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What is a Cornucopia?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A cornucopia is a symbol of abundance and wealth. Traditionally, it is represented by a curved goat horn which overflows with grain and fruit. Modern cornucopias are often depicted as horn-shaped baskets filled with food, and this symbol is often associated with the harvest. This decorative device has a long and ancient history, with roots in Greek mythology.

According to legend, the god Zeus was nursed by a goat named Amalthea. In one version of the story, the young god accidentally broke off her horn, and felt guilty about it, so he returned it to her in enchanted form, declaring that the horn would be filled with whatever the holder desired. Other legends say that Amalthea broke her horn off herself, filling it with flowers and presenting it to Zeus. The Greeks believe that the Horn of Amalthea, as they called it, symbolized prosperity, since it could be endlessly filled with whatever the heart desired.

When the Romans were introduced to the concept, they adopted it as the cornu copiae, the "horn of plenty," using the device in their coins, statues, and works of art to represent abundance. Over time, the original Latin became corrupted into "cornucopia," and along the way, people began to associate the symbol of the overflowing horn with the harvest, and with plentiful amounts of something.

One interesting use of the cornucopia occurred in advertisements which were designed to entice settlers to North America. Depictions of cornucopias, rolling fields of grain, fruit trees, and other symbols of plenty were meant to appeal to people struggling with a hardscrabble existence. When settlers arrived, many discovered that the language and imagery on the posters was not exactly true to life.

In slang, people sometimes use the term "cornucopia" to describe a large volume of something, as in "there's a cornucopia of job opportunities there." This symbol also appears in many seasonal displays during the fall, especially at markets which stock food items. Harvest parades may also include a representation of the cornucopia, packed to the brim with a variety of foods. Many companies use the device in their logos, playing on associations with abundance among consumers.

It is not uncommon to see the cornucopia shape adopted for gift baskets during the holiday season, and some people use the device as a centerpiece at meals which commemorate the harvest. In America, for example, the cornucopia is strongly associated with Thanksgiving. Given the limited size of goat horns, the transition to horn-shaped baskets is perhaps not terribly surprising.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon953307 — On May 25, 2014

It is a beautiful thing to wish for your own personal "cornucopia." Eork at it, picture it in your mind, and see it happen for real.

By hangugeo112 — On Dec 02, 2010

This is an interesting cultural meme which seems to have trickled all the way down from Greek antiquity. The dogged pursuit of wealth and plenty was a distinguishing trait of all of the world's major empires and was used to drive the "American dream." This desire for a personal "cornucopia" is an ambition that drives many people to success and high-risk enterprises.

By Tufenkian925 — On Dec 01, 2010

It is interesting to note that the word for "corn," which is native to North America, came from this same root for "horn." "Horn" and "corn" both, in turn, derive from the same word in Proto-Indo-European.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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