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The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of harvest abundance. It is commonly represented as a woven spiral basket overflowing with fruit, grains, vegetables, and other agricultural products. In America it is one of the symbols of Thanksgiving time (second only to the magnificent turkey). The wicker basket stuffed with fruits has become such a familiar image, that it is easy to overlook the Greco-Roman roots of the horn of plenty.
According to Greek legend, the cornucopia is the horn of Amalthea, the goat which served as foster mother to Zeus. In the benign version of the myth, young Zeus, unaware of his own strength, accidentally broke the horn off of the goat while he was playing with her. In the darker version, he slaughtered the goat when he reached manhood. From her hide he fashioned his impenetrable aegis. He gave her horn to the nymphs who had raised him, and this horn provided a magical eternal abundance of farm-raised food. In memory of her generosity, he set her image in the stars as the constellation Capricorn. There is yet another version of the cornucopia myth which Hercules broke the horn off of a river god and this became the original horn of plenty.
Whatever its origin, the cornucopia remained a part of the classical pantheon. It is most frequently seen in the hands of Ceres/Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and grains. In Roman iconography the cornucopia was sometimes an attribute of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and of the underworld god Pluto (who controlled the ground and thus was responsible for the gifts of the harvest).
I like the Hercules/river-god myth because it reflects on how important water is to agriculture, but I greatly prefer the myth of Zeus and his foster-mother which seems to embody the moral quandaries (and the promise of civilization) which are inherent in agriculture. The story—like that of Cain and Abel–hints at the replacement of hunting with herding and farming (indeed goats were the original domesticated animal). Some cornucopias are now made of baked goods which makes the symbolic transition even more apparent. The horn of plenty is an admirable symbol of humankind’s fundamental dependency on agriculture–which lies at the root of our civilization and our prosperity. I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.
If you wanted to build a vacation home with a truly spectacular view, one of the possibilities you might consider is Jupiter’s moon Amalthea. Discovered in 1892 by the American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard (who also discovered Barnard’s star) Amalthea was the first Jovian moon discovered by someone other than Galileo Galilei. Amalthea is the largest inner satellite of Jupiter and from its surface Jupiter would appear to take up 46.5 degrees of the sky (from the horizon to directly overhead is 90 degrees). Amalthea is in synchronous rotation around Jupiter and so the planet would always appear in the same part of the sky (provided you were on the right part of the moon). From Amalthea the sun would disappear behind the planet’s bulk for an hour and a half each revolution.
The 66 known Jovian moons are largely named after the lovers and children of Jupiter/Zeus, however Amalthea is an exception: it is named for Jupiter’s step-mother the goat/nymph Amalthea who fed and cared for the young god as he quickly grew to adulthood and whose impervious skin was fashioned into the aegis of the king of the god. The name Amalthea was used for the moon almost since it was discovered but was only formally adopted by the International Astronomical Union in 1975.
Amalthea is a strange and mysterious moon which perplexes astronomers. Its irregularly shape is somewhat like a potato and it is covered with deep craters and tall mountains. The surface of the moon is deep red in color (in fact Amalthea is the reddest object in the solar system) however weird bright patches of green appearing on the mountain slopes–the nature of which is unknown. The moon appears to be formed of ice and rubble, but if had formed where it now is during the early days of Jupiter, it would have melted. The moon must have formed elsewhere and been captured by Jupiter—a recent paper speculated that it was originally a Trojan asteroid. Since Amalthea is made of ice and heterogeneous rubble scientists are perplexed at why gravity has not rearranged its into a more spherical shape. Since Amalthea is so close to Jupiter it’s orbit is decaying and it will one day fall into the gas giant (so you may want to get really good insurance on the vacation house I mentioned in the first paragraph).
According to archaeologists, the first agricultural animals were goats, which humankind domesticated 11,000 years ago. Curiously, the Greek myth concerning the childhood of Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon, reflects this ancient connection. Having tricked Cronus (the rapacious father of Zeus) into swallowing a stone instead of her infant son, Rhea, Zeus’ mother, was naturally unable to raise her child. She sent the baby into hiding on Crete where he was raised by nymphs and suckled on the milk of the divine goat, Amalthea.
The Greeks themselves seem puzzled by Amalthea. While most ancient authors wrote about her as a supernatural goat tended by nymphs, a few seem to think she was herself a nymph/goddess. Classical mythology contains a few other ambiguous divinities who were simultaneously animals and their magical tenders (the Crommyonian Sow for example is another such figure) and it is not unreasonable to think they might be borrowed deities which came from more ancient religions now lost to us. Being a goat-based maternal goddess figure from Crete, Amalthea certainly makes sense in this context. Minoan culture predated classical Greek civilization by thousands of years: its religion revolved around fertility goddesses, horned altars, and livestock.
Whatever the case, Zeus was tenderly raised by the magical goat on her supernatural milk and he swiftly grew to mighty adulthood. Then, when he was ready to begin his war on the titans, he killed Amalthea, skinned her, and fashioned her hide into his impregnable aegis–a symbol of his omnipotent authority second only to the lightning bolt. He broke off Amalthea’s magic horn and made it into the cornucopia (which forever provides an endless bounty of food) and gave it to the nymphs. He then hung his foster mother among the stars as the constellation Capra and set off to make war on the titans.
The story sits jarringly with modern conscience but I suspect it resonated with herdspeople, who must sometimes take an unsentimental view of their livestock. With our endless supply of meat and milk from factory agriculture and all of our leather luxury goods we might be a bit presumptuous to judge Zeus (whose carnal appetite, jealous persona, and rages have always struck me as an oversized portrait of human temperament anyway).
Indeed, I am telling this story just before Earthday, that most uncomfortable of holidays, for a reason. It strikes me that humankind is well represented by Zeus in the brutal tale above. We sprang quickly to whatever uneasy mastery we enjoy thanks to keen and methodical exploitation of the natural world (not least the domesticated animals and plants we rely on). We ourselves are animals (chordates, mammals, primates, hominids, humans) an undeniable part of nature, but we seem bent on consuming or altering every living system in our mad quest for godhood. The real question we should ask for Earthday is whether this is a worthwhile quest? If so can we pursue it more responsibly? Could we even stop if we chose to? The answers are not necessarily happy or easy ones.