The horns of a spiritual dilemmaWhy the devil does the devil have horns? What do horns have to do with evil? Are cows evil?
The mystery deepens: Korean devils ― pretas, hungry ghosts, the torturers in the Korean hells ― also have horns.
Not all of the same type, admittedly. Some instead have two wings of flame-red hair. Imagine the Korean reaction to the first red-haired foreign sailors they encountered. Indeed, an old Chinese nickname for the Portuguese of Macao is “the red-haired devils.” And “Macao” became another name for hell.
Consistent, whether by horns or hair, is the division into two around the head. Division at the head ― this apparently is an evil thing.
We see twoness in other images broadly related to evil, suffering, and death: the hungry ghosts in traditional Korean Ullambana (Feast of the Dead) paintings not only have flame-red wings of hair, but are almost always paired.
This is striking. The Ullambana painting is supposed to depict the exorcism of a troubled ghost. We marry jointly, but we die alone; why would ghosts of the departed appear in twos?
Then there is Korea's Yomna Wang, chief judge of souls. His name can be traced to Yama, the Hindu God of the dead. But Yama's name in Sanskrit literally means “The Twin.” Yama also commonly has horns. Death is two by nature.
The Twin? Interesting that, in the Christian New Testament, the apostle Thomas, who famously doubts the resurrection of Jesus, is introduced to the reader as Thomas the Twin. Thomas is said to have died in India, so perhaps there is an implicit identity here with Yama; perhaps these two are twins.
Doubting Thomas: to be twinned mentally is to doubt. Doubt means being caught between two possibilities. We speak in such terms: on the one hand...on the other hand. Between a rock and a hard place.
Indeed, we speak idiomatically of being “caught on the horns of a dilemma,” or similarly of “double binds,” another duality. Surely this is expressed by the image of horns ― a mind caught between two ideas, unable to accept the one or the other, as if they had grown into solid sharp points on the head.
Horns on the head mean mental suffering. Mental suffering comes from doubt.
This makes obvious sense in Christian terms. If faith gets you to heaven and eternal life, doubt gets you to hell.
But in Korea? Faith is not the essential thing here it is in the West. For Buddhists, the explanation might be this: remembering reincarnation, Buddhist hells are temporary. They are stations on the way to rebirth. In bardo, or hell, the proper rebirth is chosen. It is, in other words, a time of doubt, of indecision. Such may be the essence of its tortures. One common image of Buddhist hell, indeed, is being sawed in half.
Death need not have horns; death can be blessed. In the Ullambana image, above the dancing devils, you can see a serene seven Buddhas, framed by bodhisattvas who lead blessed souls to paradise.
But horns make sense as a representation of death as a feared thing ― when you doubt your ultimate destination.
Fear death, and you are looking at the center of the image at hungry ghosts with horns of flame-red hair. Conquer fear, look up, and you are with the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Gates, pearly and otherwise, spring open.
Death perhaps we need not fear, nor any hell beyond. We need fear only fear of death itself. It is, after all, proverbially the refusal to accept death that creates a ghost.
All highly speculative, of course. Yet why not view a traditional Ullambana picture and come to your own conclusion? Common in halls honoring Amida, the Buddha of the next world, one memorable one is at Bomun Temple, the large convent in northeastern Seoul.
Take subway line No. 6 to Bomun station and walk west. Inside Bomun Temple’s gates, turn right and look for the Amidist Kuknak-jon.
by Steve K. Roney
Stephen Roney teaches at the University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, Canada.