Throughout history the skulls of dead humans have proven to be a great fascination for the still-living (just last month we wrote about a ‘skull-cult’ at the dawn of civilization). And one of the most macabre manifestations of that fascination is the ‘skull cup’ – a food bowl or drinking vessel made out of the top of the skull (the calvaria).
Ancient cultures across the world are recorded as having made the heads of their defeated enemies into skull cups. The ancient historian Herodotus wrote that the Scythians would take “the skulls of their enemies, not indeed of all, but of those whom they most detest”, and saw off “the portion below the eyebrows”. They would then clean out the inside, and cover the outside with leather. “When a man is poor, this is all that he does”, Herodotus noted, but “if he is rich, he also lines the inside with gold: in either case the skull is used as a drinking-cup”.
The skulls of a number of famous individuals – including the pirate Blackbeard, and the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus I – are also said to have been made into trophy tableware. Meanwhile, Buddhist and Hindu rituals employed skull cups not as a trophy, but rather as a sacred item or tool, known as a kapala.
The skull cup going to auction has a silver-coloured metal rim inscribed with the words “SKULL DRINKING CUP USED BY LORD BYRON AT NEWSTEAD ABBEY”. Though the auctioneer seems to be hedging his bets over the authenticity of the claim on the inscription, saying “although I am not a leading expert in skulls, I think you have to take this at face value and either believe the inscription of not”.
However, there is little doubt that Lord Byron did indeed own a cup made out of a skull, as Byron’s own description of how it came into his possession is recorded in Thomas Medwin’s Conversations of Lord Byron, published in 1824, the year of Byron’s death:
There had been found by the gardener, in digging, a skull that had probably belonged to some jolly monk or friar of the Abbey, about the time it was demonasteried. Observing it to be of giant size, and in a perfect state of preservation, a strange fancy seized me of having it set and mounted as a drinking cup. I accordingly sent it to town, and it returned with a very high polish and of a mottled colour like tortoiseshell.
Lord Byron goes on to explain how the ‘drinking cup’ inspired him to create a pseudo-secret society with friends, which he called the ‘Order of the Skull’. “I afterwards established at the Abbey a new order,” he told Medwin. “The members consisted of twelve, and I elected myself grand master, or Abbot of the Skull, a grand heraldic title”. He ordered a set of black gowns – “mine distinguished from the rest” – and from time to time, “when a particular hard day was expected, a chapter was held; the crane was filled with claret, and, in imitation of the Goths of old, passed about to the gods of the Consistory, whilst many a grim joke was cut at its expense.”
And Lord Byron perhaps even had more than one skull cup in his possession: Medwin further questioned him about his “particular predilection for skulls and cross-bones”, noting that a friend of Medwin’s had told him he had brought other bones to Lord Byron from Switzerland at the poet’s request. Byron confessed that he had indeed asked for the remains; the bones in question were taken from the field of the Battle of Morat – the subject of some verses in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Lord Byron noted that, in his opinion, “a single bone of one of those heroes is worth all the skulls of all the priests that ever existed.”
Lord Byron’s skull cup was also mentioned – with some distaste – by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his writings about a visit to Lord Byron’s family residence during the 1850s, roughly three decades after the poet’s passing:
Here, I think, the house-keeper unlocked a beautiful cabinet, and took out the famous skull which Lord Byron transformed into a drinking goblet. It had a silver rim and stand, but still the ugly skull is bare and evident, and the naked inner bone receives the wine. I should think it would hold at least a quart – enough to overpower any living head into which this death’s-head should transfer its contents; and a man must be either very drunk or very thirsty, before he would taste wine out of such a goblet.
And if all that wasn’t enough to convince us that Lord Byron had his very own wine goblet made out of a human skull, it’s worth noting that he also literally wrote a poem about the object: Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed from a Skull:
Start not—nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
I lived, I loved, I quaff’d, like thee:
I died: let earth my bones resign;
Fill up—thou canst not injure me;
The worm hath fouler lips than thine.
Better to hold the sparkling grape,
Than nurse the earth-worm’s slimy brood;
And circle in the goblet’s shape
The drink of Gods, than reptiles’ food.
Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others’ let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?
Quaff while thou canst—another race,
When thou and thine like me are sped,
May rescue thee from earth’s embrace,
And rhyme and revel with the dead.
Why not? since through life’s little day
Our heads such sad effects produce;
Redeem’d from worms and wasting clay,
This chance is theirs, to be of use.
That of course doesn’t mean this particular cup is the genuine article – indeed, the anecdotes and the poem could have inspired someone to make a fake skull cup and attribute it to Lord Byron after his death. But I would imagine a quick check with the seller could produce some more documentation and evidence for its authenticity.
The question is: would you buy it? And if so…would you drink from it?