RHYTON in ancient Iran. The word rhyton is the Greek neuter of rhytos “flowing,” from rhein “to flow,” plural rhyta (Wissowa, 1935, pp. 643-45). The word is often translated as “drinking horn,” primarily because of its appearance, due to its manufacture from the curved horn of a bovid. At its upper end, such a horn can be filled with liquid. But on a rhyton, the lower end is not the solid, natural horn; rather, it has a spout for pouring liquid out. This spout must be closed with one’s finger, and when one opens it, the liquid runs out of it. Real rhyta have no stand or feet and must be put aside after use. The rhyta’s ancestors must have been simple drinking horns, looking like the one shown on a gold Scythian plaque from Kul Oba in southern Russia (4th century BCE), now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (Schiltz, 1994, p. 181, pl. 132; Figure 1). Here two Scythian warriors drink out of the same horn; the scene has often been interpreted as a fraternization ritual.

Early in prehistory the rhyton must have been developed out of such simple drinking horns. Later, the lower part of the horn was changed in form and was elaborated with a protome—the sculptured forepart of an animal. Accordingly, the vessels found at Amlash and other sites in northern and central Iran, which are dated to ca. 1000-800 BCE, sometimes are labeled as rhyta (see, e.g., the Cleveland Museum of Art vessel, Figure 2; Vanden Berghe, 1952, discusses Tepe Sialk, Tepe Hissar, and Ziwiye  objects) rather than “spouted vessel.” However, these have legs and are styled like complete animals. They are called rhyta because of the larger opening for filling the vessel on the back of these animals and a smaller spout for pouring out the liquid, which is often located at the mouth of the (Ghirshman, 1962a, pp. 57- 80; Amiet, 1983). In the view of the present author, one should add the criterion that only those vessels that have no stand should be called rhyta. Complete animal-form vessels that have legs and can stand could more appropriately be called aquamaniles (from the Latin words for water, aqua, and hand, manus, an animal or human shaped vessels for pouring water used in hand washing in medieval society).

Rhyta first appear in Iran, that is, in the geographical region where peoples of Iranian stock lived in antiquity (Svoboda, 1956; Frye, 1962, pp. 9-35; Frye, 1984, pp. 1-20), including Bactria, Chorasmia, Sogdiana, and the Tarim Basin of westernmost modern China. To the west, Iranians also lived in modern Turkey, as part of the Achaemenid empire, and into the Caucasus. In the Eurasian steppes, the Scythians and later the Sarmatians likewise were of Iranian stock. Another center of distribution for rhyta was the eastern Aegean area in the Bronze Age of Greece. The historical relationship of the distribution of rhyta in both areas is still under discussion (Koehl, 2006; Manassero, 2007).

The materials used for rhyta originally must have been the natural horns of animals such as oxen, cows, and buffalos, and possibly goats, ibexes, and others, but such rhyta have not survived archeologically. From the 1st millennium BCE, we find rhyta made of ceramic (Kawami, 1992; Haerinck, 1983). From the time of the Achaemenids, we find pieces in gold and silver, and from the time of Alexander the Great (Pfrommer, 1993; Giumlia-Mair and La Niece, 1998, pp. 139-45) up to the end of the Parthian period, examples in gilded silver. Technically, the metal rhyta are composed of two main parts: the upper part, that is, the vessel, which was hammered out of one or more pieces, and the lower part, the protome, formed from a number of pieces; the two parts were then soldered together.  Engraving and gilding was added to the completed pieces. Such techniques can still be found, for example, in Isfahan (Westphal-Hellbusch and Bruns, 1974, pp. 52-115).

Natural material is evidenced in the form of forty large, intricately carved, ivory, horn-shaped rhyta of the 3rd century BCE. These were found during Soviet excavations at a site termed “Old Nisa” (Asacid name: Mithridatkert), located near present-day Ashgabat in Turkmenistan (see Masson and Pugachenkova, 1959; 1982; Barmasse, 1999; Manassero, 2007; Figure 3). These are made from the ivory of elephant tusks (Treiner and Krtycev, 2000), whether from Indian elephants or from African elephants of Ethiopia (Scullard, 1974).

Types of rhyta. There are basically three principal types of rhyta: the bent rhyta, the head rhyta, and the complete rhyta. Most of the bent rhyta have an elongated upper part and a lower part in the form of an animal forepart. The spout is always to be found between the front legs of the depicted animal. From these bent rhyta were developed another type, rhyta that have the upper part styled in the form of human or animal heads, which the present author calls head-rhyta (in German Kopf-Rhyta). A good example is the ‘Drvaspa-Rhyton’ in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio (Shepherd, 1966, pp. 289-317; Figure 4); it was found in the Deylamān region of Iran, south of the Caspian Sea, and is dated to the 6th/7th century BCE (Jäger, 2006a, pp. 210, fig. 5; 212, fig. 12; 213, figs. 13-14; see discussion, below). The lower part of many of the head-rhyta, including the spout, have the form of horned animals, such as cattle or goats. Besides these two main forms, there are rhyta which have the form of a complete animal; one of the best examples is the Sasanian silver rhyton of the 5th/6th century CE in the form of a kneeling horse, which thus is a vessel able to remain upright; it also is from the Deylamān region (in the Cleveland Museum of Art; Shepherd, 1966). This horse rhyton may well be from a court workshop, somewhere in the center of the Sasanian empire, but some details of its decoration refer to a more eastern workshop (see discussion and illustration, below).

Concerning the variety of rhyta forms as a whole, there are other forms of vessels, often called rhyta, that the present author would prefer to call pseudo-rhyta, including such vessels as the golden jar from Panagyurishte, near Plovdiv, Bulgaria (4th century BCE from a Thracian chief’s hoard). It has the form of an Amazon’s head, with its coiffure topped by two resting griffins. The handle is formed like a Greek sphinx, and on the stand there is a lion’s head, which forms the spout (Fol and Marazov, 1977, p. 83; Figure 5). Two other vessels in the form of amphorae from Thrace should be added here. One is made of gilded silver and is undoubtedly of the Achaemenid period in style and ornamentation (6th/5th centuries BCE), with two handles in form of horned lion-griffins. The vessel might have been a gift from an Achaemenid king to a Thracian tribal chief. The reason for this gift seems to have its social background in ritual exchanging of gifts, as described by Marcel Mauss (1950; See GIFT GIVING in Persia). Here the spout is integrated into one of the handles (Fol and Marazov, 1977, p. 74). The other vessel in the form of an amphora can be dated to the 4th century BCE. The handles have the form of fighting centaurs; the spout is on the solid gold foot. On the vessel is depicted the legend of the Seven against Thebes (well-known from the drama of Aeschylus), and, altogether, the object is a great piece produced by a Hellenistic-period Thracian master (Fol and Marazov, 1977, p. 75; Figure 5 = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thracian_treasure#/media/File:Sofia_-_Panagyurishte_Thracian_Gold_Treasure.jpg, center). More examples of pseudo-rhyta could be added, especially from the Thracian cultural area, all made of silver and dated to the 5th/4th centuries BCE, but these are not true rhyta as characterized above.

Following the Persian Wars (500-449 BCE), rhyta appear in Greece. They are all made of Attic red- and black-figured ceramics (Boardman, 1998; 2001; see also “Rhyton”). These vessels follow ‘real rhyta’ in shape; but they have no spouts, and most of them have stands, so they can be added to the pseudo-rhyta. According to Hoffmann they are the product of a certain Persianism after the Greek-Persian wars (Hoffmann, 1961; 1966; 1989).

On the opposite geographical end of Eurasia, we find pseudo-rhyta in the old kingdoms of Kaya and Shilla in Korea between the 5th and the 7th century CE. Two of them, made of ceramic, have bent-rhyta forms with horse heads, but they have a stand and no spout. Another one has a large stand, on which a complete horse is set. On its saddle blanket a drinking horn is fixed. The third vessel from Korea has the form of a warhorse with its rider on top. The spout is elongated (Jäger, 2006a, pp. 199-201 and p. 220, figs. 38, 39, 40). All Korean rhyta examples are made of hard-burned ceramics and were found in tombs of riding/mounted nobility in Korea between the 5th and 7th centuries CE. A connection between the ancient kingdoms of Korea, Kaya, and Shilla, as well as Koguryo, in or before the 5th-7th centuries CE, with the world of the riding nomads of Iranian stock in pre-Islamic Central Asia seems to be evident, but this connection needs to be studied further (Yi Un-ch’ang, 1978-79; Kim Won-yong, 1984; Jäger, 2006b).

Achaemenid rhyta. We find rhyta in the Achaemenid empire (ca. 700 to 330 BCE) in ceramics, in precious metals like gold and silver, or gilded silver. Numerous examples of Achaemenid rhyta are displayed in museums all over of the world. Achaemenid rhyta are, without any exception, of bent form, that is, they are composed of a horn-formed upper or vessel part and a lower part in form of an animal protome. Some of these Achaemenid rhyta can stand like beakers, for example, the piece showing a winged lion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Porada et al., 1962, p. 163; fig. and text, pp. 159-60; Figure 6), found in Hamadan (Wilkinson, 1955, pp. 213-24, 220-21). This rhyton of pure gold, a ‘vessel’ or ‘beaker in rhyton-form,’ could be added to the pseudo-rhyta, but due to the fact that this rhyton has a spout, here it is placed among the ‘real rhyta.’ With its upper vessel part, the stylized wings, and its roaring lion head, it is one of the finest pieces of Achaemenid art (ca. 5th century BCE). In its reclining posture, this lion-griffin fits well in Achaemenid art as a whole and is comparable to many reclining animal sculptures in the ruins of Persepolis (Walser, 1980, pl. 82; Frankfort, 1954, pl. 180c). It has often been pointed out that none of the tribute-bearers of the Apadāna at Persepolis carries rhyta, while other vessels are brought as tribute. The reason could have been that it was not possible to place this kind of rhyta upright on a table to suitably represent the giver as part of the King’s imperial treasures.

Comparable to the gold rhyton in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the gold rhyton in the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran, also from Hamadan (Huot, 1965, fig. 153). Here the lion-griffin shows larger wings, which were added to the piece from separate sheets of gold. As on the previous piece, the muscles are styled as drop-shaped, which is typical of Achaemenid art. Similar to his role in the monumental art of the Achaemenids, the lion stands for the power of the king and can be interpreted as his apotropaion or symbol.

A gilded silver rhyton that can be added to the Achaemenid rhyta is the vessel found at Erzincan in northeastern Turkey, now in the British Museum, London (No. ANE 124081; Curtis, 2000, p. 55, fig. 60; Figure 7). Due to its form, which is stylistically close to the gold examples cited above, it is dated to the 5th/ 4th century BCE. The fine palmettes around the outer rim, the cleanly hammered horizontal fluting of the vessel, and the forepart in the form of a horned griffin with a bird’s beak make it a masterpiece of Achaemenid court style.

Very close to the rhyton in the British Museum is one in the Shumei Collection of the Miho Museum in Japan (Pitschikjan, 1997, p. 80; pl., p. 81, no. 34), which must have been originated from Iran or Afghanistan. It is made of silver with inlays in lapis lazuli, quartz, red jasper, and glass frit (Figure 8; catalogue entry). It seems unusual at first because of the round mark or urna between the eyes of the horned lion. It is plausible, therefore, to place it in an eastern Achaemenid origin (Bactria in Afghanistan). Such marks later become a special symbol for gods and goddesses in the Buddhist context of the art of Gandhara (Tanabe, 1987, pp. 251-59 and plates 22-23).

Also dating into the Achaemenid period is the fragment of a lion rhyton made of elephant’s ivory from Taḵt-e Sangin, Tajikistan (late 5th, early 4th century), now in the Museum of Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Pitschikjan, 1992, pp. 48-49 and p. 147, fig. 25; Rickenbach et al., ed. 1989, pp. 34-35). Taḵt-e Sangin was an important fire temple of the Achaemenid period in the east of the empire and is very likely identical with the site of the Oxus Treasure, which is now in the British Museum (Dalton, 1905; 3rd ed., London, 1964). It is also the first time that a rhyton of ivory came to light in a regular excavation since the rhyta from the Parthian site at Nisa (see above). 

Another rhyton of the Achaemenid period is from Arin Berd, Erebuni near Erevan in Armenia, now in the Museum of Erevan (late 5th, early 4th century BCE). It  shows a Persian nobleman (satrap?) mounted on a kneeling horse with a beautiful saddle blanket displaying ibexes (Ogannesyan, 1973; Arakelian, 1976, pp. 37-41, pl. 46; Cultural Contacts, 1985, no. 5; Figure 9 = en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerevan# /media/File:AchaemenidGoblet01.jpg). From the same Arin Berd archeological context stems a silver horse rhyton, dated to the later Achaemenid period of the 4th century BCE, now in the Erebuni Museum (Badalian, 1996, p. 197, no. 181; Hacatrian and Markarian, 2003). Both rhyta from Arin Berd show flat horse noses, which are depicted in other art of the Achaemenid period. Based on these finds, it seems that the Achaemenid satrap for Armenia was located at Arin Berd (this fact later on will become important for interpretations of the use of rhyta).

All Achaemenid rhyta have the typical court style of the art of the Achaemenid empire, that is, a certain frontality of the animal foreparts and certain solidity. Their ornamentation is limited to the usual ornamentation of the general style of Achaemenid art that used palmettes for decoration, and the muscles of the animal foreparts are shown in drop-like shapes.

With the conquest by Alexander the Great of the Iranian world up to the Indo-Iranian borderlands in the late 4th century BCE, the arts of the whole region changed dramatically (Schlumberger, 1960; 1969). Greek and Oriental art, especially Iranian art, mingled in a most fruitful exchange, which transformed the imagery of the rhyta in a most beautiful way. An example is the silver rhyton in the form of a winged eagle-griffin, which was found in 1905 at Tukh el-Qaramus, Lower Egypt, together with Hellenistic jewelry and a hoard of coins of Ptolemy I Soter (367–283 BC). The rhyton is now in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo (Edgar, 1907, pp. 57 ff., pl. XXV; Rostovtzeff, 1995, I, pl. XLVII.3; Figure 10). This rhyton represents the excellent, early Hellenistic mixture between Greek and Iranian Achaemenid art. As reconstructed, the wings of the rhyton’s eagle-griffin give an impression as if the eagle-griffin would fly, with its paws stretched out at different heights. The open beak and the upstanding crest seem to indicate that it is attacking (illus. at Alain Guilleux). However, this eagle-griffin rhyton never could stand; it always had to be put aside after use. Such freedom in form can also be seen in a silver rhyton with a Pegasus protome that was found near Ulyap, Republic Adygea (5th century BCE) in the tomb of a Scythian chief (Figure 11; illus. at Virtual Museum); it is now in the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, (Nieswandt, 1997, pp. 137-48 and plates 29-30; Schiltz, 1994, p. 361, fig. 264). The rhyton’s spout was closed later by a Greek or Scythian goldsmith and a stand was soldered onto I; thus the rhyton was used by the last owner only as a beaker.

Parthian rhyta. One of the most interesting rhyta, in the Miho Museum, is in the form of a desert lynx (caracal cat, Felis caracal) catching a fowl (Figure 12). It is made of gilded silver from Central Asia or Afghanistan and is dated to the late 2nd-1st century BCE, either of Parthian or of Helleno-Bactrian origin (Umehara and Meyers, 1997, no. 47, pp. 101, pl. 101-2; head detail, p. 103). This seems to be the most free-styled, expressionistic Hellenistic rhyton found to date: the lynx catches the fowl with its claws, and the fowl is fighting for its life. Here one may see an influence of the art of the riding nomads of the steppe-belt of Eurasia (Jettmar, 1965; Brentjes, 1982) mingled with Greek and Iranian features. The lynx, like the panther, had been brought into the context of Dionysian-religious syncretism in Central Asia after Alexander the Great. Recent researches have shown that the Arsacid Parthians always and throughout their rule maintained extensive contacts with their old, nomadic background in the steppes (Olbrycht, 1995 and 1998). A good evidence for such animal-style influences among the Parthians can be observed on a silver coin of King Phraates III (ca. 70-57 BC) (Jettmar, 1964, p. 240). The king here wears a tiara or a helmet decorated with a row of reclining deer (Olbrycht, 1997, pp. 27-65; e.g., see B.M. OR.8429,  Figure 13).

If one views Parthian art as a complex whole, inseparable from Hellenized Oriental art  (Colledge, 1977; Ghirshman, 1962b), the rhyta of Nisa (see above) take on particular significance. Their origin remains open to speculation, but A. Barmasse (1999), examining the carved reliefs around the rims of all the Nisa rhyta, did not find any trace of Parthian religiosity in them, but only pure Greek religious connotations. If this is true, the origin of the Nisa rhyta can be sought in ancient Bactria of the Indo-Greeks. Rather than being made by Parthian artists, the vessels may have reached this Parthian city as booty from wars with the Indo-Greeks of Bactria.  It is also possible that they were produced by artists who were transported to the Parthian kingdom as an outcome of war.

A gilded silver rhyton of the Parthian period (ca. 2nd-1st cents. BCE) is found in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Inventory S.1987.128; Melikian-Chirvani, 1996, pp. 85-139, p. 100, Fig. 3; Figure 14). It is a bent rhyton with the expressive protome of a bull or zebu with curved horns, in whose liveliness we can see the Hellenistic Greek influence in the arts of the silversmiths of this period. Such expressiveness is clearly born out of the Greek understanding of arts, as is shown also by an earlier, bronze rhyton in the Miho Museum, showing a stag protome (Umehara and Meyers, 1997, pp. 130-31; Figure 15). That naturalistic style was prevalent in the classical arts of Greece between 480 and 330 BCE, and the rhyton, which was made in the 4th century BCE, is a good example for the period. Its naturalism is underlined by the undecorated vessel section; the body of the stag merges into the bent form of the vessel without any interruption.

One last example for a Parthian-period rhyton of the 2nd to 1st century BCE is the one with the protome of a lion made of silver; the mane, whiskers, eyebrows, pupils, and tongue of the lion are gilded. Today this piece resides in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Inventory S.1987.130; Melikian-Chirvani, 1996, p. 102, figs. 5-6; Figure 16). This piece has a certain stylistic tendency toward the older Achaemenid style of arts, but this impression might be influenced by the fact that the lion seems to rest so very calmly. On the other hand, it is clear that the silversmith who worked this piece, when designing the upper part of the vessel, aimed for elegance by hammering out the outer rim wide, like a trumpet.

Sasanian rhyta. Compared to the Achaemenid, Hellenistic, and Parthian periods, the number of survived Sasanian rhyta is relatively small and in no comparison in number to other toreutic products, such as decorated plates, jars, and ewers (Harper et al., 1978). A gilded silver rhyton of the 6th/7th century CE or earlier in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Inventory S.1987.33; Melikian-Chirvani, 1996, p. 115, fig. 17; Figure 17) is believed to be of Sasanian period. The protome is the head of a young gazelle; its liveliness seems to come from the Hellenistic past of Iranian silversmith works between Alexander’s time and the Parthians. Around the vessel part runs a relief of walking lions and other animals (hares?). Here one could feel an impression of a renaissance of the Achaemenid court style, and comparison could be made the walking lions from Achaemenid Susa, now in the Louvre Museum in Paris (Sarre, 1923, pl. 39; Figure 18). If this comparison is accepted and if the Hellenistic modeling of the head also is considered, one might date this rhyton some centuries earlier, into the 3rd-4th centuries CE.

We find rhyta depicted on other Sasanian toreutic objects, such as a silver cup in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Inventory S.1987.105; Melikian-Chirvani, 1996, p. 118, fig. 21; Figure 19), but these depictions seem to be archaizing, showing rhyta of an earlier time. Rhyta of more or less Sasanian period exist, but they all seem to stem from ‘Greater Iran,’ outside the Sasanian center, that is, from eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. This is the case of the gilded silver, so-called Drvaspa-Rhyton (see above) and one in the form of a resting horse (Figure 20); today both are in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Ohio (Shepherd, 1966, front-cover photograph and fig. 6-7; Carter, 1974; Marshak, 1986, pp. 269-70 and fig. 190). Both rhyta are from the Deylamān region south of the Caspian Sea and are dated between the 5th and the 7th centuries CE.  The Drvaspa-Rhyton finds its artistic counterparts in Gandharan and post-Gandharan Buddhist monumental art (Jäger, 2006, pp. 187-220). For the horse rhyton, one must presume an eastern Iranian background. There is the knotted tail of the horse, which is typical for early (Old Turkish?) riding nomads. The knotted tail was a symbol of readiness for war or hunting (Jäger, 2006b); and the two phalerae on the horse’s breast show human male busts, which have an old tradition in Central Asia since the Kushans (Göbl, 1989, pp. 867-76) and down to the Iranian Huns. Because of the phalerae, one could date the horse rhyton to the 4th-5th century CE.  The horse depicted by this rhyton can be compared with the vigorous horses of the Sasanian rock reliefs, for example, those at Naqš-e Rostam of the 4th century CE (Ghirshman, 1962b, p. 179, fig. 220).

A small, grayish, ceramic rhyton found at Kohna Masjid, Afghanistan, is of outstanding quality (Schlumberger, 1971; Figure 21) and is of the Sasanian or Hephthalite period (ca. late 5th to 7th century CE). With its fine, sculptured human head that forms the upper part of the vessel, it reminds one of the Buddhist Art of Fondoqestān of the 6th/7th century CE (Klimburg-Salter, 1989, pp. 73, 177-83). Its spout is formed like a Sulaiman-hill-goat (mārḵor, Capra falconi jerdoni Hume). It may well be a product of the Proto-Dards of the Hindu Kush (Jettmar, 1975).

Also to be mentioned are a silver rhyton from Tibet of the 7th century CE; together with a silver cup and silver vase in the same Sogdian-T’ang-Chinese style, the vessel is in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art (“The Year in Review for 1988,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 76/2, February 1989, p. 41, fig. 232; vase and cup: purchased from the J. H. Wade Fund; The Severance and Greta Millikan Fund; rhyton: Gift of Clara Taplin Rankin, Acquisition No.: 1988.67.3; Figure 22). It must have come to Tibet as the bride’s gift for the T’ang princess Wencheng, who married Tibet’s King Songtsän Gampo (d. 649 CE). With its overall decoration of floral and animal designs and its protome formed like a goat (?), it fits well into the ‘international’ style of early T’ang art in toreutics (Rawson, 1982). Possibly it was made at the T’ang court by Sogdian metalsmiths. This would fit well with what we know from Sogdian tombs in northern China in early medieval time (Juliano and Lerner, eds., 2001, part III: Foreign Merchants: From Colonists to Chinese Officials, pp. 220-92; de La Vaissière, 2002). In 1966, D. G. Shepherd used the stone relief of a Sogdian’s tomb chamber from Ch’eng-te Fu of the Northern Ch’i period of the late 6th century CE for her comparisons with the Drvaspa-Rhyton in the Cleveland Museum of Art (Shepherd, 1966, p. 301, fig. 14c). The relief in question depicts the deceased Sogdian chief in an afterlife scene: He holds up a bent rhyton while sitting on large cushions, surrounded by other noble Sogdians (Scaglia, 1958, figs. 1-7).

Up to the present, no such ‘real’ rhyta have been found in these Sogdian tombs of early medieval China by Chinese archeologists, but it is unquestionable that rhyta must have played a certain role in the religious ideas which the Sogdians and other Iranians brought to China. The present author has tried to show that in the eastern Iranian Buddhist kingdom of Khotan, on the southwestern route of the Silk Road in the Tarim Basin of China, rhyta must have played a certain role in burial customs (Jäger, 2006a, pp. 187-220; p. 210, fig. 5). Here we have the ceramic head rhyton of the typical Yotkan ceramics; the vessel part is formed like an old, turbaned man with moustache and a spout in form of an ox or buffalo. This fine and complete rhyton is now in the Provincial Museum of Urumqi, China (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum). Altogether, the Drvaspa-Rhyton, the Kohna Masjid rhyton, and the Khotan vessel, all head rhytons, are a special, eastern Iranian, late antique or early medieval development.

To sum up, it can be established that rhyta must have been developed in the cultural sphere of the Iranians, that is, Iran and Greater Iran, and that they found their way in all parts of the ancient world where Iranian influence can be traced, from Thrace and Greece in the West from the time of the Achaemenids, up to Korea. This was possible either via the vast political influence of the Iranian empires from the Achaemenids to the Sasanians, exercised through riding nomads of Iranian stock, or by trade through eastern Iranian traders, diplomats, and artists like the Sogdians between the 2nd/3rd century CE to the 8th century CE.

The use of rhyta. The earliest rhyta were not used simply for drinking. Normal horns of cattle are much more simple to drink out of; one fills them and empties them from the single large hole. Such drinking horns were widespread in the world of Germanic tribes of Western Europe from prehistory until early medieval times (Redlich, 1977, pp. 61-82). The gold Scythian plaque from Kul-Oba showing two Scythian warriors drinking out of it (see above) is a fine example of this practice among early Iranians. The next step in the development must have been to cut off the tip of the pointed end of the horn and drill a small hole there. The liquid that was poured into the open end could now only run out when the finger, which had to close the horn at the lower end, was taken away from it. This vessel of natural horn would have been the first proto-rhyton, but such rhyta have not survived. As soon as these horns in their bent form were copied either in ceramic or later in metal, the animal protome was added.  The Amlash pseudo-rhyta in the form of complete animals, mainly cattle, have to be viewed in direct connection to the newly developed animal protomes of the bent rhyta. Both show that these kinds of vessels were not used for everyday life, but for religious use, that is, offerings,  but it is difficult to say for which religions.

Rhyta have their homeland in the Iranian cultural sphere, but that does not mean that Zoroastrians used them in their religious rites. In modern Zoroastrianism, no rhyta are used, even though, for the ancient past, A. S. Melikian-Chirvani’s (1982; 1996) observations regarding wine symbolism cannot be ruled out. But one may ask if the question regarding use of rhyta necessarily applies only to a Zoroastrian context.

It has been argued that rhyta were simple drinking vessels like the Germanic Trinkhörner (Gunter, 1987). Several specialists have referenced the few depictions showing people drinking from the spout of rhyta, such as a red-figured Apulian, Hellenistic krater (4th century BCE) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Shepherd, 1966, p. 300, fig. 13; Tuchelt, 1962; Figure 23). But this is a scene of Greek religious background. The man on the dining couch (klinē) lets the liquid run out from the rhyton into a phiale—the Dionysian Greek cult in its Hellenistic form (Fehr, 1971; Lissarrague, 1990). The other depiction cited by Shepherd (1966, p. 301, fig.14.a) shows a man who lets the liquid flow from the rhyton directly into his mouth; this is on a silver plate from the Punjab (Pakistan), dated to the 5th/6th century CE, in the British Museum (detail, Figure 24). But the plate may have its cultural and religious background in a syncretism between late Greek-Hellenistic Dionysian cults and certain forms of Hinduism in the Indo-Iranian borderlands of the 5th/6th century CE.

Often shown as evidence that Iranians drank out of rhyta is the wall painting from Panjikant in Sogdiana (Room No. XXIV/1, 7th cent. CE; Belenitskiĭ, 1980, figs. 55-58 in color), but the man with his turban-like headdress, adorned with three boughs, might be a priest. The winged camel on the upper left side of the wall painting also shows that no simple drinking scene is meant here. The difficulty of such interpretations is shown in the discussion of the Harischandra Seal from Mohra Moradu, Pakistan, of 4th to 5th century CE (Taddei, 1969, pp. 57-68 and pls. I-V), which very likely seems to show the Indian god Kubera, the god of wealth, drinking from what could be a rhyton. Another such example is a rhyton or pseudo-rhyton in the form of a mounted Amazon, made by the Greek potter Sotades (late 5th cent. BCE), which was found in a tomb at Meroe in Sudan and is now in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (Hoffmann and Metzler, 1990, pp. 172-98; Hoffmann, 1997; Figure 25).

On a red-figured wine vessel (lēkythos) from Vouni, Cyprus (now in the Medelhavsmuseet museum in Stockholm) of the 4th century BCE (Schauenburg, 1975, pp. 115-16, pl. 39), we find a Persian satrap holding a scepter in one hand and a rhyton in the other. From one side, a goddess, perhaps the Iranian Anāhitā, comes and offers him a nomadic-type, recurved bow, an old symbol for the ruler in the Iranian world (Jäger, 1988). One can assume that rhyta in Achaemenid times symbolized the power of the satraps in their provinces given to them by the King of kings, as shown by the Vouni vessel. Both the recurved bow and the rhyton represent the power of the Achaemenid king through his satrap. This would also make it more understandable why no rhyta are brought to the Achaemenid king by the tribute-bearers on the Apadāna at Persepolis: they were produced at the royal court especially as gifts to the satraps of the provinces as ruling signs and reached the seat of a satrap as the king’s gift. For example, the rhyton with the horse-riding satrap from Erebuni in Armenia (see above) could have been a fine example of a royal gift of an Achaemenid king to his satrap in Armenia. Those Achaemenid rhyta found in tombs of Thracian chiefs could also have reached them in order to underscore the political ties between the Achaemenid king and the chiefs. The Thracians were valuable politically for the Achaemenids, because they were settled at the borders of Greece. Via the Thracians, the Celts of southeastern Europe also wre influenced in the toreutic arts (Ebbinghaus, 1999, pp. 385-425).

But not all rhyta need have served as symbols of power or regalia. Especially in the case of rhyta lacking archeological context, how and by whom they were used can only be judged by study of the entire composition (in German: Gesamtkunstwerk) of each one. Analysis of the rhyta must consider all variants of every protome form, as well as the complete decoration of the vessel part and the region where a given rhyton originated. The most fruitful outcome would be connection of an animal shown as a protome to a certain god or goddess of some religious cult, although, additionally, the decoration of the vessel would need to fit with this religious context, if known. Each rhyton must be examined individually, and, if protome and decoration conflict, violating the artistic unity and integrity of the vessel, one should doubt the object’s authenticity.

There is no depiction of a scene of libation sacrifices employing a rhyton, on an altar or not, anywhere in ancient arts, yet the vessels must have been so used. The rhyta or pseudo-rhyta from Amlash cannot be related to Zoroastrianism or proto-Zoroastrianism, but would have been used in other cults. Moreover, use by the so-called ‘minor cults’ of folk religions should be considered, which played a much greater role in the early period. For the time of the Achaemenids, a close connection between Zoroastrianism and rhyta is not fully accepted, nor is the status and role of Zoroastrianism in the Achaemenid empire clear—a subject of continuous discussion among scholars (e.g., Frye, 1984, pp. 120-24; Wiesehöfer, 1994, pp. 139-48).

The relationship between religions and the use of rhyta becomes no clearer in the time of Hellenism, after Alexander the Great’s effort to promote syncretism among Greeks, Macedonians, and Iranians as well as other tribes of the East, and under rule of the philhellenic Parthians. The rhyta of Nisa were doubtlessly not only regalia, but very likely were used also in religious ceremonies, but they cannot really be linked to a specific Parthian praxis. They display a true mixture of older Iranian and Greek motifs.

The few Sasanian rhyta of central Iran or those that originated from the central part of the Sasanian empire were probably used for Zoroastrian-like cults. If one investigates the use of rhyta from the geographical point of view, one can get the impression that the rhyta from Central Asia are much more inspired by local religious cults. The connection between these eastern cults and Zoroastrianism is also not fully studied. Shepherd’s discussion of religious implications of the so-called Drvaspa-Rhyton (in the Cleveland Museum of Art) indicate that the female head could be the Zoroastrian goddess Drvaspa, protector of herds (worshipped in the Avestan Sīrōza 2.14 and Yašt 9, tr. Darmesteter, pp. 17, 111; see also GŌŠ YAŠT). M. Carter identifies the female figure in the upper part of the vessel as a depiction of the Indian goddess Durgā Mahishāsuramardini, slayer of the Demon-Bull Mahisa, itself represented by the buffalo protome, which was very popular in the Hephthalite period in Bactria and the Indo-Iranian borderlands of the 6th/7th century CE. The calm and peaceful face of this goddess makes it plausible that another goddess of Buddhism is meant here. The buffalo spout does not conflict with this claim, if we agree that we are not at the end of our understanding of all detailed knowledge of every form of syncretism which must have flourished especially in Central Asia and Greater Iran (Heissig and Klimkeit, eds., 1987). Theoretically the Drvaspa rhyton might have changed owners after it had been used in sacrifices (i.e., libations) to Drvaspa and by Hindus for sacrificing to Durgā Mahishāsuramardini. Later, perhaps it was used by Buddhists for sacrificing to certain Buddhist gods, and so on. 

A comparable case is the use of the little Kohna Masjed rhyton of gray clay of the Hephthalite period of Bactria. Its closest relatives are found in the Buddhist art of the same period (6th/7th century CE), for example, articles from Fondoqestān in Afghanistan. But so far there has been no clear picture as how the Buddhists in this area and times practiced their cults. “Pure religions” without any intermixtures are very unlikely.  Since rhyta long were used in areas where Iranians lived, at some time Zoroastrian priests too may have used rhyta in their cult.

The same problem exists with the fine specimen of a 5th-7th century CE rhyton in clay from Yotkan, Khotan, which is now in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum (Marshak, in Watt ed., 2004, cat. nos. 97-98, pp. 190-91). We know that eastern Iranian Sakas ruled this Buddhist kingdom of Khotan on the southwestern silk road (Bailey, 1982). Boris Marshak tried to interpret the male, turbaned head of the rhyton as being that of an Iranian wine merchant. If we accept that rhyta are no simple drinking vessels, for example, for drinking wine, one needs an answer as who is the old, turbaned man. Considering that the inhabitants of Khotan were, in the majority, East Iranian Sakas, one could conclude that the head may show the Iranian god/king of the underworld, Yima (Jäger, 2006, pp. 187-210, esp. p.194). But how is this to be related to the flourishing Buddhism of Khotan? The head of the turbaned man also has the elongated ears that are seen on so many Buddhist gods and goddesses.

One can ask the same question about the bronze Centaur rhyton from Ishkoman valley in the Hindu Kush (Figure 26), found by Sir Marc Aurel Stein (Jettmar, 1979, pp. 917-926, and p. 923, fig.6; Stein, 1944, pp. 14-16) and now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The crudely modeled, solid, cast figure of a bearded centaur derives from Graeco-Roman models. The rhyton is a leaded bronze of the type common in much of the ancient world in the centuries before and after the beginning of our era. The centaur holds a goat in his outstretched hands. K. Jettmar thought that the goat might symbolize the early Dards (an ethnic group in northern Pakistan, northwest India and eastern Afghanistan; see DARDESTĀN) and the centaur, the Saka invaders in the Hindu Kush and the Karakorum. In this case, it should be a rhyton used in sacrifice to a Saka god, but which god? As mentioned before, the reason why only a relatively limited number of Sasanian rhyta survived might be that in Sasanian times the Zoroastrian cult had changed, and they were no longer needed; or perhaps after 652 CE the majority of the Zoroastrian priestly implements (ālāt) were destroyed, especially when they were of precious metal and could be melted down. However, why did the Zoroastrians who migrated to India not take their religious implements with them; why did rhyta not survive over there? It is legitimate to see the rhyta as vessels for libations in Iranian and Central Asia. Whatever liquids were sacrificed with the rhyta—milk, wine, haoma, or even water from special, religiously important springs, or even blood (to Durgā?)—we can infer a deeply rooted religious connection with cults of gods and goddesses of fertility, regeneration, and the other world (Jenseits).  If rhyta were cult implements in Zoroastrianism, they need not have been limited to this religion alone. Other cults and religions may have used them, like the Greeks in their Dionysian cults. 

The rhyta cannot have been simple drinking vessels; otherwise one should find them as complete vessels and as abundant shards among the finds in settlement sites, and not only throughout Iran, but also in Central Asia. To take Sogdiana as an example, as a highly civilized eastern Iranian cultural area between the 3rd/4th century CE and the 8th century CE, one should assume that on the many murals in the houses of rich noblemen and merchants there should be depictions of rhyta in use during banquets and feasts in great number and in various types. But this is not the case. The banqueters all use cups, ewers, and the like, not rhyta. The only mural in Panjikant showing a rhyton user very likely is a priest, but is he a Zoroastrian priest?

Zoroastrianism played a great role in the religious history of Iran from Achaemenid times to Sasanians, but what role did rhyta play in this religion? In modern Zoroastrianism rhyta do not play any role, and they are not a part of the required ritual implements.


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(Ulf Jaeger)

Originally Published: October 24, 2016

Last Updated: October 24, 2016

Cite this entry:

Ulf Jaeger, “RHYTON,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/rhyton-vessel (accessed on 25 October 2016).