From the Thracians to the Vikings, a celebration of the drinking horn

Marija Georgievska
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The drinking horn was used in ancient times for consuming ale, milk, water, or mead. At first, the vessels were made from a horn of a bovid, and throughout the centuries various civilizations all over the world started to make them from wood, ceramics, glass, and even metal. According to historians, the horn’s history begins with the Scythians and Thracians. Other notable cultures that used them were the Romans, Greeks, and the Scandinavians.

The drinking horn was part of the way of life of the Thracians, who made them from horn and wood. Because of the frequent use of the vessels, to drink from a horn among the Greeks was known as drinking “after the Thracian fashion.” The Scythians made them from horn and metal, and mostly they were designed for the best warriors or the kings.

A drinking horn from the 16th century known as the Roordahuizum on display in the Frisian Museum at Leeuwarden.

They called them rhyta and the most notable example can be seen at the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow that dates back to the 5th century BC. Found in 1982, the vessel is made of gold and silver, and it is in the shape of the mythological stallion Pegasus. The oldest examples of rhytas were from the 7th century BC and were found in Scythian tombs.

A drinking horn known as the Hochdorf found at the Hochdorf burial in Germany. Author: Chez Casver (Xuan Che). CC BY 2.0

In Ancient Greece, the vessels were known as keras, and they often used them for drinking wine during celebrations of the wine god Dionysus. There are many depictions of the wine god in Greek art and in some of them he is drinking from a horn. On some of the Greek red-figure pottery, mostly produced in Attica, Dionysus and satyr figures were painted holding keras.

A drinking horn made from glass. Author: Marie-Lan Nguyen. CC BY 2.5

The Romans were known for fascinating items made from glass, and most of their drinking horns were made from it. The glass-made horn was a symbol of power in the Empire, and Romans mostly used them for drinking at feasts and important ceremonies. During the Migration Period, the Germanic tribes were inspired by the beautiful glass-made horn of the Romans.

A drinking horn exhibited in the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

In the Viking Age, many of the horns were found in burial sites. From the Germanic Roman Age to the Viking Age, the horns were mostly buried in female graves together with other drinking equipment.

One of the 20 pieces at the NTNU University’s Museum’s collections in Trondheim. Author: NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet. CC BY 2.0

They were also included in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and the oldest poem of the cycle of poems about the legendary hero Sigurd known as Guðrúnarkviða II.

Drinking Horns on display at the British Museum

Some fitting a description of drinking horns were found at the burial site near Woodbridge, Suffolk, known as Sutton Hoo and according to Thor News, there are preserved parts of almost 20 Viking horns in the NTNU University’s Museum’s collections in Trondheim.

Highly decorated medieval drinking horn. Author: Bullenwächter. CC BY-SA 3.0

They became popular in Medieval Europe in the 13th century after many pagan cultures converted to Christianity. The Christians used the drinking horns with enthusiasm, and in the 15th century, they became ceremonial drinking vessels. In medieval literature, the horns were mentioned in a Middle English chivalric Romance known as King Horn from the 13th century and in the Arthurian tale of King Caradoc. In the Early Modern period, they were still popular for ceremonial purposes.

Read another story from us: Kottabos- The ancient Greek drinking game

The famous author J.R.R. Tolkien mentioned them in his novels as drinking and blowing objects, and in the popular TV series Vikings the viewers can see the drinking horns being used.  They also appear in different shapes and style in many fantasy video games, for example, The World of Warcraft or Might & Magic.