Wikipedia: Our gate of horn or ivory?

The gates of horn and ivory always gave me trouble as a student. In part this was because of my own mental laziness. True dreams passed through one, false dreams the other, but which was which? And what, I wondered, was the difference between horn and ivory anyway? Of course ivory comes from elephant tusks, and tusks are teeth, while horns are bones with a layer of keratin, but if you saw a gate of horn set beside a gate of ivory would you be able to tell them apart? And what’s the connection between the material the gate is made of and whether the dreams that pass through them are true or false?

The myth goes back to Book 19 of Homer’s Odyssey, where (in the Robert Fagles translation) Penelope explains the difference:

Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams,
One is made of ivory, the other made of horn.
Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carved
Are will-o’-the wisps, their message bears no fruit.
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
Are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them.

In the notes to the Fagles translation provided by Bernard Knox we get this: “Why the ivory gate should be the exit for false dreams and the gate of horn for true has never been satisfactorily explained.”

Later epic poets would pick up on the twin gates, including Virgil in the Aeneid (where their use has been much debated, specifically why Aeneas has to leave the underworld by way of the ivory gate). What gave me trouble, however, as a student, was their appearance in Edmund Spender’s The Faerie Queene, where they are described in Canto One as guarding the House of Morpheus:

Whose double gates he findeth locked fast,
The one faire fram’d of burnisht Yuory,
The other all with siluer overcast

Silver? That’s not part of the original pairing. Where did it come from? Why does Spenser cast the gate of horn, the gate of true dreams, in silver? The notes to the Penguin edition offer no assistance. The notes to the Variorum Spenser are downright misleading:

The gates of horn may be imagined to send forth true dreams, from its transparency and simplicity; the gates of ivory, silver, etc. from its gaudy appearance, to send fallacious dreams.

But the gate of silver is the gate of horn. The estimable Longman edition of The Faerie Queene does the same thing, not mentioning Homer at all but saying that the use of silver “may be suggested by Virgil’s description of the ivory gate.”

I haven’t had much occasion to think about these matters since leaving school, but recently I came across a note in the introduction to the Arden edition of Much Ado About Nothing that sheds a different light on the subject. Claire McEachern points the reader to Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, where the gate of ivory is described as misshapen and impenetrable “exactly the way you can’t see through ivory,” while the gate of horn is transparent: “so diaphanous, so shining . . . you can see them [the true dreams] perfectly.” This ties in to a point McEachern is making about the lucid nature of a cuckold’s horns, with horn being used at the time as material for windows and lanterns as well as hornbooks.

I found all of this very interesting, and wondered if it helped explain where the distinction originally came from. I was quite surprised, then, to find on Wikipedia that the difference was first explained in 1919 by Arthur T. Murray in his translation of the Odyssey for the Loeb Classical Library. In a note, he writes:

The play upon the words κέρας, “horn”, and κραίνω, “fulfil”, and upon ἐλέφας, “ivory”, and ἐλεφαίρομαι, “deceive”, cannot be preserved in English.

Recourse to etymology would seem to settle the matter. But if so, why have so many other distinguished editors made such a hash of it, and/or made no mention of this basic point? It’s easy to make fun of students relying on Wikipedia as the source of all knowledge in the age of the Internet, but the editors seem to have done a pretty good job on this one. Good enough to make me wish we’d had Wikipedia when I was a kid.

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