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.
- Marriage A-la-Mode: In "The Toilette", a young page boy cheekily points at the horns on a statue of Actaeon, implying he knows that Silvertongue is sleeping with the Countess behind her husband's back.
- 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".
- Oberon had these in the The Sandman (1989) 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 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 a 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 a cuckold's horns.
- A white 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.
- 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."
- Dan Simmons's 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.
- 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."
- The Silkworm: Owen Quine's Fictional Document novel Bombyx Mori uses a lot of arcane symbolism reminiscent of Elizabethan revenge tragedies by way of Pilgrim's Progress. One of the characters in the book, the Cutter, is meant to represent Quine's editor Jerry Waldegrave. The Cutter has horns, which detective Cormoran Strike eventually figures out is a reference to the old rumor that another author, Michael Fancourt, was the real father of Waldegrave's daughter.
- A Song of Ice and Fire:
- An episode of Cold Squad had a detective who was grilling a suspect mention that the suspect's wife was giving her husband "the horns" (the police had found out that she was cheating on him... with a 13 year-old boy).
- Game of Thrones: Robert Baratheon wears a Crown of Horns and has an unfaithful wife. The effect is dialed down, though, as he's not exactly a paragon of fidelity himself, being far more unfaithful and publicly so than she is. It even gets Harsher in Hindsight when you realize his betrothed and Lost Lenore, Lyanna Stark, is revealed to have never loved him either, 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- The classic song from Los Embajadores Vallenatos, "El Santo Cachon" (which literally translates to "The Saint Horned")
- The other classic is "El Venao" (lit. "The deer").
- Brazilian singer Falcão, who constantly sings about being a cuckold, named a Concept Album all about being cheated on as 500 Years of Horns◊ (it was released one year before the country's discovery turned 500).
- Also from Brazil, Mamonas Assassinas had a parody of the most cuckold of musical genres, country, titled "Bois Don't Cry" after the Portuguese word for "bulls", with the singer performing live using a horned cowboy hat, and the last line of the chorus even went "We were made for each other, she's a cow, I'm a bull".
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- People experiencing the nightmares Catherine are turned into sheep, and as such have horns. One gets into the nightmares with relationship troubles, which most often include cheating and having cheating significant others, although not every sheep is there for cheating (Justin Bailey is having nightmares because his guilt issues are making him stall on engagement).
- In A Total War Saga: TROY, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, Helen, leaves him to join Paris of Troy, beginning the game's conflict. Meneleus wears a horned helmet into battle and has a horned bull as the icon of Sparta.
- 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, infallibly 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."
- Brazilians don't take cuck jokes as lightly as Americans or Europeans, and it has led to problems with auto sales in the country.
- When Volkwagen launched the sunroof option for the Beetle, it sold well initially until a joke spread that it was done 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, due to jokes about the symbol reflecting the driver's cuck horns.
- 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 be opened for him because his horns wouldn't fit otherwise.