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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 I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.
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.
When I went to Washington every summer as a child, I always visited the National Museum of Natural History, an organization which I still wholeheartedly love. Every year I was fascinated by the tableau above, a (real) human skeleton struggling with a recalcitrant skeletal goat. This curious sculpture commemorates the domestication of the first farm animals. According to the best available archaeological and genetic evidence the first creature to fall under human agricultural sway was indeed Capra aegagrus hircus, the goat.*
To quote K. Kris Hirst, “Archaeological data suggest two distinct places of domestication: the Euphrates river valley at Nevali Çori, Turkey (11,000 bp), and the Zagros Mountains of Iran at Ganj Dareh (10,000).” Genetic evidence has confirmed that modern domestic goats descend from the Anatolian bezoar ibex, Capra aegagrus. The bezoar ibex, or wild goat, lives in flocks of 50 or so individuals (although flocks can become much larger and range up to 500 if conditions are right). It ranges in size from 150 to 300 pounds and can live up to 25 years on just about any sort of vegetation. It goes without saying that wild goats are clever, strong, and nimble (and have long sharp horns jutting from their thick skulls).
Mesolithic hunter/gatherers were nomads who followed wild game and gathered seasonally available berries, seeds, and nuts. It seems likely that the first herders already lived in tandem with goats before becoming herders. I wonder how the hunter gatherers came to realize that they could take over the flocks and make the animals go where they wanted. Whatever provoked the epiphany, these original animal farmers must have had plenty of hard-headed stubbornness in order to subordinate the unruly wild bezoar goats!
By domesticating the goat, they acquired most of the benefits of domesticated animals all at one go. Goat’s milk is delightfully potable and can be made into cheese and yogurt. Goat meat is delicious (and is still the meat most often consumed by a majority the world’s human population). The renewable hair of goats can be woven or spun into textiles, while its hide makes soft and durable leather. The horns and bones of goats are admirable for tool making and decorative arts while its hooves can be made into gelatin or glue. Even dried goat dung can be burned as fuel. The goat also can be trained for draft work and made to pull a sledge, cart, or plough (although this probably wasn’t terribly obvious in a world which lacked grain farming and the wheel).
Although they were the first animals to fall under human agricultural sway, goats have not fallen so deeply under our thrall as most other farm animals. Goat herding remains goat herding—the animals do much better when they have pastures to graze in. To quote Wikipedia, “stall-fed goat rearing involves extensive upkeep and is seldom commercially viable”. So goats are not raised in factory farms like cows, sheep, and poultry. Additionally domestic goats, like their wild forbears, are clever animals with a natural gift for climbing, jumping, and escaping. Feral goats revert quickly to type and can thrive in most environments. There are wild goat populations dotted around the world in places such as Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii, Ireland, Great Britain, California, Indonesia, and the Galapagos (among others).
*I’m not counting dogs: wolves joined up with us many millennia before we domesticated anything else. Our best friends have been with us since the remote depths of the ice age when we were nobodies. They’ll be with us when we blast off for the stars or fall down dead in the toxic dust.