Cornucopia

Looking into the Horn of Plenty

Aequitas holding scales and cornucopia
Aequitas holding scales and cornucopia. Wikipedia. Public Domain

The cornucopia or "cornu Copiae" is, literally, the horn of plenty, full of whatever you want!

Greek Origins

When Zeus was playing with the goat Amalthea (Amaltheia), one of his foster mothers, he accidentally broke off one of her horns. To atone for this, Zeus promised Amalthea that the horn would always be full of whatever fruits she desired. Not bad compensation!

Another tale of the horn's origin includes Heracles.

He fought with the Greek river god Achelous over Deianeira and broke the latter's horn off in the process. Achelous heaved a sigh and told this story in Ovid's , saying of Heracles, "Not yet content he laid his fierce right hand on my tough horn, and broke and tore it from my mutilated head. This horn, now heaped with fruits delicious and sweet-smelling flowers, the Naiads have held sacred from that hour, devoted to the bounteous goddess Plenty."

Some writers conflated this tory. Strabo notes in his Geography, "Some writers add, that this was the horn of Amaltheia, which Hercules broke off from the Achelous, and presented to Oeneus [father of Deianeira] as a bridal gift." According to Pseudo-Apollodorus in his Library, "He wrestled for her hand with Achelous, who assumed the likeness of a bull; but Hercules broke off one of his horns. So Hercules married Deianira, but Achelous recovered the horn by giving the horn of Amalthea in its stead.

Now Amalthea was a daughter of Haemonius, and she had a bull's horn, which, according to Pherecydes, had the power of supplying meat or drink in abundance, whatever one might wish."

Others say that the horn was a metaphor: Achelous was a river that Heracles diverted. "He prevented the river from overflowing its banks, by constructing mounds and by diverting its streams by canals, and by draining a large tract of the Paracheloitis, which had been injured by the river; and this is the horn of Amaltheia," says Strabo.

Roman Rendition

In Roman myth, the cornucopia became part of the regalia of goddess Copia, the personification of plenty. Other goddesses, including Fortuna and Pax, also held the cornucopia. A statue at ancient Smyrna in modern Turkey had a statue of Fortuna. Bupalos, the sculptor, was the first to depict Fortuna "with the heavenly sphere upon her head and carrying in one hand the horn of Amaltheia, as the Greeks call it, representing her functions to this extent," according to Pausanias in his Description of Greece.

The Cornucopia became a symbol of Fortuna and her bounty in Roman writing, as well. The fourth-century A.D. historian Ammianus Marcellinus writes of Emperor Julian in his heyday, "But Julian, elated by his success, now felt more than mortal aspirations, since he had been tried by so many dangers and now upon him, the undisputed ruler of the Roman world, propitious Fortune, as if bearing an earthly horn of plenty, was bestowing all glory and prosperity."

On coins, the goddess Abundantia (Abundance) was shown with the cornucopia. She's shown as a matron holding symbols of fertility, including the horn of plenty and ears of corn. That image kept going for more than a millennium and into the Renaissance, which favored classical motifs!

-Edited by Carly Silver