Alectryon, the Ancient Greek model for our cuckold’s horns?

With a field study of the nymphomaniacs of Goa and brief notes on the early history of composite grafts.

La fête de l'Ordre des Cocus devant le trône de Sa Majesté, Infidélité/The celebration of the Order of Cuckoldry before the throne of her majesty, Infidelity. French print, ca. 1815. <a href=''>CC from Wikimedia Commons</a>.

La fête de l'Ordre des Cocus devant le trône de Sa Majesté, Infidélité/The celebration of the Order of Cuckoldry before the throne of her majesty, Infidelity. French print, ca. 1815. CC from Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been researching roosters recently for a children’s show we’re putting together–a version of an ancient castration allegory, ubiquitous in Eurasia, Demi-coq/Medio pollito/etc–and just came across this marvellous passage from some absolutely marvellous questions put by mid-17th century Royal Society members to Sir Philiberto/Filiberto/Filbert/etc Vernatti, a slippery gent with a superb sense of humour who at that stage was up to something on Java:

Q. What ground there may be for that Relation, concerning Horns taking root, and growing about Goa?
A. Inquiring about this, a Friend laught, and told me it was a Jeer put upon the Portuges, because the Women of Goa are counted much given to lechery.

This recalls the myth of Cadmus and the dragon’s teeth–who rise fully armed from the soil where he throws them–and is one of the finest examples I know of the cuckold’s horns. These I think are most commonly found in Romance languages, but monolingual Angloids may know them from poor Bendick in Much ado about nothing:

[P]luck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead: and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write ‘Here is good horse to hire,’ let them signify under my sign ‘Here you may see Benedick the married man.’

I’ve heard people say that the image originates in the practice which someone in the Appalachians once told me existed in the early 20th century of distinguishing capons from other birds in the barnyard by amputating their spurs and grafting them onto the top of their skulls.

I had tended to reject this explanation: on the one hand, poner los cuernos and cognates are common at least since in the 12th century the Byzantine emperor, Andronicus I Comnenus, ravished his subjects’ wives and hung horns on their houses, to the amazement of the invading troops of William of Sicily, who may well have imported the notion into the West; while on the other, composite grafts were as far as I know only offered to well-off clients (men who had lost noses to syphilis?) pre-18th century.

However, something not unrelated seems to be going on in what may be the oldest precedent for mettere le corna, to be found in this version of the story of Alector, Rooster, the name Zeus uses for Hermes when meeting Philemon and Baucis:

On Alectryon
The rooster is a bird that used to be a man. But when he was a man, he was a spear-bearer for Ares. Ares would entrust him with the bedroom doors when he wronged Hephaestus and his marriage bed; it was his job to knock on the doors just before dawn, so that Ares would not be caught in the act of adultery. And so both of them fell asleep, both the servant and the master, and at daybreak the deed became known. So the soldier was turned into a bird, suffering this as his punishment. And many things reveal the former soldier: the crest, the temperament, the spurs. And in memory of why he suffered this, before the Sun god yokes his chariot he drives away men’s sleep through song.

My guess is that Andronikos’ people were aware of this myth, and so they hung him up by his feet, but, unlike Mussolini, seem to have left his mistresses in peace.

An Enlightenment surgeon called Duhamel seems to have been the great entrepreneur in this particular branch of grafting (Dictionnaire raisonné universel d’histoire naturelle vol 3, 1768):

Of monstrous cocks [sorry, Google].
Monstrous roosters have been seen, and in particular a rooster with two heads on one body, another with one head on two bodies, and others with three or four legs. Naturally horned cocks are to be found, as well as others made artificially, as may sometimes be seen in Wunderkammers. Mr Duhamel, in a memoir printed among those of the Royal Academy of Sciences, in 1746, explains to us this artifice.

The coxcomb is cut at a fingerbreadth from the skullbone; in the space formed in the crest is placed an immature spur the size of a hemp seed cut from a fowl’s foot. After two or three weeks, the spur will have formed a perfect bond, as long as care is taken to prevent the rooster having caused it to fall off by moving its head; and four to five months later it will be half an inch in length. Mr Duhamel has seen examples which after three to four years had grown to more than four inches. Another author says he has seen on the head of a capon such a horn nine inches in length.

We saw in 1765 in Paris a rooster said to come from Africa. From the middle of its crest emerged two yellow horns, hollow, ribbed, three and a half inches long, and flared and arched like those of the chamois. Its spurs were big and very long. Its horns appeared to us to be naturally implanted on the bird’s head.

Whatever the case, one cannot but agree that a spur detached from a chicken’s leg and placed on a rooster’s head, which so doing retains its morphology, except that it becomes larger, is a genuine graft performed on an animal. It is curious to observe that it forms a kind of joint & various ligaments strong enough to support this great horn. These organs, as Mr Duhamel says, are not to be found in natural circumstances, neither beneath roosters’s crests, nor near their spurs; at least, he says, he had not been able to discover them; and so Nature knows how to meet its needs with new organs. It is a very strange thing, but it will probably be confirmed by plentiful observation of monsters.

Here’s the original:

Des Coqs monstres.
On a cependant vu des coqs monstreux, notamment un coq à deux têtes sur un seul corps, un autre à une seule tête sur deux corps, & d’autres à trois ou quatre pattes. Il se trouve encore des coqs naturellement cornus, & d’autres qui le sont par artifice, comme on en voit quelquefois dans les cabinets des curieux. M. Duhamel, dans un Mémoire imprimé parmi ceux de l’Académie Royale des Sciences, année 1746, nous apprend en quoi consiste cet artifice.

On coupe la crête du coq à un travers de doigt près des os du crâne; il se forme dans la duplicature de la crête un vuide dans lequel on place un jeune ergot de la grosseur d’un grain de chenevi, qu’on coupe au pied d’un poulet. Au bout de quinze jours ou trois semaines, l’ergot y a contracté une union parfaite, si on a eu soin d’empêcher que le coq ne l’ait fait tomber par le mouvement de sa tête; & quatre à cinq mois après, il a acquis un demi-pouce de longueur. M. Duhamel en a vu qui au bout de trois à quatre ans avoient plus de quatre pouces. Un Auteur dit avoir vu sur la tête d’un chapon une pareille corne qui avoit neuf pouces de longueur.

Nous avons vu en 1765, à Paris, un coq que l’on disoit originaire d’Afrique. Du milieu de sa crête, sortoient deux cornes jaunâtres, creuses, cannelées, longues de trois pouces & demi, évasées & arquées comme celles du chamois. Ses ergots étoîent gros & fort longs. Ses cornes nous ont paru naturellement implantées sur la tête de l’oiseau.

Quoi qu’il en soit, on ne peut s’empêcher de convenir que l’ergot détaché de la patte d’un poulet & placé sur la tête d’un coq, & qui y conserve sa même organisation, à l’exception qu’il devient plus grand, est une véritable greffe pratiquée sur un animal. Il est curieux d’observer qu’il se forme une espece d’articulation & plusieurs ligamens assez forts pour soutenir cette grande corne. Tous ces organes, comme le dit M. Duhamel, ne se trouvent point dans l’état naturel, ni sous la crête des coqs, ni aux environs de leur ergot; du moins, dit-il, je n’ai pu les appercevoir; ainsi la nature sait subvenir à ses besoins par de nouveaux organes. C’est un fait bien singulier, mais qui se trouvera probablement confirmé par beaucoup d’observations sur les monstres.


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