The metal horns: one of the oldest and most enduring hand signs you can throw to express your appreciation for hard rockin’. With close aesthetic ties to the Hawaiian shaka and the American Sign Language sign for “I love you”, where did it come from and what does it mean?

The most popular story goes that when Ozzy Osborne left/was booted from Black Sabbath in ’79, incoming vocalist Ronnie James Dio (1942–2010) decided he needed a super sick hand signal which recalled Ozzy’s signature double peace sign, but had its own Dio flavour.

In a 2001 interview, Dio explained that he quite deliberately appropriated something he’d seen his grandmother use: “It’s not the devil’s sign, like ‘We’re here with the devil’”, he told metal-rules.com. “It’s an Italian thing I got from my grandmother called the ‘Maloik’. It’s to ward off the Evil Eye or to give the Evil Eye, depending on which way you do it. It’s just a symbol, but it had magical incantations and attitudes to it and I felt it worked very well with Sabbath. So I became very noted for it, and then everybody else started to pick up on it, and away it went. But I would never say I take credit for being the first to do it. I say that because I did it so much, it became the symbol of rock and roll of some kind.”

Coven hornsThen there’s evidence psychedelic outfit Coven used the sign in the metal context even earlier than Dio. The back cover of the Chicago occult-rock trio’s 1969 album Witchcraft Destroys Minds And Reaps Souls depicts bassist Alan Estes (credited as “Oz Osbourne”, weirdly enough) and keys player Jim Nyeholt proudly displaying the horns to either side of lead vocalist Jinx Dawson.

The conclusion seems to be that Coven started it and Dio popularised it. Good to know, although its strictly heavy metal associations have slowly abated with contemporary artists like Miley Cyrus choosing to serrate their look with its diabolical allusions. But who cares? The message is to rock on, and we can all agree with that, whether you la-da-di-da-di like to party or prefer the exit of light and the entry of night.