Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Pictures, Pirates and Bunny Ears

Why do I write this blog?

I began this blog over four years ago because I was researching the pirate books I was writing, and had discovered so many really cool facts about the Golden Age of Piracy that I wanted to share. As I have learned more, I’ve celebrated pirates in pop culture – always an interesting topic – and delved into several aspects of 18th century life.

This last is one of my longest-lasting topics. It has become one of my goals to help people to see what was going on in the heads of people who became pirates, even as I try to understand that myself. 

Because people are products of their time and place. No matter how much we strive to be individuals, or to rebel, our surroundings influence us in ways we may never realize, and can even steer us by giving us something to rebel against.



Even today, lingering echoes from hundreds of years ago influence our thoughts and feelings.

And that brings us to bunny ears.

You all know the pictures where one person puts their fingers behind another person’s head, so it looks like their friend is wearing a pair of rabbit ears. Everyone knows it’s kind of a naughty thing to do, but no one seems to know why.

People did something similar in the 17th and 18th century, although of course, it was done in paintings and engravings. Why? Because in the 18th century, it mean something quite specific. It meant that the guy’s wife was cheating on him.

The two fingers were not bunny ears. They were horns.

This is a really old painting


The phrase “putting horn on him” is supposed to come from Spain, specifically Andalusia, and even in modern times, men there use it to mean that their wives are fooling around. Supposedly, 

Andalusian men don’t like to be seen in public rubbing or scratching their foreheads, because folk might think that they are spontaneously growing horns.

So what do male horns have to do with female sex?

The phrase is so old, it’s hard to tell. My favorite explanation is that Andalusia is an area with many goats. Female goats, unlike female sheep, have horns, and goat’s horns have long symbolized the devil. In this instance, the horns also symbolize female power, specifically female sexual power, which has terrified men at least since the Dark Ages.

A woman with and "evil" hairdo, looking like horns
In this version of the story, the wife, who is acting the part of a man by fooling around, “puts” the feminine horns on her husband, signify that he must now take the female role of standing by while his spouse takes lovers.

This may seem very far-fetched, and almost Freudian. But one thing is certain. However the phrase came to be, people of the early 1700’s were very familiar with the phrase, the image, and its meaning.


In this section of Hogarth’s “Four Times of Day – Afternoon” we see an example of the phrase’s usage in art. The picture show a family visiting a tourist town. Like many families on holiday, things aren’t working out well. The wife, pregnant, is overdressed, hot and uncomfortable. The kids are crying. The husband, struggling to carry a toddler, looks exhausted. 



But if you look closely, you will see that a cow has been strategically placed behind him, so that its horns appear to be growing out of his head. Hogarth loved to put telling details and visual jokes in his paintings and prints, and this one shares the information that this man is caring for children who are not his own. 

It is, if you will, a very early example of “bunny ears” in a picture.

Not only did pictures show things like this, but people used it in real life. There is a story of a French nobleman whose wife began an affair with the King. Now, normally husbands liked it when their wives had a royal affair. Few aristocratic marriages were love-matches, so there was not necessarily any betrayal of affection involved. And Kings were known to reward accommodating husbands by giving them titles, land, and other desirable goodies.

A woman (as a giraffe) her husband (in the horns)
and the men who are "riding" her. 

But this particular nobleman was not happy that his wife was sleeping with another man. So he had a pair of stag’s horns attached to the top of his carriage, and rode through Paris, showing off the fact that his wife wasn’t faithful and he was unhappy about it.

Some people say that, by the early 1700’s the exact meaning that the wife was “putting horns on her husband” had loosened just a little. By this time, a man was able to point out that another man was wearing horns. And the fact of pointing it out brought in a possible additional meaning.

“Your wife is having an affair with ME.”


Today the sense of wickedness in putting up “bunny ears” still exists. But if you’re a pirate, remember that things were different 300 years ago. Be careful in those photos!






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