Who is responsible for bringing metal's famous hand signal to the tribe?


Illustration by Mark Brooks

t is called the mano cornuto, the horned hand, with index finger and pinkie raised proudly as the sign of the beast, ready for an unholy wave to your favorite demon king. The Horns of Cernunnos. The woolly Goat of Mendes. And the edifice of Scaccia Scalogna, source of the ancient code to defeat the "evil eye" and its power to wilt the fruit on trees and the mojo of men. Or, it means nothing at all – nothing beyond the international greeting to heavy metal ecstasy, aimed at all the flawed rock gods with their Marshall amps and electric guitars. It is there that the horns still carry some tribal significance, and where the local monster metal fest might carry a giant foam-rubber facsimile of the horned hand to be waved from across the arena, as harmless as a pillow.

Satan must miss the attention. It had been his for centuries, used with conviction just in the last generation by Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey himself. To Wiccans, the raised fingers were like antenna to receive a jolt from the mighty and mysterious Goddess. The sign still worries evangelists, but it truly belongs to rock now, as a declaration of love and testosterone in the presence of Ozzy or Metallica or the next speed-metal band to plug in onstage. It is a valentine between rock star and superfan.

Singer Rob Halford has no idea where it came from, and he probably picked it up from the audience. But it provides a big moment every night onstage with the reunited Judas Priest, right in the middle of "Painkiller," as the band drifts into a passage of lengthy metal-guitar riffing. That's when Halford steps up to the edge of the stage. "I throw a metal-god pose and put my horns in the air, and the crowd goes fucking ballistic," Halford says. "It's like holding up the NBA trophy. It's a unifying moment. People go, ´Oh, my god, look what he's doing – that's me!' It's a moment of recognition."

But its source in rock is a mystery. And it has grown into a subject of uninformed debate in parking lots and online. Gene Simmons of KISS wrote in his 2002 autobiography that it was his accidental invention, the inadvertent gesture of a great man, repeated at concerts and picked up by fans. Not likely. Former Black Sabbath shouter Ronnie James Dio also takes the credit, first raising the horns before joining the band in 1978. And he's expressed alarm over the image of Britney Spears fans raising the sign at concerts by the dancing diva of lip-synched pop. The truth is elusive.

One Internet gadfly calling himself Physical Discomfort writes of Dio, "Hell no he didn't pioneer the devils hands thing!" Then he insists that a live photograph inside the 1972 album Black Sabbath Vol. 4 reveals Ozzy and fans throwing the goat into the air. A potential revelation … so I dig out my buried copy, searching for a moment of pure cartoonish evil, a possible crossroads where heavy metal's flirtation with the Satanic and ridiculous began. And there it is: peace signs. The hippie dream, and not a demon's head anywhere.

The time has come for a survey, and first on the list is Dave Grohl. The Foo Fighters frontman and Nirvana drummer is in town to conduct his own headbanger paradise on a Hollywood soundstage, where he's shooting a video for his metal side-project Probot, sitting in with Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister and 70 models from SuicideGirls.com. Between takes, Grohl poses for a magazine photographer. The man is a kind of redheaded, Mephisto-looking hipster, who begs Grohl to flash him "the goat" again and again. He refuses. Grohl's roots are in both metal and punk rock, where, if used at all, the horns tend to be wielded ironically. I ask later where he first saw the mano cornuto. "Honestly, probably at a Black Flag show, which doesn't make sense. But you'd have the fucking burnouts that would come to see Black Flag after rippin' Sabbath in the parking lot for a good half-hour."

Later, I ask Lemmy the same' thing, noting the casual claims of Gene Simmons. "Well, he would, wouldn't he?" Lemmy remarks. "He is so eeevilll. Come on, gimme a fucking break."

Lars Ulrich of Metallica has no doubt at all: "That's got to be Ronnie James Dio. I remember Rainbow used to play in Denmark about every half-hour, so I used to go see it every half-hour. And Ronnie James Dio did a lot of that. Back in '75, '76, '77, it was all about Rainbow and Black Sabbath and Thin Lizzy."

In a separate interview, singer-guitarist James Hetfield, answers, "I think Dio." Then he goes on, with a smile: "I think Spider-Man originally. It's also ´I love you' in sign language. I don't know, I think it's ´Two more songs!' – you know."

One could make the pilgrimage to the medieval Italian hill town of Barga, Tuscany, and the carved visage of the Scaccia Scalogna, an ancient face set right into the wall along the Via di Mezzo. Locals in search of better luck and divine intervention travel to the cragged, alien face to press their horned hands right into the statue's eyes. Which takes the demon salute into the realm of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, who enjoyed ending conversations with a pair of fingers in the eyes of his closest associates.

Even President George Bush has raised horns to the sky, suggesting all kinds of possible conspiracies and connections, entangled in Skull & Bones and star chambers. More likely, Bush is signaling his piety to the Texas Longhorns, gridiron warriors for the University of Texas, where a football-crazy male cheerleader named Harley Clark first raised the "hook 'em horns" signal at a 1955 pep rally. Clark is a retired state judge now, and definitely no Satanist.

Dio remembers the gesture from his Italian grandmother in New York, making a sign to ward off the "evil eye." He does not claim to have invented it, but says he brought it to the metal masses as far back as his days in Rainbow, before replacing Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath in 1978. When VH1 weighed in this year with 100 Most Metal Moments, No. 3 was Dio's use of the gesture as the universal signal for heavy metal. &quoteIt's nice to have been able to create something that's going to last for a long time and be credited for it," says Dio. "But I'm sure some guy named Og invented it 25,000 years ago."

And it belongs today in the hands of a deadly serious rocker, he argues, not the Top 40. "Going to see someone in a bustier doesn't seem to make any sense when they raise that sign up there. And they get it wrong. There's a way to do it. You have to lean into it and have a certain facial expression." For Dio, the sign "puts an exclamation point and a period to what you're doing. I don't do it for frivolous reasons. It was a natural thing for me to do. And perhaps it looks theatrical now because it's overused, even by myself."

But Dio was not the first rock musician to raise the horns high. It's not the devil's sign to everyone. It is also the password to the Mothership, the P-Funk juggernaut first launched at the beginning of the '70s. George Clinton and Bootsy Collins have been trading the "P-Funk sign" ever since, a kind of sci-fi-funk interpretation of the old Vulcan "live long and prosper" greeting from Star Trek's Mr. Spock.

A friend arranges a meeting with Clinton. I hand him a photograph of Dio making the hand signal, and tell him this is the man (or one of them) credited with bringing it to rock. Clinton stares at the picture for a long, silent minute, breathing heavily. Another minute passes. He's never heard of Ronnie James Dio. It's the P-Funk sign, man. The mystery continues.

Then I mention Simmons, and Clinton smiles. "He should know better," he says with a laugh. KISS and Parliament-Funkadelic were both on Casablanca Records in the '70s. "Our costumes were made at the same place," he adds. "And we had ours made there first!"