Horn as a Drinking Vessel: Part 1

By Ceara ni Neill

Steer horns, ramsí horns...just about any horns! Evidence of horn used as a drinking vessel dates back at least to the 5th century b.c.e. (before the common era) in Northern Europe. There is no reason to doubt that horn was used similarly in Russia, Africa, and the Orient, since all raised cattle, sheep and other horned animals. Because the horn is of an animal and thus part of the sacred circle of life so cherished by pagan cultures, it seems to me that the horn as a drinking vessel is more prevalent in polytheistic cultures.

When Christianity began to spread across roman Britain, the drinking horn became less common, making way for metal, pottery, and the more expensive Roman glass. Metal and pottery were already in existence of course, but now they were more common. The hand of the Republic was not felt everywhere, though; Ireland and islands to the north were protected by the Roman movement by sea, though Ireland was not far behind.

Often, in these Current Middle Ages, we see people carrying horns that are very large. Perhaps itís a Freudian thing, I donít know; but in period cow and ramsí horns (the most frequently used by northern Europe) were comparative in size to a 12-ounce size cup, usually never more than 16 ounces. Most likely in early period* they would have been used by the lower classes, or by upper classes and royalty after being molded and highly decorated. Most of the horns found in British Isles have been fitted with silver and gold mounts and are dated prior to the 11th century; an ivory horn, circa 1600, was found in Italy and is intricately carved with battle scenes. Cattle and ramsí horns are naturally hollow and very resilient; thus it is no surprise that horn has been called the plastic of the Middle Ages. It can be carved or molded, used as decorative trim, jewelry, flatware, or just about anything.

Unfinished horns can be bought from some SCA leather merchants (mundane merchants that carry them are harder to find) or partially finished from suppliers like Tandy Leather Co. While the partially finished ones are much easier to work with (the hard work has already been done), completely unfinished horns are considerably less expensive. For those of you that are skeptical about the safety of foodstuffs stored in these wonderful natural containers, Iíve been drinking out of horns for years and I'm not dead yet, and if it had killed our ancestors, we wouldnít be here today.

Next month will present a step-by step process for the preparation of a drinking horn, so stay tuned!

*SCA early period is defined as 600c.e. to 1066c.e.

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