Drinking out of Other People

I played rugby back in college about 249 years ago. And if my foggy recollection is correct, we had a bit of a drinking problem. There were drinking games and there were drinking songs. There was something of a drinking Olympics, but I don’t remember who won. Or if there was a winner. Or if this actually happened.

Somewhere along these times, we ended up in possession of a prosthetic leg. It was from the knee down. And to whom it had once been attached to was never fully discussed, but as no angry person ever hobbled after us, I’m guessing it was just one of things you gather from either someone’s basement or attic. You know how it is. Old books, a few army medals, the Declaration of Independence, someone’s leg.

We took to drinking out of this leg after games. I suppose we did this because it seemed like a badass thing to do and we were, after all, rugby players, so we should do badass things. What I did not know is that we were more or less carrying on a 15,000 year old tradition of drinking out of other people’s body parts.

People have been drinking out of each other for 15,000 years. Gough’s Cave in England serves as the first archaeological evidence of this practice. While it’s not exactly known why whoever was around at that time did that, it’s clear it happened. A skull was found with scrapes in its bowl and smoothed out edges for consumption without cutting yourself.

Though the practice is attributed to the Vikings, and seems to slip in easily to explain the cheers ‘Skol!’ it seems that the Vikings were about the only people not doing this. The Chinese date this practice back to 453 BC, when the winners of the Battle of Jinyang made their enemies’ skulls into winecups. The ancient Xiongnu of (present-day) Mongolia did it too. Laoshang killed the king of the Yuezhi around 162 BC, and in accordance with their tradition, ‘made a drinking cup out of his skull’. Later, they would drink blood out of it with Chinese ambassadors. I’d like to call your attention to ‘in accordance with tradition’ a phrase which suggests this had been done for a long time. Ancient Mongolia sounds like a fun place to visit.

In Buddhist tantric and Hindu tantric rituals in India and Tibet people drink from skulls but they never belonged to an enemy. In fact, the skull’s previous owner doesn’t matter much. To them. I’m guessing the former owner would have two cents to add to its use.  

In India and Tibet, the skull cup is known as a kapala, and is used in Buddhist tantric and Hindu tantric rituals. The skull does not belong to an enemy, and indeed the identity of the skull’s original owner is not considered significant. Hindu deities such as Kali are sometimes depicted holding a kapala full of human blood. Many carved and elaborately mounted kapalas survive, mostly in Tibet. The practice took place in Japan, in ancient Bulgaria, and Kiev. The Boii, a Cletric tribe, took part in it as well as did the Scythians of Central Asia.

But, the question must be posed, why? Surely there were other apparatuses at hand for drinking. Surely someone had created the cup by these points in the culture’s life. Well it seems that it’s done for many different reasons.

The Japanese warlord Oda Nobunagaartisans had artisans make intricate drinking bowls from the skulls of his enemies, lacquered, covered in gold leaf, and set in the aperture from which it had been cut, concave side up. Nobunaga presented them to show what happened to people who opposed or betrayed him. He sounds like he’d be fun to have at a dinner party. After King Alboin defeated the Gepids in 567 AD he killed their king Cunimund, made a drinking-cup from his skull, and took his daughter Rosamund as a wife. So I guess he used it as a self-given wedding gift. Khan Krum (first Bulgarian Empire) drank from the skull of Byzantine emperor Nicephorus I (811 AD) after killing him in the Battle of Pliska. He did this because he was angry as Nicephorus had rejected two truce offers. Also, drinking from the skull of one’s enemy was how the victor could consume the soul of the vanquished.

But the reasoning wasn’t always so grim. The Pecheneg Khan Kurya and his wife drank from the skull of Sviatoslav in 972 AD. They meant it as a compliment, as they prayed for a son as brave as the deceased Rus warlord. Th Boii used skull cups in sacred ceremonies, rather than throwing shade at former enemies. The poet Lord Byron drank wine from a skull his gardener had found at Newstead Abbey. He did this because he was Lord Byron.

In our own way my college rugby team was taking part in this tradition, but why, I don’t know. We drank from it when we lost as well as won, so it can’t have been a victory thing. We didn’t know who it belonged to, so it can’t have been a complimentary thing. And we weren’t intimidating anyone with it, well, I’m sure someone was grossed out beyond belief. Maybe it was to consume someone’s soul. Who knows. But you’d have a better chance of finding out motivation than of finding out who thought this was a good idea back in the day.

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