plus Nandi and a few other liquid dispensing vessels
My Webster’s third International Dictionary defines rhyton as “an ancient Greek
drinking horn of pottery, usu. having the base in the form of the head of an animal,
woman, or mythological creature.” Wikipedia is much more expansive, stating
“A rhyton (plural rhytons or, following the Greek
plural, rhyta) is a container from which fluids were intended to be
drunk or to be poured in some ceremony such
as libation. The
English word rhyton originates
word ῥυτόν (rhy̆tón or rhŭtón). The conical rhyton
form has been known in the Aegean region since
the Bronze Age,
or the 2nd millennium BC. However, it was by no means confined to that region. Similar
in form to, and perhaps originating from,
horn, it has been widespread over Eurasia since prehistoric times. (note: I saw some
great Parthian examples in a museum in Ashkabad, Turkmenistan) … 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)… Rhyta
were often used for liquids that needed straining, such as wine, beer and oil. Some
rhyta were used in blood rituals and animal sacrifice. In these cases, the blood may
have been thinned with wine. Some vessels were modeled after the animal they were
intended to be used with during ritual, but this was not always the case… 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. They
are often shaped like animals' heads or horns and can be very ornate and compounded with
precious metals and stones.” The Google ‘Images of Rhyton’ page has some 181,000
pictures, and while the majority are of the horn-shaped form, there are also many that
feature a full-bodied caracature of a cow, bull, or other creature, molded much like the
‘modern’ cow creamer or pitcher. Indeed, some of those pictures are of works from
modern artists’ (including William Morris).
This section of my collection does not include any of the ancient (BCE) rhytons like those shown on the History page. – those are either in
museums or extremely expensive. It does however have a couple that are representative of the early ones plus a few that appear to be copies of ancient ones, as
well as modern vessels that are designed for uses similar to those for which rhytons were intended. Thus
here I include the Peruvian Toritos de Pucara, which originally were used to hold chicha and blood for the
cattle branding ceremony as described on the Places page. Probably inappropriately, I have also put here a
number of Spanish bull caricature vessels designed for wine or oil and vinegar (popular tourist items), as
well as other cow or bull caricatures that might best be termed ‘cruets’ but which have shapes somewhat
reminiscent of some of the early rhytons. And, I’ve snuck in a couple liquor dispensers and what I believe
to be an old Chinese soy pot, for lack of a better place.
More appropriately, I have added a section at the
bottom of this page for my Hindu Nandi – designed for libations of holy water in Hindu Temples devoted to
Shiva – since they, and the somewhat similar cow-headed vessels used to hold ghee to feed the holy flame, have
As a reminder, click on any thumbnail for a larger picture.
||Well, this was sold as a rhyton, and although it has no holes it does seem to be
a cute little bull effigy. It was said to be Amlash, 1st millennium BC, and came
certified as original from an antiquities dealer
in Cyprus. It was sufficiently inexpensive as these
things go that I thought it would make a good introductory contribution to this part
of the collection. Amlash is a fairly generic term referring to a geographic region
in northern Iran, and apparently most of the artifacts
from there date to the 9th-8th century BCE. A check of the photos on
google shows that hump backed bulls seemed to be popular items for Amlash
The UK seller from whom I purchased this little vessel on ebay stated in his description that it is a Viking terracotta rhyton dating from around 250-350 AD, and came from a private 1970s collection of Eastern European items. It's too small to be useful for drinking (except perhaps for a very tiny Viking) and is unglazed so not really suitable for liquids meant to be consumed. He also stated that it's unusual in that it bears a fertility symbol (which I have been unable to locate). But then, he also said exactly the same thing about a similar gost's head piece, so I am beginning to doubt all the above. And, later he advertised an identical piece with another story, so it seems it's a modern fake. Nonetheless, it's the closest to an affordable item I have yet found that sorta looks like a rhyton...and it's quite interesting in its own right, if crude.
||This is a small replica of a Minoan Bull’s Head Rhyton from
Crete. From the number of postcards and replicas of it and very similar bulls’
heads available on eBay it seems to be a popular museum piece.
This is my one and only cow or bull headed reasonably sized drinking horn – not Greek, not
large, indeed Chinese ceramic painted to resemble cloisonne - but nevertheless this
seemed a reasonable place to put it.
My modern red-clay jug with the grey glaze and stylized markings bears a
close family resemblance to this Cypriot rhyton whose picture I downloaded from
google’s rhyton images. The seller said she’d like to think that it was Cretan or
Etruscan, and it turns out she was pretty close.
Both of these stylized bulls came to me from the UK. With their large swept
back horns and conjoined legs as well as the symbols on the sides they’re clearly
intended to be reproductions or at least representations of some earlier ritualistic
This is a Peruvian Torito de Pucara. Rhyton ‘purists’ would probably object
because there is no Greek heritage here, but rather a combination of Spanish and
indigenous Andean. However as noted in other places where I have displayed these
lovely bull vessels, they were initially designed for rituals associated with the
cattle-branding ceremony, to hold a mixture of blood and chicha (corn-based beer).
Thus they certainly meet the basic (expanded) definition. They have become a very
popular souvenir of Peru, and also are often found in pairs on newly-completed roofs
of houses, bearing a bottle each of chicha and holy water.
Here are two more Toritos, both acquired from Novica which sells products
from artisans around the world to folks like me. The large greyish ons is by Walter
Jose Acosta, from the Huambo province in the Amazon region of Peru, who is
dedicated to perpetuating the beauty of Peruvian ceramic art. The little black one
is by Maribel Posso Olivares who with a friend now heads a workshop with about 12
artisans, creating ‘alasitas’ which are tiny items reflecting wishes. Novics states that its mission
is to spread happiness to both the artisans and to their customers, and their items come beautifully
(and safely) wrapped, and in the case of these two, with little dolls attached to the red bows.
The larger one here was my very first Torito, although at the time I didn't know what it was - I just thought it was a neat Mexican bull, available at a church yard sale for a nickel. The little ones came much later. They have the classic form, but just are tiny to appeal to tourists with small bags. They also will appear on the Miniatures page.
Two more from Peru – the one on the right is a version of the Torito, and the
other a quite different stylized version of a bull. Its tongue very nearly covers
the hole in its nose. When my wife and I visited Peru we encountered a very large
number of marvelous old pottery figures, some quite scatological and all fanciful,
in the museums. As noted above, bulls were not native to the area so this type of
figure appears only after the Spanish conquest.
Finally for Peru, here is a small facsimile of how the Peruvians often
display the toritos on their homes. To quote the seller who was from Cuzco “The
torito of pucara is a ceramic handicrafts of the district of Pupuja, in the province
of Azángaro, Peruvian department of Puno. It is a totemic symbol known as qonopas
(Quechua) and / or Illas (Aymara), used in Andean rituals and ceremonies of
protection, happiness and fertility in married life. In the perception of the Andean
settlers that the pair of pucará toritos on the roof is a sign of protection and
happiness in the home, it is an Andean duality that represents the husband and the
woman that represent the fusion of positive and negative energies that the
Equilibrium And the common good. At present, this piece has become a symbol of
Peruvian Andean identity. The singular finish of the toritos are imperfect figures,
of rough aspect, although they are charming and handmade in all ways. The objects
are tied with the sheepskin and the black color is because they are destined to be
buried in the day of the Pachamama the 1 of August of each year.”
Both of these large stylized bulls have just a single hole in the snout, and
bear a interesting resemblance to some of the ones I found on the google rhyton
images page. They’re clearly not made for cream or milk – but would serve well for
wine (or blood). The red glazed ceramic one came to me from Ontario Canada and the
only information the seller could provide is that he got it at an estate sale from
someone who had an extensive pottery collection, and that it’s most likely Blue
Mountain or CCC pottery.
Here starts a series of cow shaped containers that likely have no ritualistic purpose, but don't
really fit in other spots. We start with a pair of Spanish cruets from Seville, presumably designed
for oil and vinegar (and for sale to tourists). The large one is intended, I believe, for wine.
On the left are two wine pitchers wine pitchers decorated with an impressionistic bull. They're
meant to be mother and child I guess since only a Mom could love a face like that. Sharing this
section is a similarly shaped vessel from Mexico.
This is a traditional clay piece from Cuenca, Spain. From what I can glean from a number of web
sites and a knowledgeable UK seller, it is an
example of Cuenca’s most typical pottery item, the so called "Toro Ibérico"
(Iberian Bull) which was originally created by the master potter Pedro Mercedes who
was inspired by an Iberian bull head from the 7c Moorish period which was found in
the town of Huete and is kept in the Museo de Cuenca. Apparently the modern ones became favored as
family gifts representing the spirit and courage of the Spanish or Iberian bull, a reputation gained
from bullfights. These cute little bulls proved to be very popular and have morphed into souvenirs,
as well as into vessels used - like those above - for oil and vinegar or perhaps wine.
Here are a couple of the souvenir versions - much more gaudy than the traditional clay form. They
both have raised letters that read “Recuerdo de Cuenca” , Souvenir of Cuenca. The smaller one also
has an impressed seal on its right rump that reads “E. del Castillo Alfarero , Cuenca” and Emilio
Castillo’s ceramic studio is indeed in Cuenca Spain.
Some potters - and some tourists - apparently got carried away. This 'Recuerdo' is downright huge
More reasonable in size, and much more common in the gift shops (and on ebay) are small 'Toros Iberico" like this one, suitable like the small bottle-shaped ones with bull's heads for oil and vinegar, and a bit too skimpy for wine.
Here’s another of the same shape, this time with cats on the side,
advertising a holiday resort in Torremolinos, Costa del Sol, Spain. It was made in Spain and is
marked with a red crown over a cup with a V, over a blue wreath with
“Valdelvira” at the bottom. The popularity of the Toro Iberico has clearly spread well past Cuenca.
This brightly decorated version with bulgy yellow eyes is made of red clay and is marked for “J.
Roig, P. Espanol, Barcelona”
These small versions - some typical Iberain bull in form and others considerably more fanciful
- are likely intended to hold olive oil or something similar - but they probably have a right to be
on this page given that their shape is quite reminiscent of some of early ritualistic vessels. Then
again, for those on a Mediterranean diet, use of olive oil can indeed be considered a ritual. The
first one of these that my wife and I got was the reddish brown clay one with the earrings in the
middle of the upper picture. We purchased it in a shop in San Gimignano, Italy, in 1990. It carries
fond memories of a pleasant vacation in central Italy, and a fascinating old
town of nine towers. Great wine in the area, too! The only other one of these
that’s marked is the dark brown one on the far left of the upper picture: from Enesco, and made in
Japan. Perhaps it should be called a "Toro Nipponico". The little grey-blue cup with cow head spout
on the far right in the lower picture is hand made, and almost certainly comes from somewhere in the
US; the eBay seller was in Arizona. I conclude that the traditional Curnca Bull has indeed become
Yet two more big ones for good measure
This interesting Russian liquor dispenser came, thanks to eBay, from a seller
in Vratsa, Bulgaria.
This bull pulling the little wagon with cups is a liquor decanter – its head
comes off for pouring.
Here is another version of a liquor dispenser. There are some very lovely
French ones on the Faience page, but this one is quite obviously Japanese (and it
has a sticker that says so), labeled for “PAC” although it has all the
characteristics of several other cows scattered throughout that came from
Thames. Somehow I can’t imagine it holding sake. Indeed, I doubt that one like
this was ever sold in Japan – only some crazy American would ever buy something this
This is an old Chinese earthenware pot with the head of a bull or water
buffalo that the seller claimed is 17c Qing Dynasty; it’s beaten up enough to be so,
although it’s now against the law to export items from China that date from before
1911. It was most likely designed to hold water or, even more likely, soy
NANDI – Hindu holy water pots and other temple cows and bulls
As I understand it (I get confused by Hindu deities), Nandi the white bull is Shiva’s vahana or
vehicle, the mount on which he rides. A note from the Philadelphia Museum of Art adds that “Shiva is
a great ascetic whose power emerges as contained sexual energy. Appropriately, he is accompanied by
the virile bull. An image of Nandi sits in the hall or porch of temples dedicated to Shiva, facing
into the sanctum like the primary devotee that it is.” In ancient India, he was also an independent
deity known as Nandikeshvara, the Lord of Joy, represented as a man with a bull’s head. The folks
who sold me this lovely older copper version – which comes from Jodhpur in Rajasthan – said that
these pots are used by priests to spray holy water on the devotees who come to worship at Shiva’s
shrine, or are carried by holy men to hold and disperse holy water from the Ganges. As you will
note, this Nandi arrived very carefully packaged for safety in an old tin for Kashmir Snow Beauty
Here are two modern brass Nandi, both coming direct from India but without the fancy box.
Here are two small nandi water pots. The one on the left with nicely inscribed marks was said to be
from Natal, but was shipped from Singapore. The copper one on the right is from India; it was very
dirty and tarnished when it arrived so I cleaned it up a bit.
Here are three more Nandi water pots in different configurations and types of metal, as well as
what I found out later were vessels for ghee, as explained in the next section.
I had thought that all these bull or cow shaped Hindu ritual vessels were models of Shiva’s bull,
used for holy water. Then the large and rather plain oval bodied ‘cow’ on the left arrived, from a US
seller. It contained a small leaflet entitled “Butter pot” that said “In India, the cow is believed
to be “close to God” and can fulfill dreams and desires. This brass cow’s head kettle is used to hold
the clarified butter, called Ghee, which fuels the holy flame that is kept lit at all time in Hindu
Temples”. As it turns out I had a few others of similar size and shape that I now believe to be
other versions of ‘cows’ not bulls, used for Ghee. They certainly are of a different shape and
character than the holy water nandis…but nonetheless because of their use in Hindu temples I believe
they belong in this part of the collection
Straight from Ahmendabad in Gujarat, India comes this lovely brass (so said the seller) standing
nandi. Very different in shape and structure from all my others, it is nonetheless designed for
holding and dispensing holy water…not through the mouth which has no hole, but rather through the
hollow horns. I don’t know if this has any ritual significance, but from my perspective it certainly
qualifies for the collection.
Here is a similar but smaller and somewhat less well crafted horn-pouring nandi. He looks a bit
dejected, but is nevertheless very cute. It’s interesting that after several years of collecting and
finding none of these, I bought this and the one above just a month or so apart. This one had a very
important feature – it cost 99 cents (plus something like 14x that for shipping)
Yet another variant – a copper “Shivling Holy Water Cow Face Cone” according to the London-based
seller. The add for it on eBay stated: ““All our Spiritual Products Are Spiritually activated With
Mantras & Puja’s also known as Abhisheka by our Panditji Priest without any extra charges. Ideal to
hang in temple over Shiva Linga – very auspicious to do Shiva Pooja” Naturally this sent me to
Wikipedia where I learned first that “Abhisheka, also called Abhishekam, is conducted by priests, by
pouring libations on the image of the deity being worshipped, amidst the chanting of mantras.
Usually, offerings such as milk, yogurt, ghee, honey, Panchaamrutam, sesame oil, rosewater,
sandalwood paste may be poured among other offerings depending on the type of abhishekam being
performed. This ritual is routinely performed in some Hindu and Jain temples. "Rudraabhisheka"
(Abhisheka of Rudra) is performed on Shiva lingams.” Seeking further, I also found out that “A pandit
or pundit is a scholar and a teacher, particularly one skilled in the Sanskrit language, who has
mastered the four Vedic scriptures, Hindu rituals, Hindu law, religion, music, and/or philosophy
under a Guru in a Gurukul or has been tutored under the ancient Vedic Guru-Shishya academic
tradition. The English loan word pundit is derived from it.”
Finally, here are three open-topped Nandis – the largest and smallest came from Sunil Arts &
Engg Works in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India, and the silver colored one from a seller in the US who
presumably brought it back as a souvenir. The well crafted tiny copper Nandi was said to be 70-80
years old, and used in temples. The largest one, with a stand under its chin and with internal
ridges, was sold to me as a pot or ‘ash tray’ (which I doubt), but I have also seen an identical one
described on eBay as a Kharal, which is essentially a mortar for grinding opium and making ‘opium
water’ which is then taken through the bull’s mouth. Perhaps some kind Hindu can enlighten me – I can
only say that I’m learning, slowly, that holy cows and bulls from India can have many manifestations