From Dr. Strange To Dio: The History Of The Sign Of The Horns Hand Gesture


Some conspiracy theorists insist that the so-called “devil horns” hand gesture, which has been seen used by scores of celebrities, politicians, and other public figures, is supposed to represent allegiance to Satan. Does this hand-sign have some sort of occult meaning, or is it just a playful affectation that looks good in a photograph? The answer is…both yes and no.

Made by formed by extending the index and little fingers while holding the middle and ring fingers down with the thumb, the gesture is known as the “devil horns,” the “goat horns,” “throwing the goat,” and simply “the horns.” It is also known as the mano cornuto (“hand” + “horn”), a popular hand gesture traditionally used in Mediterranean countries, especially Italy, as both a vulgar gesture and a protection against curses and evil.

I. The Mano Cornuto, the Karana mudrā, and Dr. Strange

the mano cornuto

From where did the mano cornuto originate? One theory is that the Neapolitan custom of making mano cornuto charms from silver (representing the moon goddess Luna) and blood coral (representing the goddess Venus) hints at a link with ancient mother/goddess/fertility worship—including the worship of her consort, the Horned God. A related theory is that the shape of the head & horns refers to the shape of the female genitals/ovaries/uterus.


But is it possible that the origins of the mano cornuto might also lie in the mudrā—sacred hand gestures—of Hinduism and Buddhism? The Karana mudrā looks exactly like the corna except the thumb does not hold down the middle and ring finger. It is supposed to expel demons.

One might wonder if the artist Steve Ditko was inspired by the Karana mudrā in his art for the comic book Dr. Strange, in which the good Doctor makes similar hand gestures while performing magic. (It should be noted that the decidedly non-occult Ditko hero Spider-Man also made the gesture of the Karana mudrā).


II. The Sign Of The Horns & Heavy Metal

KISS frontman Gene Simmons is a big fan of comic books, and it is rumored that he introduced the gestures of Dr. Strange into the realm of heavy metal. However, there are a number of other accounts and outright evidence that dispute this.

Ronnie James Dio
Ronnie James Dio

Chief among the contenders for heavy metal originator of the “devil horns”/mano cornuto is Ronnie James Dio, who claims to have learned the gesture from his Italian grandmother. Dio is quoted in a 2001 interview as saying: “I was in Sabbath at the time. It was a symbol that I thought was reflective of what that band was supposed to be all about. It’s not the devil’s sign like we’re here with the devil. It’s an Italian thing I got from my Grandmother.”


However, beating Simmons and Dio as rock n’ roll cornuto originator is the psychedelic-occult band Coven. In 1969 Coven not only posed for the back of their album Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls making the “sign of the horns” (the “correct” way, not the Karana mudrā), but they included a poster of them at a Black Mass making the gesture as well. Also on the Witchcraft Destroys album: a 13 minute recording of a full-length “Satanic Mass.”

And so we come full circle to the Illuminologist claim of the sign of the horns gesture being a promoter of Satan (even though the mano cornuto, as well as the Karana mudrā, was supposed to repel demons instead of glorifying them).

III. “I Love You,” Helen Keller, and Yellow Submarine


But there are still other explanations for the cornuto/”devil horns” gesture. For example, the gesture for “I Love You” in sign-language looks identical to the Karana mudrā. A common claim by some conspiracy theorists is that this is because Helen Keller was a Theosophist, part of a metaphysical/occultist group that some Illuminologists consider Satanic. While I haven’t found a direct reference to Helen Keller being a Theosophist outside of conspiracy websites, the fact that she was a big devotee of Emmanuel Swedenborg, who was himself either a Theosophist or shared beliefs with Theosophy, is documented on the official Swedenborg website.

“I Love You” sign language patch

But whether Helen Keller was herself a Theosophist or a Swedenborgian is irrelevant to the origin of the the “I Love You” sign – because Keller was actually a controversial critic of the use of sign language, preferring the technique of oralism (a combination of lip-reading and learning by touch). She didn’t invent American Sign Language, which is actually an amalgam of ancient hand signing, French sign language, and “home-signs” that deaf children brought with them to school.

That said, it is rather striking that the sign for “I Love You” would be the same of the evil-banishing Karana mudrā. Perhaps the best (and most primal) thing to fight evil is love.


This leads into the much-cited by conspiracy theorists image of a cartoon John Lennon making what looks like the horns sign on the cover to the album Yellow Submarine. Perhaps it wasn’t a sign of the devil, but Lennon “saying” All You Need Is Love.

IV. Hook ’em Horns and George W. Bush


Finally, the sign of the horns gesture is identical to the Hook ’em Horns sign of the University of Texas at Austin. The signal is supposed to represent the head and horns of the University’s mascot, a longhorn steer. The Hook ’em Horns has been adopted by many other colleges. Photos of George W. Bush or his family flashing what looks to be the “devil horns”/mano cornuto is commonly used as evidence of their involvement in the Illuminati – however one could say that they were simply supporting their home state.

V. In Summary


The conspiracy theorist’s view regarding the Sign of the Horns is technically accurate on several counts. It has been used in conjunction with Satanism and Satanic themes, as we see both in the case of Coven and Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey (who has been depicted at least several times making the gesture).


The mano cornuto and Karana mudrā both have origins that are either occult, pagan, or rooted in Eastern mysticism—but they are also signs traditionally used to keep away evil, not attract it.


In the case of the many public figures photographed making the hand gesture, it is impossible to tell how many of them are doing it for what particular reason. Some might be making it in reference to the Karana mudrā, some for the cornuto (or the cornuto’s connection to heavy metal), some as sign language for “I Love You,” and some just because they think it’s cool. Is it possible that some are using it specifically to demonstrate some sort of admiration of Satan? Maybe. The point is, there are many explanations.

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that the extensive use of the Karana mudrā & cornuto hand gestures throughout history, and within our current popular culture, points to the enduring power of the symbol.