In popular culture, the image of a Norse seafarer, or Viking, with a horned helmet is one of the most recognizable icons. This imagery has been broadly accepted and embedded within our cultural consciousness. But have you ever wondered about the Viking horn official name or even if there was a specific term for it? In this article, we’ll delve into the history of the Viking horn, its depiction in popular culture, and its official name.
The Common Misconception: Viking Horned Helmets
Firstly, it is crucial to address a widespread myth: the iconic Viking horned helmet. Despite their prevalence in films, television, and books, no historical evidence suggests that Vikings wore horned helmets. The Viking Age, which spanned the late 8th to the early 11th century, left various archaeological remnants, but no horned helmets were among them.
The Viking Horn Name
Though the image of a Viking donning a horned helmet may be a myth, the Viking horn itself is authentic and was an important part of Viking culture. It was primarily used as a drinking vessel and was made from the horn of a bovine animal. The official name for this kind of Viking horn is the ‘Viking drinking horn,’ or simply, ‘drinking horn.’ This term underscores the horn’s primary function within Viking society.
History and Use of the Viking Drinking Horn
The Viking drinking horn played an important role in Norse culture. Vikings used these horns for everyday drinking and during feasts and religious ceremonies. The size and decoration of a drinking horn often reflected the status of its owner. Affluent individuals or chieftains usually owned bigger and more ornately decorated horns.
Drinking horns were used in ‘sumbel,’ a ceremonial toast or drinking ritual. During the sumbel, a horn filled with mead would be passed around, and the participants would make toasts, boasts, or oaths taken seriously by the community.
The Viking Horn as a Status Symbol in Norse Society
In Norse society, the Viking drinking horn held a symbolic value that extended beyond its functional use as a beverage vessel. The horn’s size, material, and ornateness directly reflected its owner’s social status and wealth, making it a potent status symbol.
The drinking horns of chieftains and wealthy individuals were typically larger and more intricately decorated than those of ordinary citizens. The grandeur of a drinking horn was a clear display of affluence, as only the wealthier Vikings could afford to adorn their horns with carvings or inlays of precious metals such as gold or silver. The artistry invested in crafting these horns was remarkable, ranging from geometric patterns to complex depictions of Norse myths and legends.
Moreover, a richly adorned horn signified not only the owner’s wealth but also their social connections, alliances, and victories. The horn might have been a gift from a powerful ally or a spoil from a victorious raid or battle. Hence, in Norse society, drinking horns carried a dual function: they served a practical purpose in daily life and communal ceremonies and acted as markers of wealth, prestige, and power.
Viking Drinking Games: The Role of the Drinking Horn
Amid the harshness of their daily lives, Vikings found joy and camaraderie in communal gatherings, and central to these were drinking games and festivities. The Viking drinking horn, the centerpiece of such occasions, was more than just a vessel—it was a tool of social interaction and amusement.
One of the most prominent drinking games involved participants boasting about their accomplishments while consuming generous amounts of alcohol from the horn. The game’s rules typically revolved around each participant taking a gulp from the horn, then telling a tale or making a boast. If the others deemed the claim dubious or exaggerated, the boaster had to drink again as a ‘penalty.’
Another common practice was ‘horn passing.’ Here, a filled horn would be passed from one person to another. Each participant would have to drink and recite a verse, toast, or sing a song before passing the horn along. This game was not just a source of merriment but also a display of wit, eloquence, and memory.
These games fostered a sense of community, camaraderie, and healthy competition, with the drinking horn playing a pivotal role in Viking social life, acting as a catalyst for storytelling, laughter, and shared experiences.
Making of a Viking Drinking Horn
The process of making a drinking horn was meticulous and labor-intensive. After the animal’s death, usually a bull or an auroch, the horn would be removed, cleaned, and scraped to remove the soft interior. It was then shaped and polished until it achieved the desired look. Some horns were left plain, while others were decorated with intricate carvings or adorned with metals like gold or silver. Each horn was unique and often reflected the personality or status of its owner.
The Drinking Horn in Norse Mythology
The drinking horn also held significant importance in Norse mythology. In the Prose Edda, one of the most renowned sources of Norse mythology, the giant Utgarda-Loki challenges Thor to drink from a horn that, unbeknownst to Thor, is magically connected to the ocean. Despite his godly strength, Thor only manages to lower the sea level slightly, much to his frustration.
What Is the Horn that Starts Ragnarök?
Ragnarök, in Norse mythology, refers to the apocalyptic series of events that leads to the end of the world and the rebirth of a new one. It is a cataclysmic period marked by epic battles, natural disasters, and widespread chaos. The onset of Ragnarök is signaled by the sounding of a mystical horn known as the Gjallarhorn.
The Gjallarhorn, which translates to ‘yelling’ or ‘resounding’ horn, holds a significant role in Norse mythology. It is the instrument of Heimdallr, the god who guards the rainbow bridge, Bifröst, which connects the mortal realm to the gods’ realm, Asgard. Heimdallr is said to possess foreknowledge and heightened senses, enabling him to hear the grass growing and see hundreds of miles around. His most crucial duty is to blow the Gjallarhorn when he sees the signs of Ragnarök approaching.
In the mythological narrative, when the end times are imminent, Heimdallr lifts the Gjallarhorn and blows into it. Its sound is so loud and piercing that it echoes throughout all the nine realms, waking the gods and alerting them that the foretold time of reckoning has begun.
Hence, the Gjallarhorn is not just a simple horn; it is a cosmic alarm bell, a harbinger of the end times, and the catalyst for the ultimate showdown between the gods and their adversaries in the epic tale of Ragnarök. Its blast signals the beginning of the end and the start of a new cosmic cycle.
Who Is the Viking God of Sound?
In Norse mythology, Bragi is the god associated with sound, specifically with music, poetry, and eloquence. Although there isn’t a specific deity of sound, Bragi is the closest entity due to his association with the spoken and sung word.
Bragi, often depicted with a long beard and holding a harp, is considered the patron of skalds, the poets of the Vikings. He is renowned for his wisdom and mastery of the spoken word, with his name believed to be derived from the Old Norse verb ‘braga,’ meaning ‘to celebrate’ or ‘to poetize.’ Bragi’s ability to captivate audiences through his eloquent words, songs, and poetry indirectly linked him to the power of sound, shaping how his listeners perceived the world around them.
Bragi is married to Idunn, the goddess of youth, who possessed apples that the gods ate to maintain their eternal youth. His parentage isn’t entirely clear, but in the Prose Edda, a primary source of Norse mythology, he is described as the son of the All-Father Odin and the giantess Gunnlod.
Interestingly, in Old Norse, the term ‘bragr’ also refers to ‘the best, the first in rank, excellence,’ linking Bragi to the mastery of poetry and song and their power. Although not a god of sound per se, Bragi’s connection to the spoken and sung word has led to his association with sound in a broader sense within the rich tapestry of Norse mythology.
The Viking Horn in Modern Culture
Today, the drinking horn, also known as the Viking horn, is a popular symbol of Viking culture. It has found its way into various forms of media, from film and television to video games. Despite its historical inaccuracies, the Viking horned helmet is still commonly used in media to signify the Viking persona.
Reproductions of the Viking drinking horn are also popular items. Craftsmen often produce them from actual horns, or they are replicated using modern materials like plastic or metal. They serve as intriguing decorative pieces or are used in Viking reenactments or festivals, reinforcing the enduring impact of Viking culture on the modern world.
Despite the misconceptions surrounding the name for Viking horn and its use, it remains an integral symbol of Viking heritage. The Viking drinking horn, far from being a mere vessel for drinking, was an item of status, a centerpiece in rituals, and a link to the gods according to Norse mythology. The continued popularity of the Viking horn in modern culture reflects our fascination with these seafarers of the past, serving as a timeless reminder of the rich and complex Viking history.