The Story Of The Cornucopia: It’s All Greek To Me

Thanksgiving décor for my mother was a white linen tablecloth and fine crystal, but as a child I longed for something more. So as soon as I had my own household, I added the cornucopia. The sight of all those colorful fruits spilling from a basket filled my spirit with holiday joy. In my mind, the horn-shaped vessel seemed to embody the very essence of the harvest season.

That being said, I later discovered that the origins of the cornucopia had nothing to do with a basket, nor was it meant to contain fruit. It all started with a goat named Amalthea.

AMALTHEA AND THE HORN OF PLENTY

Cornucopia, or cornu copiae, translates literally to horn (cornu) of plenty (copiae). In the English language, it also means abundance. But while the word may have Latin roots, its origins are firmly planted in Greek mythology.

In Greek legend, the cornucopia actually refers to the horn of Amalthea, the name given to the goat who fed the infant Zeus on Crete. According to one version of the myth, Zeus broke off one of Amalthea’s horns and gave it to the nymph daughters of Melisseus. In so doing, he endowed it with the power to be filled with whatever its possessors desired. 

Cretan goat

The Cretan goat known as Kri Kri/Photo: Evita Kouts

Other accounts say Amalthea was herself a nymph who fed the god with the milk of a goat. When the goat accidentally broke off one of her horns, the nymph filled it with fresh herbs and fruit and gave it to Zeus as a gift. This may explain why for centuries, the cornucopia is depicted as a real goat’s horn filled with fruits and grains.

The Childhood of Zeus by Jacob Jordaens/Louvre Museum

Whatever the reason for the horn being separated from the goat, Zeus is said to have so loved Amalthea that he placed her among the stars as the constellation Capra, (which is Latin for goat). Today we know her as Capricornus (horned goat), or Capricorn.

constellation capricorn

The constellation Capricorn

SYMBOL OF ROMAN ABUNDANCE

Still other stories associate the horn of plenty with Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck, fate and fortune. As the giver of abundance, she is often depicted bearing a cornucopia.

Fortuna holding a cornucopia/Istanbul Archeology Museum/Photo: shutterstock.com

Through the ages, as the popularity of the cornucopia has grown, it has become synonymous with the harvest and fall’s abundance. Frequently depicted in classical art, it now figures on buildings, sculptures, paintings and coins. There are entire towns, businesses, jails and temples named after it. And here in Washington, DC, it appears five times in the U.S. Capitol

An ancient bas relief depicting a goat’s horn overflowing with fruits

Statue of Zeus with a cornucopia

Cornucopia sculpture in Greece

THE PILGRIMS PROBABLY DIDN’T HAVE A CORNUCOPIA

While it is unlikely that the Pilgrims had a cornucopia, Americans have nonetheless adopted the vessel as one of the most popular Thanksgiving decorations. As a symbol of plenty, it’s a natural fit for a lavish table. Nowadays, however, it usually takes the form of a basket rather than an actual horn (although there other materials available.) People traditionally fill it with fruits, but vegetables, nuts, flowers and leaves are also popular. 

ceramic cornucopia

A ceramic cornucopia

Still, there’s something about the story of the goat Amalthea that I find especially heart-warming. This Thanksgiving when I set the table, I’ll be thinking of her and the abundance she represents, a harvest wish for plenty to cultures throughout the ages.

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Lodgepole pine forest

Lodgepole pine forest

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Me, my dad and my sister circa 1965

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View from atop the Bavarian Alps

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Photos of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley

Wilson Bentley Digital Archives of the Jericho Historical Society/snowflakebentley.com   

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