November 26, 2012

Origins of the cornucopia


---- — Most of us are familiar with a cornucopia, also called a horn of plenty. 

In fact, the word is derived from the Latin “cornu,” meaning horn, and “copia,” meaning plenty. It symbolizes harvest, abundance, prosperity, nurturance and sharing. Many of us use the cornucopia for a fall decoration in our homes. Do you know where this symbol originated? It did not start with the Pilgrims but actually centuries earlier.

The best-known explanation of how this image came to be is through a story from Greek mythology. The legend says that Zeus, ruler of Greek gods and the spiritual father of gods and mortals, was sent as an infant to Mount Ida on the island of Crete to be kept hidden from his father, Cronus, who intended to devour him. He was left in the care of a number of divine attendants, including the goat Amalthea, whose name means “nourishing goddess.” The goat Amalthea fed Zeus with her milk. Having great strength even as a child, Zeus accidentally broke off one of Amalthea’s horns while playing with her. Feeling terrible about this, Zeus promised her that her horn would provide unending nourishment for all time.

The horn of plenty became a staple of several Greek and Roman deities, especially those associated with harvest and physical or spiritual abundance. It has long been depicted in works of art as a real goat’s horn filled with grains and fruit and placed in the center of a table full of elaborate platters of food. In modern times, though, it has morphed from an animal horn to a horn-shaped wicker basket overflowing with fruit, vegetables, nuts, honey and flowers.

Idaho’s state flag and seal pictures two cornucopias, and North Carolina’s state seal features the figure Liberty standing and the figure Plenty holding a cornucopia. The coat of arms of Columbia, Panama, Peru and Venezuela, as well as the state of Victoria, Australia, also feature the cornucopia. The image of rolling fields and a cornucopia was even used to lure settlers to the New World.

Interestingly enough, there is a mushroom, Craterellus cornucopiodes, commonly called the black trumpet, which bears quite a resemblance to a cornucopia, hence its name. 

And did you know that the first waffle cone debuted at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was referred to as the “World’s Fair Cornucopia” because of its shape and its plentiful amount of ice cream?

If you are thinking of using a cornucopia as a holiday decoration, you may want to fill it with pinecones, nuts and other bounty that is plentiful in the North County at this time of year. If you are concerned that an uninvited insect may skitter across your table from these natural materials, put them in a plastic bag and then into the freezer for a few hours. 

You may even want to bring these natural items to my “Making Wreaths with Natural Materials” workshop on Dec. 1. Preregistration is necessary, and space is limited. Call the office at 561-7450 for more information, or email me at

Jolene Wallace is the horticulture program assistant for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. Contact her at 561-7450 or