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Golden rhyton from Iran's Achaemenid period. Excavated at Ecbatana. Kept at National Museum of Iran.

A rhyton (plural rhytons or, following the Greek plural, rhyta) is a container from which fluids were intended to be drunk, or else poured in some ceremony such as libation. Rhytons were very common in ancient Persia, where they were called takuk (تکوک). The English word rhyton originates in the ancient Greek word ῥυτόν (rutón).

After a Greek victory on Persia, much silver, gold, and other luxuries, including numerous rhytons, were brought to Athens. Persian rhytons, which appear in Athens suddenly in great quantities after the war, were immediately imitated by Greek artists.[1]


Name and function

Boar's head rhyton from Ugarit, view from the bottom.

The word is believed to be derived from Greek rhein, "to flow", from Indo-European *sreu-, "flow", and would thereby mean "pourer". Many vessels considered rhytons featured a wide mouth at the top and a hole through a conical constriction at the bottom from which the fluid ran. The idea is that one scooped wine or water from a storage vessel or similar source, held it up, unstoppered the hole with one's thumb, and let the fluid run into the mouth (or onto the ground in libation) in the same way wine is drunk from a wineskin today.

Smith points out that this use is testified in classical paintings and accepts Athenaeus's etymology that it was named apo tes rhyseos, "from the flowing". Smith also categorized the name as having been a recent form (in classical times) of a vessel formerly called the keras, "horn", in the sense of a drinking horn. The word rhyton is not present in what is known of the oldest form of Greek, Mycenaean Greek, written in Linear B, but the bull's head rhyton, of which many examples survive, is mentioned in the inventory of vessels at Knossos, such as tablet 231 (K872), as ke-ra-a,[2] shown with the bull ideogram. The word is restored as an adjective, *kera(h)a, with Mycenaean intervocalic h.

Wide provenance

Horn, possibly for drinking, at the Iraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete.

It cannot be supposed that every drinking horn or libation vessel was pierced at the bottom, especially in the prehistoric phases of the form. The scoop function would have come first. Once the holes began, however, they invited zoomorphic interpretation and plastic decoration in the form of animal heads, with the fluid pouring from the spout as a mouth: bovids, equines, cervids, and even canines.

Rhyta occur among the remains of civilizations speaking different languages and language groups in and around the Near and Middle East, such as Persia from the second millennium BC onwards. They are often shaped like an animal head or horn and can be very ornate and compounded with precious metals and stones. In Minoan Crete, silver and gold bulls' heads with round openings for the wine (permitting wine to pour from the bull's mouth) seemed particularly common, for several have been recovered from the great palaces (Iraklion Archaeological Museum).

Minoan steatite rhyta in the Iraklion Archaeological Museum.

Not all rhyta were so valuable; many were simply decorated conical cups in ceramic. It is also likely that in shepherding cultures, the primary material for rhyta was animal horn; this cannot be substantiated, however, because horn deteriorates rapidly once buried in earth. Based on this, Chusid speculates that Biblical Israelites used ram's horn (shofar) for both sounding purposes and for drinking. Noting that the Greeks and other cultures used rhyta for ritual purposes, he surmises that the Israelites used their shofar for ritual drinking as well, and suggests that the original "Cup of Elijah" used at Passover seders was probably a ram's horn rhyton.[3]

Greek symbolism

Classical Athenian pottery, such as red-figure vases, are decorated with painted themes typically from mythology. One standard theme depicts satyrs, which symbolize ribaldry, with rhyta and wineskins. The horn-shaped rhyta are carefully woven in composition with the erect male organs of the satyrs, but this blatantly sexual and somewhat humorous theme appears to be a late development, in keeping with Athenian humor, as is expressed in the plays of Aristophanes. The ornate and precious rhyta of the great civilizations of earlier times are grandiose rather than ribald, which gives the democratic vase paintings an extra satirical dimension.

The connection of satyrs with wine and rhyta had been made earlier. In Nonnos's epic Dionysiaca, he describes the satyrs at the first discovery of wine-making:

"...the fruit bubbled out red juice with white foam. They scooped it up with oxhorns, instead of cups which had not yet been seen, so that ever after the cup of mixed wine took this divine name of 'Winehorn'."[4]

Karl Kerenyi, in quoting this passage,[5] remarks, "At the core of this richly elaborated myth, in which the poet even recalls the rhyta, it is not easy to separate the Cretan elements from those originating in Asia Minor."


Head of a black slave on a rhyton, 4th century BC, Apulia. Cabinet des Médailles, Paris.
  1. ^ Bakker, Janine, Persian influence on Greece, in: Iran chamber society, accessed: January 2009.
  2. ^ Ventris & Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek, 2nd Edition, Page 330.
  3. ^ Chusid, Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram's Horn, 2009, Chapter 3-6 - Ram's Horn of Passover (
  4. ^ Dionysiaca XII 361-362.
  5. ^ Kerenyi 1976 p 60

See also

External links

Pictures of rhyta:

Articles on rhyta:


  • Kerenyi, Karl, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 1976.


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