A shining, horned Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, emitting light after talking to God. It’s an illuminating verse from the Vulgate Bible in Exodus. The translator St. Jerome converted the Hebrew into Latin Vulgate, using the word “cornuta” or horned.
“When Moses came down from Mount Sinai he did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God,” the passage goes.
Here is Dr. Cyndia Clegg from Pepperdine University discussing horned Moses. Video by Pepperdine University:
As Clegg says, Michelangelo’s acclaimed sculpture of Moses for Pope Julius II’s tomb shows the figure as horned. However, that was conventional for depictions of Moses at the time.
Why Did Moses Have Horns?
Today, people see a horned being as evil, like the concept of a horned demon or devil in conventional religion. However, that is almost certainly the furthest thing from the intention of placing horns on Moses.
These horns may symbolize enlightenment, of shining and emitting rays. He was glowing, like the Tuatha Dé Danann, the “shining ones” described in Celtic stories from Ireland. Or maybe like the little shining Lady of Fátima seen by three children in Portugal.
Thus, the horns were never meant to be literal but symbolic. It’s much like the horns of the Goddess Hathor from ancient Egypt. One of her giant temples stood in Sinai but remains little known to most people today.
Today, it’s called Serabit el-Khadim, and scholars have found a script there. Importantly, they believe it may be a precursor for the alphabet. Symbols for Hathor include scenes of emerging from a tree. Or as a bull with a solar disk between the horns. As with Moses, the symbol is not to be taken literally. One wouldn’t think Moses literally had horns.
The Crescent Moon
Today, some Egyptian Neterian spirituality scholars say the horns frame the crescent moon. At night, the Moon reflects the pure light reflected from the highest source, the Sun. Similarly, as one becomes enlightened, they gather and emit more pure white light. Some say that advanced followers of Hathor who became enlightened could have a shining quality like Moses.
Later this symbol became much like the Halo or the glowing aureole around an enlightened Buddha.
Possibly, this abstract concept inspired the Horned Moses and it wasn’t merely a mistranslation. If so, you can see how this understanding of finding enlightenment could unify people regardless of religion. The common goal of spirituality is the enlightenment of the individual. Historically, enlightenment’s meaning is about “light as a symbol of progress, reason and tolerance.”
Where Did the Golden Calf Come From?
Next, let’s consider briefly where the Golden Calf originated. It’s reasonable to consider the location for context. Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw his people worshipping a Golden Calf. It seems this was a pivotal moment that changed the world. Afterward, a male-dominated religion gradually replaced the balance of gods and goddesses.
A Golden Guide for Lost Exiles
Now, consider the Temple of Hathor in Sinai. Some religious scholars have questioned whether the calf was found there rather than created in the desert. How would such a sculpture be created from scratch in the wasteland? Unless, that is, at the metalworking facilities that miners used at Serabit el-Khadim? If you look further into this Temple, it was a mining operation, most say for copper or turquoise, while others say for gold. Hathor was known by many names, including the Golden One and the Lady of Gold. She was the patron of miners and the Goddess of the Sinai Peninsula. Some say that the Mountain of Moses could have been at Serabit el-Khadim, an interesting idea.
If Moses’s followers found the calf sculpture there, it may have depicted the God Ihy. A lesser-known god of music and joy, Ihy was the child of the union between Horus and Hathor. Sometimes, he is depicted as a golden calf. To weary travelers in the desert, he could be seen as a guide to help them find their way.
For instance, ancient Egyptians placed Ihy in boats to help transport cattle across rivers. They hoped the Mother would follow her son and lead them to safety. Importantly, there was no negative meaning for Ihy; rather, he shielded people from evil.
Nevertheless, the conventional story is about casting away evil idols. Even so, religions today retain their idols, like the Crucifix, the Virgin Mary, or a sculpture of a horned Moses.
Considering all this, the symbol of the horned cow and horned Moses can be reexamined with an open mind. After all, people weren’t worshipping literal cows at the Temple to Hathor. The horns were a symbol alluding to the individual finding divine enlightenment, as many spiritual practices still do today. So, was Moses depicted with horns merely as the result of a mistranslation as many scholars say? Or, was it because there was a much deeper illuminating meaning?
Sigmund Freud on Horned Moses
Here’s some interesting added information about the horned Moses by Michelangelo.
Sigmund Freud pondered “The Moses of Michelangelo,” describing the sculpture in great detail. According to Freud, Moses avoids the violent urge to break the Tablets, resisting temptation, as an enlightened person would.
While Freud examined details like the knot in his beard and finger placement, he did not mention the horns. That’s something remarkable in itself. Nevertheless, Freud considered this a “greatly altered Moses” who resisted and remained calm rather than break the Tablets.
“This Moses must be a quite different man, a new Moses of the artist’s conception so that Michelangelo must have had the presumption to emend the sacred text and to falsify the character of that holy man. Can we think him capable of a boldness which might almost be said to approach an act of blasphemy?” Freud asked.
As you may know, Freud also suspected that Moses, a symbol of monotheism, was directly linked to the Pharaoh Akhenaten. Further, Freud speculated that Moses or Thutmose originally followed Akhenaten’s monotheistic religion of the Aten sun disk. At the time, it may have been the only monotheistic religion in world history. Is that just a coincidence? You decide, but regardless, it’s another interesting connection between Moses and ancient Egyptian beliefs.
With this depiction of Moses, we can find direct connections between world religions that show their common origins. Today’s world is badly divided but when examined with an open mind, the differences are often based on misunderstandings and mistranslations. Meanwhile, the goal for all is ultimately the same, getting closer to the same light.
Video about Michelangelo’s Moses via Smarthistory: