Creative ignorance

A horned blond Moses addressing the people; Amiens, Bibliothèque Municipale, 107 (France, 15th century)

Ignorance takes many forms. There is the innocent kind which simply doesn’t know as it never had an opportunity to become something better. There is then the kind which enjoys not knowing, the com-placent kind. Then the healthy kind, which spares a lot of grief and misery. There is also the obstinate kind which hates when ignorance is reduced in others. Finally, there is the creative kind, which instead of diminishing the landscape, it enriches it. This is no less ignorance, but it is of a type which nearly forgives the lack of knowledge and understanding as it has the potential to bring about something new and original.


To make it from one generation to another, a book may either be preserved intact or copied. Multiplying books enhances their rate of survival. For a written work of the ancient world to have survived the disruption of the political dissolution of the Roman Empire, there had to be a great deal of copying. Some books were copied and survived, others weren’t and became extinct. Of those that were copied, many were badly copied. Some were copied by careless scribes, others by careless and ignorant ones.

In one of the most influential commentaries on Virgil’s poems, the Roman god Vulcan is said to have been raised ‘by the Sintians’, the inhabitants of Lemnos; in Latin: ‘ab Sintiis’. When the commentary, written by the grammarian Servius in the late 4th century AD, was copied by poorly-educated scribes, the word Sintiis became either simiis or ninfis, which means ‘apes’ or nymphs, respectively. So Vulcan was raised by apes or nymphs on Lemnos. This erroneous though creative tradition was picked up by artists, who depicted Vulcan in manuscript illustrations surrounded by apes or nymphs.

Little did Moses know that as he was going down Mount Sinai carrying the tables of the Law, a tradition was being forged which would bestow on him a pair of horns for centuries to come. Michelangelo tends to take credit for this ‘innovation’, but the tradition goes back to the beginning of the Moses iconography in the West. Moses has nothing to do with horns, of course, at least not in the common sense. The horns grew up on the Lawgiver’s head through what appears to be a mis-translation. The Hebrew text of the book of Exodus has the text ‘Moses did not realise that the skin of his face was ‘qaran’’, where qaran means shining or radiant. Though it has been pointed out that qaran is related to another word qèrèn which means horns, and that horns were a typical way of representing the power of a leader – it is highly unlikely that St Jerome, the translator-villain of this piece, knew about all this.

Apes and horns, mis-transcriptions and mis-translations, the unlikely road from ignorance to creativity.

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