Copies of the Golden Horns of Gallehus 5th century BC: Two horns made of sheet gold, discovered in Gallehus, north of Møgeltønder in Southern Jutland, Denmark. Image: Vladimir Tkalčić (Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Topic: Nordic drinking history
A new book describes the fascinating history of drinking horns and their importance within Scandinavian culture where their roots stretch back into at least the Iron Age as several graves have been found to contain examples from this period.
A long history
During Classical Antiquity, it was the Thracians and Scythians who were known for their custom of drinking from actual horns but in Bronze Age Mycenaean Greece, although they had retained their shape the materials used were clay or metal. Their spread across Central Europe and into Scandanavia by the 5th century BC can be traced by their fittings found in various graves.
The Gallehus horns, discovered north of Møgeltønder in Southern Jutland, Denmark, were created from sheet gold. Designed to look like auroch horns, they were found in 1639 and in 1734 respectively at locations only 20 metres apart and date to the early 5th century BC. Sadly the originals were stolen and melted down in 1802.
Some drinking horns were even imported into Scandinavia from the Roman Empire and made from fragile glass. However, it is in the Viking Age that the drinking horn fills the sagas and mythology and are found throughout their world. Fortunately, decorative metal terminals and mounts recovered archaeologically show that the drinking horn was much more widespread than the small number of preserved horns would otherwise indicate.
Horn fragments of Viking Age drinking vessels are rarely preserved, but the ones that are show both cattle and goat favoured. However, the majority were from domestic cattle and held around half a litre.
Significantly larger auroch horn examples (as the size of the fittings attest), found at sites such as the Sutton Hoo burial would have been the exception.
Banned by the church
Suddenly in the 1100s the use of drinking horns stopped in Scandinavia, apparently banned by the church which saw them as symbolic of the older pagan culture. A hundred years later though the the practice resumed, and most of the medieval drinking horns come from 1300-1400 ‘s with many masterpieces decorated with gilt, silver and bronze.
Mythical and supernatural
A few of the horns in the Danish collection are up to 87 cm long and come from aurochs, which became extinct in the 1600s. During the Middle Ages it was believed that many of the horns were griffin claws, a mythical creature with a head and body of an eagle and the hindquarters of a lion.
Often the drinking horn is imbued with a supernatural aura and appears in dramatic tales and stories such as fairy women trying to entice men to drink deadly poison.
Unusually, the ‘Three Kings’ have a special connection to drinking horn cultural history, and many of them bear inscriptions of their names; Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Their special holy day is celebrated on the 6th January, when tradition says that they found the baby Jesus after following the star. One of their gifts is often regarded in Scandinavian countries to have been a drinking horn.
The new book is by Vivian Etting, a historian and curator at the National Museum who specializes in 1300s and 1400′s Nordic history and has written several books and numerous articles including in-depth studies regarding the medieval castles of Denmark.
Source: National Museum of Denmark
For more information go to drinking culture