Ancient Glass Blog of The Allaire Collection

RHYTONS and HORNS OF PLENTY by Theo Zandbergen

Posted in Uncategorized by Allaire Collection of Glass on December 17, 2019

RHYTON’S and HORNS OF PLENTY by Theo Zandbergen

In this posting a lot of glass objects in the form of a rhyton or a horn of plenty are shown. The use of horns is already a very ancient tradition and used in many (tribal) ceremonies and traditions. But, what is or would have been the meaning of these luxurious and sometimes a bit over the top objects and the use thereof? Just a bit of a disclaimer, do not expect a full-fledged in depth essay on this. No just some info to bring a bit of context around the symbols of horn’s, horn’s of plenty, Cornucopia, the rhyton.


At first, where is the horn symbol amongst others coming from?

Think many people know the story of Abraham and Isaac where the God of Israel asks Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. When Isaac is at the offering table all of a sudden a ram shows up and that ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s place. It is said that the left horn of that ram was the first sjofar. The sjofar is mentioned when Moses receives the Torah when there is a loud sounding of the sjofar together with lightning and thunderclaps. The sjofar is still used in the Jewish tradition and is the only musical instrument allowed into the synagogue. Interestingly, as David Giles found out, the Vikings used natural animal drinking horns often mounted with silver decorations. Knowing the most of the time boisterous behaviour of the Vikings one can understand that glass horns would not last long. Sometimes the glass horns are more or less shaped like the rams horn, see the Merovingian one from the 5th century AC and the horn from Western Europe 275-325 AC from the Corning Museum, both shown in the posting.

Then there is the story of the (drinking) horns.

The glass drinking horns more or less shaped like the rams horn and sometimes decorated with glass trailings, were basically made for the aristocracy also for tribes in the Baltic and were essentially made by the Germans as found out by David Giles. However, many of the horns shown in the posting don’t have the twists like the rams horn. Those are just crescent shaped and are either with or without an opening in the end part. Some of the end parts even have a kind of rim working which make it look like a “mouthpiece” for a trumpet. (Frankish drinking horn from the British museum, and the one from the Römisch-Germanischen in Köln) Have never tried if it is possible to get some form of sound from those horns with a “mouthpiece”. But, it may connect to the rams horn tradition. Drinking from such horn must have been quite a technique not to spill the content over the elegant dresses. Perhaps those glass horns are the forerunners for the so called trick glasses which came in use in the 17th century.

In my opinion the horns are also symbols of wealth or horns of plenty or better Cornucopia. (Cornu=horn, copia=abundance, see copious)

Think the story of Cornucopia is appropriate in the context of this small expose as it connects the rams horn with the horn of plenty. The famous goat Amalthea nurtured Zeus at Crete. To thank the goat Zeus put the horn shaped star sign Cornucopia in the sky. The horns of plenty are often shown on pictures, statues and even coats of arms like the one of North Carolina.

The drinking horns like the Dutch Façon de Venice one now in the Corning and shown in the posting is certainly not an object that was common to even the homes of the then middle classes. No, it certainly was a part of the opulence in the homes of the very well to be like the shareholders of the VOC. Probably those eloquent objects were cabinet items in those houses. Perhaps that’s the reason that these objects were well preserved so we can still admire these today.

And then the rhytons (Greek plural: rhyta).

These are the oldest known drinking cups of this form and closest to the original horns.

The etymology of rhyton seems to connect to “to flow”. The earliest known ones, basically conical forms enhanced with all kinds of motives like animal heads, stem basically from the Bronze age. One could paraphrase stating that the original rhytons are closest to the myth of Zeus, the goat and the galaxy. These metal or ceramic drinking or libation cups/horns were widely spread over let’s say Eurasia. The original ones, were most of the time, provided with a drinking aperture at the narrow end as well most of the time decorated with parts of the anatomy of animals. With the discovery to inflate glass the forms and shapes of the original designs further developed into the forms shown ao. in this posting. A hypothesis could be that the ones with a hole at the bottom were basically used for libation. But, possibly also as drinking vessels where the fluid was scooped up while the bottom hole was closed and drinking by releasing the bottom hole. Basically in a style like the poron’s in Spain. But, the question remains why would anyone try to drink from the bottom with the chances to spill a lot and make a monkey of oneself. Perhaps the ones with a bottom hole were part of drinking games. Games like that were quite popular. And, were these drinking games only for men or also for the ladies? I guess both but, who knows?

Concluding: People have always tried to embellish their homes their environment, to play games, to innovate, to tell stories, to explain their reasons of existence. The rhytons’s and horns of plenty can be seen in that context. And we, we have the pleasure looking at those objects trying to envision in which context those were used.

Theo Zandbergen, January 2017.

(This write up was put together with some help from Wikipedia)

Also see “The Glass Drinking Horn

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