In 1668 the Marquis de Montespan was seen approaching Versailles in a coach draped in black silk with a pair of stag’s horns wobbling on top. The Marquis no doubt chose stag’s horns because they were larger and therefore more visible than a goat’s. The courtiers at Versailles nonetheless got the point and King Louis XIV was furious. The horned coach was the unhappy Marquis’s way of telling France that Louis had taken the Marquise de Montespan as his mistress.
Horns, specifically goat’s horns, have been the cuckold’s symbol at least since the Greeks worshipped Pan, the frisky half-goat god of the fields who spent much of his time laying nymphs. In the classical world, goats had a reputation for being loose, and Pan’s pointy little goat’s horns were symptoms of his horny nature. A man whose wife had been Panned, as it were, was said to grow goat’s horns; the longer the betrayal, the longer the horns. There’s reference to the cuckold’s horns in the Satyricon and in Chaucer. Even today the very worst insult that Italians, Europe’s sexual jealousy specialists, can hurl at a man is cornuto, or “horn,” meaning cuckold. By extending their index and pinkie fingers, in effect forming a pair of goat’s horns, both the Italians and French signal that a man is a cuckold. American children, sensitive to its power to belittle but unaware of its origin, make the same “horns sign” behind the heads of unsuspecting classmates. At heavy-metal concerts, pimply teens make the gesture because of its Satanic connotations: the horned devil can be traced to Medieval artists who used lecherous Pan as their model for ultimate evil.
Goat’s checkered past hasn’t prevented people from exploiting the animal’s culinary possibilities. Mexicans like to stew it long and slow with ancho chiles, cinnamon, cumin, garlic, and oregano. In some parts of the Middle East, goat is interchangeable with mutton. At an Ethiopian Jewish wedding I attended outside Tel Aviv, an entire roast goat was the celebration’s centerpiece.
I was invited by Gashaw, a coworker, whose family had come to Israel with the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants. Gashaw’s story was like something out of the Bible. He and his mother and his six siblings had walked from northern Ethiopia into Sudan. Along the way, Gashaw helped his mother deliver her eighth child, a boy. In Sudan, bandits robbed Gashaw’s family of what little they had. Arriving in Israel was, Gashaw told me, like a miracle.
This sense of the miraculous didn’t last long. Gashaw’s father had stayed behind in Ethiopia, in the capital, Addis Ababa. He was in some way connected with the military and couldn’t leave the country. With no husband and many small children, life in Israel was hard for Gashaw’s mother. She became despondent. She slept large parts of her day, wrapped in her thin white robes. Her depression deepened. When Gashaw and I visited her, she pleaded with us to call Gashaw’s father in Addis Ababa. Gashaw’s little brothers wrapped themselves around our legs and begged us to stay forever.
There’s much about the second wave of Ethiopian immigrants I don’t like to remember. The Jewish Agency had moved thousands of Jews from their homes in the north to the capital. Living conditions were squalid. Reports from Addis Ababa said 30 Jewish children were dying daily of typhus and cholera. The Ethiopian government refused to release the Jews. The government was fighting a civil war and wanted to exchange Jews for weapons. I was working for an organization that dealt with Ethiopian immigrants. Every day more reports came of more deaths in Ethiopia. Every day more Ethiopians came to our office and asked us to call their relatives in Addis Ababa. There was confusion and panic. Gashaw’s mother appeared at our office door one morning. She covered her face with her hands and wept and could not be consoled.
The wedding happened in the middle of all this, a time when Gashaw’s extended family needed hope and a cause for happiness. There must have been a hundred guests, and we were all served a paper plate with a portion of roast goat and a large round of spongy Ethiopian bread, injera. I never met the groom, Gashaw’s cousin, but I sat all evening next to one of Gashaw’s many uncles, who kept filling my glass with icy Israeli beer. When I had to go to the bathroom, Gashaw’s uncle told me to use the one upstairs in his family’s apartment. When I staggered through the front door I noticed a trail of something red and sticky on the floor. I followed the trail to the bathroom where, sitting in the bathtub, was a goat’s head, complete with horns.
The second wave of Ethiopian immigrants eventually came to Israel. When they arrived, it was again like a miracle. But Gashaw’s father was in none of the planes from Ethiopia that touched down at Ben Gurion airport. The details of what happened to him took a long time to reach Israel, and by the time they did, Gashaw’s mother was already zombie-like with sorrow. Gashaw’s father wasn’t trapped in Addis Ababa, nor was he ever leaving. He had taken up with another woman, the wife of another man.