Rhyton (plural rhyta) is the ancient Greek word (ῥυτόν rutón) for a container from which fluids were intended to be drunk, or else poured in some ceremony such as libation.

Name and function

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 rhyta 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 instances survive, is mentioned in the inventory of vessels at Knossos, such as tablet 231 (K872), as ke-ra-a, shown with the bull ideogram. The word is restored as an adjective, *kera(h)a, with Mycenaean intervocalic h.

Wide provenance

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 decor in the forms 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 BCE 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).

Not all rhyta were so valuable; many were simply decorated conical cups in ceramic.

Greek symbolism

Classical Athenian pottery, such as red-figure vases, are decorated with painted themes typically from mythology. One standard theme depicts satyrs, which are ribald symbols, with rhyta and winekins. 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'.
Karl Kerenyi, in quoting this passage, 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."


See also

External links

Pictures of rhyta:
* Photo of a rhyton
* Achaemenid Persian Lion Rhyton
* Rock-crystal Rhyton of Minoan Crete
* Early Iranian Horse Rhyton
* Minoan Bull-head Rhyton
* Prehistoric European Rhyta
* Tibetan Rhyton
* Cretan-style Rhyton from Egypt
* Attic red-figure vase, satyr holding a rhyton
Articles on rhyta:
* Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, under " Rhyton"
* Karla Huebner, "A Minoan Vase from Zakros, Crete: The Sanctuary Rhyton", in ANISTORITON Issue P032 of 7 June 2003


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

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