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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.

Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea (Jacob Jordaens, print)

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).

Demeter holding a Cornucopia

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.

The Garden of the Hesperides (Sir Frederic Leighton, 1892)

In the Greek view of the world, there was a tranquil garden of perpetual rosy twilight which was found at the sunset edge of all lands–so far west that the west came to an end.  The garden was inhabited by three nymphs of peerless beauty whose special task was to tend an apple tree in the middle of the garden.  The golden fruit of the tree would confer immortality upon anyone who ate one. But of course there was a catch.

This was the penultimate labor of Hercules: to bring back three of the apples of the Hesperides.  The tree was in the private garden of Hera herself and the apple tree was a wedding gift from Mother Earth to the queen of the gods.  Plucking the apples from the tree would bring instant death to any mortal, but the biggest problem of all was the garden’s true guardian, the dragon Ladon who was coiled around the apple tree.  As you might imagine, Ladon was one of Echidna’s offspring.  He is sometimes shown as a great python, other times as a more traditional dragon, and occasionally as a hundred-headed uber-dragon.

The Garden of Hesperides (Edward Burne-Jones, ca. 1870-1873)

Although dragons abound in Greek mythology, the snake-dragon curled around a sacred tree, seems to have arrived in Greek mythology from another canon altogether.  Scholars believe Ladon’s original form was the Semitic serpent god Lotan, or the Hurrian/Hittite serpent Illuyanka.  In fact, serpents/dragons wound around fruit trees are well-known in the three great monotheistic faiths of the present. In Greek mythology, Ladon only plays an active role in the story of Hercules 11th labor (and even then, the dragon’s role is curiously ambiguous).

Hercules and the Hesperides (Rubert Bunny, 1864 - 1947)

Hercules traveled through the Greek world having adventures, killing giants, and seeking the garden’s location.  It was during his search for the Garden of the Hesperides that he slew the Caucasian Eagle and freed Prometheus (who, in gratitude, told him what to expect at the garden of the Hesperides).  In order to obtain the apples, Hercules solicited the aid of the titan Atlas, who holds up the firmament.  Hercules assumed the burden of the heavens while immortal Atlas collected the apples. When Atlas betrayed Hercules and left the strongman holding the heavens, Hercules pretended to accept his fate–but he asked to adjust his lionskin first.  Once Atlas was holding the heavens again, Hercules picked up the apples and took them back to Eurystheus (who was rightly afraid of them, and gave them to Athena).  The fate of the dragon is a bit unclear.  In some versions Hercules kills him for good measure.  For example, in the story of Jason and the golden fleece, Ladon’s corpse is spotted by the Argonauts—the creature’s body is still heaving and trembling years after death while the heartbroken nymphs sob.  In other stories the dragon survives and, together with the nymphs, continues to look after the tree of life.

Because I can not resist, here are links to a very short and delightful comic strip consisting of a first, second, and third panel. The drawings contain mild nudity (which differs from that found in Lord Leighton’s painting above only in that the strip is contemporary). The creator, M.L. Peters, tried to add a feeling of fin de siècle illustration so as to give the comic punchline a deeper resonance, and I feel he succeeded admirably.  Additionally I love anchovies.

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