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.
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.
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.
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.