Everybody knows that Vikings drank their banquet mead out of horns. When you pick up the keys to your time machine, and you go back to the Viking age and you go to your first wedding reception, someone, probably a woman, will hand you a horn when it’s time to toast the bride.
Everybody knows this because it’s a scene you see a lot on rune stones and jewellery. It’s an archetype like when Odin is welcomed by the Valkyries into Valhalla. He gets his mead from a great horn and all is well in that old Norse way.
But is the whole drinking horn thing true?
And if so, is it a particularly Viking thing?
The answer to both is sort of but drinking out of ceremonial horns pre-dates the Vikings by a long, long way. The expensive horns we know about commonly come from noble women’s graves so there is some female connection to the tradition.
But horns from the Viking age turn out to be surprisingly few. There’s good evidence, sorry to say, that the custom of horn-drinking was actually on the decline by the Viking age. Yes, Vikings used them but most of what we think about how they used them comes from inference.
Mythology is full of horns that much is clear. Thor visits the giant Urgard-Loke at Jotunheim and enters a drinking contest. He was handed a horn, a giant one.
In the stories of the real-life Icelandic chieftain Egil Skallagrimsson (pause here to note that this is after about 1200, which is not strictly Viking) there’s a wedding-feast episode set in the 10th century, in which a host tries to poison one Egil, and gets killed for it.
He had used a ceremonial horn. Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla stories of Norwegian kings, set in the 10th-through-12th centuries, had plenty of royal vignettes also like this. The meaning of the horn gets confusing in some of them.
King Hakon, the Good, makes the sign of the cross over his before he drinks. He was supposed to bless it in Odin’s name and the watching noblemen are very perplexed. In another story, Olaf Trygvason uses his horn to pronounce war on the Anglo-Saxons – after which he and his retinue drink to the health of Christ.
Fancy horns had names. One of Olaf’s was called Ringhorn because it shrieked if it thought the bearer was in danger. Another one was given one of Odin’s nicknames. This one spoke prophecy occasionally.
Less fancy ones went nameless. Sometimes, as in the case of Harald of Norway’s horn, the horn was not fancy and it was nameless simply an appendage that came off an animal’s head.
The historian Saxo about whom we’ve written before alludes to a lot of horn-drinking and some of it is historical as far as we can tell. He confirms what mythology makes it sound like that the practice is reserved for noblemen.
By the end of Saxo’s generation, however (he died in 1208), it’s clear that the whole horn custom was completely out of style. The practice had vanished from all Scandinavian sources. Here’s an interesting archaeological note that supports the non-historicity of Viking horn-drinking.
Literary descriptions of the horns themselves are generally vague but one source, the Sturlaugs saga, describes one made of aurochs horn. The aurochs was a genetic precursor to the ox. (Note the similarity in the names.) The aurochs was never native to Scandinavia and was extinct in Western Europe by about 1000.
You can see pictures of Viking-age roistering with horns in a lot of places though you have to remember to separate mythology from fact. Drinking horns may not have been all that common in the Viking age but the idea of the drinking horn was pretty entrenched.
Odin drinks from one on one of the runestones of Gotland. (He’s got his spidery eight-legged horse with him.) There’s another Odin scene with a ship nearby on the Alskog Tjängvida stone which dates to the 8th century. There are at least 5 others like this. In all of them a woman does the handing-over of the horn. It seems to be the privilege of the lady of the household.
Sometimes, the horn motif is used as secondary decoration on rune stones. These, and inscriptions that appear to go with them suggest that there was sometimes a palace official charged with the duty of handling the horns on state occasions. You find it on jewellery too.
The horns appear to stand in for representations of Odin, or Thor, or even Freja. In one case, a shield-maiden (we wrote about these recently too) welcomes another woman, a Valkyrie, with a horn. The best of these comes from Zealand where there’s a gigantic Viking age colony unearthed.
There are amulets there with horn-bearing Valkyries all over them. And there’s a really famous one from Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, found in a boat-grave containing (unusually) a woman. It’s with women that we’ve found most of the actual horns that one was found in Schleswig, in northern Germany.
It’s a true Viking age find dating from early in the 10th century. It’s decorated with silver relief of ornaments and birds. More famous and almost as good is a two-horn set from Birka (see our piece on women-‘warriors’)
It’s common for horns in burials to be found in pairs by the way, though we’re not sure why; two-horn sets don’t exist in stone depictions however. About two dozen other finds exist around Scandinavia, the horns not as fancy or as well preserved but almost all of them associated with women’s graves.
Next time you’re in the National Museum of Denmark, you can see three really good horns decorated with dragons. Vexingly, we don’t know where they came from or how they got to the museum. There’s another like these in Ireland now in a private collection. Its decoration is recognizably Nordic but also bears Irish style.
Horns and the rest of the world
Which brings us to a general problem when we try to understand Vikings and their horns. The Norsemen were ambitious traders. Those ships of theirs got deep into Russia and the Ukraine by way of Byzantium and also south, into contact with the Arabs. We know because we’ve found Viking burial mounds along the way.
There’s a huge exhibit of one of these in the State Historical Museum in Moscow. We also know because contemporaries abroad have described the coming of Viking traders for us. The Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan watched a ship burial complete with the sacrifice of a slave girl on the banks of the Volga in 922.
The ornamentation of the horns in the Volga find mix Scandinavian style with other styles. Instantly, therefore when you see a ‘Viking horn’, you should think broadly about it. Sometimes, though they were in the possession of men from Scandinavia, they may not be as Scandinavian as they might seem. For that matter, the men themselves may not have been all that Scandinavian either.
Likewise, off in the other direction, there is a smattering of horns in England that are supposed to be of Nordic origin. Let’s remember that the Anglo-Saxons were regularly raided by various Scandinavian elements from the 8th century on that the upper third of England was Danish in the 9th century, and that by the 10th century, the Anglo-Saxons had a Danish king in Canute.
It’s no surprise that two kings with drinking horns appear in what’s now called the Bayeux Tapestry, a woven war chronicle covering the battle of Hastings. (Hastings was a victory for the Normans, incidentally, who thought of themselves as French, more or less, but who came from Norway – hence their name.)
But the Anglo-Saxons used horns of their own as we know from their storytelling. (They used them to formalize land transactions.) And the supposedly, Nordic horns in England (of which tradition only claims about two) aren’t demonstrably Nordic at all. One is in York Minster. (York is ‘Jorvik’ – see our piece on Old Norse, the language.) It’s called the Ulph horn.
It’s Viking age but it’s got animals all over it that include elephants and griffons; it came to the Minster from the hand of a Danish chieftain but its manufacture was almost certainly Italian. There’s another in the Victoria and Albert Museum that’s supposed to be connected with Canute.
But we can tell it’s a fourteenth-century piece. There are echoes of horn-drinking but only echoes in manuscript illustrations in England, shortly after the Viking period. Because they’re unusual, these were probably copied from earlier manuscripts, a practice that was very common in scriptoria.
Anglo-Saxon manuscripts don’t depict honorific drinking, though. Satan uses one and all others are in the hands of gluttons and drunkards. The synod of Chelsea forbad drinking communion wine from horns clear back in 787, so it may be that the conversion of Europe to Christianity had some dampening effect on horn-drinking in general.
The answer is yes
Vikings loved to talk about their drinking horns then and a certain number of them used them. Some of them were quite fancy though most were not. The fancy ones were known abroad and there’s evidence that styles abroad in turn influenced the Viking ones. The rest of world used horns, too.
The Romans had used them, the medievals later would. The Viking ones did exist, though not in the abundance we might imagine. In the Viking mind, though, the horns were centrally important, evidence of men’s power and authority on earth, and ultimately the province of the gods themselves.