For my mother, Thanksgiving décor meant a white tablecloth and fine crystal. But as a child, I longed for more. So once I had my own household, I added the cornucopia. The horn-shaped basket packed with fall fruits and vegetables filled my spirit with holiday joy. In my mind, it was 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 refers to the horn of Amalthea, the name of 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.
The Cretan goat known as Kri Kri/Photo: Evita Kouts
Other accounts say Amalthea was herself a nymph, and it was she who fed the god (with goat’s milk). 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.
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.
The constellation Capricorn
SYMBOL OF ABUNDANCE
Other legends 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
Throughout the ages, the cornucopia has been a fixture in classical art. You’ll find it in paintings and on buildings and coins where it has become synonymous with the harvest and abundance. In fact, there are entire towns, businesses, jails and temples named after it. And here in Washington, DC, it appears five times on 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.
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.