Why is it that if a person is cheated on by their partner they are called “cuckold”?

In common, everyday speech, we usually say that when a person cheats “he puts his horns on while when she is betrayed she is “cuckold”. The Italian language, as we know, is full of colorful expressions that have their roots in cultural and linguistic traditions rooted over time. On the other hand, contrary to what it seems, for a long time the horn have symbolized in the collective imagination power, royalty and courage. Some examples are the horns with which ancient people are depicted divinity (for example Dionysus, whose symbolic animal was the goat or the Egyptian god Apis, in the form of a bull); or think of the horns present on some ceremonial helmets of the gods Vikings (not used during combat, as is common to think). So why in Italian do we say the expressions “cornuto” and, consequently, “to put on the horns”?

The term “cuckold” as an offensive adjective

The term “cuckold” comes from the Latin “cornutus” and literally means “equipped with horns“. It is not entirely clear why the horns have become a symbol of marital infidelity even if there are various hypotheses, more or less accepted and widespread. Some scholars suggest, for example, that the adjective is associated with goatwhose partner, the goatis known for the ease with which change partners.

What is certain is that the use of the term “cuckold” to indicate a person betrayed by their partner, both in the past and in the present, has maintained a offensive connotation. This is because, in addition to recalling thehumiliating image of betrayalalso evokes theridiculous idea and of having no control over one's romantic relationship. The adjective, therefore, not only describes the state of someone who has suffered betrayal, but brings with it a heavy social judgmentwhich can accentuate the pain and humiliation of those in this situation.

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The possible mythological origin of the expression “cuckold”

Although the etymology, as already mentioned, is uncertain, another of the most accredited hypotheses concerns an episode taken from mythology. It all began on the island of Crete. According to the myth, the famous King Minos he had a wife, Pasiphae, who never wanted to make love. For this reason the sovereign asked for help from goddess Aphroditegoddess of love, who satisfied him by transforming his wife into one nymphomaniac. After undergoing her transformation, her wife was no longer satisfied with her husband's performance and, among many, she also fell in love with a bull. From this union the famous Minotaur was born. From that day on, every time the king showed himself in public, the subjects would welcome him by making the horns gesture with their fingers.

Also in the mythological field there are stories that see Zeus/Jupiterlord of the gods, also transform himself into a bull to seduce women other than his wife Hera (the case of Europa, princess of Tire and queen of Crete is famous).

Depiction of the minotaur. Credit: Marie–Lan Nguyen

A historical hypothesis behind the expression “to put horns on”

According to other scholars, the origin of the expression “cuckold” and, consequently, “to put on horns”, is based in Constantinopleunder the emperor Andronicus Komnenos (c. 1120 -1185). It is said that the latter, known for his cruelty towards his subjects, imprisoned his opponents and took away their wives to make them his concubines. As a sign of derisionhung outside the men's homes deer heads, symbol of his “conquests” (as if we were talking about hunting). The story of these humiliating decorations was discovered by the soldiers of William II of Normandy as they headed towards Constantinople; landing in Thessaloniki they learned about the story and brought the term “to put the horns on” to Sicily, from where the expression would spread throughout the Italian territory.