Of Crowns and Horns
Crowns and horns are two interrelated symbols. Their similarity in structure and appearance begs the questions: how are they related; to what degree are they related; and how do their differences manifest different patterns? This essay will attempt to analyze the symbolic structure of each symbol individually, then posit possible connections between the two.
The horn is a unique appendage that appears on a wide variety of animals, monsters, and mythical creatures. For this reason, it is a daunting challenge to perceive its symbolic pattern. With the goal of identifying its symbolic elements, I will begin with a particular manifestation of horns, rather than attempt to exhaust every type and element of all the varieties that exist.
If we first identify basic elements within the particular, then a broader picture of how these elements fit into a larger pattern should become more clear. As it is best to begin with what you are familiar with, I will focus on the white-tailed deer’s antlers (horns) for this essay. I have spent much of my youth hunting this beautiful creature, and possess an abundance of personal experience that I can rely on.
Anatomy of the Horn
The white-tailed deer grows a set of antlers (I will use the terms horn and antlers synonymously) annually. It is only the males that produce horns, and they grow upward. The horns begin first covered with a downy skin. In this stage of growth, the antlers are colloquially referred to as “velvet horns.” When the horns have reached their full growth, the deer will rub them against trees to shed the velvet. This reveals the hard, bony protrusions which we are accustomed to seeing. Typically, the most majestic set of horns belongs to the largest and oldest of deer.
Death, Unordered Passion
Horns are a symbol of death. They are made of bone – revealed when the life supporting velvet is violently scraped off – and rise to a deadly point. It should be emphasized that the main purpose of horns is to fight off predators and competitors. They are instruments of death.
Keeping with the particular manifestation in deer, the growth of new horns falls in line with the mating cycle of the species. The bucks leave rubbings (scraped marks on trees) in their territory a few weeks prior to mating season.
A common tactic for hunters is to allow quickly moving female deer (or a small buck) to pass by. The speed at which these deer are moving is typically an indicator that they are being pursued by a larger deer in rut. This larger deer is either looking to mate with the female deer, or fight a competitor. Many a strong buck has been caught unawares while overwhelmed with jealousy or lust.
Horns as a symbol for the baser, beastlike desires and actions is a fairly obvious conclusion. The half-man half-goat satyr is a perfect example of a hybrid man with horns that drinks to excess and fulfills every lust with wild abandon.
Beauty, Strength, Wisdom
Despite these negative connotations, horns are still a thing of beauty. There is a majesty to a large white-tailed deer walking powerfully through the forest with a set of massive, symmetrical antlers. Antlers of this quality are highly prized and sought after by hunters. They are mounted for display as trophies. In the United States, each state has antler trophy records (with criteria and measurements) for its hunters. Horns are not only a natural ornament for the deer; they are also an ornament for hunters as well.
As stated earlier, the largest set of horns usually belong to the oldest and strongest deer. Any animal that has lived a long life is one that is supremely wary and intelligent. Likewise, only the healthiest and most virile of deer can gather enough strength to produce a large set of symmetrical antlers. In this way, horns can also symbolize the positive aspects of wisdom and strength.
Using the white-tailed deer as a microcosm to explore the symbolism of horns, we can conclude that it shows us symbols with both positive and negative aspects. The former: beauty, strength, and wisdom; the latter: death and unordered passions.
If we extrapolate what we have explored, we can see the horn fitting into the cosmological patterns of heaven and earth. The horn comes up from below, and as it is found primarily in terrestrial animals, occurs closer to earth than heaven. However, the horn reaches upward. Each tine itself comes to a point, pointing toward or connecting with heaven. This shows us worthy matter/body (earth) being raised up (heaven).
A crown is a powerful symbol that seems to transcend culture and history. This particular device is easily recognizable despite its many variations and forms. Just as we have analyzed the horn with the intention of identifying its symbolic elements, so too will we draw our attention to the crown with the same intent.
Elements of the crown
A crown is a hat. A hat can be a form of ornamentation and/or a protective covering. A crown performs both of these functions. As there are an innumerable style of crowns (each with its own unique symbolic and cultural structures ), we will begin with the stylized form that is commonly recognized and rendered in media: the image of the gold circlet; encrusted with valuable, shining jewels; and circumscribed by several long tines that reach up to a point above the wearer’s head. For the purpose of analysis, these particular attributes are the most significant.
Crown as Ornamentation
It is fairly obvious that the crown is ornamental in nature. It is made of precious, shining, expensive materials. A crown draws a viewer’s attention to the bearer’s face and head unlike other forms of clothing. Highly skilled artisans are employed in its creation. The crown is a work of art in and of itself. It also carries the aspirational principles upon which the kingdom it belongs to is founded.
The bearer of the crown will immediately be noticed by its very design. This is its purpose. The crown is a way of identifying an individual’s level of importance, wealth, power, and authority. This is not only evident by its composition, but also the height as well. The king or queen wearing the crown is taller than other individuals ( visibly if not in actuality ), especially, when seated on a throne. Anyone viewing the bearer will have to fight to divert their attention from such a sight.
Crown as Protection
A crown also acts as a protective covering. While many forms of crowns may offer no protection against physical attack, a crown offers the protection of status. To clarify, an individual who wears a crown typically has the resources and authority to command or employ individuals in their defense. In this way, a crown provides protection through the authority wielded by its bearer.
Throughout history there are many ways in which individuals rose to power and status as king, queen, emperor, etc. However, there is an important commonality between these individuals. Their placement at the top of their kingdom’s hierarchy has made them the embodiment of their culture; far more than just an ordinary person. They speak for and as the kingdom.
This is probably most evident in the history of ancient Egypt. In ancient history, the kingdom was separated into Lower and Upper Egypt. Garry Shaw, author of Pharaoh: The Life at Court and Campaign states:
“The Red Crown (Desheret or Weret) was the symbol of Lower Egypt, and was linked to the morning light at dawn, when the sun is reborn… The White Crown (Hedjet or Wereret) represented Upper Egypt…The Double Crown (Pa-Sekhemty, ‘the Two Powerful Ones’) fused both the White and Red crowns, presenting the king as ruler of a united country.”2
This illustrates how significant the crown itself is. The item signifies that its bearer is the head of a kingdom, and that they wield the authority to inform the kingdom’s body. In this example, we see two distinct kingdoms whose rulers wear crowns which identify them with their particular kingdom. We also find that in the joining of both kingdoms under one head, the crowns are similarly joined together.
The crown’s association with the divine should not be a surprising one. Often made with gold (or being represented as so) it shines with a luster comparable to the sun. The jewels and gems shine and twinkle like the stars. Its bright points reach up toward heaven. The crown is placed on its bearer’s head – heaven brought down to earth. When the crown is placed upon its bearer’s head, the two join into something new. The man or woman wearing the crown becomes something higher, and the crown ceases to be just an expensive hat. The two joined properly become the embodied identity of a kingdom. Shaw writes of the Pharaoh:
“…he was a simple human when conducting daily business, but when dressed in the ritual accoutrements of kingship, performing acts for the gods, some of their powers were transferred to him and he partook of their divinity. What does seem certain is that during the coronation, when the king wore numerous crowns in succession and took the crook and flail, his nature changed: the mortal man was now imbued with a divine energy – the royal ka – spirit- and occupied an everlasting office ( nesu ).”3
This association is not limited to ancient Egypt. Rev. Jonas Dennis of Exeter Oxford attributed the luster of the British crown’s origin to Moses’ shining face as he came down Sinai, as well as, the thorns placed upon Christ’s head before his crucifixion.4 Dennis states:
“…the cross is displayed on every quarter of the imperial crown, and it likewise surmounts a diadem, thus exhibiting a symbolic intuition, that its wearer being a Christian, his conduct may be expected to be influenced by Christian principles.”5
As previously mentioned, each crown has a unique structure connecting to its kingdom’s culture. Here we see this on full display, the cross pointing to a higher principle by which the ruler should embody. Furthermore, during the coronation, as described by Dennis, the crown is placed on the king’s head by bishops and archbishops.6 This was an acknowledgement that the authority of the king was not in the kingship, but from a higher authority. Connecting the crown to a higher principle is a natural pattern that manifests in the crown’s properties, the ruler’s station, and the kingdom. It forms the identity of the kingdom creating a principality.
Authority from Above and Below
As stated earlier, a positive aspect of the horn is wisdom and strength. These are the qualities from which the authority of a deer is derived. The large, virile buck with large, symmetrical horns has the strength and experience to scare off competitors. Should they wish to press into his territory or challenge him, he can wield death through his horns to stop them. He is more desirable to his female counterparts, and can move swiftly to chase them if they shun his advances. Horns represent the authority of merit, strength, and death. This authority is one earned by displays of competence.
In contrast, crowns represent authority from above. This authority is derived from identity. The crown draws vision to the bearer’s face and head. When the ruler speaks, it is clearly heard and seen. Their word becomes law because they are speaking as the kingdom itself. They represent the will of the head enacted in the body. This is not to say on every occasion that a ruler speaks while bearing the crown is an infallible or to the benefit of their people. This is an analogy to try and describe the phenomenon of authority associated with crowns.
It is evident that the crown and horns share many of the same qualities. Both have tines that reach upward toward heaven. Both obtain the attention grabbing quality that comes from their ornamental nature. Both are indicators of power and majesty.
The two are undoubtedly connected if not related. We see both symbols pointing to rulership and nobility. The two are so intertwined that some stories even mix the two. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Actaeon, grandson of the founder of Thebes, is transformed into a stag.8 Michelangelo rendered a statue of Moses with horns. Even Alexander the Great was depicted with ram’s horns on some coins.
Positive and Negative Syntheses
Actaeon, after committing a grave trespass, is turned into a hybrid stag creature as punishment, and killed. As stated before, satyrs manifested many negative aspects: drunkenness, licentiousness, and debauchery. A king can be a tyrant, and a horned animal can be a dangerous beast. Both can employ the use of violence to command. The tyrant, by his word. The beast, by his strength.
However, in these images of Alexander and Moses, we are presented with a positive synthesis of heaven and earth in a ruler. I say this not to overlook the faults of either individual, but to highlight what pattern the imagery is conveying. In these renderings, they wield the authority from above and below. They are properly manifesting a divine principle, and have developed a worthy body to host it. They are rulers with authority by merit and identity. These images are trying to convey that a principle/identity has been joined by a worthy body raised upward.
As we shift our attention elsewhere and to other topics, we should note that this is not a conclusive work of the symbolic meaning of the horn and crown. I cannot exhaust the infinite qualities or permutations of these powerful symbols and their implications. This exercise should, however, provide a basis for further contemplation as to the meaning of horns and crowns in other contexts.
- photograph by John Flores
- Shaw, Garry. Pharaoh: The Life at Court and Campaign, at 21. Thames & Hudson Inc., 2012 https://www.amazon.com/Pharaoh-Life-Court-Campaign/dp/0500051747
- Shaw. Pharaoh, at 23.
- Dennis, Rev. Jonas. A Key to the Regalia, Or, the Emblematic Design of the Various Forms Observed in the Ceremonial of a Coronation, Interspersed With Unpublished Anecdotes of the Late King, at 46-47. John Hatchard and Son. 1820 https://books.google.com/books?id=hQ4JCQ7N6iYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=twopage&q&f=false
- Dennis. A Key to the Regalia, at 49.
- Dennis. A Key to the Regalia, at 54-55.
- Michalengelo. “Moses,” public domain
- Ovid. Metamorphosis, at 47-51. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005.https://www.amazon.com/Metamorphoses-Barnes-Noble-Classics/dp/1593082762/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=9781593082765&qid=1595022392&s=books&sr=1-1
- “Tetradrachm (Coin) Portraying Alexander the Great,” Art Institute Chicago. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/5764/tetradrachm-coin-portraying-alexander-the-great