By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   April 5, 2022

You’ve probably heard of someone being “on the horns of a dilemma.” It’s a particularly apt expression, because a dilemma, by definition, involves having to choose between two alternatives, neither of which is attractive. And, with certain exceptions, (such as a rhinoceros or a unicorn), most creatures who have horns have two of them – and, in many cases, they are pointed. 

But let’s get one thing straight: Being on the horns of a dilemma is not the same as being confronted with a Hobson’s choice. In fact, they are almost opposites. In a case of Hobson’s choice, the whole point is that you have no choice at all – you’ve got to take what you get – or get nothing.

Thomas Hobson had a livery stable in Cambridge, England, in about the same era when Shakespeare was writing plays in London. The large stable held many horses – but customers were not allowed to pick and choose. Hobson had a rule that you had to take the horse nearest the door. Your only choice was to take it or leave it. (This seems to be the only laurel on which Hobson’s reputation rests. I don’t know how he got into the British National Portrait Gallery in London – but in that particular matter, he probably had no choice.)

However, getting back to Dilemmas, they are frequently of an ethical nature. In fact, many schools offer whole courses in “business ethics.” I know very little about this subject (although I’ve been the “sole proprietor” of a small business for many years), but one story lingers in my memory from childhood, when I was very fond of joke books. 

A man is explaining business ethics to a friend: “Someone I don’t know comes into my store and buys something from me for a dollar. But, by mistake, instead of $1, he leaves a $100 bill on the counter, and walks out. Well, here’s the big ethical question: Should I, or should I not, tell my partner?”

But, getting back to horns – what are these excrescences which so many creatures have protruding from their heads? Presumably, the original idea was for them to be some kind of offensive or defensive weapons. But Evolution twists and turns in some very strange ways – and indeed we find horns on different animals twisted and turned beyond any apparent functional value. Indeed, it has often been humans, rather than the horned creatures themselves, who have found good uses for them. One obvious example is the sound-producing quality of certain horns, if properly and skillfully blown into – making sounds which can sometimes be heard at a greater distance than the human voice. Particularly well-known, since early Biblical times, has been the Shofar, usually made from the horn of a ram, which is still part of many Jewish ceremonies. But from such antecedents, we have a myriad of sound-making instruments called horns, from the French Horn to the fog-horn to the automobile horn.

And of course, the very horn shape has given us geographical names, such as the Horn of Africa, a peninsula which is actually the easternmost portion of the African continent, and the Horns of Hattin, two adjacent peaks in the north of Israel, of strategic importance, and therefore repeatedly featured in both ancient and modern History.

Those boney cranial projections have other significance in human folklore. In particular, we have the rather strange notion that a husband whose wife is being unfaithful has horns growing out of his head. We have to thank the animal kingdom for these insights. The deceived husband is known as a cuckold, a word derived from a bird – the cuckoo – which notoriously lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. As for the poor man’s horns, these, we are told by experts in such matters, are a somewhat ironic allusion to the mating habits of stags, who forfeit their mates when they are defeated, in horn-to-horn combat, by another male. 

But probably the most common association we have with horns comes from their function as a weapon, particularly as demonstrated in the so-called bullfights, which for centuries have been so much a part of Hispanic culture. The very real danger is part of the show. I can’t resist concluding this article with a story concerning the ultra-sophisticated Noël Coward – who was told that an aficionado friend had been badly gored in a bullfight in Spain:

“He was what?” asked Coward in alarm.
“He was gored!”
“Thank heavens. I thought you said he was bored.”  


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