Ah yes, the cornucopia, a horn-shaped basket overflowing with fruit, grain, and vegetables. In recent times, it has been used as a symbol of harvest, wealth, abundance, and Thanksgiving. You’ve probably seen the cornucopia in grocery store displays, or arts and craft stores, or pictures hung around elementary school classrooms. If you grew up in some suburban California town like me, you might have even been forced to make your own cornucopia centerpiece for classroom decorations during Thanksgiving time.
But maybe you are thinking, Helena, we didn’t grow up in your creepy suburbia that celebrates Thanksgiving like that. The cornucopia that we know is from the YA series The Hunger Games, the sculpture that sits at the center of a death-filled arena where teenagers kill each other; so the fact that you were forced to make these as a child is weird. Okay, yes, it might have been strange. However, the cornucopias of Thanksgivings and abundant harvests are not so far removed from the cornucopias from The Hunger Games either.
The word, cornucopia, is actually from the Latin cornu copiae, meaning “the horn of plenty.” But the roots aren’t just based on the Latin language. The cornucopia actually has its origins in Greek and Roman mythology as well.
According to Greek legend, the titan Kronos decided to eat all of his children to avoid a prophecy that one of them would someday overthrow him. It was not the smartest idea. However, after watching her husband swallow all of her children, the titan Rhea got fed up with this attitude and tricked Kronos into swallowing a boulder rather than his latest son. While Kronos was still trying to eat a rock (again he wasn’t the smartest), Rhea hid baby Zeus on the island of Crete where he was cared for by Amalthea. Now, Amalthea may have been a nymph or a literal goat, but eventually, baby Zeus breaks off her horn to make the cornucopia and uses her hide to make the Aegis, a thunder-shield that he uses to battle his father. So maybe Kronos was right to fear his children. But according to myth, the horn provided food and nourishment without end, becoming known as the horn of plenty.
Roman mythology provides a different take. According to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the river god Achelous loses one of his horns in battle with the one and only Hercules, while fighting for the right to marry princess Deianeira. Some say that the Naiads, Achelous’ daughters, attempt to console him by filling his broken horn with fruit and vegetables. After all, isn’t food always the way to fix a broken heart? Others say that Hercules presented the broken horn, overflowing with fruits and vegetables as a gift to Deianeira. Yikes.
Regardless, the cornucopia was such a popular image that it was associated with many Greek and Roman deities including Demeter/Proserpine, Tyke/Fortuna, and Hades/Plutus. It became one of the few pagan symbols that maintained its relevance even after Christianity spread through Europe and adopted it.
Similarly, the cornucopia remains relevant today. In The Hunger Games, author Suzanne Collins draws from a lot of Roman and Greek symbolism. Therefore, it is no surprise that the symbol of the cornucopia would find itself in the center of the Hunger Games’ arena, where teenagers fight to the death. On one hand, it is possible to argue that Collins subverts the existing symbolism of abundance and a good harvest into one of violence and brutality. The irony forces readers to recognize how the symbol, found in second-grade classrooms and William-Sonoma’s Thanksgiving displays, becomes the center point of a bloodbath. However, when we look back at Hercules’ wrestling of Achelous and Zeus’ fashioning of the Aegis, the mythology suggests that the cornucopia’s origins have always been based on acts of violence and war.
It’s tragic that the symbol of the cornucopia is brought full circle outside of fiction as well. The decorations of cornucopias that I find in grocery stores, window displays, and schools are shown to celebrate Thanksgiving. It feeds into another story that I was also told as a child, while making those cornucopia displays in school. It’s the narrative of “the first Thanksgiving,” a feel-good story about Native Americans and Puritan colonists coming together to celebrate surviving the year. But in reality, that story has been used to ignore the genocide and brutality against Native Americans, and how indigenous and Native American groups continue to fight in an ongoing struggle today.
But until we can recognize at face-value and destroy all of those myths, including the myth of the “first Thanksgiving,” the cornucopia remains a slightly sinister reminder of how wealth and abundance are often taken by force and violence.
Now you know.
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