Early Icelandic Drinking Horns

The Úrarhorn or “Aurochs-Horn” connects to our sacred cow, Auðhumla. She is the provider of sustenance who licked the rime to create the first God, Buri. Her milk then became saturated with this substance and thus became the holy Aurr by way of Ymir. When he drank of her milk he became so fertile that he sweated children out of his body. When the Gods killed him his flesh became the fertile soil through this act of drinking. This is a very important event in our lore and is honored by our folk sharing the drink of Sumbl with it. This event took place in the North, since Auðhumla was there licking the ice. The Niðafjǫll or "Lower-Mountains" (Mountains of the Underworld) were the area where this took place making this yet another chthonic symbol of our faith.

There are several descriptions of sacred horns in the lore, often with great power involved. This starts with the famous Gjallarhorns, which are likely the horns of Auðhumla herself after she was slain by Ymir. It is very likely that there are two Gjallarhorns, because we are told that one is a blowing horn used by Heimdallr1 and the other is a drinking horn used by Mímir.2 In Saxo’s Gesta Danorum (bk. 8) we have the account of a magical horn that is probably the same as the horn of Mímir, in which “the horn lengthened out into a serpent, and took the life of the man who bore it.” In the Guðrúnarkviða II (21-2) we have a statement that likely relates to this horn, which is also the one used to give the holy drink to the dead:

Færði mér Grímhildr full at drekka

svalt ok sárligt,

né ek sakar munðak; þat var of aukit urðar magni, svalkǫldum sæ

ok sónum dreyra.

Váru í horni

hvers kyns stafir ristnir ok roðnir, ráða ek né máttak, lyngfiskr langr, lands Haddingja ax óskorit,

innleið dyra.

Grimhildr handed me to drink in a filled horn,

a cool, bitter drink,

to forget my past afflictions. this drink was prepared from Urðr’s Strength,

Cool-Cold Sea,

and the Blood of Són.

All kinds of staves were engraved and painted

on the horn,

which I could not interpret: the long-heath fish (serpent) of Hadding’s Land (Hel), unharvested ears of grain, and animal’s entrances.

 These same three drinks are those givien to Heimdallr when he ventures to men to provide them with the tools of civilization. This we see in Hyndluljóð 37, where they are listed in the exact same way. These are the liquids of the Underworld Wells, and as such it is fitting that we find them in connection to the dead and to the sacred horns of Auðhumla.

We also see that the Gods themselves drink from horns, and that their Sumbl is a prototype of what ours should resemble. In Valhǫll we are told that Hrist and Mist, the Valkyrjur, bring the horn to Óðinn to drink from.1 When the Gods feast at Ægir’s they drink from horns,2 and at Útgarðloki’s Þórr drinks from an unusual horn that siphons from the sea.3 This then connects us to the holy rite of Sumbl, the drinking feast, which shall be explained further on. We also see it in the act of betrothal, such as in Sigrdrifumál (1-2 pr.) where Sigrdrifa offers Sigurðr a horn to seal their bond.

There is also the tradition of the blowing horn, which we see represented in Heimdallr’s Gjallarhorn. There are later Scandinavian traditions that exist demonstrating the use of horns to drive away evil spirits, which can be related to the Wild Hunt and the hunstman’s horn.4 This would certainly point to a type of cleansing, as Ragnarǫk itself is the greatest purification of all, and the blare of the Gjallarhorn heralds its beginning.5 Such ideas can be used in our rites as well.

The fundamental ceremonial purpose for the Úrarhorn is as the full within the Sumbl, which will be discussed later. We know that the horn was part of the stalli set-up because we are told in Sturlaugs Saga starsfama ch. 17, which describes a beautiful Hof in Bjarmaland and within that Hof there lies a magnificent Úrarhorn:

Þat er til máls at taka, at hof eitt stendr á Bjarmalandi. Þat er helgat Þór ok Óðni, Frigg ok Freyju, gert með hagleik af dýrstum viði. Dyrr eru aðrar á hofinu ór útnorðri, en aðrar ór útsuðri. Þar inni er Þórr einn. Þar er úrarhorn á borði fyrir honum fagrt at sjá sem gull. En Sturlaugr einn skal í hofit ganga, því at honum einum mun gæfa til endast, ok skal hann þó eigi berum hǫndum á horninu taka, því at þat er fullt af eitri ok fjǫlkynngi.

To begin with, there’s a certain hof in Bjarmaland. It’s consecrated to Þórr and Óðinn, Frigg and Freyja and made with skill from the most precious of wood. The hof has a door facing northwest and a door facing southwest. In there is only Thor. The úrarhorn is there before him on a table, as fair as gold to look at. But only Sturlaug is to enter the temple, because only his luck will suffice; even so, he mustn’t touch the horn with bare hands, because it’s full of poison and sorcery.

With this we understand that the horn plays a major role in ceremony and within the décor of the Hof. It is sanctified during Blót with the Hammersign, as the most significant form of blessing within the rite. The idea that the horn is “full of poison and sorcery,” seems to relate to the Sigrdrifumál (8) passage on blessing the full with the signing (Signa):

Full skal signa

ok við fári sjá

ok verpa lauki í lǫg;

þá ek þat veit,

at þér verðr aldri

meinblandinn mjǫðr.

The Full shall you sign,and guard against peril,

and a leek cast in the liquor: then I know that you

will never have mead mixed with treachery.

-Excerpt from ÆFINRÚNAR book 1