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No, I’m not talking about STIs, unless you’re gonna follow me down the folkloric rabbit hole into the metaphysics of why a cuckold’s horns are in fact a sexually transmitted condition.

Photo by Annette Keys on Unsplash. In public domain.
Photo by Annette Keys on Unsplash. In public domain.

If you’ve been hearing “cuck” tossed around as an insult (example here), you’re not alone. Some people explain it as a form of projection (as here), as in, the worst possible way to insult a man is to imply that he can’t properly wrangle his woman, a.k.a. property. It gets used in misogynist and heterosexist ways, clearly, but there’s more going on below the surface.

That’s where Sexual Horns: The Anatomy and Metaphysics of Cuckoldry in European Folklore comes in. Written by my Portuguese folklore colleague Francisco Vaz da Silva, this article explores the roots of horn imagery related to cuckolds in European folklore, using sources as diverse as European folk beliefs about virility, Iberian gender norms, and Shakespeare (who drew on folklore in his plays, in case you didn’t know).

It’s difficult to summarize, but in brief, Vaz da Silva argues that the horns a cuckold wears in traditional culture is solidified semen passed through his wife, which the other man inserted into her via… you know. Because blood and semen have been linked in earlier metaphysical ways of conceptualizing the body, the bodily fluids can in theory transfer from person to person, with the sexual aggressor transmitting his excessive virility into the man who’s being played. The homophobic connotations are obvious.

Vaz da Silva draws sweeping connections between disparate genres of folklore and regions, which not everyone finds convincing. But it’s a fascinating back story, if sometimes speculative, about the diverse symbolic associations of cuckoldry. And clearly since the fascination with the term and concept hasn’t died out, it’s worth investigating the history here.

Want more like this? Read about witch butter, breast milk, and blood here!

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Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...