Symbolic horns are used as a visual shorthand to indicate a man whose wife cheats on him. This may involve allusions to horned animals such as bulls and stags. The symbolism is more rarely applied to women whose partners are unfaithful.
While in English-speaking countries this has been a practically Forgotten Trope for over a century, it still thrives in European and Latin American countries where the word for cuckold literally means "horned", the Italian word "cornuto" being perhaps the most widely recognized example.
A prank in various European and Latin American countries is to surreptitiously hold two fingers behind an unwitting victim's head, giving them cuckold horns. The American variation is the Bunny Ears Picture Prank, which is done with different fingers and doesn't have any negative connotation besides looking funny. Incidentally, do not show the "hook 'em horns" symbol to people from those countries, because that gesture means "Your wife's sleeping around" to them, and it is a very ugly insult that has led to fights.
- In the first episode of The Adventures of Mini-Goddess, this is used as a joke: Urd is trying to help a small rat get a wife, and sets him up with an appliance of some kind. However, the appliance says that she was in love with another kitchen appliance, and the two run off together, leaving the rat standing by himself, with the shadow of a cow and horns extending from his body.
- Oberon had these in the The Sandman story which riffed on A Midsummer Night's Dream, because his wife Titania was cheating on him.
- A comic by Walter Moers has a man (depicted literally wearing horns) doing a walk and wonders why he always has to leave when his wife's brother is visiting her. In a later scene he wonders why she's wearing sexy underwear for her brother, but not for him. Then he remembers that she has no brother - and still doesn't make the connection, only thinking "women are odd".
- In a Rat Man scene set in Hell one devil with a particularly impressive set of horns asks a colleague "I wonder what our wives do to pass the time while we're at work".
- Brina gives these to Skulker of all characters... It's a miracle she isn't dead yet...
- In And God Created Woman when Juliette and Michel are walking home after their wedding, a man sitting on a boat mocks Michel by sing-songing to him "The husband wears horns", since everyone is expecting Juliette to be unfaithful and thus Michel is considered a fool for marrying her.
- Referenced several times throughout The Baker's Wife, both by the baker and the villagers. The latter prank the former by presenting him with a present which turns out to be gag gift consisting of a pair of horns.
- One adaptation of Offenbach's "La Belle Héléne" (a parody of Helen's seduction and kidnapping by Paris) has Menelaus present the crown of laurels to Paris as a symbol of victory. When Menelaus wears them, it's unfortunately tilted so it looks remarkably like cuckold's horns.
- A woman gave birth to a black boy while her husband was away. She writes him:
"My dear. I gave birth to a boy. However, I had lactation problems, so the baby was nursed by an Ethiopian. You won't believe it, but the baby turned black."
- The husband is amazed. He writes to his mum about that. Soon after, he receives a reply:
"Dear son. When you were born, I, likewise, had lactation problems, and you were nursed by a cow, but it wasn't until now that you grew horns."
- "Horns don't exist. They're just something somebody put on your head".
- Angels & Demons has a paragraph or two where Langdon notes that the symbology of this (keeping in mind who wrote it) means that it's actually a compliment to the one you're bunny ears-ing's virility.
- A Song of Ice and Fire:
- In Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, Harry Bannerman, who feels guilty about his affair with his boss's wife, imagines twelve-foot horns protruding from his boss's forehead at one moment when his boss angrily strikes up a conversation with him on a subject that turns out to be completely irrelevant. But since Harry is a married man himself, he shortly thereafter contemplates the ethics of "put[ting] horns on your wife."
- Dan Simmons' short story "My Private Memoirs of the Hoffer Stigmata Pandemic," in which a pandemic makes people's sins externally manifest in the form of various facial deformations, has a variant; fleshy blood-horns represent adultery, but they appear on the adulterer, not the cuckold.
- Mentioned in Letters to His Son; from letter CLXXXVI: "A prudent cuckold (and there are many such at Paris) pockets his horns when he cannot gore with them; and will not add to the triumph of his maker by only butting with them ineffectually."
- In an episode of How I Met Your Mother this is referenced by The Captain when he and his wife are splitting up. He says "I wear the horns of the cuckold" in the belief that she is in love with someone else.
- Game of Thrones: Robert Baratheon wears a Crown of Horns and has an unfaithful wife, though the effect is dialed down as he's not exactly a paragon of fidelity himself in that he's far more unfaithful and publicly so than she is, and at least one of his bastard children survive whereas none of hers do. It even gets Harsher in Hindsight when you realize his very betrothed, Lyanna Stark, is revealed to have never loved him, choosing his Arch-Enemy Rhaegar over him. In the books, in A Game of Thrones, Ned Stark remembers a conversation he had with Lyanna, with the latter complaining that Robert cheated on her during her engagement and fathered a bastard in the Vale, Mya Stone. Ned insisted that Robert would change after marriage, but Lyanna replied that "Love is sweet, dearest Ned, but it cannot change a man's nature."
- Kaamelott has an episode where the knights are reluctant to wear their helmets (as they all look stupid in them), one of which has horns.
- This was a favorite symbolism of William Shakespeare:
- In The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Ford, disguised as Master Brook, encourages Falstaff to go after his wife, Falstaff boasts that he will put the cuckold's horns on Ford and later mockingly describes him as a "peaking cornuto." Ford vows revenge on him: "If I have horns to make one mad, let the proverb go with me—I'll be horn mad." The wives con Falstaff into meeting them in Windsor Forest disguised as Herne the Hunter, the Horned Humanoid of myth. When Falstaff has been properly humiliated in his horned disguise, Ford points to the horns and tells him, "Now, sir, who's a cuckold now?"
- In Much Ado About Nothing, horns pointedly symbolize what Benedick fears about being a married man. Beatrice also refers to the Devil as "like an old cuckold, with horns on his head."
- In Troilus and Cressida, Troilus jokes in the opening scene that Menelaus (whose wife is living with Paris) has only wounded Paris with his horns, and Thersites later cheers on the duel between Menelaus and his "cuckold-maker" as a fight between a bull and a dog, and mockingly warns Paris about Menelaus's Horn Attack.
- Used in a few Tennessee Williams plays:
- In The Rose Tattoo, after two gossips disclose to Serafina that her late husband had an affair with another women, she angrily and repeatedly denies it, saying that her husband would not have put "the nanny-goat's horns" on her head. There is also an actual goat that is troubling her. (Oddly enough, "corna" and "cornuta" are not among the many Gratuitous Italian words used in the play.)
- In Camino Real, Casanova has become a Ladykiller in Love, having fallen for Marguerite from La Dame aux Camelias and is crowned "King of the Cuckolds" during the festival with a Crown of Horns. He weeps and shouts "Cornudo!" over and over.
- In his operas, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart tended to make a musical pun on this trope by writing music for brass horns whenever cuckoldry was the subject at hand. Examples include Figaro's aria "Aprite un po' quegli occhi" in The Marriage of Figaro when Susanna is Mistaken for Cheating, and Masetto's aria "Ho capito" in Don Giovanni when Zerlina is about to cheat on him.
- In La Bohème, when Marcello confronts Musetta about her flirting with other men, he proclaims that he won't allow horns to grow under his hat even though he and Musetta aren't married, as she irritably points out to him.
- All the sheep in Catherine have ram horns. Subverted in that not EVERYONE experiencing the nightmares is actually cheating on someone else.
- In Arthur King Of Time And Space, when it looks like Sir Ector's son Kay is the lost heir, King Lot says to Ector "Of all the honors Uther gave you, I never suspected the horns!"
- The Simpsons,
- In the episode "Moonshine River", cuckold horns are handed out at a performance of Shakespeare in the Park. When a man puts them on and his date starts kissing the man next to her, he says "It works!"
- In the episode "Eternal Moonshine of the Simpsons Mind", Homer, infallibally predicting that once his memory is wiped he will be in a Mistaken for Cheating situation, uses the phrase "No doubt I'll misconstrue that as him placing a cuckold's horns upon my brow."
- When VW launched the sunroof option for the Beetle in Brazil it sold well initially until a joke spread that it was to make room for the driver's horns. Sales tanked, the option was withdrawn and some owners even demanded the sunroof be filled in. Some years later, the Brazilian Ford Maverick's emblems had to be modified to remove the horned cow head of the US model.
- French marquess Louis Henri de Pardaillan de Gondrin "decorated" his coach with huge horns and antlers, furious that his wife had become Louis XIV's mistress. He also demanded that both flaps of the church door are to be opened for him, because his horns won't fit otherwise.