Golden Horns

Lars Hansen's portrait of Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger (c. 1841), and an Icelandic drinking horn (c. 1500)

Portrait of Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger by Lars Hansen (c. 1841)

Lars Hansen's portrait of Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger, c. 1841. Oil on canvas, 73 x 59 cm. The Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle.

Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger, whose portrait by Lars Hansen (c. 1841) is on display at the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle, numbers among the most important figures in the Danish romantic movement. His works, among them the historical drama Baldur hin Gode (Baldur the Good), written in 1808, and the famous poem Guldhornene (The Golden Horns), written in 1802, looked to the past to enpower the present. In his portrait, Oehlenschläger is shown deep in thought, his elbow resting on his copy of Peder Hansen Resen's Edda Islandorum published in 1665. His eyes tilted upwards, the poet looks through history, his pen hovering above his notes and drawing inspiration from the past.

De higer og søger
I gamle Bøger,
I oplukte Høie
Med speidende Øie...

They peer in pages
of ancient sages,
on opened barrows
their gaze now narrows...

Oehlenschläger, Guldhornene (1802).

Oehlenschläger's most famous poem, Guldhornene (1802), takes a pair of golden drinking horns, an emblem of a glorious Scandinavian past, as its central image. It is inspired by the loss of the Golden Horns of Gallehus, a twin pair of golden horns unearthed in southern Jylland in 1639 and 1734. Stollen from the Royal Collection at Christiansborg palace, Copenhagen, and melted down by an impoverished goldsmith, these horns came to represent two-fold the loss of what once was great.

Did you know that one of the Gallehus horns bore a runic inscription in Proto-Norse? In the Old Norse literary corpus, the eddic poem Guðrúnarkviða II (The Second Lay of Guðrún) mentions a horn carved with red runes from which the tragic Guðrún drinks a draught of forgetfulness, while in the tale of Útgarða-Loki, the Norse god Þórr is challenged to drink from an enormous drinking horn that, unbeknown to him, contain's as much water as is in the ocean.

Icelandic drinking horn (c. 1500)

Icelandic drinking horn (c. 1500) bearing the inscription 'AUE MARIA' on its wooden lid. At some time converted into a horn for carrying gunpowder. The National Museum of Iceland, 2005-10.

The drinking horn inscribed with the words 'AUE MARIA', held by the National Museum of Iceland, is the earliest surviving example from Iceland (c. 1500). Horns were certainly used as drinking vessels in the Viking Age, but seldom survive in the archaeological record, rotting away so that only their metal fittings survive.

The Danish poet B. S. Ingemann (1789–1862) was presented on his 70th birthday with a golden horn decorated with images of distinguished Danes in history, including the legendary hero Holger Danske, the Danish Bishop Absalon (c. 1128–1201), and Margaret I of Denmark (1353–1412). It seems to be the fate of golden horns to be stolen. Ingemann's golden horn was stolen from Frederiksborg Castle in 1970, until it was recovered in 2009. It remains on display at the Museum of National History.

Golden Horns