Human Flower Project
Horn of Plenty
The first cornucopia wasn’t a centerpiece or a harvest emblem—but a second-place lover’s trophy, filled with flowers.
Mega-cornicopia, the Bellagio, Las Vegas, Nevada
Photo: Images of Las Vegas
If you see a cornucopia this Thanksgiving, it’ll likely be a woven basket resting on its side and pretending to spill little pimply gourds and walnuts onto the table (or into the lobby of a casino). Nice, and as a centerpiece, it has the virtue of decorating horizontally, so you can also see the person sitting across from you at dinner.
The original cornu (horn) copia (plentiful), however, didn’t recline. It stood upright, more like a tuba, and contained flowers. With no disrespect to the orange and brown and yellow arrangements ornamenting the season, we’d like, in the spirit of plenty, to offer some variety.
Achelous with his cornucopia, by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, Palace at Versailles
Photo: Wally G
The original cornucopia was a lover’s consolation prize. Hercules and the river god Achelous both were taken with the nymph Deianeira. Achelous changed himself into a bull, hoping to get the upper hoof in this contest, but Hercules took him on and triumphed, breaking off the river god’s horn. The Naiades, a group of mermaid-types who had been rooting for their fellow sea-creature, retrieved Achelous’s horn and filled it with flowers.
A feminine horn comes from Amalthea, a pre-Olympian goat-goddess, who was said to have nursed Zeus himself. Even as an infant, the sky God didn’t know his own strength. In play he broke off Amalthea’s horn, then remorsefully returned it to her as a magic vessel that would be filled with whatever its possessor desired. The cup that always runs over, the bowl that never empties….
In some mythologies, Achelous somehow comes into possession of Amalthea’s magic cornucopia and, after tangling with Hercules, must trade it back to her for his own broken horn.
Baltimore album quilt
Photo: John Glenfield
In art of the Roman empire, the cornucopia is wielded not just by gods and goddesses but by the emperor and his family. Here is Livia done up as the goddess Fortuna/Ceres, she who confers abundance (or deprivation).
We also have run across many double cornucopias, old and new—a Phoenician coin c. 100 BCE, and the 19th century seal of Venezuela. We’re not sure if this symbolizes extra-superabundance, greed, or just an impulse for symmetry.
Whatever you have this Thanksgiving, we hope that it’s enough – and that enough can be plenty.