Sunday, 14 October 2012

Drinking Horns

Taplow Horns
Anglo-Saxon and Viking Drinking Horns

A drinking-horn (dryncehorn) is a drinking vessel made from a cow-horn. In a society with limited access to decent pottery, such a drinking vessel is a cheap and easily available alternative to expensive metal. However, large drinking horns are strongly associated with the æðeling (princely) class, often decorated with gold and silver. Rituals involving the communal sharing of drink from a large horn were part of the glue which maintained early Anglo-Saxon society. The Dryncehorn is worthy of study.

Horns and horn-shaped metal drinking vessels called rhyta were used in antiquity but their use is largely associated with ‘barbarians such as the Thracians and Scythians. It would appear that the drinking-horn was introduced to Northern Europe in the Iron Age. The Hallstatt culture provides a number of examples notably the Hochdorf burial from S.W. Germany, dated to 530 BCE. This Chieftain was buried with eight large aurochs drinking horns and a huge one, capable of holding no less than 10 pints (nearly 5 litres) volume.

One horn from the kingly Horchdorf Burial, c530 BCE.
Each horn was sumptuously decorated with gold. No doubt this was associated with the finding of a cauldron which was thought to have contained about 100 gallons (400 l) of mead. This points to some serious drinking!

Gaius Julius Caesar describes Gaulish drinking horns 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 size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.”
The Germanic Folk of the Völkerwanderung (Migration period) were notable in their love of the drinking horn. The most spectacular examples would have utilised the horns of the Aurochs or Urus (Bos primigenius). The two drinking horns from the exceptional burial at Sutton Hoo are good examples.

Drinking Horns (reconstructed) from the treasure of Sutton-Hoo Mound 1
The keratin of the actual horns had long ago succumbed to the acidic soil, so that all that remained from these drinking horns were the metal terminals and silver-gilt foil rim mounts. These horns have a mouth diameter of around 10cm. and may have been up to 90cm in length following the outer curve. The lip of each horn is enclosed in a gilded silver channelled rim-band. Distal to the rim are four rectangular panels with Style 2 pressblech decoration of six upright animals. The panels and rim-binding is attached to the horn by silver-gilt clips in the form of double-heads each with a moustache. The bird-headed terminals are similar in design to these featured on other parts of the royal regalia.

Horns from the princely burial at Taplow.
Detail of Taplow Horn decoration (BM).
The princely burial at Taplow, dated to the late 6th century CE, also provided a good example of drinking-horns. Like those from Sutton-Hoo, these are mounted with bird-headed terminals and panels of silver-gilt foils at the mouth. The lip is protected by a silver-gilt rim binding held on by four clips in the form of a Style I human face with high brow and rounded cheeks. Beneath the rim-binding are rectangular foils decorated with a garnet-centred rosette flanked by Style I creatures. The creatures have 'helmeted' heads and raised hands and are similar to those in the triangular mounts below. Each terminal is ornamented with a cast Style II bird head with a simple curling beak and rounded head.

Glass Horns

It is interesting that the Germanic folk sometimes made drinking vessels from glass and even gold and silver, to resemble horns.
Museum replicas of the lost golden Gallehus Horns, early 5th Century

The famous Gallehus Horns from Southern Jutland were each made from around 3kg of gold and electrum. It is likely (but not certain) that these were ceremonial drinking horns. They were decorated with somewhat cryptic pictures. Unfortunately, these unique pieces disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1802 and now are only known from 17th century descriptions and drawings. The pieces on show in the Danish National Museum are replicas.

Fortunately glass drinking horns are less rare. Glæsfætu would have been highly prized. A good example is from Bingerbrück and dates to the 5th Century.
Frankish Glass Drinking Horn from Bringerbruck, Germany. c5th. (BM)
 It is Merovingian in design and made from olive green Roman glass. Another example, also safe in the British Museum, is of Lombardic / Langobardic origin and is made from beautiful blue glass. It was found in a grave in Sutri, Italy and dates to the late 6th Century. The horn has a ground rim, with white helical trails and, nearer the rim, self-coloured lattice-work.

Sutri Drinking Horn, of Lombardic Origin. Late c6th. (BM)
These glass horns were made by blowing a cone of glass and then drawing it into a curve. The colour of the glass and decoration show that sophisticated Roman techniques appear to have been preserved by Italian glassblowers. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, glass-making techniques such as colouring were lost in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon areas, but must have continued in Italy.

The Sutri horn was probably made in Northern Italy - a similar horn having been found at Castel Trosino (grave 119), near Ascoli Piceno in the Marches, Italy. During the Early Middle Ages Ascoli was controlled first by the Ostrogoths and then by the Lombards for nearly two centuries as part of the Lombard Duchy of Spoleto (593-789CE), Excavations at Torcello, near Venice, have also uncovered the site of a late sixth to seventh-century glassworks.

Claw Beakers from Taplow; a more familiar style of Anglo-Saxon glassware. (BM)
Anglo-Saxon glass-workers may well have produced such glass horns as well as the more familiar claw beakers and conical flasks but it would seem that they were dependant on imported glass pellets from Italy or recycled Roman glass as raw material.

Viking Drinking Horn (Drykkjarhorn)

Like the English, the Norse folk made extensive use of drinking horns. Most would have been from domestic cattle and would have had a capacity of a pint or so. Although horn is hardly ever preserved, the number of drinking-horn terminals and rim-mounts show that their use was near universal.

Decoration and runic inscription of one of the Gallehus Horns from south Jutland (c5th)
  Guðrúnarkviða II, The Second Lay of Gudrún, mentions magical runes carved on a drinking horn (reminiscent of those on the far pre-Viking horn from Gellehus).
Váru í horni hvers kyns stafir | ristnir ok roðnir, - ráða ek né máttak, -

23. “On the drinking-horn were runes of every kind, | Graved and reddened, I could not read them.”
Grímnismál (The Sayings of Grímnir) recounts how the god Óðinn receives a very welcome drink.
Agnarr gekk at Grímni ok gaf hánom horn fult at drekka, sagði at konungr gørði illa er hann lét pína hann saklausan. Grímnir drakk af.

“Agnar went to Grimnir, and gave him a full horn to drink and said that the king did ill in letting him be tormented without cause. Grimnir drank off (the contents).”
Snorri, in Gylfagining, also tells how the god Thor is tricked into drinking from a giant horn by Útgeard-Loki. The Thunderer is unaware that the horn’s end has been magically connected with the sea and is non-plussed when he is unable to drain it.

One of the symbols of the god Óðinn is three interlocked drinking horns (or Horned triskele), as seen on the Gotland runestone, Lillbjärs, Sweden. This reflects the god’s quest for the Óðrœrir, a magical mead brewed from the blood of the wise Kvasir and the source of poetic inspiration.

On a more humorous note, One of the Anglo-Saxon riddles recorded in the Exeter Book concerns a horn. The lines below concern its use as a drinking vessel :
(Riddle 53 Exeter Book)
Ic wæs wæpen wiga nu mec wlonc þeceð
geong hagostealdmon golde and sylfore
woum wirbogum hwilum weras cyssað
hwilū mægða sum minne gefylleð
bosm beaghroden hwilum ic bordum sceal
heard heafodleas behlyþed licgan
hwilū hongige hyrstum frætwed
wlitig on wage þær weras drincað

I was an armed fighter. Now a young home-dweller
covers me proudly with twisted wires,
with gold and silver. Sometimes men kiss me......
Sometimes a maiden fills my ring-adorned bosom.
Sometimes I must lie hard and headless
stripped on the tables. Sometimes I hang,
with ornaments proud, on the wall where men drink.
The Bayeux tapestry shows a scene of King Harold feasting, where decorated horns are used.
Manufacture / Making your own dryncehorn

Horn is a keratin sheath overlying bone, so the first step in making a drinking horn is to remove the bone core. This is done by softening the horn in hot water, then cutting it away at the base. (Today it is possible to acquire horns ready for use.)

The interior, though, still needs to cleaned out. It is recommended to use a long bottle-brush to do this. It is reasonable to sterilise the horn using the same chemical used to prepare babies’ bottles etc. The horn now needs to be ‘sealed’, so as to make it pleasant to drink from. Although some advocate the use of beeswax to do this, if the horn has been thoroughly cleaned it is perfectly adequate to seal the horn by just leaving it full of a good strong ale for a day or so. It is then washed out and allowed to dry. I strongly suspect that this is what our ancestors did. If the drink still tastes of horn, it was not cleaned properly in the first place!


The great drinking-horns, brimming with ale or clear, golden mead and passed around the hall as part of the formal symbel were culturally important to our ancestors. Drinking from the great communal aurochs horn, they might expect to take on some of the strength and ferocity of the wild bull. The great horn was so large, not because any man was expected to empty it, as in the Thor story but so it might go around the hall without needing refilling. Also, as extensive and exhaustive research has shown, a two pint drinking horn is much better at holding a pint of frothing Anglo-Saxon ale than a pint mug. Wes þu hál !  / Skoll!

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