At my house, we've put away the harvest decor that has been up since late September and set up the house for Yule. Earlier in the fall, my mom gave me a straw cornucopia that she's had for years, and as I put it away with the autumn-hued table runner and wreath, I thought of how far back the cornucopia reaches into the past, and what it means.

Nourishment and Wildness

These days, cornucopias often take the form of vaguely horn-shaped baskets of faux fruit and flowers, like the one my mom gave me. But it was originally a real goat horn holding fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, and grains. Literally meaning "horn of plenty" in Latin, the cornucopia originated in ancient Greece. In one origin myth, the infant Zeus was nourished with milk from the goat Amalthea on the island of Crete. Because He was extremely strong even as an infant, He broke off one of her horns, and the hollow horn gave forth unending nourishment.


A similar divine goat is known in Norse mythology. Like Amalthea, Heidrún is a nanny goat who provides endless sustenance. She eats the leaves of the world tree Yggdrasil and then lactates mead for Odin’s warrior dead at His hall in Asgard. This intoxicating, sacred mead never runs dry. Goats are important elsewhere in Norse mythology and lore. Thor, for example, has a strong affinity with goats -- to the extent that the Völuspá refers to Him as “the lord of the goats.” His chariot is driven by two goats, named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr (“teeth-barer” and “teeth-grinder,” respectively). These goats are consumed by Thor each night and revived each morning, perfectly whole (until, according to one myth, a boy unwittingly breaks one of the goats’ leg bones to suck out the marrow, leaving it wounded). Thor’s association with goats gives us some insight into the value and symbolism of goats in Germanic traditions. Thor brings storms and therefore rain, nourishing the land to make it fertile. He also is a protector of those who worship Him (note: He’s called “the warder of men” in the Völuspá), battling frost giants and monsters who endanger human life. If the Lord of the Goats is a protector and life-sustainer, then goats, too, must have these qualities.


Among those who worship Greek Gods, Pan is perhaps the most famous for His connection to goats: He is “the [G]od of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and companion of the nymphs.” Pan's worship began in Arcadia, a mountainous island region in the Mediterranean, and is depicted with a goat’s horns and lower half. He embodies and confers fertility in the land, animals, and people. Dionysus is also sometimes depicted wearing a goat skin, a symbol of rusticity and fertility, and received goats as sacrifice. Satyr plays, performed in worship of Dionysus, involved the actors wearing goat skins. Tragedies were also performed for Dionysus, and Classicists have argued that the word "tragedy" originated from the words tragos meaning "goat" and oidos meaning "song."

Goats of Winter Festivals

The wearing of goat skins in ritual brings to mind the Goat Festival of Skyros. During this festival, which occurs during the carnival season, celebrants march through towns wearing goat skin masks, furs, and large goat bells. They are often accompanied by human bride characters, played by men. This ritual wooing, and even marriage, of human women by animal spirits in ritual plays is found throughout Europe, in which a youth must battle a beast for the hand of a young woman, ultimately killing the beast. According to Elizabeth Wayland Barber, the death (and sometimes resuscitation) of the beasts is an analogical magical act to return fertility to the earth (140). The concept of animal brides is also found in tales such as "Beauty and the Beast," "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," and "The Hare's Bride.”


Goat images and goat-like spirits abound in Germanic winter traditions. In Scandinavia, straw Yule goats are constructed for Christmas and New Year celebrations (such as the Gävle Goatin Sweden) and friends go julebukking. Julebukking involves disguising oneself as a goat and traveling from door to door, singing carols in return for treats. Farther south around the Alps, communities celebrate Krampusnacht, the Night of Krampus on December 5. This night belongs to a satyr-like creature who serves as the antithesis of St. Nicklaus, doling out punishments to misbehaving children. He has a long tongue and enormous goat horns, and is covered in furs and bells. The Perchtenlauf features similar figures, but occurs later, after the New Year. Men in fearsome masks, horns, and furs parade down village streets, contrasting the “beautiful Perchten” who wear the community’s traditional costume. The enormous bells worn by the human/goat figures serve both apotropaic and transformative purposes, purifying the towns and spurring on the return of spring. They also often carry switches of birch. Birch is associated with youth, purification, and renewal, being an important element of Finnish and Russian sauna culture as well as spring and summer ritual traditions throughout Europe. The presence of birch and bells provides important clues about what these invoked goat spirits bring to communities in winter. While these figures look frightening, they bring gifts: renewal, protection, and a return of warmth and growth.


In the Alps, especially in the medieval period, witches are said to ride goats to their sabbaths. This is depicted in some art, including Dürer’s famous engraving of the witch riding a goat backwards. It also calls to mind the Norwegian fairy tale “Tatterhood,” the eponymous heroine of which apparently emerges from her mother’s womb riding a goat and bearing a wooden spoon. To me, the goat is best explained as Tatterhood’s fylgja, which is an interesting way of interpreting the goats ridden by other witches farther south. While Tatterhood is not well-loved by her mother, she (like Scotland's Kate Crackernuts) is fiercely protective of her family, especially her younger sister, whom she leads through danger to a happy ending (or, at least, the happiest ending storytellers of the past could imagine for women). Here again we find goats associated with protection, transformation, and good fortune.

Goats in Nature

All things considered, goats are clearly symbols of virility, fertility, strength, and renewal. But what is so special about goats in the fall and winter months? Goats have been domesticated for an estimated 10,000 years. Their bodies have served myriad needs for humans -- skins and fiber for warmth, meat, milk and cheese, and manure (an ancient source of fire fuel). They are also sturdy, durable, self-sufficient, and comparatively (to sheep and cattle) low-maintenance animals. Many breeds can handle rough terrain, limited and coarse food sources, and difficult temperatures much better than other livestock. They are durable animals, able to climb rock faces at seemingly impossible angles and persevere through the cold, which is what has made them such essential animals to humans throughout history. Who wouldn’t want to receive some of their power, which is potent even when all else is dormant or dead?


It’s really no wonder, then, that the cornucopia is a symbol of the hard labor and the gifts of the land over the growing season. It is both a symbol of the fertility that has been -- the fruits, vegetables, grains, and flowers harvested from the previous summer’s work -- but also, in the goat’s horn, the fertility that will be when spring returns. The goat spirits of winter, and the Gods affiliated with them, hold this fertility, keep it, and confer it through the winter to those who remember their power and celebrate them.