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.

imageAchelous 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.

imageBaltimore 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.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 11/27 at 07:49 PM


The cornicopia at the Bellagio is fantastic.  The garden also includes fall garden plants (mums and coleus).  A water wheel and a “live” tree (reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings) round out the design.  There are real trees, too, like the Rotundiloba Sweetgum.

Posted by Georgia on 11/28 at 01:38 PM
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