We all know that people in Viking societies loved a good feast. Gluttony of food, copious amounts of alcoholic drinks, and general merrymaking were all a must. 

A bovine bounty

Drinking vessels, sometimes but not always fashioned out of a bovine's horn, had been part of the cultural fabric of civilizations since at least what modern historians called "Classic Antiquity" (c. 8th century to 5th century BCE). 

From the Ancient Greeks to the Scythians, to the Romans and Germanic tribes that bordered the Roman Empire, this drinking vessel, which could be fashioned plainly and simply from bone or elaborately with gilded pieces of metalwork and everything in between, was often the centerpiece of feasts.

The use of a drinking horn is believed to have originated in an area that was controlled by the Greeks and Romans and connected to people somewhat ambiguously called "the Scythians." 

These were believed to be nomadic steppe peoples who dominated much of what is now the Eurasian steppes, as far west as modern-day Ukraine. 

By the late Iron Age (c. 1200 – 500 BCE.), it had reached Central Europe with drinking horns uncovered by modern archaeologists from this period in the Balkans.

Cultural transfusion through objects

As the Roman Empire began transforming (don't say collapsing), arguably from the 3rd century CE, Germanic tribes became more and more ensconced in all things Roman. Part of this cultural transfusion was the adoption of drinking vessels and horns. 

Any important Germanic chieftain would have an imitation Roman-style drinking horn, perhaps fashioned out of glass, showing how "civilized" they truly were. 

The northern extent of these Germanic tribes was the Scandinavian peninsula, and though it took much longer for Roman influence to reach the cold north, drinking vessels became a part of these proto-Viking cultures during the late Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE - 800 CE).

By the time of the first recorded Viking raid, at the end of this period, drinking vessels were seen by people in Viking societies as an important cultural object. 

The most common type was, of course, the famous Viking drinking horn – a much-loved prop in any Hollywood depiction of the Vikings. During the Viking era (c. 750 – 1100 CE), these were often made from animal horns – most commonly a goat or cow horn – having been cleaned out and meticulously polished. 

These were then shaped into a drinking vessel whilst keeping a pointed tip at one end. To add a personal touch, carvings or engravings were added, as well as metallic intricacies, whilst symbols of Norse mythology or the sagas could also be etched onto the horn.

Drinking horns were also used as status symbols. Photo: Dmitry Bakulov / Shutterstock

Status and symbolism

The drinking horn's use as a vessel for liquid indulgence was not its only function. A common sight at any Viking feast or festival, these were often passed around and consumed by several people. 

This helped to foster a sense of comradery amongst the drinkers, especially important if the feast was held for political reasons. 

Furthermore, the consumption of alcoholic drinks was an integral part of Viking hospitality. Passing an honored guest a drinking horn was seen as a symbol of friendship, harmony, and perhaps history's most delicious act of welcoming.

For those that were passed a drinking horn, it was not all fun and games. There was also a strict etiquette to be followed; the drinker had to finish the horn (whatever was contained inside it, which was often beer but could also be wine or mead) in one continuous gulp without a pause. 

This was seen as a sign of powerful masculinity, endurance, and stamina – which Viking chieftains and political elites wanted to be associated with.

The design of the drinking horn could also be used as soft power by these same elites. The size and ornate elaborateness of the drinking horn were used to project one's status symbol and wealth. 

This meant essentially that the more "bling" that was on a drinking horn, the richer and more powerful the owner was. Larger-sized horns were also associated with higher-ranked individuals. 

Not for the first time, nor last, time in history, large phallic symbols were used, by powerful men, to display their...worth.

Religious rituals and later reinterpretations

Finally, one of the more overlooked functions of a drinking horn was its use in religious rites or rituals. They were often used in oath-making, which the Vikings took exceptionally seriously. 

To imbibe an alcoholic drink after making an oath was the correct way to bond an oath maker to the oath that had just been taken. The Vikings had perfected the art of a good toast, and drinking horns were often used to toast everyone, from political elites to the Norse gods themselves.

There is surprisingly little mention of a drinking horn in the Norse sagas and stories that were written during Viking times. 

However, in a poem called Guðrúnarkviða hin forna, compiled in the Poetic Edda, there is a description of a drinking horn with runic inscriptions. This poem is believed to have been written at the turn of the 11th century CE.

Centuries after the last Viking ship ever sailed, there was a "Viking revival" that swept much of Scandinavia in the mid-to-late 19th century. 

Intertwined with romantic nationalism, this revival saw the "rediscovery" of the Viking history of the region. 

There was a resurgence in the production of drinking horns well into the early 20th century CE, often made as luxury items fashioned out of gold or silver and heavily bejeweled.

The History is Now Magazine has more on Vikings and alcohol here

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