Thursday, October 10, 2019

Origin of the Horn of Plenty

One of the traditional Thanksgiving decorations is the Cornucopia or Horn of Plenty. The English word is derived from the Latin  cornu meaning horn and copia meaning plenty. It has become a symbol of abundance and funnel shaped baskets appear on Thanksgiving tables across the country with fall gourds, squashes and Indian corn - none of which ends up on the Thanksgiving table, and it is highly doubtful most people could even identify these nutritious foods let alone eat them. Experts give credit to the origins of this symbol to interpretations of ancient Greek and Roman myths invoking the struggle of the gods and goddesses for power. Just as the Pilgrims are given credit for the first Thanksgiving, credit for the symbol is also given to the English settlers of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. However, I prefer another myth as the origin of this symbol.

Around the 11th Century the nomadic tribes of the Eastern Woodlands Indians of North America were facing extinction due to famine and endless war for control of the abundant virgin forests and the riches found there. An Onondaga chief named Ayowenta ( Hiawatha) sat on the banks of Lake Oneida in what is now the Great Lakes Region of upstate New York grieving the loss of his family and the condition of the few members of the tribe that remained. He looked up to see a vision of one who would become known as The Peacemaker who convinced Ayowenta to travel with him to bring a message of peace and prosperity to the tribes by coming together in peace. Six tribes joined this Confederacy called the Iroquois Confederacy that set forth a government that would bring peace and prosperity to the region. The six tribes joined in a loose league of friendship that was based on these principles:

  • Land stewardship instead of ownership.
  • Empowerment of women.
  • Consensus to settle arguments instead of warfare.
  • Setting aside public lands to be used by all the tribes with the basic principle of take only what you need and leave the land better than you found it.
Living in this way, the Confederacy became the most powerful and prosperous group in North America at that time. Although not all tribes joined the Confederacy, principles of land use and sharing were followed by most of those groups who were farmers. As the culture developed many myths about creation and God developed and were passed onto the children of the tribe. One of these myths concerned the Great Mystery (Father Sky) who inhabited the heavens above the clouds and who worked in harmony with Mother Earth to keep a continual supply of food for the people. 

The Great Mystery created an opening in the clouds in the shape of an upside down tornado. The vacuum created pulled great quantities of food that spilled out of the opening onto the ground below. The belief was that this funnel had to be continually emptied to keep the supply flowing. Therefore, at the Harvest Celebrations food was carried into the center of the village in baskets that were emptied and put into the great storehouses to be used by everyone. Prayers of gratitude, smoking ceremonies and burning of sage were also a part of the ceremony. Perhaps the Pilgrims took part in one of the Harvest Celebrations at the end of their first year in Plymouth Colony during which over half of the original settlers died from exposure and starvation. If the indigenous people had not welcomed them in peace and taught them how to farm, the Pilgrims could have easily been defeated. Despite what the experts say about the origins of Thanksgiving and its customs attributing these to the Pilgrims, I believe these customs came more from the Native Americans. You already know the "rest of the story."