what's the root of the whole "Jews have horns" thing?

I keep hearing it referenced jokingly - but was it actually a myth that Jews had horns?

Yes, it was a myth. Christian painters in the Middle Ages would paint Jews as having horns–even at the Crucifixion, if I remember right.

I have heard it from some very elderly people in rural areas. When they were children, they were told that Jewish men had horns that they covered with their hats. Where it originated, I have no idea.

Didn’t it all start because of some misunderstanding of a local idiom?

This is what I was thinking of.

My understanding is that it started with a mistranslastion (or misinterpretation) of a line in Exodus, where Moses is described as having “rays of light” coming from his face after meeting with God on Sinai. Somehow this got turned into “horns”.

Michaelangelo may have given this a boost (although intentionally or not, I don’t know) with his sculpture of Moses. He depicts the lawgiver with two large mounds of hai that look kinda like, well, horns. Or maybe they’re concealing horns.

I’ve heard reports that people out in rural areas actually believed that Jews had horns, but these were always umpteen-hand anonymous reports, and that reeks of urban legend (rural legend?).

Michaelangelo’s Moses:


fixed link

The verse in question is Exodus 34:35, which states ki qaran or p’nei Moshe.

ki = because
or = light
p’nei = face
Moshe = Moses.

That leaves the word qaran. In context, the word means “shone” (as one would expect with the following word, “light,” and that would explain why Moses wore a veil). However, the Hebrew word for horn, keren has the same root as the word “shone,” which could easily cause a translator to make a mistake and say that his face shone with “horns of light.”

In any event, when I was in college my then-girlfriend/now-wife and I used to volunteer in the college’s Emergency Medical Squad. One time we were both in the squad helping to orient a new trainee. At some point I had to leave to go to class. I found out later that after I left, the new trainee asked her if my horns were hidden under my yarmulke.

Zev Steinhardt

And just as a quick aside, I don’t know how the myth became extended to all Jews. Even if you will hold the position that Moses had literal, as-Michealangelo-sculpted-them horns, it should have no effect on the rest of the Jewish population as Moses was not the progenitor of the Jewish people and the vast majority of Jews in the world today are not descended from him.

Zev Steinhardt

Interesting! Thanks for the informed replies.

But doesn’t it seem a little…well, stupid for the translators to mix it up like that? It seems like someone would say, “Hey, people don’t have horns!” and take a closer look at the text or something. If I were translating some Spanish to English and came out with a line that said, “Pepe had a fin growing out of his back,” I think my first assumption would be that I had mixed up something in translation, rather than, “well, Mexicans must have fins!”

But, but… it was in the Bible

In fact, both “horn” and “ray” are the exact same word in Hebrew - keren. Same spelling, same root, same everything. I suppose it’s from sunrays being metaphorically the horns of the sun.

I’m also pretty sure that it’s the origin of the name “Karen”.

[Slight hijack]It’s actually a short form of Katherine. (According to this site a Danish form.)

The strange part is after living in Utah for a long time and then meeting with people who live in other states, the legend has also morphed into Mormons having horns. I have no idea why this is.

Those kipot* don’t stay on by themselves, you know.


Yes, but if you asked a non-Jewish person on the street to name a biblical Jew, you’d probably hear Moses, over and over again. There’s been big popular movies about Moses and very few about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Call me stupid, but it seems to me that a misconception of this magnitude should have been pretty easy to clear up.

Well, if you live in rural areas where Jews aren’t common (or present at all), and are Catholic (I’m thinking Renaissance Europe, here), it’s easier to understand. A long trend of anti-Semitism [sic?] combined with ignorance could lead to a stupid idea like this getting spread.

Oops, I didn’t mean to imply that Catholicism and anti-Semitism are synonymous. What I meant was that many rural (and urban) Christians–mostly Catholic–in the time of Michaelangelo believed bad things about the Jews.