If you think the Vikings were the first to ever look at the bones growing out of a bovine head and think, “Huh, I’d like to drink from that!” think again. Alehorns (or drinking horns) are absolutely ancient products that come from all over the world. Why? The domestication and butchering of cows is also ancient. So humans have just sort of had bovine horns lying around for a while.
We have to take most of what we know from this period (about 500 BC to 500 BCE) from art of the time period, because horn is nature-friendly and disintegrates over time. Horn-shaped vessels made of other materials, like metal and clay, are more stables and have a better longevity. They’ve been showing up in folk art for the past 2,600 years, but they could even be older than that. Cows were domesticated about 10,500 years ago! And it seems hard to believe that it took 8,000 years for someone to want to drink out of that cup-shaped extra part.
But here’s what we do know:
The Greeks and the Scythians (formidable Eurasian nomads who were contemporaries to our boys in Sparta) liked bovine horns for drinking so much, they wound up even using clay to replicate them when there wasn’t enough horn to go around. Other contemporaries, the Thracians also used horns, and added smelted metal to the mix.
For the Scythians, drinking horns (called rhyta) were exclusively the right of warriors. We know this because they are always found in the graves of warriors, alongside weapons, shields, and other honors. They became a sign of a sacred oath made to a woman– although archeologists don’t know if this woman (found in many carvings where a horn-bearing man is kneeling in front of her) is a Queen, a Goddess, or even his wife to whom he devoted his love and blade. Soon, bejeweled and bedecked horns were all over Asian Minor and into Eastern Europe.
For those horns that were actually horn, they weren’t always made from cow horn. They were often made from the Aurochs– massive, bull-like creatures that went extinct in the 17th century. These horns were lipped with silver, and many of the ancient glass and metal horns history has preserved are based on Aurochs’ horns in size and shape.
The Viking Age
We probably know drinking horns best from the Viking Age. After, next to horned helmets (which are historically inaccurate!), they are the most stereotypical Viking item. Drinking horns made their way north from the Germanic tribes during and after the fall of Rome. By the sixth century, they were considered holy items for female shamans in many Germanic societies.
They featured big in the Norse religion, too. One tale speaks of Thor drinking from a horn that contains all of the seas. The Gjallarhorn belongs to Heimdall, who will blow from it a warning for the end of the cosmos, when Ragnarok begins. In the meantime, he uses it to get drunk at parties and even lets his friends, like Mimir, drink from it.
Norse horns were made from the modern cow, but also from goats. Going against stereotype, these horns were actually smaller than the ones made from the Auroachs horns to the South. Like many ancient horns, they rotted away easily, and we have very few actual, preserved horns from these times. But we do have some preserved metal horns from this time, and we also have horn mounts in many graves.
There is one Aurochs horn attributed to the Norse: in Suffolk, England lies the Sutton Woo burial mound. It’s an Anglo-Saxon ship burial, for those who lived and worked under a Norse-descended East Anglian king. You an see these horns and other, beautiful examples of Norse craftsmanship by visiting the Sutton Woo Exhibition Hall in Ipswitch, Suffolk.
Don’t think that the world has left drinking horns behind! And it’s not just nerds like us who keep them sacred. In the country of Georgia, toasts are a very important event– certain liquors are forbidden, toasting can take many hours and involve many different subjects, and everything centers around the toasting vessel, which is still a drinking horn.
Many pagans, especially those who adhere to the Viking Astaru faith, also use drinking horns as both a part of their sacrifice and in their ceremonial feasts.
Drinking horns will be around for ages to come. And with new technology, new opportunities arrive. For those who find the cow horn part squicky, new options arise in beautifully blown glass, 3D-printed plastics, and expertly carved wood. While we know that horn is the best material (even if it doesn’t last centuries buried in the dirt!), we welcome these beautiful creations. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll carry these vegan horns alongside our beautiful, nature-made AleHorns.
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Many, many years ago when I first became obsessed with Game of Thrones... long before the TV show had been written, I remember an interview where GRRM was asked what the ending of A Song of Ice and Fire would be like.
And he said one word: bittersweet.
Read on for a discussion on how bittersweet we found this episode.