The image of horns is a pervasive symbol of evil in ancient cultures, and has eluded scientists for hundreds of years. Scottish biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson pioneered the field of morphology by diagramming animal growth and describing patterns with math. His seminal work ‘On Growth and Form’ surveys horn shapes in esoteric mammals such as the Argali sheep and Arabian wild goat.
The horns in the family Bovidae (cattle-like mammals) are characterized by an inner core of bone, enveloped by a keratinized sheath. The inner layer extends out of the skull, and the outer layer is epidermal, considered part of the skin. Unlike the antlers of a deer, horns are living cells and continue to grow throughout the animal’s life. Thompson describes a ‘generative curve’ that adds to the sheath ring by ring. The growth follows a logarithmic spiral in most animals, and the number of rings on the horns indicates the age of the animal, like a tree stump. Horns are vascularized and can act as thermal windows to cool down individuals heated by the sun.
There’s something sinister about spiral horns. The illustrated image of a goat extends back to the pagan idol Baphomet, allegedly worshiped by the Knights Templar in the 14th Century. French poet and occultist Standsislas de Guaita took Baphomet as inspiration for his drawing of a goat pentagram, used today as a satanic symbol. The five-pointed star was already operated in mystic tradition, but Guatita flipped it on its head to resemble two pointed horns.
There are a few species in the family Bovidae that break the two-horn arrangement. The four-horned antelope is the only one of its kind, stalked by tigers, leopards, and dholes in Nepali jungles. The Jacob sheep is a rare domestic breed, with a set of 4 billowing, spider-like horns that protrude sideways from its head. Stuff of nightmares.