The Horn of Plenty it is also called, for in ancient times, when gods walked the earth and magic was as common as pebbles are now, it provided a never-ending supply of fruit and grain.
Rare is the bard who knows and can sing of the Cornucopia’s true legend. They would sing that after his victory against the Titans, who ruled the earth before him and his kin, Zeus was in such high spirits, in such a mood to celebrate his triumph, that he turned to one of the great golden rams who served to draw his chariot and he broke off one of their horns. With his godly powers, he hollowed the horn and commanded it to produce fruits and flowers and nuts and grain for all the gods and all mortals on the earth to eat and enjoy. For Zeus had just become king of thunder and lightning and sky. King of the heavens.
And he celebrated in heaven and he celebrated on the earth. Finally he ascended to Mount Olympus, a high mountain on which he and his fellow gods would make their home and from which they would rule over the heavens, the earth, the seas, and the underworld. He took the Horn with him and laid it at the table of the gods. Ever it spilled forth with plenty no matter how much was taken from it. And so Zeus showed that his table was always a table of feasting.
Hunger is ever a plague that haunts even the richest of realms on earth. After Zeus left the earth, men began to speak of the Horn of Plenty. Legends and songs were told of it. Of gold and marble it was and the size of a dozen horses. And so it was, for Zeus’s golden rams were giants. The king of sky and heaven had hollowed it once, it was said, and never was it hollow again. For when the fruits and flowers and nuts and grain that the Horn provided were taken, it spilled forth with more, and more, and always more. The people sang of the Horn. They longed for it.
And Zeus saw their longing. And he understood it, for many an appetite did the god himself have. So Zeus visited the god of the forge, the blacksmith Hephaestus, and asked the god to forge a horn out of gold the same size and shape as the Cornucopia. And he visited the goddess of the harvest and had her fill the golden horn with fruit and grain. He had the messenger of the gods carry the golden horn down to the greatest temple built to the honor the Olympian gods. And there the golden horn was left.
The priests of the temple found the golden horn and declared themselves and their realm blessed by the gods. They sanctified the food from the golden horn and doled out the food generously, for they expected more and more. But the golden horn only produced fruit and grain when the harvest goddess filled it. And this she only did in the time of each crop and harvest and reaping. When the priests realized this, they prayed to the gods for the real Horn of Plenty after they thanked the gods for the golden horn, which they believed was the Cornucopia’s predecessor. They accepted the gifts of the golden horn at each harvest. And so it was for many years. Zeus was satisfied. And Hera, his wife and queen, saw that he was satisfied.
One day, Hera challenged Zeus to give the real Cornucopia to his beloved mortals. She was certain that kingdoms would tear each other part, men would betray their brothers, women would sell their children, as they all would do for any treasure from the heavens. But Zeus boasted of his faith in humanity. They would share the bounty. Why would they not? The gifts of the Horn were everlasting. There would be plenty for all.
The king and queen of heaven were to find that they were both right.
One night, as the priests of the great temple slept, the messenger god flew down to the temple bearing the true Cornucopia. He switched the real Horn with the golden horn and flew back up to heaven. Zeus gave the golden horn, blessed by temple priests, to his great golden ram to replace the horn that was taken. Hephaestus welded the horn onto the ram’s head with no pain to the beast. And when the priests of the great temple woke, they soon learned that their hopes had come true. They had been given the Cornucopia. Great and loud was their praise of Olympus and the mighty Zeus.
Smug was the look on the sky god’s face as he showed his queen he was right. But the Horn did not long remain at the temple after word spread among the civilized worlds that it was on earth. The Horn was stolen before the next full moon rose in the sky.
After that, the Horn seemed to reappear here and there as civilizations rose and fell. Those who possessed the Horn were able to feed their people and bolster their realm during times of famine and dearth. But there was always someone who coveted the Horn. And realms who were enemies did not share their bounty. The Horn of Plenty would be stolen as a prize many times, and it would be used as a weapon many times. For the kingdom that had the Horn could feed its armies even if they salted and ruined all the good soil in their own land as well as the surrounding lands.
Hera was the smug one then. Though the sky god had a temper, he could have born his queen’s taunting. What he could not bear was how his gift had been abused, how the Horn that should have ushered times of love and frivolity and cheer, the Horn that should have united his beloved mortals, was instead so misused as a means for mortals to divide themselves. Finally, Zeus in a fit of rage raised his arm until white-hot lightning crackled in his hand and brightened all of Olympus. He hurled the thunderbolt down to the earth and destroyed the Horn of Plenty.
When he calmed down and realized what he had done, Zeus sent down the messenger god, to recover the broken pieces of the Horn. Most of the pieces were swept up by the god Hermes, the fastest being in all creation, who carried them up to the Olympian Mount. But Hermes, while fleet of foot, was not as sharp of eye as he should have been. He missed three tiny shards. They might have been found and claimed by the gods but for the sacrifice of the great golden ram of Zeus. The noble beast presented himself before the king of the gods and bowed before Zeus, tipping first his natural horn. He looked up at the god and Zeus understood. He broke the second horn and commanded it produce fruit and flowers and nuts and grains. And so it did. And so was the Cornucopia restored to heaven. And the great golden ram was gifted with another golden horn made in the forge of Hephaestus. And the first broken Horn was laid aside and forgotten.
Though the Horn had been much coveted, the shards of its remains lay where they were for three days. When Zeus’s thunderbolt struck, it had not just destroyed the Horn, it had killed the king who owned it and all his kin and court. All feared to tread in the spot where Zeus had hurled all his rage. All save one, the court’s magician, who had been away when the others were struck down. The magician picked up the shards and dared to hide them from the gods by turning them into stone. Two were small, they could only be called pebbles. But one piece was big enough to fit in the fist of a child.
Zeus was not fooled by the magician’s illusion. But he was curious, as he was always curious, what the mortal would do. And so he watched.
One day, the magician was walking through a village. He saw, as he saw in almost every village and town he visited, beggars in the street, begging for food. For some, he had no pity, for they begged because they were lazy and slovenly. And they begged so loudly and rudely that any who walked that way ignored all the beggars. But some of the beggars, the crippled, the old, and the young, for those the magician had great pity.
He wondered if the shards of the Cornucopia could provide food as it once had when the Horn was whole. He tried spells on the shards. He tried chants. He tried prayers. Then one day, he realized the problem. A god’s powers could make something from nothing. But the godly power in the Horn was broken. It could no longer make something from nothing. But perhaps it could still make something from something. The magician placed a small rock on a table. Then he placed one of the shards on the rock. Before he could utter a word, the rock changed. It transformed. In to a piece of brown bread.
The magician smiled and held the bread. It was still warm. He cautiously tasted the bread and it tasted as bread should taste. He waited a night and a day, expecting the bread to turn back to rock in his stomach, but it never did. So he tried touching the shards to a great many things. When placed on a rock, the shards could make the stone turn into bread. When placed in a tub of filthy water, the water cleared and became drinkable. When placed on a patch of grass, the grass became leafy vegetables.
There were limits to the size of the object that could be transformed. That was why his table had never transformed the many times he had set the shard of Horn on it. And the stone did not work on the living. And he found that if he tried to stretch the stones’ power too far, everything would turn back its original form. The stone could read his intention. It gave him plenty when he meant to share it in the village. But when he only meant to eat for himself, it would not let him transform as much. The shards gave plenty so far as hunger was sated. If satiety became gluttony, then all would turn back. So greed, it seemed, was the counter to the magic of the shards.
The magician gave one shard, a small pebble, to a noble king. He entrusted the king with using the shard and distributing its bounty. A king could reach more people than a mere magician. At first all was well. The king used the pebble to feed his people. But he was so fascinated by it that he wondered what would happen if he placed the stone on some of the rich foods already at his table. He tried it one night and found that the pebble turned the food into delicacies the likes of which he had never tasted. The king did this only once and put the pebble away. He even skipped a meal to assure that the pebble’s magic did not reverse itself.
All was well, until he told his advisor and the queen about what he had done. The queen disapproved and suggested that the pebble be kept where all could keep a watch on it, so none would be tempted to do what the king had done. But the king’s advisor was intrigued. And the king remembered the taste of the delicacies. It was harder for him to deny himself after that. His greed got the better of him. He used the pebble again to make a merry feast for himself. And the power of that one tiny shard of the Cornucopia was stretched too thin. The pebble crumbled to dust before the king, and everything that was transformed turned back to what it was. The people had been eating the transformed food for days. People woke with bellies full of rocks. Thousands died. And the court had the king’s head for what he had done.
Zeus watched from above. He watched the magician.
The magician was horrified at what he had wrought by trusting the poor king, who was noble but weak against temptations. But still there was hunger in the land. The magician decided to give the second tiny shard, also shaped like a pebble, to a person who was as opposite to the once-noble king as could be.
A child. A poor hungry girl that the magician saw on the street. One of the very beggars whom the magician had longed to help. Her father had died, leaving a widow who had no trade to sell and five starving children, the girl being the youngest. The child was young, but bright. He showed her how to use the tiny pebble to feed herself and her family. The girl fed her family first and then her village. She grew more and more generous as the years went by.
Zeus watched the magician as the magician watched the girl, content that he chose well the second time. She was quite a young child when he found her, so several years later, she is still a child. Her mother had sewn the pebble into a necklace that the girl wore around her neck. People didn’t know about the stone. The magician told the girl to keep the pebble secret. People only knew that the girl could turn objects into food. Her village may have been content with what she gave them to supplement their harvests and see them through scarce times, but the leaders from the other villages in the county banded together and visited the girl’s village.
Stories had spread of the magical girl whose touch made food. That food, it seemed, was making its way into the other villages and disrupting trade. People were not paying for grain and vegetables provided by the nobility when they could get such food for free from the girl’s village. The leaders wanted to bring the girl to the county’s chief town, so they could better oversee and administer the food that she produced. The girl was innocent. She thought it a wonderful idea, though her mother was suspicious and warned her daughter to be wary.
Sure enough, though the girl was not herself corrupted by the pebble, those around her were. They used it and they used her, not to create too much food, or extravagant food, but to assure there wasn’t plenty. The pebble withered from disuse, a thing the magician had not foreseen. But so did the girl wither and die, for she had been linked to the pebble.
Twice the magician had failed. And so he locked up the third shard, the biggest one. The one that was big enough to feed an entire kingdom. He hoped that it too would wither and perhaps return to the heavens or perhaps just vanish. Whenever he saw the hungry, he would regret his choice, but then he would remind himself of the noble king who fell and the innocent girl who withered, all because the blessing of plenty had soured and turned into a curse of excess and the curse of scarcity.
Zeus pitied the magician for his failed good intentions. For he recognized himself in the magician. But he thought it all the better that the power of the Cornucopia vanish from the earth until a day perhaps when mortals could learn to use it wisely. He turned his gaze away from the magician and cast them elsewhere.
The magician hoped to leave behind the legacy of ending hunger in his realm, but as that was not to be, he decided to take on an apprentice and then another to learn his trade and take over for his good works, helping others with potions and illusions.
After many years, the magician died. In the notes he left behind, his two apprentices learned of the stone that sat in a secret chest. The common-looking stone that was actually a shard of the great Cornucopia. They learned of all that had happened and why the magician had locked the stone away and how the hoped it would wither from disuse.
The apprentices found the stone. It had not withered away. It pained them that their master had carried into death the failure and worse the guilt. They argued over whether or not they should leave it locked up. They discussed how they might be able to safely use the stone, the one remaining shard of Horn. They knew what the magician would have wanted them to do, be the keepers of the stone and do nothing with it. But they also knew that they were apprentices no longer. They were magicians in their own rights now and they had to decide what to do with the stone.
Finally, they both agreed that it was worth using the stone to end hunger in their realm. But they needed a plan to assure that what happened before did not happen again. To assure that no one person or entity ever controlled the stone, including themselves. That people or nations did not fight to possess the stone. That people did not stop growing grain and vegetables and become dependent on the stone.
The apprentices—now clever magicians—cast a spell on the stone. To prevent themselves from being tempted by the stone, they cast the spell together and bound it so tightly that if any other magician or sorcerer, witch or wizard tried to remove it, it would take a lifetime and even so if they managed to unbind the stone, it would be destroyed. For the clever magicians knew that the weapon that had shattered the Horn of Plenty was a thunderbolt. So they forged a spell to summon lightning to the stone should their protection be removed. And the protection itself? It was a vanishing spell. If any abused the power of the stone, it would vanish and reappear elsewhere, maybe on the side of the road somewhere, unknown to anyone. Even the two magicians wouldn’t know where it was.
The two magicians then went to the king of their realm. He was a decent enough king, the type who would not be remembered by history. The two magicians presented their idea and in a stroke of singular wisdom, the king agreed to it.
The stone was to be placed in the square of a particular town in the kingdom for a particular period of time. All who wished to use it would line up and bring the items they would transform. All people were told of the protections on the stone. The two magicians even demonstrated the vanishing spell using an ordinary stone. Once the time was up, the stone would be moved to another town. Any who tried to steal it would find themselves empty-handed.
And so the one stone became a stone of plenty. And the plan of the two magicians worked…for a while.
It only takes one bad apple to spoil the whole barrel. And that one always seemed to come along sooner or later.
The stone was lost.
Where it is now, no one knows.
But if ever you hear a tale of a starving village that is starving no more, perhaps there you will find an elder grasping a smooth round stone in her shriveled hand, placing it on rock and making bread.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.