I was noodling around at the library a while back, delving among the catalogs and inventories of the earliest precursors of modern museums, the so-called “wonder cabinets” of the 16th and 17th centuries–just why I happened to be doing that: don’t even get me started–when I came upon what seemed like my umpteenth eyewitness account of an actual human horn.

This one occurred in a recent catalog of the original Tradescant Collection, the ur-trove from out of which Oxford’s prestigious Ashmolean Museum eventually emerged. An early visitor to the collection, a German traveler named Zachariah Conrad von Uffenbach, was quoted as recalling how, in 1710, “We were shown an extraordinarily curious horn which had grown on the back of a woman’s head. . . . It is somewhat of a curiosity [for] it appears that men-folk bear their horns in front and such women theirs behind. It was noted on a label that it originated from a Mary Davis of Saughall in Cheshire an aet 72 an. Dn. 1668. The horn was blackish in color, not very thick or hard, but well proportioned.” Elsewhere the catalog explained–as was usually the case with such supposed sightings–that Mary Davis’s alleged horn had in the meantime unaccountably (if not surprisingly) disappeared.

One doesn’t come upon human horns much anymore, but there was a time, apparently, when they were all the rage. Or, rather, such wonder cabinets were all the rage (every duke or baron wanted to be able to boast of one): variously pele-mele troves evocative, as Oliver Sacks has parsed the matter, “of that heady state of mind–compounded of collection mania, mad taxonomy, imaginative exuberance and naif wonder–which formed the prelude to modern science.” And human horns seemed to be an almost obligatory feature of such collections–one comes upon them listed in catalogs everywhere, right alongside the moose antlers, the parrot feathers, the Indian headdresses, the whale skeletons, the unicorn horns, and the sea-unicorn horns.

Indeed, any such inventory quickly affords a clue as to the principal force behind the unprecedented eruption of this taste for astonishment that characterized the 16th and 17th centuries, a hankering that hadn’t been there 100 years earlier and would fade within another 50, as the imperatives of a more rigorous scientific method gradually took hold: it was all that new stuff suddenly coming in over the European transom as a result of the concurrent voyages of discovery–America was blowing Europe’s mind with its moose antlers and purple macaw plumes and Aztec sacrificial urns. If such things now turned out to be possible, the wonderstruck 17th-centurians must justifiably have reasoned, then why couldn’t unicorn horns and even human horns be actual as well? Those “sea-unicorn horns” were in fact indisputably real–weird outspiraling corkscrew narwhal tusks that far-flung navigators seemed to keep stumbling upon–so who now was in any position to put limits on the plausibility of the fantastical?

Such, anyway, is how I’d smugly come to frame my own understanding of this tremendous upwelling of sheer over-the-top credulity among our premodern ancestors–that is, until one afternoon recently, when I happened to find myself wandering among the display cases at the Mutter Museum. (Again, don’t get me started.) Now, the Mutter Museum consists of an entirely authentic and indeed rigorously scientific collection of bizarre medical curiosa, dating back to the last century and housed under the auspices of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It features skeletons of Siamese twins, 19th-century celebrity gallstones, wax models of syphilitic faces, Peruvian trephined skulls–that sort of thing. And, of course, it’s all quite wondrous, in a morbid sort of way.

So, anyway, just as I was getting set to leave the exhibition halls that afternoon, I happened to gaze into one final display case, and there, tellingly spotlit, lay the actual solitary remains of a real human horn (“cornu cutaneum,” according to the object’s caption), an incurled protrusion (“20 cm. long and between 1 and 3 cm. in diameter”) sawed off the skull of an unnamed 70-year-old woman in the middle of the last century by one S. Beaus, MD.

Which naturally set me back a bit–or at any rate sent me back to the library (though to an entirely different wing). It turns out that human horns–anomalous though typically benign growths consisting entirely of concentric layers of keratinized epidermal cells with a tendency to originate on the sites of sebaceous cysts, warts, or scars–are “far more frequent than ordinarily supposed,” or at least they were when Drs. George Gould and Walter Pyle were compiling their encyclopedic Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine at the beginning of this century. They can arise anywhere on the body, though especially on the head and face, growing at a fairly slow but steady rate and often curling in on themselves. According to Dr. Lawrence Parish, the Philadelphia-based editor of the International Journal of Dermatology, one doesn’t come upon them so frequently nowadays, “partly because people simply tend to wash themselves better than they used to and in so doing knock off any such incipient growths.” Those that get by, he notes, tend to get “nipped in the bud” in the course of standard dermatological practice. And in any case they aren’t exactly horns: they share the keratinized gloss and surface of standard animal horns, but they lack the bony core.

Still, they’ve exerted a wondrous fascination on humankind, across cultures and centuries. (When I asked Dr. Parish whether he himself had ever encountered one longer than a few centimeters, he replied, “Oh yes, once, at the Philadelphia General Hospital,” but then caught himself up short, before continuing, more tentatively, “or am I just imagining it?”) Drs. Gould and Pyle cite the 1820 case of a “Paul Rodrigues, a Mexican porter, who from the upper and lateral part of his head, had a horn 14 centimeters in circumference and divided into three shafts, which he concealed by constantly wearing a peculiarly shaped red cap.” This cap-wearing strategy, however, didn’t always work: Martin Monestier in his book Human Oddities cites the case of “a French peasant brought before a regional magistrate on September 18, 1598, for refusing to remove his hat in the presence of a nobleman. Forced to do so in court, he uncovered a well-developed ram’s horn which, he explained, had begun to grow when he was five. The magistrate packed him off to see the king who, according to one chronicler, “sought to breed him with the courtesans.”‘ After a few months of this life, the poor fellow unfortunately gave up the ghost.

On the other hand, Monestier also cites the example of Francois Trouillu, who was quite proud of his horn, “which closely resembled a panache.” The Photographic Review of Medicine, a short-lived bimonthly dating back to the early 1870s, included in its first volume an astonishing albumen print of a 78-year-old retired sea captain who could easily have been Trouillu’s reincarnation. His horns were more like elephant tusks, luxuriantly exuding from his ruddy, barnacled cheeks, and it was reported he’d originally sought medical advice “because his horny growths broke off, and he wanted the physicians to reattach them. They were attached again with string for this photograph only, and the patient was then advised to remove them.”

Perhaps the most famous case in the early 19th century was that of the Parisian Madame Dimanche, “the Widow Sunday,” who seemed unfazed as her horn grew outward from her forehead and then down ten inches past her nose and almost to her chin. According to Monestier, however, “one day, at the age of 84, she suddenly decided to have it cut off. She knew her end was near and did not wish to meet her Maker wearing what she had begun to consider a Satanic ornament.” She survived the removal (performed by the famed Dr. Souberbeille) and lived another seven years. Thomas Dent Mutter himself had a spooky wax cast of Madame Dimanche among his collections.

As for Mary Davis, it appears she really did exist (she was a Cheshire midwife), and so did her horn, or rather horns. Over the years she cast off numerous pair, each set larger than the ones before (“in shew and substance much like a ram’s horns,” according to a contemporary pamphlet, reference to which I managed to track down, “solid and wrinkled, but sadly grieving the old woman, especially upon the change of weather”). One of her horns was presented to the king of France “for the greatest rarity in nature, and was received with no less admiration.” Unfortunately, all of them have since been lost.

But what is it about the prospect of human horns that so mesmerized our premodern ancestors–or for that matter continues to transfix us today? (Why are you still reading this piece?) Whatever it is, it seems quite primordial.

“Many ancient peoples believed that strength and fertility were concentrated in horns,” as Monestier points out, “hence the numerous cults worshipping bulls and rams. . . . Jupiter, the supreme Roman god, was depicted with horns, as was Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility. When Alexander the Great declared himself the son of Jupiter [or, actually, of Zeus], he ordered that all coins bearing his likeness should henceforth show him with horns. Moses was sometimes depicted with horns, as was Christ Himself. Many rulers had horns affixed to their helmets, as a symbol of power.”

Monestier suggests that the association of horns with adultery and cuckoldry dates to Roman times, but in fact the interrelationship between horns and sexuality–an understanding of the “horny,” as it were–is embedded deep in the linguistic roots of our civilization. The ancient Greeks appear to have believed that the fluid surrounding the brain and coursing down the spinal column was none other than seminal fluid itself; such, anyway, is the evidence still embedded in our own language, where cerebrum and cereal, for instance, share a common root, as do genius and gene. (The Greek word for horn, keras, of course, modulates into kernel, and it doesn’t take a genius to make out the connections between horn and corn, as in the “horn of plenty,” otherwise known as a cornucopia.) The master text in this regard is R.B. Onians’s seminal and in fact mind-boggling The Origins of European Thought About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate (1951), a book upon which Norman O. Brown in turn drew heavily in his 1991 book Apocalypse and/or Metamorphoses, specifically in his essay “Actaeon.”

Actaeon turns out to have been an enormously important figure in the Elizabethan imagination (as in the wider universe of wonder). Think of Falstaff cast as Herne, the horny hunter in The Merry Wives of Windsor, antlers spread across his brow (German Hirn is English “brain”)–or of Giordano Bruno, the mystic philosopher, whose suite of allegorical love poems De gli heroici furori, published in England in 1585, 15 years before he was to be burned at the stake as a heretic, is positively studded with references to the ill-visioned hero. The Elizabethans got their Actaeon from Ovid, and more specifically from Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of the Metamorphoses, which Ezra Pound once praised as “the most beautiful book in the language.” In Golding’s rendition, Actaeon is out hunting in the forest with his hounds when he happens to catch a glimpse of Artemis/Diana, the beautiful virgin goddess of the moon and of the hunt, bathing in a pool with her nymphs. Drawn by this extraordinary vision, Actaeon approaches silently, stealthily pulling aside the intervening branches, but he is seen by the furious goddess, who,

raught she water in hir hande

and for to wreake the spight

Besprinkled all the heade and face

of this unluckie knight.

At which point his fate is sealed. “Now make thy vaunt among thy Mates,” the goddess goads the hapless voyeur,

thou sawst Diana bare.

Tell if thou can: I give thee leave;

tell hardily; doe not spare.

This done she makes no further

threates, but by and by doth spread

A payre of lively olde Harts

hornes upon his sprinkled head.

As yet unknowing, Actaeon scampers off–“trottes” in Golding’s beguiling parlance–but within moments of his transmogrification into a stag his own hounds catch the scent of him, and he is being pursued to his death.

Of course, in our context, we will understand the story of Actaeon’s fate for what it is–a wonder narrative and a cautionary tale. A story of possession: Watch out for what you see. (No sooner had Ovid himself completed his Metamorphoses, in AD 8, than he himself appears to have inadvertently witnessed something untoward–something sexual? something political? he doesn’t say and we will never know–a calamitous misprision for which the great Augustus Caesar condemned him to eke out the remainder of his days in terrible exile along the farthest reaches of the empire. “O why did I see what I saw?” the poet would be decrying his uncanny fate, a few years later, in book two of his Tristia. “Actaeon never intended to see Diana naked / but still was torn to bits by his own hounds.”) Antlers: from the French antoeil (“in the place of eyes”) or the German Augensprosse (“eye sprouts”). When Chaucer’s friend Gower had earlier sung his version of the story, in the 14th century, in his Confessio Amantis (also based on Ovid), he cast Actaeon’s fate as “an ensample touchende of mislok”–a truly wonderful three-way pun, for, of course, Actaeon had the bad luck to mislook upon Lady Luck. As might anyone risk to do, gazing too long, too helplessly, at Wonder.

Spend too much time noodling around in the library, and you too may begin to feel yourself growing tender at the temples.

This piece has been adapted from Lawrence Weschler’s new book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rick Echelmeyer, courtesy Mutter Meseum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, courtesy Stanley B. Burns MD and the Burn Archive; illustrations/courtesy Pantheon.