Originally made out of necessity and practicality (and the desire to drink more mead), horn drinking vessels have gone from the mundane to the ceremonial to what they are today – a way to connect a little more authentically to our past.
Horn Drinking Vessels from the Gods
While the true origin of the horn was likely the fact that it was a waterproof vessel that didn’t require expensive materials or tools to create, over time the Germanic cultures who had been using them since before anyone could remember developed more interesting stories to explain why man would be given a gift as wonderful as the ability to pound 12-24 ounces of liquid without the temptation of setting down the cup.
For the Scythians, who were easily the world’s greatest drinking horn ambassadors, the drinking horn was given to their king by a god.
In an Old Norse tale, Loki challenges Thor to a drinking contest, but fails to inform Thor that the horn used in the challenge is magically connected to all the seas in the world. He loses, but later that night wins a wrestling match against Old Age. Sounds like a pretty normal Friday night in the dorms.
Rituals involving Horn Drinking Vessels
Because many different cultures around the world associate cows with life-giving nourishment, in many places warriors were welcomed home from battle by females serving them wine or mead out of drinking horns. Warriors both male and female were often buried with their drinking horns, signifying the heavy symbolism they carried as a connection to both earth and the gods.
Some horn rituals date back tens of thousands of years, as evidenced in the incredible Venus of Laussel. The cave carving found in France dates back up to 25,000 years, and portrays a traditional sacred female nude offering a drinking horn.
How Horn Drinking Vessels are Made
The horn of a bovine such as a cow, water buffalo, or aurochs, has two sections: the core and the outer horn. To create a drinking horn, the core must be softened and removed and the outer horn must be tempered to regain its strength after softening.
By nature, all drinking horns in incredibly unique. The thickness of the wall of the finished vessel, as well as color and texture, depend entirely on the individual animal from which it came. Most horn makers boil the horn until it’s soft enough to remove the core, which is made of marrow. Removal of the marrow is often very difficult and messy. Other horn makers prefer to leave the horn out somewhere warm and dry until the core naturally detaches from the walls.
Once horns have prepared for working, it’s often split and pressed or molded into a design. If the horner chooses to leave the horn in its natural shape, tools like saws or rasps can be use to cut and inscribe the horn. If a different shape is planned, such as with a tankard, the horn is heated until pliable, which is difficult because every horn will have a different point at which it becomes flexible enough to work with without breaking it. If it gets too hot, the horn will be ruined. Some choose to reboil the horn, while others dry bake it.
Once the horn has taken shape, it’s time to give it a final reheating to make sure it’s set. After cooling, the horner polishes the horn and finishes with varnish, brewer’s pitch, or even beeswax. Finally, it’s time to add any embellishments or carvings.
Types of Horn Drinking Vessels
The traditional horn vessel is one that is left in the shape of the conical animal horn. We call ours the Viking drinking horn. Horns range in sizes from 2-beer to shotglass, and while it’s fun to see if you can drink it all in one go, gives you the ability to free up your hand for eating a meal or holding your beloved.
Horn vessels can also take the shape of other traditional alcohol cups, such as tankards or tumblers. To make our horn tankard, the horn is cut leaving a “tail” of horn off the rim, which is then heat molded to form the curved handle. Tankards have been a staple of deep, dark pubs for centuries.