Some Ideas Never Die

I was back at my parents for the ThanksGavin and I noticed the magazine cover to the right sitting in their powder room. This ceramic dog head, it turns out, is an late 18th or early 19th century British object called a Stirrup Cup. These popular objects were used by aristocratic gentlemen and ladies for the purposes of libations (getting drunk) while hunting. They were ordinarily gifts the host offered during the fox-hunt, on the occasion of the final drink, usually containing port or sherry. Now this in itself is normal enough — considering the British — but for me as a History geek I was stuck by its resemblance to the object on the left.

This little fellow, which is known as a Rhyton, is Greek. Probably Apulian from the look of it, meaning made by Greek colonists in the boot-shaped part of Italy, somewhere roughly in the 4th or 5th century BC. 2200 years before.

So what? But I love this stuff. A Rhyton served the exact same function as the Stirrup Cup. You drank from it while hunting. In the case of the Greeks, undoubtedly wine. The lefthand example is typical Athenian-style glazed terracotta.

But the Greeks didn’t invent this form. It’s much older still, of Persian origin. Here are a trio of Persian horns from three different periods of Ancient Iranian history.

The lion in the upper left is Achaemenid, the Empire of Xerxes and Darius, featured as the villains in the movie 300 (boo hiss), and conquered finally by Alexander the Great. This specific vessel (or one like it) actually makes an appearance in my novel The Darkening Dream, as my 900 year-old vampire al-Nasir owns one. He’s partial to gold. And things owned by kings.

The stag is from Parthia, in North East Iran, and probably a bit later. You can see the more dramatically accentuated horn shape here.

This lovely little bovine is Sassanian, the later empire that existed in Persia during the late Roman period and prior to the Islamic conquest. This is the setting for Aladin by the way — more or less.

This form may be extremely ancient in central Asia, possibly going back for millennium and animal shaped drinking vessels have been found from as early as 5000 BC! Horns were probably in use as drinking vessels in the region since Neolithic times or earlier, and terracotta replicas could easily be 10,000 or 15,000 years old.

But how did it end up in Greece?

The Greco Persian War of course — again the subject of 300. Many of these were captured, and the Greeks took a liking to them. So they minted out all sorts of Hellenized versions, usually in terracotta, as this was the typical material for Grecian drinking vessels.

The resemblance is a bit more than coincidental. Athenian pottery in particular was immensely influential in the entire Hellenistic and then Roman world. These vessels remained in use, modeling all sorts of animal flavors from the 5th century BC until the late Roman period (and possible later), circa 3rd century AD.

By the late Roman period the influence of such things such things were undoubtedly well installed in the mindset of many people as part of hunting and feasting traditions. So therefore we find things like this.

These gold examples, in clear imitation of the Greek forms, were found in a hoard in Bulgaria. I’m too lazy to really research it, but I would suspect they are from the Bulgarian kingdoms of late antiquity. They could be earlier, possibly even Hellenistic.

So what happened to the Rhyton during the long dark period of Europe’s middle years. I tried to find out (casually, using only Google). Drinking horns themselves were in great use, particularly among Celtic and Germanic groups. Some retain animalistic features like.

This is not as obviously derived from the same prototype, but certainly could be. Undoubtedly the functional object, the hunting horn vessel never went away. But by the 18th century, particularly in Britain, the Stirrup Cup appears and with it full and intense revival of the ancient form. Is this due to continuos conservation of the form and idea through the entire Middle Ages? Probably not, but more likely reflects a deliberate harkening back to the classical era. All sorts of neoclassical trends were at work during the 18th century. Stylistically the three great trends of this era were: Neo-classicism, Rococo, and Chinoiserie.

This rabbit and fox are clearly the same idea. Like the Greeks before them, the British, with their own thriving new ceramics business, chose the medium of pottery.

Above is an early 19th century example in the Medeval Revival style that is clearly aping the older chicken legged drinking horn, if not the orginal prototype.

The British template made it across the shores to America in the above example, being particularly Southern. I’m sure these were quite popular with the Gone with the Wind set.

And finally, persists even today, in an over-commercialized red-neck variant.

2 comments on “Some Ideas Never Die

  1. In college, we used plastic cups to drink beer, more than a stone’s throw from these fancy vessels. I’d guess they exist still in part because they were unique, even in their day. What did the rest of us use?

    • agavin says:

      One of the great losses of the industrial revolution is that before it, everything was pretty much a hand product, made by craftsmen with pride. But there have a lot of plusses, particularly for those who aren’t fantastically wealthy — like for example, owning more than one suit of clothing.

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