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Monday, December 28, 2009

The Devil Sign - Not Just for Curses Anymore

How did this hand signal, which is historically a vulgar sign in Italy, get to be so mainstream that even the Pope uses it?

I admit to once or twice using the "devil horn" sign when I was a kid.  I grew up a half-breed Catholic educated English/Italian-American on the East Coast, and the southern Italian peasant culture there makes great use of this hand signal to ward off curses.  It's sort of like fighting fire with fire, scaring the devil with another devil.  If you think someone has put a curse on you, you give them a shot of the horns.

I once used it on a couple of dagos who were bullying me in school.  I admit I did not get along with the other Italians there.  My best friend in school was a Cuban with a high IQ named Olga.

The Italian kids I knew in Catholic school were way more entrenched in the culture than I ever was.  Not only could they speak the language, they used Italian sign language to communicate behind the Bostonian Irish nun's back.  I don't think she ever had a clue.  I only know a few things in Italian sign language, which I mainly learned from the humour book "How to Be an Italian" by Lou d'Angelo.  A small sample lesson is below, showing (at 1:36) how the horns are used in Italy as the equivalent of, well, I won't say it here:

The Feast of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, is run annually on Mulberry Street in New York City.  For sale at the festival, alongside "Italian Power" neckties, are a plethora of horn objects, otherwise known as "cornos".  These are red devil horns you can hang from your neck or your rear view mirror, depending on the size of the horn and the curse you're trying to ward off.

Let's say one of the local "Guidos" from down the street doesn't like the fact that you're dating his sister, so they pointed the horns at you and promised you'd get diarrhea for a month. If you don't think a medium sized horn will give you enough mojo to ward this off, you can always buy a slightly more blatant hand pendant and point it at "Guido" next time you see him.  Tell him he's going to get syphilis for a year.  This can be fun, especially when directed at chronically superstitious types.

Greeks and Turks have the same beliefs about the "evil eye", which can be interpreted to mean the jealousy or bad intentions of another.  Their "curse reversers" tend to be ceramic or glass depictions of an eye.

The sign of the "horns" has been hijacked for years by popular culture and is seen everywhere.  It has a variety of meanings in heavy metal subcultures, where it is known by a number of terms, including maloik, devil sign, devil horns, goat horns, metal horns, death fist, horns up, slinging metal, metal sign, sticks up, throwing the goat, rocking the goat, sign of the goat, throwing the horns, evil fingers, the horns, forks, metal fist, satan salute and the Jackal.

In this clip from The Soprano's, Tony's squeeze, Gloria, gives the horns (jokingly) to the gorilla at the local zoo.

Ozzy Osbourne's replacement, Ronnie James Dio (at right), is credited with popularizing the "devil's horns" gesture through the band Black Sabbath starting around 1979. Dio says that his Italian grandmother used to make the hand gesture to ward off the evil eye.  However, the signal has been in longer use:  The band Coven used it on all their record albums and on stage as far back as 1968. The Parliament-Funkadelic also used the "horns sign" regularly, as seen in many promo shots, album art work and concerts in the 1970s.

Dio had rejected his Catholic upbringing.  He wasn't warding off the devil, he was promoting it.  After all, the band's name is Black Sabbath.  Jeez...

In the 70's, Italian President Giovanni Leone shocked the country when, visiting Naples during an outbreak of cholera, he shook the hands of the patients with one hand, and with the other behind his back, made the corna.  This was no doubt a superstitious attempt to protect himself from the disease.  However the gesture, which was caught by journalists and photographers, was considered especially offensive for the patients.

These days, the horns have gone mainstream in Italy.   This website (you can get a fairly lousy translation of it at Google Translate) showed Italian president Berlusconi throwing the horns with impunity.  I am certain that Italian death metal fans and others give each other the horns daily, without any thought of a curse being attached.  How did this happen?

Well, basically, it's marketing.  Deliberate and organized marketing.

This sign has been repeated so much in the media that people think it's normal to flash a satanic symbol as a sign of greeting.  And our most visible vectors of mass persuasion, politicians and celebrities, have been doing the promotion.  Most celebrities and other public figures don't sport a certain color necktie or pair of shoes at a public event without an OK from their "image consultant" so don't think this is just an accident.

And now the Pope, the so-called spiritual leader to over a billion Catholics, has been caught in the act.  If anyone should know the origins of this sign, it's him.

How did we get so far gone that the Pope thinks it's OK to flash what is basically an Anti-Christ symbol?  What next for his Papal majesty?  Biting off the heads of doves?

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