What is a Cornucopia?
Explaining the Mythic Origin of The Cornucopia
It's nearing Thanksgiving and suddenly you start seeing see pictures of tables decorated with turkeys, vegetables, sweet potato pies, fall leaves. All that's fine, but then there's a thing that thing that looks like a woven basket with fruit and nuts spilling out. How the heck did that make it onto the table? Where did it come from? Sure, it looks like a horn or some such but what is it?
It's called a cornucopia, but the thing is, its symbolism is much, much older than European settlers and Thanksgiving, in fact, it's quite ancient and pagan. The term cornucopia comes from the Latin of cornu copiae or "horn of plenty." When you see it on Thanksgiving tables or in illustrations you may see depictions of a woven funnel, often with at least one twist to the end and spiraling to a narrow point. This is meant to mimic a goat's horn.
So, how exactly did a goat's horn end up on our Thanksgiving tables stuffed with fruit and nuts? You have to admit, it's a little weird. For the answer to that you have to go back to Greek mythology, constellations, classical paintings, and a great imagination.
First, let's look at the Greek mythology and constellations. These stories date back to around the third century B.C. The story of the cornucopia can be traced to the earliest Greek gods, and in particular Zeus. Cronus (or Kronos) was the leader of the Titans, the descendants of Uranus and Gaia. The Titans ruled the cosmos during the "Golden Age" of Greece. After Cronus defeated his father Ouranos (the sky) a prophesy came down. It said that he, Cronus, would be overthrown by his own son, much like he overthrew his father (the Greeks really liked payback stories). To prevent being overthrown Cronus swallowed all of his children when they were born to his wife Rhea. Now Rhea, being a smart lady, saved her youngest child (Zeus) by wrapping a stone in swaddling and giving it to Cronus to swallow instead of the infant (ever get that heavy feeling after a dinner?). Zeus was then hidden by Rhea and his grandmother Gaia on Mount Ida on the island of Krete. This is where the horn image comes in. Rhea couldn't be seen going off and nursing a baby, because Cronus would catch on. So, she gave Zeus into the care and keeping of the Kouretes. The Kouretes were armed dancers (or attendants) who bore Zeus away on their shields to the island. The Kouretes stood about the alter of Zeus and danced, beating their shields, bronze clappers, and symbols to prevent Cronus from hearing baby Zeus crying or making sounds.
Dancing is good and all, but Zeus needed food, so the Kouretes were joined on the island by the nurse-maid-she-goat called Amaltheia (A-mal-thee-ah). The origin and meaning of the name are given mixed attribution in ancient literature, being derived either from the verb amaltheuein, meaning to nourish/enrich or amale and theia, which relates to the "divine goat" or "tender goddess." Zeus suckled from the pap or teat of the goat, and she was a protectoress for him.
There are different versions of the myth as to how the Amaltheia's horn was detached from her head. Some say she caught her horns in the branches of a tree, and other say the baby Zeus became a bit frisky with his new-found strength and broke off her horn. Regardless, the horn then would provide bountiful food for anyone who possessed it from then on.
Eventually the she-goat died and Zeus made a powerful shield from her hide, and called it a "thunder-shield" or aigis (nothing says love like making a shield out of your nanny). Amaltheia's image was placed in the sky, as the goat constellation of Capra. This appears as a cluster of stars on the constellation of Auriga the Charioteer. If you're curious it's is mostly seen during the winter in the Northern Hemisphere, between Gemini and Perseus, look for the major star Capella (see chart below).
If you're ever looking for a really interesting website, visit the Constellation of Words website. It explores the etymology and origin of constellation. Their authors explain, "Auriga is associated with Erichthonius, and the alpha star of this constellation, Capella, is associated with Amaltheia (Amalthea) the nanny-goat, who suckled the infant Zeus. The stars zeta, Hoedus 1, and eta, Hoedus 11 are her Kids which she put aside in order to suckle the baby Zeus, as a wet-nurse would do. The Kids, two stars in Auriga, were treated as a separate constellation by Manilius. A nanny is a person who rears children other than her own, as Amalthea raised Zeus, and Erichthonius was raised by Athena." (From Constellation of Words)
Now back to the horn. Often it is associated with the Greek goddess Demeter, the goddess of corn, grain, fertility, agriculture, and the harvest. She was also the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and Zeus' sister. By the way, Zeus did defeat Cronus and made him vomit alive all his grown children, including Demeter. Nothing says "I love you sis" like a rescue and regurgitation.
The Romans really liked using the imagery of the cornucopia or the "horn of plenty" too. Roman deities associated with harvest and peace were often shown with a cornucopia. Like North America is now, Rome was a very prosperous country, filled to excess with good foods, so they wanted to show the rest of the world that not only were they politically and militarily mighty, they were able to feed themselves lavishly.
Many classic art works depict the cornucopia, ranging from the walls of Pompeii to the painting of the Roman goddess Abundantia by Rubens or the artwork entitled, The Origin of the Cornucopia by Abraham Janssens, a Flemish artist (c. 1575-1632).
Aside from the myth of Zeus, some Greek artworks feature the alternative myth of Heracles wrestling the river god Achelous and ripping the god's horn off. Regardless, you always see a horn involved somewhere.
In modern times you're likely to find the cornucopia on Thanksgiving tables as a woven basket. It still represents harvest, abundance, and plenty. I always wondered why a woven horn stuffed with fruit, grains, and nuts sat on Thanksgiving tables. I know I was never taught why in school, just given the instruction to color, cut, felt, or paste together a centerpiece for the family. I love digging up little historical and mythical treasures like this. They make traditions seem much deeper, richer, and more meaningful...if slightly more pagan too.