For good reason, the cornucopia is – along with turkeys and Pilgrims – one of the obvious symbols of the Thanksgiving holiday. Also known as the horn of plenty, the decorative hollow horn or shaped wicker basket, filled with fruit, vegetable and other goodies, is meant to symbolize the bounty, plenty, or blessings (originally from a harvest) that makes Thanksgiving, well, truly a day for giving thanks.
However, much like the holiday itself (whose American origins can be traced back to 1619 Virginia – sorry Plymouth – and even possibly Leiden in the Netherlands), there’s more to today’s word than you may initially think.
Starting with the word itself, cornucopia’s origin can be traced back to the Late Latin cornucopia, which was a “modernised” form of cornu copiae, literally meaning ‘horn of plenty’.
In literature, the first mention of the word can be found in Robert Greene’s 1592 collection of Poems, where he writes in A Maiden’s Dream about: “[Hospitality] With her cornucopia in her fist.” Further cementing the association of our term with abundance (as well as introducing the fork to England), Coryat’s Crudities, the 1611 account of the travels of Thomas Coryat, mentions: “Fertile territories replenished with a very Cornucopia of all manner of commodities.”
Obviously, as can be seen from our word’s origin as well as the understanding of its first uses, this was already a widely understood term that didn’t necessarily need explaining. This prior knowledge of the term (as well as its origin) can be found in Greco-Roman mythology. The most plausible myth involves the broken off horn of a goat (the nurturing nymph Amaltheia, technically) which was given the ability to provide unending nourishment by Zeus, who, as an infant hiding from his devouring father Kronus, was nursed with the goat’s milk. Another well-known myth has the cornucopia being one of the horns of the river god Achelous which was torn off by Heracles/Hercules while the two wrestled. Though the two myths explain the creation of the cornucopia, Greeks and Romans also utilized it as representative of Gaia (the goddess of the earth), Plutus (the god of wealth), Fortuna (the Roman goddess of luck), Abundantia and Annona (Roman personifications of abundance and the actual grain supply to the city of Rome), even Hades, ruler of the underworld and giver of material and spiritual wealth, typically in shown holding a cornucopia.
No matter the origin or association, it seems like we have always had a cornucopia of blessings, which is always something to be thankful for.