chatting with God, we’re told that “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” We can understand this to mean that some of God’s glorious light rubbed off on him – not that he’s pregnant or anything.

In Hebrew, the word “to shine” is “karan.” This word is very similar to – and shares a root with – the word “keren,” or “horn.” When St. Jerome was writing the Vulgate translation of the Bible, he used the Latin word for “horn.” Therefore, according to the Vulgate, spending time with God makes you horny.

Moses and the Law by Daniel Moritz Oppenheim, 1818

Moses and the Law by Daniel Moritz Oppenheim, 1818

The Vulgate was intended to be the translation of the Bible, and it was adopted by the Vatican as their official text.

But the story doesn’t end there. There’s some question about whether St. Jerome actually made a mistake, or, if he did, what that mistake was. In a commentary, he wrote that Moses had “become ‘glorified’, or as it says in the Hebrew, ‘horned’.” In other words, he may have thought that “horned” was simply a poetic way of describing someone as being specially blessed. We also know that St. Jerome had access to the Septuagint, where the passage describes Moses’ face as having been “glorified,” so it’s hard to think that he actually believed in a literal horning.

There’s also some question about whether Michelangelo meant the protrusions to be actual horns, or merely reflected the difficulty in representing light beams in stone. My untrained eye sees Michelangelo’s horns as being too smooth to be representations of literal horns (which tend to have ridges). It’s also true that we see many depictions of Moses between the writing of the Vulgate and the 16th century without horns, so it would be wrong to say that there was a common belief in a behorned Moses during that period.

It’s interesting to note that many gods and goddesses of the ancient Mediterranean world sported horns, particularly on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea. One might wonder if this influenced depictions of Moses (as, perhaps, sun disks in Egyptian art to mark deities may have influenced the depictions of halos in Semitic art).