Lord Byron composed this poem shortly after he received a skull back from London as a drinking vessel, mounted upon an engrave pedestal with a silver rim round the edge :
“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 quaffed like thee
I died ; let earth my bones resign
Fill up – thou canst not injure me ;
The worm has 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 reptile’s 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 ? ” – (1808.)
”Lord Byron’s own account of how the cup came into its present form is quite clear: ‘ The gardener in digging discovered a skull that had probably belonged to some jolly friar or monk 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 to me with a very high polish and of a mottled colour like tortoiseshell.”
There seems to be a very ancient pattern of the offering of heads and skulls of “special people” into a well or spring, followed by the drinking of the water of the well, or indeed the immersion of the body or parts of the body within the water. This placing of the head was not necessarily therefore an offering : more a medical practice. That is, a pagan ritual of the the giving of a sacred head, in exchange for health benefits. A votive offering of the most important part of the sacrificial human: like the head of the Baptist on a plate, but which was then altered into items that were human made in similar fashion as humankind started climbing the civilization ladder.
This process became even more direct when the drinking of the water straight from the skull was initiated;Especially as it appears that discoveries show the practice to be universal; from Germanic tribes, Vikings, Tantric Skull Cups in Hindu cultures, Buddhist cultures and similar practices in the Middle East. The question remained however,whether it was the skull, or the water, which was the healer, and though obvious that neither can heal, the origins of these strange practices do not seem traceable.
Paul’s Historia gentis Langobardorum, is an early Dark Ages account that contains some distinctive features. We are well inured with mother-in-law humor, but Paul recounted a macabre father-in-law joke ; One of the best known aspects he recalls, unavailable in any other source, is that of the skull cup, or human calvaria as a drinking implement. In Paul the events that will lead to Alboi
217;s downfall unfold in Verona. In a battle, Alboin killed Cunimundus in 567 and made a drinking cup out of his head once he had cut it off. He then took the slain king’s daughter as a wife. During a great feast Alboin gets drunk and orders his wife Rosamund to drink from this cup. There are two versions of the story but in both cases the Cunimundus trophy becomes the agent of Alboin’s death.
” When he was more flown with wine than was appropriate at a feast in Verona, he asked that wine be given to the queen to drink in the cup which he had made from the head of his father-in-law Cumimundus. He invited her to drink happily with her father… Therefore when Rosamund found out about the matter, she conceived a deep pain in her heart that she was unable to quell. She burned to avenge the death of her father on her husband”
The tale has been often dismissed as a fable, and Paul was conscious of the risk of disbelief. For this reason he insists that he saw the skull cup personally during the 740s in the royal palace of Ticinum in the hands of king Ratchis. In the first case, there was no hidden trick to the invitaton, just a monstrous, humiilating and insulting joke. In the second version, she is tricked into drinking from the skull cup unawares whose skull it was; not a verbal joke, but an evil prank. According to Edward Gibbon, the Lombards ”contemplated with delight” the head of Cuninmund; and that the skull fashioned into a cup was both to satiate the hatred of the conqueror as well as being part of the local savage custom; Gibbon makes analogy to scalp taking in North America.
The use of skull cups has been noticed among nomadic peoples, and in particular among the Lombards’ neighbors, the Avars. Skull cups are evidently an element in shamanistic ritual, where drinking from the cup is considered a way to assume the dead man’s powers, with the more violent the death, the more potent the skull. In this context, Stefano Gasparri and Wilfried Menghen see in Cunimund’s skull cup the sign of nomadic cultural influences on the Lombards: by drinking from his enemy’s skull Alboin was taking his vital strength. As for the offering of the skull to Rosamund, this may either be a ritual request of complete submission of the queen and her people to the Lombards, and thus a cause of shame or humiliation; or alternatively, a rite to appease the dead through the offering of a libation. In the latter interpretation, the queen’s answer reveals her determination to not let the wound opened by the killing of her father be healed through a ritual act, thus openly showing her thirst for revenge.
The episode is read in a radically different way by Walter Goffart. According to him, the whole story assumes an allegorical meaning, with Paul intent on telling an edifying story of the downfall of the hero and his expulsion from the Promised Land, due to his human weakness. In this story, the skull cup plays a key role as it unites original sin and barbarism. Goffart does not exclude Paul having really seen the skull, but believes that by the 740s the connection between sin and barbarism as exemplified by the skull cup had already been established.
”The truth of all this? The link between the head, the water and the serpent is now simple to comprehend and once thus understood the “shining” element of Sanctus Clarus will become also apparent. You see, the serpent is a world-wide archetypal image from the Other Realm of existence, the place where the ancient shaman, witch, priest, whatever, would go to on our behalf for healing and to converse with the spirits. There are many aspects to this serpent, some beneficial, some terrifying – but it is universal. Water on the other hand was the abode of the serpent as it was the access to the Other Realm. Those who could “walk on water” were adepts at holding the position between this world and the next. We cannot live beneath the waves and so it must be the place after death. The skull is the container wherein lies our consciousness and our connection to these Other Realms. All three aspects come into full union when we access the part of our mind, which induces altered states of consciousness and we become fully enlightened. The gateway to this place is known as the hpnagogic or hypnapompic, between falling asleep or waking, between this world and the next, walking on water.” ( Philip Gardiner )
”In Tibetan sculptures and paintings, skull cups are often seen in the hands of wrathful Buddhist deities, usually held at the level of the heart and often paired with the curved knife or chopper. The weapon slays demonic enemies, and the cup is the oblation vessel in which the blood and organs are collected as the deity’s sustenance. Descriptions of the contents of a wrathful deity’s kapala include warm human blood, blood and brains, blood and intestines, human flesh and fat, the heart or the heart and lungs of an enemy, the heart of Mara and the blood of Rudra.
Less often, non-wrathful Buddhist deities are depicted with a skull cup, which holds less violent contents. Padmasambhava, for example, holds a skull cup described as an ocean of nectar, in which floats a longevity vase.”
”Byron refers to this cup in a letter to his publisher, Mr. John Murray, dated 9bre 12th 1820, in which he writes: “We (Mr. Matthews and himself) went down to Newstead together where we had a famous cellar and monk’s dresses from a warehouse. We were a company of some seven or eight with an occasional neighbour or so for visitors, and used to sit up late in our friars’ dresses, drinking burgundy, claret, champagne, and what not, out of the skull cup, buffooning all round the house in our unconventional garments.” ( G.J. Monson-Fitzjohn )