All About Drinking Horns

All About Drinking Horns 2016-10-18T13:50:56+00:00

Everything you ever wanted to know about drinking horns…

Mankind could make alcohol long before we could make glass, so naturally we used what we could come by as vessels for our ancient fermented drinks like mead, ale, and wine. Not being ones to waste any part of an animal we had worked so hard to hunt or rear, we eventually figured out how to use tools to hollow out the horns of bovines to use as drinking horns, and the rest is history..

Drinking Horn History

We know for sure that drinking horns have been around for 2,600 years, but it’s likely they’ve been around for even longer than that. In all that time, drinking horns have gone from practical drinking vessels to meaningful and symbolic reminders of the hallowed past. They’ve been made of horn, metal, and glass by civilizations all over the world.

Drinking horns in the Ancient World

Although drinking horns popped up in different ancient cultures throughout the world independently, most notably being the Scandinavians, Greeks and Romans, the best place to start looking at their history is with the Thracians and Scythians.  We see drinking horns playing similar roles of importance throughout ancient cultures and through today.

Thrace was made up of parts of what’s now Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. In Greek mythology, the Thracians are descended from Thrax, who is the son of Ares the god of war. In Homer’s Illiad, the Thracians were friends of the Trojans. Drinking horns made of horn or wood were so integral to the Thracian way of life that for a time, Greeks referred to drinking from a horn as drinking “after the Thracian fashion.” The Thracians were the first known culture to challenge each other to drinking matches where horns were emptied in one go.
scythian drinking horn

Scythian drinking horn made of gold

The Scythians were a nomadic tribe that eventually settled to become an agrarian culture, but not before their large empire had spread through parts of Russia, Persia, Europe and India. They were sometimes enemies and sometimes trade partners with the ancient Greeks, which presumably gave the Greeks and Romans the notion to make drinking horns of their own.

The Scythian style of drinking horns were made from precious metal, or from horn ornamented with metal fittings, designating them as the cup of kings and warriors. It was said in Scythian mythos that the drinking horn was given to a Scythian ruler by a god.

Because they were the vessel most commonly associated with wine, they were often used in celebrations of Dionysus, the god of wine (and unsurprisingly, also the god of ritual madness and fertility). A keras, or closed drinking horn, was used at Greek drinking parties along with more iconic horn vessels. In Greek art, many depictions of Dionysus feature him drinking from a horn.
4th century Italian drinking horn

Fourth century Italian drinking horn made of glass

Romans took the drinking horn symbolism even further, creating beautiful glass drinking horns for feasts and ceremonies. To ancient Romans, drinking from a horn was a signal of wealth and power. The popularity of drinking horns spread throughout the massive Roman empire, eventually reaching Iron Age Celts and Scandinavians who gave the horn an important role in their mythology and religion.

Iron Age Celts were known for their feasting, often setting out massive cauldrons of mead, wine, or beer that revelers were free to use to fill their drinking horns. Many important Celtic burial sites include metal banded drinking horns as tribute. As in many other cultures, the drinking horn was a symbol of abundance. Old Irish drinking horns came in many different artistic variations, from horns made of gold to ones with intricate carvings and inlaid handles.
Viking drinking horn

A Viking drinking horn on display at the National Museum Copenhagen

In Viking Age mythology, Valkyries are female warriors who choose the men that will die in battle. They’re often shown extending drinking horns to the slain warriors to welcome them to the Valhalla. As a real life extension of this, women hosts would ceremoniously extend drinking horns to honored guests.

The Medieval Period, Christianity and Recent History

Drinking horns managed to make the jump from their Pagan roots to Christian society in Medieval Europe, gaining popularity in the 13th century among clergy and noble households.  Christians adopted the drinking horn tradition so fervently that a horn is often shown among the gifts being presented to the Christ Child upon His birth.

Sometime in the fifteenth century, drinking horns became purely ceremonial. They retained their rich symbolism and were often given as gifts at court, but they were now only for decoration and status.

Artistic wooden copy of an African buffalo drinking horn

Artistic wooden copy of an African buffalo drinking horn

Drinking horns have also been an important part of the customs and rituals of African civilizations throughout history. In the courts of the Grassfield Kingdoms of Cameroon, for example, nobles drink palm wine from carved buffalo horns, which were later copied in wooden versions. The buffalo is a considered a royal emblem because its crafty and dangerous nature demands respect from those who hunt them.
The drinking horn of Nez Perce warrior Wounded Head

The drinking horn of Nez Perce warrior Wounded Head

Native American drinking horns took a bit of a different shape – in some areas they evolved from spoons rather than from the entire horn, so they were shaped into drinking ladles. In other areas, Native American drinking horns were similar to those of other cultures around the world.

The horn carried by the Nez Perce warrior Wounded Head had a leather thong attached so he could dip it down into a stream for a drink while mounted on his horse. The dots carved near the point signify each life of his tribesman lost in the Big Hole Battle, which was fought in 1877 against the U.S. army in Montana.

Modern Times

Ever since the 16th century, people have been fascinated with Old Norse culture and the drinking horn became a symbol of the many Viking revival movements that have happened ever since.  These Viking revivals have even brought us the word “Viking,” which wasn’t even introduced to the English language until sometime in the 18th century.  Norway entered a period of strong nationalism in the 19th century, and the first Viking ship was unearthed in 1867. Our fanaticism over Old Norse culture has only gotten stronger over the years as we’ve learned more and more about this enigmatic and powerful society.

It seems that drinking horn culture has come full circle as horns have gone from cups to decorations and back again. The modern popularity of drinking horns has many factors to thank, including the characters from some of our favorite shows.

Pop Culture references to Drinking Horns

  • History Channel’s Vikings – Since the Viking culture is the one most quickly associated with drinking horns, it’s no surprise that they pop up in the show.
  • Game of Thrones – The medieval fantasy genre revival of late has a lot to do with the massive popularity of Game of Thrones. The mead industry also has Game of Thrones to thank, as American mead sales have increased significantly since the show premiered, creating what the mead industry calls the “Game of Thrones effect” (even though no one in the show drinks mead).
  • LOTR and Tolkien works – While drinking horns may not feature prominently in the film versions of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the medieval fantasy genre that’s inspired so many of us to take up the drinking horn was definitely ushered in by the epic modern renditions of Tolkien’s work.

How Drinking Horns are Made

For a buffalo, cow or ox horn to become a drinking horn, it first needs its inner core removed. This is done by boiling or soaking the whole horn and then scraping out the softened marrow.

Once the core has been removed from the horn, it’s then softened again using heat, and pressed to form its desired shape. In the case of the Game of Thrones Tankard, a tail or tongue shape is left when the cup is cut from the horn so it can be heated again and bent down into a handle.

In the case of the Viking Drinking Horn, the animal horn is left in its natural shape and doesn’t need to be heat-treated.

After the horn is formed, it’s coated in a specially formulated food-safe water-based coating and polished to a might sheen. Finally, it’s fitted with metal details or carved with etchings, depending on the design. The last (optional) step is to personalize the drinking horn with an engraving.

Preparing a Horn

Horns have two sections – the core and the outer horn. The thickness of the horn section that’s left when the core is removed varies from animal to animal, and is one of variables that makes each horn unique. To remove the core, most horn-makers boil the horn until it is soft. The inside is made of marrow, and its removal is often messy and difficult. Another method is to leave it in a warm, dry spot until the core separates from the horn naturally. Either way the core must be removed before being processed further.

Working Horn

The process of splitting a raw horn and pressing it to fit a design can be done with either a “hot” or “cold” method.

  • Cold Method – If the horner plans to use the natural shape of the horn without molding it, the horn doesn’t need to be heat-treated. A practiced hand can saw a horn and finish it off with beautiful designs using files, rasps, lathes, or any other woodworking tool.
  • Hot Method – In the hot method, the horn is heated until it becomes pliable. This is where a true artisan is required. Each horn has a different melting point. If the horn exceeds that point, it will likely become unusable. A skilled craftsman uses careful judgment throughout the process to determine the best temperature for working each particular horn. There are several methods of heating horn ranging from boiling to dry baking.

Once the horn has been heat softened, it is then pressed into its designated shape. In the middle ages, a press would have been cut into the dirt. In the 1700s, a block presser used heated iron plates to fuse and shape the horn parts.

For our Game of Thrones Style Tankards, the horns are formed and then heated again, at which point the lower part of the horn (closest to the tip) is partially removed to form a “tail”. This part is then folded down, and when cooled, will create the handle.

Finishing Horns

Once horns are formed, reheated, and set, they are cleaned and polished to specification. Some of our horns demand a high polish and smooth look, while others are less refined and have a more natural look. It is purely a matter of taste how much to polish.

While it’s true that raw horn doesn’t necessarily need coating to hold liquid, owners of raw horn must be careful not to use the cup for dairy or acidic beverages like cider. Because of this, we’ve opted to coat our horns so they’re able to hold any cold liquid.

Traditional finishes include varnish, wax, or brewer’s pitch. Since wax and brewer’s pitch are more susceptable to degradation by acidic drinks and washing, AleHorns are sealed using a specially formulated food-safe water-based coating.

After polishing, sealing and finishing, the horns are affixed with any metal fittings or other decorations the horner had planned and (optionally) engraved before being used.

What’s Inside Those Drinking Horns?

Mead

Mankind had their first taste of mead when a beehive that had been rained on and the water and honey mixed with the natural yeast in the air to make the first fermented beverage.

Mead was discovered and enjoyed by cultures all over the ancient world, from Europe to Africa to China. Although we can’t confirm it, it’s largely believed that mead is the oldest alcoholic beverage ever made, so wine and beer drinkers likely have mead to thank for their drink of choice.

Mead is often seen in different cultures as being the drink of the gods. In Norse mythology, for example, mead made from the blood of Kvasir turns the drinker into a poet and a scholar.

Wine

Eventually, folks discovered that fermented grapes taste pretty good too. The Scythians most likely drank wine from their beloved horns.

The oldest evidence of wine production puts it at around the 4th or 5th century BC in the Mediterranean region. early wine drinkers considered drunkenness to be a spiritual experience, which explains the popularity of Dionysus for the Greeks and Bacchus for the Romans – their respective versions of the god of wine.

Grapes are cheaper and more abundant than honey, so as soon as people figured out how to produce wine on a larger scale, mead began to fall out of favor.

Ale

While the Greeks and Romans probably had wine in their drinking horns, the Vikings probably had ale. The Vikings were huge beer drinkers, as barley was one of their staple crops.

Beer’s been around nearly the same amount of time as wine, but grapes don’t grow everywhere, so a preference really depended on geography.

Because fermentation happens fairly naturally, as soon as any ancient culture figured out how to sow grain and turn it into cereal, beer wasn’t far behind. Bread and beer are, by some scholars’ standards, responsible for humanity’s ability to develop technology. There’s not a lot humanity wouldn’t do to get more beer.

Some Notable and Famous Drinking Horns from around the world

We’ve learned a lot about the history of Europe from the horns found at archaeological sites. As each culture reinterprets the drinking horn to make it their own, it’s telling to see what changes and what stays the same from culture to culture.