Complicity, Luck and Love: the Many Meanings of the Italian “Corna”
This simple gesture hides a myriad of interpretations in the Bel Paese
Italians, as you know, love a good hand gesture. We speak with our hands as much as we do with our words and can express the whole range of human emotions (well, almost) with the single use of our fingertips. Some gestures, of course, are more used than others: watch a group of elderly men talking about anything from football to politics in any piazza and chances are the “pinecone hand” or “finger purse” gesture (done by pressing the thumb against the other fingers and holding the hand upwards) will pop up about a thousand times during their conversations. Sit at a trattoria around lunchtime, and you’ll have a hard time keeping track of the “spaghettata” gesture, achieved by using the index and middle finger to imitate a fork picking up spaghetti (the elbow should face sidewards).
But there’s one sign, in particular, we are especially fond of: the mano cornuta, also known as the “anti-evil eye” gesture, or more simply, le corna – “the horns.” Achieved by stretching your pinkie and index fingers with your hand facing downwards to look like horns, this is the queen of Italian gesticulation and, more importantly, an intrinsic part of Italian culture at large – so much so that, besides our claws, you’ll often find us reaching for a type of horns or other by way of knick-knacks, keyrings or, why not, pretty pendants.
Ready to discover more about the many meanings of this all-important sign?
Good Vibes Only
Fare le corna – literally, “to make horns” – is a widespread custom in Italy, though its significance changes depending on the context.
Generally, Italians reach for the horns when they want to ward off the evil eye, the malocchio, in situations that might potentially involve bad luck. Horns are in fact believed to be a symbol of protection and good fortune in the Bel Paese, which is why it is not uncommon to see a person wearing them as a necklace or hanging small horns inside their car for extra providence (this is especially true in the south). As an object, the Italian horn is known locally as cornicello (meaning little horn, or hornlet), cornetto, or corno.
Simple but mighty, this superstitious gesture is essentially a talisman against any negative vibes, and a lucky charm in its own right, all the more so when it comes in the shape of jewellery or accessories.
Where do corna come from, you ask? Their history is ancient, dating as far back as the Neolithic period, when people decorated their caves with animal horns under the auspices that they would supposedly bring fortune and fertility to their community. Horns were also used in Greek and Roman times as symbols of virility, courage, and strength (sans the hand gesture, the horn was a chaste version of a phallus), and their popularity stuck.
But there’s more.
The all-Italian “Get Lost”
In Italy, horns are handy little helpers to tell someone they’ve crossed the line without actually using any curse words.
We form the hand gesture when someone’s badmouthing us, insulting our friends and family, or just being a total douche in a social setting. Someone cuts you off while you’re driving? Go for the horns. A stranger cusses you out for no apparent reason? The horns will help you stave off any bad karma.
As a visual ‘get lost,’ horns are a powerful, silent sign to help you keep your cool, while letting the other person know exactly how you feel.
Love and Betrayal
While facing downwards horns are a lucky symbol, upwards they take on a completely different, and slightly less positive meaning: cheating. Having your pinkie and index finger looking at the ceiling invokes the evil eye or implies that the other person’s partner is being unfaithful to them (in this context, the corna symbolises the horns of a cuckold). Within this setting, the phrase fare le corna can also mean to cheat on someone, and being cornuto, “horned,” signifies being cheated on.
How exactly the connection came to be it’s not clear, though some believe the expression may be connected to the mythological birth of the Minotaur, the half-human, half-bull creature conceived by Pasiphae, Queen of Crete with a white bull her husband Minos, the King of Crete, was to sacrifice (just roll with it). To Minos, the horned beast that came out of this improbable love affair was a stark reminder of his wife’s extra-conjugal escapade, and that’s how the horns became a symbol of infidelity.
Regardless of its origins, the phrase “essere cornuto” isn’t a particularly appreciated one, so we’d recommend stirring away from it, and using the sign only in its most positive way: as a providential, propitious token of good energy. Much better, right?
A Linguistic Guide to Corna in Italy
It’s not just about hand gestures. Corna appear quite a lot in our vocabulary as well. So take note of these expressions below:
Prendere il toro per le corna (take the bull by the horns): to face a situation directly, without going around it.
Tengo le corna (I have horns): I’m a cuckold, my wife cheated on me.
Quel cornuto! (that cuckold!): offence to a person.
Sbattere le corna (to bang one’s horns): metaphorically, to bang one’s head, to collide with a problem.
Rompersi le corna (to break one’s horns): metaphorically, break one’s head, get hurt, suffer.
Scornato (scorned): with broken horns, grieved, disappointed, humiliated, defeated.
Pasta dei cornuti (cuckolds’ pasta): a simple pasta dish made with a quick tomato sauce. It’s supposed to be the pasta unfaithful women prepare for their husbands, who are cornuti e contenti (cuckold and happy, aka oblivious).
Fare come i cornuti (to act like cuckolds): to think of something after a long time has passed and other people have already forgotten about it.
Non capisci un corno! (You don’t understand a horn!) you don’t understand anything!
Fare le corna (make the horns): make the gesture of the horns (as a good luck charm or as an offence).