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Out the bell: horn lore.

Lore, like music, honors the lures of poetry over the nets of reason. If the geneticist can provide a wholly credible scientific explanation for how the leopard got its spots, Kipling's story has its own charming, if too innocent, rationale. If poetry's genome, language, clusters metaphors, and if metaphor 's bias is to establish associative connections that eddy and swirl in cultural streams, in the headwaters of those murky streams we're most likely to find the clues to the origins of our lore.

The horn, celebrated in these pages as a musical instrument, is also known in its natural configurations as a thorny protuberance emanating from an animal's head. As antlers, particularly of well-endowed stags, for example, they look down on us when conspicuously displayed as trophies in the dens where humans hibernate. If we ask the trophy hunter what the antlers symbolize, the answer might dispirit us: the hunt, conquest of a wild beast, a great accomplishment achieved through skilled use of a weapon, proof of the kill. Ask horn players what the horn means to them, and not one is likely to make a connection between those dead antlers hanging over a fireplace and the horn that brings music into them while sending it forth into the air.

If biblical lore is to be trusted, we would say that in the beginning was the word, in this case horn. But Shipley's Dictionary of Word Origins does not bother with the word horn, sending us directly to the word bugle, where we learn that a bugle (Old French, from the Latin buculus and diminutive of bos, bovis, or ox) originally referred to a buffalo, and that the English word buff (think also beef or in French boeuf made superficial work of its subject by identifying the ox by its hide rather than its horns. As tribes crossed paths and exchanged words, the bugle's bovine associations were grafted onto the Teutonic word horn. From northern Europe, the word traveled south again to become a cognate of the Latin cornu, the basis for the English word for grains (and the specific version seen in Iowa), for several scientific words (e.g., cornicle, cornify, etc.), for the unicorn as a mythical beast, for the region of Capricorn in the zodiac, for the cornucopia, an object Americans associated with the Thanksgiving celebration, and for the musical bugle, akin to the cornet.

If the horn's marriage to the word cornu widened bovine associations to include grains, ancient myths deepen the symbolic meaning of the connection. These clues are best understood in the context of basic facts of life, notably the general aridity of the landscapes of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the twin cradles of Western civilization that developed in the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile River valleys. Because life is hard to sustain in desert landscapes, water is especially revered as the stuff of life, a seminal fluid for the growth of grains and the survival of herds. Also especially revered (sometimes as "sacred cows") are the animals themselves--the cow and goat for their milk (mainly) and meat, the ox for its strength, and the ram and bull for their power to inseminate. When life is hard and survival is at issue, value is measurable by the size of the herd. And when life itself is a bizarre mystery linked to the seasons, rainfall, fertility, sexuality, blood, and the mysterious role of death, it is easy to see why life-sustaining beasts would be revered as representatives of the gods.

Mesopotamian myths show that the bull had a prominent role as personification of dark but powerful life forces. In the Mesopotamian Epic of Creation, the absolute ruler, Marduk, slays the bull man (kusarikku, or "bison") so that he may become "the bestower of ploughland who fixes [its] boundaries, creator of grain and linseed, producer of vegetation" (Tablet VII). This usurpation of power is deemed a natural sign of progress, with the shedding of the bull's blood a ritual sacrifice necessary to lubricate the creation process. Many other horned creatures adorn the Mesopotamian myths--rams, goats, serpents--all of them suggesting that the horn is the outward and visible sign of nature's powerful life-force.

The suggestion is given more sophisticated expression in the iconography of the ancient Egyptians. Here horned creatures are conspicuous as sacred symbols, often in hybrid combination of the human and animal, with the animal nature deemed (as Henri Frankfort suggests in his book Ancient Egyptian Religion) more powerful because more pervasive and enduring than individual human identity. Amon, king of the gods, has the head and horns of a ram that symbolically legitimize his rule. The goddess Hathor, depicted as a cow with the sun between her horns, is a nourisher and protector of both the living and the dead. Isis, major goddess associated with the fertility of the Nile plains, is often depicted sitting on her queen's throne, with a disk suggestive of the moon (a marker of the months and of a woman's fertility cycles) set between cow's horns. Nut, a sky goddess and mate of Geb, an earth god, is personified as a cow that nourishes mankind. Again, the link of associations is clear: the powers of the bovine and the bull, the fertility of the earth, the cycles of sun and moon, of seasons and woman's fecundity are represented by horns.

The Canaanites no doubt did not have the horn as a brass instrument in mind when they worshipped their golden calf, but their god as a type was representative of the worldwide reverence accorded the power and prosperity offered by bovine and other horned beasts. In Leviticus of the Old Testament, we are told that the sacrificial burning of the bull on an altar creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). J.F. Cirlot in his Dictionary of Symbols itemizes many other instances that link the horn with nature's fertility and gods--the Cilician horned god of agriculture holding handfuls of corn, the African rhino's horn prized as an aphrodisiac, the horn as decorative motif on Asian temples, the cycle of the Zodiac initiated by Aries and Taurus, both horned. In Greek mythology, the infant god Zeus is fed goat milk through a cornucopia, and in the heyday of the Minoan culture young girls ritually entered womanhood by literally taking a bull by the horns and gymnastically vaulting themselves onto the bull's back, a feat requiring what every good horn player must achieve, the balance of power and grace.

Many of these fertility associations--suggesting the terrible beauty of the enigmatic mystery of life and death and the need to revere the harmony and balance implied in nature's seasonal rounds--are inverted with the historic triumph of Christianity. The horn--and the powerful sexuality it represents--is demonized, notably when the old horned pagan gods are demoted into devils. By god-fearing minds these devils are assembled out of pagan body parts through a highly fanciful process of cut-and-paste that gives the new demons the scales and tails of reptiles, the cloven hooves and beards of goats, and various configurations of horns that once adorned the fertility gods of pagan lands. In the ritual arena, the Minoan bull dance featuring young woman and bull becomes a wholly masculine affair, the bullfight, its outcome not the balance of male power with feminine grace but the death of the bull. The bull and his horns represent terrifying death rather than awe-filled life, and Nature, the bull, is to be conquered rather than revered. The word "horny" enters our vocabulary as a vulgarity, and astonishing scientific discoveries begin to empower us to engineer natural processes. "Virtue," in ancient times descriptive of the life-force of worth and excellence in humans, things, and animals, is narrowed to include suppression of the powers of the horn.

The horn as a musical instrument was conceived in a Christianized culture when industrial processes were still primitive. Its inventors probably saw the natural horns of beasts as idealized forms by which to conceive a variety of music-making devices. From the fiery ashes of new alchemies, the horn was hammered into various shapes. The spirit of experimentation drove inventors to improvise on the forms offered by bugle, oboe, bullhorn, and perhaps conch shell. The craftsmen stirred new metal recipes in their smelting pots, fine-tuned the thickness of the metal's gauge, twisted and turned the tubing into strange new shapes, and eventually added valves. The prototype emerged as the hunting horn, with its simple coiled tubes and narrowly flared bell. Then unnatural alchemies gave us the natural horn, also valveless but including longer coiled tubes and wider flared bell. Then came the horn, as we know it in its present incarnations, with valves and complex coils, in single, double, and even triple versions. Whether golden or silvery, they, as objects, seem strangely alien outside the chambers where music is performed. But now it is the horn's natural original that is more alienated. How many contemporary horn players, going cross-country to a concert or camp, see a solitary bull in an open field and think nothing of it?

The horn's ancient fertility associations were not lost on its early users. Long before it established its place in elegant chambers as part of the orchestra, the horn participated in the hunt, sounding, in the excitement of the chase, chords recalling ancient animal sacrifice as a token of the bounty of nature at harvest time. Several composers conjure these chords in renditions both simple and sophisticated, but lost to most of us today is the often subtle and deep symbolism once represented by the horns on an animal's head.

No doubt we still have some questions to ask about the horn whose sounds so often haunt and thrill us in ways no other instruments can. If it is true that form is function, what is it about the horn's form that provides its capacity to so deeply, and comprehensively, move the listener? It seems silly to ask: Is the horn male or female? Allow me a few poetic liberties here. The bugle, cornet, and trumpet stand out as conspicuously "male"--often used as instruments of the hunt and warfare too, their clarion power not often softened into the quiet tones we associate with peaceful domestic life. This phallic quality is at odds with the horn's circularity, suggestive of the body and belly of the well-rounded woman. The cornucopia is perhaps a fitting analogue, its curved form androgynous, phallic on one end and open-wombed on the other, its bell shape pouring out the fruits of the earth. Is the horn music's cornucopia, its form also androgynous, capable of including and balancing the male power and female grace that recall us to ancient mysteries and rituals?

As an object, the horn is simply an instrument for circulating air. No literal fruits pour forth from its bell. The horn player is the vehicle, like the horn itself, of the horn's raw material. Through the agency of the player, air undergoes a conversion experience, with music emerging as a refinement of air's raw power. For the Greeks and in the Gospels, the word pneuma refers to both "breath" and "spirit." Like earth and its growth processes, air too is a life-giving power. If the horn on the beast's head once symbolized the power of the earth to bring forth new life, the horn takes a finer, more invisible vital substance in, circulates it in its guts, and alchemically transforms it into beautiful art. This music is also the fruit of nature's womb, often available as a gift in the marketplace where few come to buy.

Emilio DeGrazia is a poet, author, and Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Minnesota-Winona.
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Author:DeGrazia, Emilio
Publication:The Horn Call
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2011
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