The word cornucopia is derived from the Latin Cornu Copiae, meaning “horn of plenty.” Its origins go back to antiquity and center around the mythological nymph, Amalthea, who was one of the foster mothers of Zeus. As the story goes, Amalthea, who was supposedly a goat, was playing with Zeus one day when he broke one of her horns off. He felt so bad that he returned it with special powers that granted any wish that the holder desired. This was the origin of the cornucopia as a symbol of a horn bearing fruits and flowers.
The cornucopia also accompanied depictions of Fortuna, the goddess who personified good luck. Like justice, Fortuna was blind and governed the Wheel of Life. One of the most popular stories set to music by Guillaume de Machaut was the medieval lyric, Remede de Fortune.
It seems that the cornucopia has always produced a bounty of one sort or another. Depictions vary, however. Earlier we mentioned fruits and flowers coming out of the horn, but this is in relatively stark contrast to today’s depictions which are much more varied and perhaps more abundant.
The cornucopia has also been used as a political symbol and can be found on the flags of two American states, as well as the coat of arms of a number of Central and South American countries.
It has been appropriated as a powerful symbol of prosperity.
It is easy to see that, while the principal meaning of the cornucopia is one of prosperity and abundance, its ancient association as a symbol of fertility was a natural development; the horn perhaps suggesting the shape of a womb.
The story of the Virgin Mary and the many writings praising her fertility come to mind; as well as Biblical depictions of the womb as a fertile vessel.
In America, the cornucopia has come to be associated with Thanksgiving. Depictions usually have the horn overflowing with all kinds of fruit and vegetables such as corn, apples, squash, grapes, pumpkins, and so forth. The cornucopia is also a subtle reminder of early America whose settlers depended on a good harvest and prosperity for their survival. This can be seen in the many songs of praise and thanksgiving from the period which have come down to us.
Our featured release of the week is aptly titled “Cornucopia.” It is a program of music for horn and strings by composers such as Michael Haydn, Carl Stamitz, and Mozart, among others. Horn player Richard Serphinoff leads the ensemble in a Focus label recording.