Drinking horn

Drinking horn
The Roordahuizum drinking horn, made in the mid 16th century by silversmith Albert Jacobs Canter, kept in the Frisian Museum at Leeuwarden[1]

A drinking horn is the horn of a bovid used as a drinking vessel. Drinking horns are known from Classical Antiquity especially in Thrace and the Balkans, and remained in use for ceremonial purposes throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period in some parts of Europe, notably in Germanic Europe, and also in traditions of the Caucasus. Drinking horns remain an important accessory in the culture of ritual toasting in Georgia in particular, where they are known as khantsi.[2]

Drinking vessels made from glass, ceramics or metal styled in the shape of drinking horns are also known from antiquity, in Greek known as rhyton.


Classical Antiquity

Collection of drawings of Scythian stelae, ranging from ca. 600 BC to AD 300. Many of them depict warriors holding a drinking horn in their right hand.
The Hochdorf drinking horn (iron with sheet gold ornaments, capacity 5.5 litres)

While it may be that drinking from horns was already common in Bronze Age Mycenaean Greece, the horns had been replaced by vessels of clay or metal at an early time, possibly still called keras "horn" for some time, but known as rhyton in classical times. Rhyta were also known in Achaemenid Persia, typically made from precious metal.[3] A Late Archaic (ca. 480 BC) Attic red-figure vase shows Dionysus and a satyr each holding a drinking horn.[4]

During Classical Antiquity, it was the Thracians and Scythians in particular who were known for their custom of drinking from horns (archaeologically, the Iron Age "Thraco-Cimmerian" horizon). Xenophon's account of his dealings with the Thracian leader Seuthes suggests that drinking horns were integral part of the drinking kata ton Thrakion nomon ("after the Thracian fashion"). Diodorus gives an account of a feast prepared by the Getic chief Dromichaites for Lysimachus and selected captives, and the Getians' use of drinking vessels made from horn and wood is explicitly stated. The Scythian elite did also use horn-shaped rhyta made entirely from precious metal. A notable example is the 5th century BC gold-and-silver rhython in the shape of a Pegasus which was found in 1982 in Ulyap, Adygea, now at the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow.[5]

Krauße (1996) examines the spread of the "fashion" of drinking horns (Trinkhornmode) in prehistoric Europe, assuming it reached the eastern Balkans from Scythia around 500 BC. It is more difficult to assess the role of plain animal horns as everyday drinking vessels, because these decay without a trace, while the metal fittings of the ceremonial drinking horns of the elite are preserved archaeologically.[6]

The drinking horn reaches "barbarian" Central Europe with the Iron Age, and a number of Celtic specimens are known, notably the remains of a huge gold-banded horn found at the Hochdorf burial.

Julius Caesar has a description of Gaulish use of aurochs drinking horns (cornu urii) in De bello gallico 6.28:

„Amplitudo cornuum et figura et species multum a nostrorum boum cornibus differt. Haec studiose conquisita ab labris argento circumcludunt atque in amplissimis epulis pro poculis utuntur.“
"The [Gaulish] horns in size, shape, and kind are very different from those of our cattle. They are much sought-after, their rim fited with silver, and they are used at great feasts as drinking vessels."

Tacitus describes how the 1st century Germani trapped and killed aurochs and then made drinking horns which they decorated with silver mounts.[citation needed]

Migration period

Vendel era bronze horn fittings and glass drinking horn on display at the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities.

The Germanic peoples of the Migration period imitated glass drinking horns from Roman models. One fine 5th century Merovingian example found at Bingerbrück, Rhineland-Palatinate made from olive green glass is kept at the British Museum.[7] Some of the skills of the Roman glass-makers survived in Lombardic Italy, exemplified by a blue glass drinking-horn from Sutri, also in The British Museum. The two Gallehus Horns (early 5th century), made from some 3 kg of gold and electrum each, are usually interpreted as drinking horns, although some scholars point out that it cannot be ruled out that they may have been intended as blowing horns. After the discovery of the first of these horns in 1639, Christian IV of Denmark by 1641 did refurbish it into a usable drinking horn, adding a rim, extending its narrow end and closing it up with a screw-on pommel. These horns are the most spectacular known specimens of Germanic Iron Age drinking horns, but they were sadly lost in 1802 and are now only known from 17th to 18th century drawings.

Some notable examples of drinking horns of Dark Ages Europe were made of the horns of the urus or European buffalo, extinct in the 17th century. These horns were carefully dressed up and their edges lipped all round with silver. The remains of a notable example were recovered from the Sutton Hoo burial.[8]

The British Museum also has a fine pair of 6th century Anglo-Saxon drinking horns, made from Aurochs horns with silver-gilt mounts, recovered from the princely burial at Taplow, Buckinghamshire.[9]

Numerous pieces of elaborate drinking equipment have been found in female graves in all pagan Germanic societies, beginning in the Germanic Roman Iron Age and spanning a full millennium, into the Viking Age.[10]

Viking Age

A drinking scene on an image stone from Gotland, in the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm.
The Bullion Stone, a Pictish image stone depicting a warrior drinking from a large horn while on horseback (discovered in 1933, now kept in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh)[11]

Drinking horns are attested from Viking Age Scandinavia. In the Prose Edda, Thor drank from a horn that unbeknownst to him contained all the seas, and in the process he scared Útgarða-Loki and his kin by managing to drink a conspicuous part of its content. They also feature in Beowulf, and fittings for drinking horns were also found at the Sutton Hoo burial site. Carved horns are mentioned in Guðrúnarkviða II, a poem composed about 1000 AD and preserved in the Poetic Edda:

Váru í horni
hvers kyns stafir
ristnir ok roðnir,
- ráða ek né máttak, -
lyngfiskr langr,
lands Haddingja
ax óskorit,
innleið dyra.[12]
On the horn’s face were there
All the kin of letters
Cut aright and reddened,
How should I rede them rightly?
The ling-fish long
Of the land of Hadding,
Wheat-ears unshorn,
And wild things inwards.[13]

Beowulf (493ff.) describes the serving of mead in carved horns.

Horn fragments of Viking Age drinking horns are only rarely preserved, showing that both cattle and goat horns were in use, but the number of decorative metal horn terminals and horn mounts recovered archaeologically show that the drinking horn was much more widespread than the small number of preserved horns would otherwise indicate. Most Viking Age drinking horns were probably from domestic cattle, holding rather less than half a litre. The significantly larger aurochs horns of the Sutton Hoo burial would have been the exception.[14]

Medieval to Early Modern period

The National Museum of Denmark has a collection of Early Modern drinking horns.

Drinking horns were the ceremonial drinking vessel for those of high status all through the medieval period[15] References to drinking horns in medieval literature include the Arthurian tale of Caradoc and the Middle English romance of King Horn. The Bayeux Tapestry (1070s) shows a scene of feasting before Harold Godwinson embarks for Normandy. Five figures are depicted as sitting at a table in the upper story of a building, three of them holding drinking horns.

Most Norwegian drinking horns preserved from the Middle Ages have ornamented metal mountings, while the horns themselves are smooth and unornamented. Carvings in the horns themselves are also known, but these appear relatively late, and are of a comparative simplicity that classifies them as folk art.[16]

The Corpus Christi College of Cambridge University has a large aurochs drinking horn, allegedly predating the College's foundation in the 14th century, which is still drunk from at College feasts.[17]

Drinking horn of Sigismund of Luxemburg, before 1408

The "Oldenburg horn" was made in 1479 by German artisans for Christian I of Denmark when he visited Cologne to reconcile Charles the Bold of Burgundy. It is made of silver and gilt, richly ornamented with the coats of arms of Burgundy and Denmark. The horn has its name from being kept in the Oldenburg family castle for two centuries before being moved to its present location in Copenhagen. It became associated in legend with count Otto I of Oldenburg, who was supposed to have received it from a fairy woman in 980.

Drinking horns remained in use for ceremonial purposes throughout the Early Modern period. A magnificent drinking horn was made for the showpiece of the Amsterdam Guild of Arquebusiers by Amsterdam jeweller Arent Coster in 1547, now kept in the Rijksmuseum.[18]

In 17th to 18th century Scotland, a distinct type of drinking horn develops. One aurochs drinking horn still preserved in Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. It was only produced before guests, and the drinker in using it, twisted his arms round its spines, and turning his mouth towards the right shoulder, was expected to drain it off.[19]

German Renaissance and Baroque horns often were lavishly decorated with silverwork. One such example is depicted in a 1653 painting by Willem Kalf, known as Still Life with Drinking Horn.

Modern period

A 1893 depiction of the Norse goddess Sif holding a drinking horn.

Lavishly decorated drinking horns in the Baroque style, some imitating cornucopia, some made from ivory, including gold, silver and enamel decorations continued to be produced as luxury items in 19th to early 20th century imperial Austria and Germany.[20]

Also in the 19th century, drinking horns inspired by the Romantic Viking revival were made for German student corps for ritual drinking. Also in the context of Romanticism, a ceremonial drinking horn with decorations depicting the story of the Mead of Poetry was given to Swedish poet Erik Gustaf Geijer by his students in 1817, now in the Private Collection of Johan Paues, Stockholm.[21]

Ram or goat drinking horns, known as khantsi, remain an important accessoire in the culture of ritual toasting in Georgia. During a formal dinner (supra) Georgians propose a toast, led by a toastmaster (tamada) who sets the topic of each round of toasting. Toasts are made with either wine or brandy, toasting with beer is considered an insult.[2]

In Swiss culture, a large drinking horn together with a wreath of oak leaves is the traditional prize for the winning team of a Hornussen tournament.

Modern-day Asatru adherents use drinking horns for Blóts and sumbels.

See also


  1. ^ friesmuseum.nl
  2. ^ a b bbc.co.uk
  3. ^ Fluted silver drinking horn (rhyton) with partial gilding, Achaemenid Persian, 5th-4th century BC (British Museum)
  4. ^ Kansas City 30.13 (ARV2, 249, no. 1), Campania.
  5. ^ upenn.edu, kemsu.ru
  6. ^ Gocha R. Tsetskhladze (ed.), Ancient Greeks West and East, 1999, ISBN 9789004111905, pp. 416ff.
  7. ^ britishmuseum.org
  8. ^ R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo ship burial-1, vol. 3 (London, The British Museum Press, 1983)
  9. ^ britishmuseum.org; J. Stevens, 'On the remains found in an Anglo-Saxon tumulus at Taplow, Buckinghamshire', Journal of the British Archa-2, 40 (1884), pp. 61-71, plates 1, 11-12
  10. ^ "In Viking Age cemeteries, the combination of the bucket-container for distribution together with long-handled sieve and drinking horn or cup remains very common..." (Enright, pp. 103-104)
  11. ^ ancient-scotland.co.uk
  12. ^ Guðrúnarkviða II in Old Norse from «Kulturformidlingen norrøne tekster og kvad» Norway. The Second Lay of Guðrun, in the Elder Edda (Morris and Magnusson translation)
  13. ^ Morris' and Magnusson's translation.
  14. ^ Arthur MacGregor, Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period, Taylor & Francis, 1985, ISBN 9780709932420, p. 152
  15. ^ Hagen, p. 243.
  16. ^ Magerøy, p. 70.
  17. ^ corpus.cam.ac.uk
  18. ^ rijksmuseum.nl
  19. ^ Dwelly’s [Scottish] Gaelic Dictionary: Còrn
  20. ^ http://www.vfkk.de/beilage208.html
  21. ^ http://www.civilization.ca/media/docs/images/vik05b.jpg


  • Enright, Michael J. Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking Age. Dublin: Four Courts Press. 1996.
  • V.I. Evison, Germanic glass drinking horns, Journal of Glass Studies-1, 17 (1975)
  • Dirk Krausse, Hochdorf, Bd.3, Das Trinkservice und Speiseservice aus dem späthallstattzeitlichen Fürstengrab von Eberdingen-Hochdorf, Theiss (1996), ISBN 978-3806212785.
  • Hagen, Ann. A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: Production and Distribution. Hockwold cum Wilton, Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books. 1995.
  • Magerøy, Ellen Marie. "Carving: Bone, Horn, and Walrus Tusk" in Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia. Phillip Pulsiano et al., eds. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 934. New York: Garland. 1993. pp. 66–71.

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  • Drinking horn — Drinking Drink ing, n. 1. The act of one who drinks; the act of imbibing. [1913 Webster] 2. The practice of partaking to excess of intoxicating liquors. [1913 Webster] 3. An entertainment with liquors; a carousal. [1913 Webster] Note: Drinking is …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • drinking horn — ▪ vessel  ceremonial vessel usually made from the horn of an ox or a buffalo or the tusk of an elephant, with mounts of metal. The earliest drinking horns date from around the early 7th century. The drinking horn was largely replaced by other,… …   Universalium

  • drinking-horn — noun A drinking vessel made from the horn of an animal. He put down his sword and helmet and took the drinking horn that was served to him, and finished it …   Wiktionary

  • drinking-horn — drinkˈing horn noun • • • Main Entry: ↑drink …   Useful english dictionary

  • Horn — may refer to: * Horn (anatomy), the pointed projection of the skin of various animals, as an organ or its material * Horn (surname)In music and sound * Horn (instrument), sometimes called a French horn, a brass musical instrument constructed of… …   Wikipedia

  • Drinking — Drink ing, n. 1. The act of one who drinks; the act of imbibing. [1913 Webster] 2. The practice of partaking to excess of intoxicating liquors. [1913 Webster] 3. An entertainment with liquors; a carousal. [1913 Webster] Note: Drinking is used… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • horn — horn1 [ho:n US ho:rn] n ↑hoof, ↑horn ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬ 1¦(animal)¦ 2¦(on a car)¦ 3¦(musical instrument)¦ 4 drinking horn/powder horn etc 5 draw/pull in your horns 6 be on the horns of a dilemma ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬ [: Old English;] 1.) …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • Horn (anatomy) — A horn is a pointed projection of the skin on the head of various mammals, consisting of a covering of horn (keratin and other proteins) surrounding a core of living bone. True horns are found only among the ruminant… …   Wikipedia

  • horn — 1 noun 1 OF AN ANIMAL (C) one of the pair of hard pointed parts that grow on the heads of cows, goats, and other animals 2 SUBSTANCE (U) a) the substance that animals horns are made of: a knife with a horn handle b) (C) a part of an animal s head …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

  • horn — hornish, adj. hornless, adj. hornlessness, n. hornlike, adj. /hawrn/, n. 1. one of the bony, permanent, hollow paired growths, often curved and pointed, that project from the upper part of the head of certain ungulate mammals, as cattle, sheep,… …   Universalium

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