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

Thanksgiving décor for my mother was a white 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 embodied 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 rooted 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 owners 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.

.

5 Ways To Honor Our Planet On Earth Day

earth1

It’s been a half century now since Earth Day began on April 22, 1970. I can still remember how strange it felt to be dismissed early from school to clean up litter. At the time, the idea seemed foreign to us, which means, of course, that we were used to throwing our trash on the ground. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age that was the common mindset. Continue reading

Fall Is Back: Time To Get Out And Smell The Leaves

Fall arrives slowly here in Maryland. Just when you think the temperatures have dropped, they shoot up again, along with the state’s oppressive humidity. Finally, though, there comes a morning when the air has turned crisp and the colors more brilliant. That’s when I throw on a jacket and go outdoors to smell the leaves. Continue reading

How To Say What You Mean In The Language Of Flowers

Studies show that mastering a foreign language can not only boost your brain power but also provide you with insight on how the world thinks. Unfortunately, not everyone can learn with the same facility. But there’s one second language we all know how to speak fluently, albeit with slight variations. Colorful and often emotional, it’s called the Language of Flowers.

THE VICTORIAN LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS

Back in the Victorian era, people really knew how to ‘say it with flowers.’ The 1800s were a buttoned-up time, with many taboos against expressing emotions. So to get around the rules, people borrowed from an ancient language. They used flowers and floral arrangements to convey their feelings. 

Mother’s Day card circa 1890

Sometimes referred to as floriography, the Language of Flowers can be traced to ancient times. This includes the Hebrew Bible, where plants and flowers often figure as symbols. Take, for example, this passage from the Song of Songs:

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. 2.As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. 3 As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. Song of Songs 2:1-3

Apple tree blossoms

THE TULIP’S TURKISH ROOTS

However, the practice of floriography most likely had its roots in Turkey, where in the 16th century, the Court in Constantinople was said to have an obsession with tulips. Following their discovery in the mountains, the unusual, cup-shaped flowers became a part of many powerful peoples’ gardens. 

Tulips were an obsession in the Court of Constantinople

Eventually, as Ottoman sultans began wearing tulips in their turbans, they also became a symbol of wealth and power. Indeed, the name tulip is believed to derive from the Persian tulipan, meaning turban, with which it shares an uncanny resemblance.

The word tulip comes from the Persian tulipan, meaning turban

TULIPS IN THE HAREM

In the Western World, we have Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to thank for introducing the language of flowers to Britain. In 1716, she accompanied her husband to Turkey where he was stationed as ambassador. Montagu’s letters back to England often contained references to the Turkish use of floral symbols. This included a reported custom of using flowers to send secret messages in the harem.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

THE FIRST FLORAL DICTIONARY

It wasn’t until Queen Victoria ascended the throne in the next century, however, that Montagu’s efforts to promote floriography were finally embraced. Seemingly overnight, books about flower symbolism began to be published. Many of these works continue to form the basis of the floral language we practice today.

The first dictionary to associate flowers with symbolic definitions appeared in 1819 with the publishing of Le Langage des Fleurs, a work attributed to Charlotte de la Tour. The author’s true identity, however, remained a mystery for years until it was revealed to be Louise Cortambert, wife of the geographer Euguen Cortambert (1805-1881). She would have been in her late thirties at the time.

1920 edition of Charlotte de la Tour’s Le Langage des Fleurs

Organized by season, Le Langage de Fleurs contained illustrations and essays on different plants along with their associated meanings. There were 330 different types of emotions. Listed in alphabetical order, they ranged from messages of love, acceptance and refusal to more specific feelings or psychological states. These included such catchy phrases as Render Me Justice, My Regrets Accompany You to the Grave and Better to Die than Lose One’s Innocence. The book can still be purchased on Amazon today.

COMMON FLOWERS AND THEIR MEANINGS

So what are some common flowers that we Americans know how to read? Some of the following generally accepted meanings may jar your memory.

BUTTERCUPS

Remember putting a buttercup under your chin and asking your friend if it cast a shadow? If a yellow tint appears, a person is supposed to love butter.

Buttercups can tell if you like butter

DAISIES

Or, did you ever pick off the petals of a daisy one by one while repeating the phrases She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not? A game of French origin, this practice can determine if the object of your affection returns those feelings.

Reading the daisy can tell you whether or not your affections are returned

DAFFODILS

Emerging in early spring, daffodils are the quintessential symbol of rebirth and renewal. In the language of flowers, they can also mean Regards. Other interpretations link daffodils with chivalry, self-esteem, egotism and vanity.

Daffodils symbolize spring and also regards

FORGET-ME-NOTS

Forget-me-nots’ meaning is implied in the name. The true blue flower, whose Greek name myosotis means mouse ear, is commonly associated with constancy and friendship.

Forget-me-nots symbolize friendship and constancy

MIMOSA

Often flower meanings derive from the behavior of the plant itself. For instance, Mimosa pudica is often linked to sensitivity or chastity since its leaves fold up when touched by another organism.

Mimosa pudica symbolizes sensitivity

ROSES

Even within the same species, colors can carry different meanings. For example, a deep red rose has been associated with the blood of Christ in paintings for centuries. These days, however, it more often expresses the intensity of romantic love.

A red rose can express strong feelings of love

While pink roses express affection.

Pink roses represent affection

And yellow roses stand for friendship or devotion.

A yellow rose signifies friendship

Overachievers may like to emulate Felix in Honoré de Balzac’s The Lily of the Valley. In the novel, he uses flower arrangements to convey coded messages that only his lover can decipher. This took some advanced study, however, with Felix spending days in the countryside meditating on the essence of each flower.

Regardless of your flower knowledge, the list is as long as there are flower species. And though meanings may vary across cultures, the roots of this ancient custom remain the same. Some feelings are just better expressed in the Language of Flowers.

 

Gardening For The Soul: Ten Steps To A Happy Life

View from atop the Bavarian Alps

Spring is a good time to start fresh and focus on what’s really important in life. For me, the month of April is a time of introspection. I make a mental list of what parts of my life need to be reorganized, adjusted or just plain thrown out.  Then I replenish my house with a happy mind. Continue reading

Chernobyl Plants And The Exotic World Of Ruderal Species

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist 

There’s a lesser-known field of botany called the study of ruderal plants, or plants that grow on waste ground, ruins or rubble. Borne by birds, wind or other animals, the weed-like species are the first to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. The plants self-sow in abandoned areas, forming impromptu gardens and forests over time. They’re living proof of what Mother Nature can do when left to her own devices. Continue reading

Valentines Day 2018: How To Really Say It With Flowers

This winter, I’ve been passing the time rereading a few French classics. It’s been a great way to while away the hours, especially since many of the books focus on life in the garden. Such is the case with Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Lys dans la Vallée (The Lily of the Valley). It’s a great story of French love and society and how a pair of frustrated lovers establish a secret correspondence by flowers. Continue reading