Exploring the symbols, metaphors, motifs and archetypal patterns found in myth, pop culture, literature, songs, religion, psychology, Tarot, art and history--and why they matter.
With Thanksgiving around the corner, I thought it would be fun to explore one of the ubiquitous symbols of the season: the cornucopia.
From the Latin words cornu (horn) and copiae (plenty or abundance), cornucopia’s other namesake is quite literally this interpretation: horn of plenty. We often see this woven, hollow centerpiece festooned with flowers of orange, red and yellow—along with grapes, sheaves of wheat, apples and other fruit.
As I dug deeper into the symbolism of the cornucopia, I was surprised at the variety of goddesses (and gods) associated with this motif.
The most common mythos originates from Greece. Zeus, suckled by a she-goat named Amalthea (tender goddess), sought to honor his wet-nurse by turning one of her great horns into the cornucopia. One story goes that he broke one of her horns while playing, but then promised its perpetual overflow with her favorite fruits.
However, in her book The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols, Adele Nozedar states that Zeus rewarded Amalthea the brimming cornucopia for feeding him “a drink of goat’s milk” as an infant. He further honored his foster mother by turning her into the constellation Capra (she-goat).
As you might expect, the Romans then turned the story into the cornucopia of Copia, the goddess of abundance. Then, the magic horn became a source of untold wealth, grains and fruits. In his book Signs, Symbols & Omens, Raymond Buckland notes that this Roman goddess of plenty connected to the Greek goddess Tyche, saying that this magical horn “provided everything its owner desired”. Sort of like a magic lamp, but with unlimited wishes!
Ray says several deities are depicted holding a cornucopia, including Banda, Cernunnos, Eirene, Fortuna (Rome’s “Lady Luck”), Pax, Rosmerta, Tutela and Virtus. In her book The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Judika Illes adds Demeter, Persephone, Fauna, Flora and Epona, remarking that “deities who carry implicitly promise peace and prosperity”.
Since modern, decorative cornucopias serve as centerpieces made from wicker or paper, most forget that its abstract crescent shape directly correlates to an actual animal horn.
While the myth of Zeus connects to the horn of a goat, Barbara Walker observes in her book The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects that the cornucopia “was originally the horn of the Great Mother in her cow or goat incarnation, as Io, Ceres, Hera, Hathor, and other versions of the sacred cow…”
Another Roman goddess, Abundantia, was also associated with the cornucopia. Often depicted on 3rd century coins, she was usually posed beside a cornucopia—but some images actually show her sitting on a throne fashioned as a cornucopia.
In her book The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Judika Illes details some fascinating information about this goddess of abundance:
“When Christianity became Rome’s official religion, Abundantia was outlawed with other Pagan spirits. Some devotees were ambivalent about banishing prosperity and so Abundantia went underground, eventually re-emerging in medieval Europe as Dame Abundance. During the Middle Ages, she was worshipped only in secret and, finally, only by witches. (By definition, if you worshipped her, you were a witch.) The Inquisition accused Dame Abundance, a night-rider, of leading the Wild Hunt and witches’ nocturnal jaunts. According to the testimony of accused witches, Dame Abundance visits the homes of her devotees at night, bringing good luck and prosperity with her.”
Wow, these cornucopia associations are getting dicey! If Christians only knew what they were putting on their puritanical Thanksgiving tables this year…
But I digress!
The most fascinating horn of plenty association, for me, was discovering several pieces of ancient Greek pottery—including an amphora and a plate—showing Hades (Invisible), god of the underworld, carrying a cornucopia (usually with Persephone, but sometimes with Demeter).
I searched my books but couldn’t find mentions of Hades holding a cornucopia. However, online at this link, I did find reference to the a more beloved counterpart to Hades, Pluto/Plouton (Wealthy One), and how he might connect with abundance:
“The name Ploutōn was frequently conflated with that of Plutus (Πλοῦτος,Ploutos), a god of wealth, because mineral wealth was found underground, and because as a chthonic god Pluto ruled the deep earth that contained the seeds necessary for a bountiful harvest. Pluto and Hades differ in character, but they are not distinct figures and share their two major myths.”
Aha! So the type of abundance that Pluto symbolizes connects more with the deep, dark soil and its potential for bounty—as well as the mineral and metal deposits that translate into major wealth.
It could be said that Persephone is the personification of vegetation (being kidnapped/held by Hades for six months because of eating six or so pomegranate seeds). Even to this day, pomegranates symbolize abundance, fertility and good luck—especially in Greek households.
Thus, Hades with Persephone and a cornucopia signifies major themes of fertility, wealth, prosperity and fortune.
Who knew that the lowly cornucopia—ever-present in Thanksgiving decorations—had such a rich symbolic history! I’ll never see this symbol the same now.
May you and yours be blessed this Thanksgiving and all through the year—with unseen bounties deep from within overflowing to the material realm.
P.S. Pop culture side note: In the Hunger Games movie, the official anthem of Panem is called Horn of Plenty. In the trilogy and the movie, the very beginning of every brutal Hunger Games finds "tributes" racing to the golden Horn of Plenty to get food and supplies (or not)--resulting in a bloodbath that tends to eliminate quite a few right off the bat.
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