Skull cup

Skull cup

The use of a defeated enemy's skull as a drinking cup is reported by numerous authors through history among various peoples, especially nomads roaming the steppes of Eurasia. Known as the Kapala, the cup is part of Buddhist and Hindu tantric rituals, and is often seen carried by deities in images; the identity of the skull's owner is not considered significant. Many carved and elaborately mounted kapalas survive, mostly from Tibet.

The Scythians are reported by Herodotus (ca. 484 BC–ca. 425 BC) and later Strabo (63/64 BC – ca. 24 AD) to have drunk from the skulls of their enemies. Krum of Bulgaria was said by Theophanes the Confessor, Joannes Zonaras, Mannases Chronicle, and others, to have made a cup from the jeweled skull of Byzantine emperor Nicephorus I (811 AD) after killing him in the Battle of Pliska.

The Russian Primary Chronicle reports that the skull of Svyatoslav I of Kiev was made into a chalice by the Pecheneg Khan Kurya (972 AD). He likely intended this as a compliment to Sviatoslav; sources report that Kurya and his wife drank from the skull and prayed for a son as brave as the deceased Rus warlord.

The oldest record in the Chinese annals of the skull cup tradition among the ancient Xiongnu tells about the son of the Xiongnu Modu Shanyu, Laoshang (Jizhu), who killed the king of the Yuezhi and, in accordance with their tradition, "made a drinking cup out of his skull" (Shiji 123, ca 161 BC). According to "Hanshu" 94B, p. 3a, the drinking cup made from the skull of the king of the Yuezhi was used when the Xiongnu concluded a treaty with two Han ambassadors during the reign of Emperor Yuan (49-33 BCE). To seal the convention, the Chinese ambassadors drank blood from the cup with the Xiongnu chiefs. Chavannes also quotes Livy to illustrate the ceremonial use of such skull cups by the Boii, a Celtic tribe in Europe in 216 BCE. [Chavannes, Edouard (1899-1905), "Mémoires historiques", t. 5, pp. 185-186, n. 43(232). Downloadable from [] ]

According to Paul the Deacon, the Lombard Alboin defeated the Lombards' hereditary enemies, the Gepids, slew their new king Cunimund, whose skull he fashioned into a drinking-cup, and whose daughter Rosamund he carried off and made his wife.

After Muhammad Shaybani, the founder of the Uzbek Shaybanid Empire, was slain in battle, Shah Ismail I had his body parts sent to various areas of the empire for display and had his skull coated in gold and made into a jeweled drinking goblet (1510).

Lord Byron used a skull he had found as a drinking vessel, and even had a humorous drinking poem inscribed upon it.


*cite journal|first=Henry|last=Balfour|title=Life History of an Aghori Fakir; with Exhibition of the Human Skull Used by Him as a Drinking Vessel, and Notes on the Similar Use of Skulls by Other Races|journal=The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland|issue=26|year=1897|pages=340–357|doi=10.2307/2842008

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