Every medieval, Viking and mythical movie (like Game of Thrones) have all major actors using drinking horns to quaff their brew of choice.
A drinking horn is the horn of a horned creature such as a cow, buffalo, etc, which is used as a drinking vessel. Drinking horns are a custom that is over 2000 years old, having been known from Classical Antiquity, especially in the Balkans. They 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 in the Caucasus.
But here we’re looking at Viking drinking horns. The Viking drinking horn carries a long history and weaves through many customs and, surprisingly, is a custom that is still alive and well. Drinking horns remain an important accessory in the culture of ritual toasting in Georgia in particular, where they are known by the local name ofkantsi. Beyond being an aesthetically beautiful piece to drink mead from, Viking drinking horns have a fascinating story that represents the Nordic gods and rites of passage.
Use the Whole Animal
Older societies weren’t known for their waste and many that prized hunting as more than a necessity believed wasting any part of the animal was an affront to the gods of nature. It took a lot of energy to track, trap, and hunt prey and so, why waste any part of what you’ve spent all day trying to catch? Viking drinking horns probably came into existence by older cultures trying to utilize every part of the animal. While it’s true that drinking horns weren’t always made from the horn of an animal, it is its most likely origin.
In Viking culture, drinking horns were a popular vessel for beer, wine, and of course mead, but they weren’t used in the symbolic burial of great warriors. Surprisingly, women, as the drink servers, were buried with drinking horns.
For the living, drinking horns were just cups, but as the traditions of the Norse people grew more vivid, possibly due to their interactions with the Greeks and Iron-Age Celts, or possibly due to their isolation, the mysticism around mead and the horns that held it grew stronger as well.
Families would pass down drinking horns from one generation to the next. Each generation would add their own decorations and carvings as the horns were passed on, further enriching the mystique and value of the horn itself.
From the Gods
Viking Age mythology has several tales that involve drinking horns. When Odin returns to Valhalla, he is greeted by the Valkyries bearing mead in drinking horns. In another tale, the giant Utgard-Loke tricks Thor by having him to try to drink from a horn that had its other end in the sea, preventing him from finishing the drink.
In ancient Greek mythology, it was believed that Dionysus held the drinking horn to be sacred. The Scythians believed the drinking horn was given to a king from a god. Other cultures believed the drinking horn to be a symbol of abundance or life, or implemented to praise the divine. Each society that created their own and separate drinking horn tied it to their beliefs in significant ways.
During the High Middle Ages the popularity of the drinking horn declined, as the church increasingly saw it as a symbol of luxury and vanity. There are very few 12th and early 13th century archaeological finds or depictions of drinking horns in art. One exception is the queen figure from the Lewis Chessmen – she carries a horn in her left hand, perhaps reflective of the queen’s traditional role as the one who offers welcome to guests.
By the end of the 13th century drinking horns made a comeback in Europe, becoming popular again in royal courts, as well as being used by nobles, clergy and guildsmen. As their use became more widespread in the later Middle Ages we can see that the decorations for horns were becoming increasingly elaborate.
Yet the average drinkware for most Vikings would have been fashioned from wood or clay and fashioned much like our glasses are today. Some were made from ceramics or stone and, for the rich, trade brought them tumblers of glass.
Find out more
Viking Life by John Guy and Richard Hall (Ticktock, 1998)
Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age by John Haywood (Thames &Hudson, 2000)
Cultural Atlas of the Viking Age edited by Graham-Campbell et al (Andromeda, 1994)
Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings by John Haywood (Penguin, 1996). Detailed maps of Viking settlements in Scotland, Ireland, England, Iceland and Normandy.
Other Viking Blogs
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About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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