Modern portrayals of the Vikings seem to be obsessed with horns, particularly in regards to those worn on the head (as part of the helmet) and those used for drinking alcohol. While the former has been proven false time and again – THE VIKINGS DID NOT WEAR HORNS – the second use, drinking from a horn, is a much different story. According to modern depictions, Vikings have a pseudo-monopoly on drinking horns, but the Vikings certainly were not the first to use them. Were Viking drinking horns really a thing? They were, but perhaps not exactly how you had envisioned.
What did the Vikings use to drink alcohol?
Drinking horns have been found scattered across the Viking Age archaeological record, from grave finds to pictorial evidence. No evidence is more compelling than the depiction of a drinking party, painted on a stone in Gotland in the 8th century, and which depicts every attendee of the party holding a drinking horn.
Does this mean all Vikings drank exclusively from drinking horns? No. We must remember that the artist was likely paid by a chieftain who was much concerned about his enduring reputation, and therefore he would have asked the artist to make it look like the best party there ever was.
The reality is that the Vikings would have used whatever was available to them to drink their ale. The most primitive vessels may have been small cones made of rolled birch or rowan bark. Bowls and goblets would have been the most commonly used vessels to drink, made from whatever material the owner of it could afford. Believe it or not, some Vikings could afford glass chalices, though these would have been extremely rare.
What place did drinking horns have in Viking society?
Drinking horns, historians believe, would have been a luxury item used almost exclusively for special occasions and rituals (such as ritual drinking). Horns were difficult to procure, mainly since animals were exceedingly expensive to raise in Viking Age Scandinavia. Hence, they held tremendous value, and only a wealthy chieftain or his family could have afforded one.
This does not mean less wealthy folk did not also enjoy the occasional drink from a horn. Viking culture demanded largesse from chieftains and kings. Leaders recruited and retained the loyalty of their warriors by showering them with gifts. A polished, decorated drinking horn would have made any warrior of the day extremely happy.
Were drinking horns invented by the Vikings?
No. Drinking horns were nothing new by the time the first Vikings set sail for Lindisfarne. In fact, drinking horns had had a long history dating back to antiquity. Julius Caesar, famed emperor of Rome, observed the use of drinking horns by the Gauls (who lived in modern-day France). He described their use in his book, De Bello Gallico:
“The Gaulish horns in size, shape, and kind are very different from those of our cattle. They are much sought-after, their rim fitted with silver, and they are used at great feasts as drinking vessels.”