Omir the Storyteller

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Horn of Plenty


Back in the time of legends there was a princess named Deianira, and she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Now because she was so beautiful, she had many suitors, and they all fought among themselves for her hand. Eventually the list of suitors came down to two, and the two suitors stood before Aeneus, the king of Aetolia and Deianira's father, to claim her hand.

"Great Aeneus," the first declared, "I am Achelous, god of the River Caledon. I cause the waters to flow and the floods to deposit silt on the fields so the flowers and grasses can grow. I rule a vast and beautiful kingdom, and the only way that kingdom could be more beautiful would be if your daughter were to rule over it with me, by my side."

"Not so fast, bub," was the rejoinder from the other suitor.

The two could not have been more different. Achelous was tall and slender and graceful, clad in a flowing green robe. He carried a scepter of water lilies, and his voice was soft and melodious, like the ripple of water in a brook.

The other suitor was shorter but still taller than most of the people in Aeneus' court. His hair was matted and tangled, he wore an animal skin, and he carried a knotted club. And his muscles! I would say he had muscles in places many of us don't even have places.

"I fought hard and long to get here and I'm not going to lose the princess just because some pretty-boy talks her daddy into letting her marry him."

"Impudent stranger!" Achelous still had a voice like flowing water, but there was an edge to it now. "How dare you challenge a god in the court of a king for the hand of a princess! Who are you that you even dare stand in our presence?"

The second suitor rose to his full height and bellowed in a voice of thunder. "I am Hercules, son of Jupiter, and I challenge you, here and now, for the right to marry the princess!"

The two squared off at the foot of Aeneus' throne, and laid into one another. It was a fair fight, but a rough one, strength against strength, with neither Achelous nor Hercules giving in for what seemed like hours, but was in reality only about fifteen minutes. Then Hercules gained the upper hand, and slowly but surely began to pin Acholeus to the mat.

The river-god, seeing that he was about to be beaten, resorted to magic. Hercules felt his opponent's body twist and writhe and finally slip out of his grasp, and he sprang to his feet to face the river-god in the shape of a great, green serpent. The serpent darted this way, and that, and attempted to encircle Hercules to suffocate him, but Hercules grabbed the serpent around the neck and started to squeeze off its air supply. "What a poor choice on your part!" Hercules mocked to the laughter of the assembled crowd. "My father's wife sent two serpents to try to strangle me when I was still in my crib. This is child's play!" And he roared in approval of his own joke.

Then Hercules felt the river-god squirm out of his grasp again, and he fell to the floor as the serpent vanished out from under him. Again he sprang to his feet to see that Achelous had once again changed shape, this time into a great, green bull with two massive, curved horns. The bull charged Hercules, and he barely rolled out of the way. It turned and charged again, this time managing to nick Hercules with one of its horns on the way past. Hercules was in pain from the wound but managed to get to his feet just as the bull readied itself for another charge. This time Hercules was ready, and as the bull approached he grabbed it by the horns, twisting its head and throwing it to the ground. As it fell one of the horns broke off of its massive head, and the bull changed back into the green-clad form of Achelous, clutching his head and running for the waters of the Caledon to cool the pain.

Hercules raised the horn high above his head. "Great Aeneus, I claim your daughter's hand in marriage!" The wedding was a dandy, Hercules cleaned up very nicely for the occasion (which is a story in itself). As a wedding gift to Hercules and his bride Deianira, the goddess of Plenty took the horn that had ripped from the head of the bull, blessed it, and it began to gush a stream of fruits and flowers that never ran out.

And from that day to this, we use that horn -- which became known as the cornu copiae, or horn of plenty -- as a symbol of the bounty of the harvest.