Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Barbara Walker: Women's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects: Altars

The Horned Moses
Walker states some things about Horns and Moses, and misrepresents her source. Let us first see what her source says this time:
"In Hebrew a 'radiated' and a 'horned' head is signified by the same word. Hence, when Moses came down from the Mount, cornuta fuit facies ejus, according to the Vulgate; and in virtue of this mistranslation hath the Law-giver ever been graced with those appendages". Without entering into the nice controversy here foreshadowed, it is quite enough for the present purpose to point to the fact that the authors of the Vulgate translation believed, from their own training and habit, that the Hebrew meaning was that the great, almost divine Moses, came down with actual horns upon his head. [Elworthy, Frederick, "Evil Eye: The Origins and Practices of Superstition", 1895, pp. 185-186; seems the reissue Walker used has reused the same pagination.]
In The Women's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, p. 82, in the article "Altars", Barbara Walker has read this text to mean:
The Bible speaks of altars bearing horns, and of Moses coming down from the holy mountain with a horned head, according to the original Hebrew, which translators usually render "radiant."
This actually brought me to think a bit about the polysemy in general of words denoting rays/beams, e.g.
English: beam - cognate to German Baum, etc, original meaning: tree
German, Swedish: Strahl, stråle - also signifying jets of liquid (among other things).
Latin: radius, also signifying the spokes of a wheel (among other things) - also the origin of 'ray'.
Finnish: säde, also signifying a detail in the anatomy of equine hooves (by extension), originally signifying a spark.
Russian: луч, also signifying a bone (the radius bone, coincidentally enough) (and some other, probably more modern meanings in geometry, physics and such, as well as 'a glimpse'. 
Hebrew: קרן, also signifying horns.
If the Bible had been originally written in English, we would not claim the biblical authors had meant to state that Moses had a tree or a spoke in his face, if it were originally in Finnish, I doubt anyone would claim the authors had tried saying Moses was having a tiny bit of a horse foot protruding from his face (or sparks), and jets of liquid are also out. (Well, that would explain the cloth he was wearing - which neither horns, spokes, or equine bits really fit with; a wet cloth might extinguish sparks, though, in case there's a risk for fire.) Given the context, beams of light is not only a reasonable interpretation - it is probably the best possible interpretation, and given the above sample of polysemy with regard to words denoting a "perceived unit" of light, Hebrew is not particularly weird using 'horn' to denote beams of light. It seems a sample of relatively non-weird languages all have what could be considered 'strange' polysemy going for it.

Seems to me all of these use some more concrete things to denote a somewhat more untouchable thing.

Anyways, yet another instance of Barbara Walker failing to accurately restate what her source says.

No comments:

Post a Comment