The Real Origin of Cheers

Posted by Cloudesley on July 17, 2003

Though I have met many an admirable drinker, none seems to be able to offer a satisfactory origin of the clinking of cups. The hunt for the origins of this ubiquitous drinking custom has also exceeded my abilities as a sober researcher, but I have stumbled, rolled over, and landed upon many interesting facts and suppositions into the history of this tradition.

The first legend I came across was one in which cups were clinked as if to slosh poison from one vessel to another. The "clinking" ritual, according to this theory, was a gesture to prove the safety of the drink. In time, the actual mixing of the two drinks was altered to become a gesture performed especially amongst trusted companions. However, this origin was quickly debunked, as tradition holds that the host always drinks first to test the nature of the drink. The practice continues today especially in regards to wine. I have found that this supposed origin, however, actually dates back only to a fictional plot twist penned by Alexandre Dumas in the late 1800's.

My second sortie into the annals of drinking led me to a mediaeval custom of clinking goblets together in order to frighten the demons out of the spirits. With this finding, I thought I had hit pay dirt. The problem with this theory is that the sound of the clinking cups is likened to church bells, which were believed to frighten the devil (the devil I should add , was said to often frequent festive activities). I doubt, however, that the clanking of the wooden tankards and clay cups of the period could make such a sound. Although I do not totally disregard this aspect of "cheersing," it doesn't seem to be the origin either but it did lead to a new tract of research: clinking cups as part of ritual.

On the third binge into the books, I leafed past the Eucharist, and yet further back into pagan practice. I found that the Germanic tribes would bang their cups on the table before drinking in order to knock out the ghosts, and I have heard that the Congolese natives would ring bells before emptying their cups for the same reason. Nomadic horsemen, like Atilia, decorated their cups and wine sacs with bells and other "clinking clutter" for the purpose of keeping out the evil. The Tibetans tapped their cups of Kumiss before drinking. From the citizens of the Shang Dynasty crying "Kaan" to Nordic tribes in the caves of Odin cracking skulls and shaking leather wine sacs, all peoples seemed to make noise before drinking. However, it seems that not all cultures necessarily took part in the ritual of clinking glasses.

In Ancient Greece, before the "Yimas" (to your health, or cheers), noise played a part in drinking as well. A myth I have heard is that wine, as well as all other things spiritual and beautiful, must appease and tempt each sense. The bouquet of the wine is for the nose, the colour for the eye, the body for taste and touch, and, of course, the clinking of the goblet for the ear. Ancient Greeks had other reasons for clinking cups: the first drink (the Proposis, or "the drink before") was taken by the gods and not the mortals whom imbibed the rest of the drink. The Homeric ritual for this act involved rising to one's feet and holding a drink in the right hand aloft, and then with both hands in air, praying "to the gods!" and then deliberately spilling some of the drink. In 4th century b.c., Herodotus spoke of much toasting and "cheersing" even to the extent as to mention that even the Germanic savages were familiar with the custom of clinking cups. But alas, the origin, I believe, remains still further in the past.

Is this seal from the kindom of Ur depict an image of an ancient cheers?

On my next sojourn from Greece, I was led to Iran. Both Herodotus and anthropologists of today say that ancient Sumer was replete with numerous drinking rituals. I dug through all the images of Queen Pu-abi's Tomb in hopes of a clue to clinking, and I delved into the notches of Hammurabi's code. I found laws on a fair price for beer, and several mentions of date-flavoured ale, but no clinking. I'm certain the answer lies there in Sumer , but I doubt I'll find it this winter. I did find that there does exist an association with drinking vessels and bells in ancient Iran. Perhaps there was even a concerted effort in the design of cups to give off a pleasant tone when clinked together. At a passing glance, a Sumerian cup definitely shares a resemblance to a bell, especially with the detached handle. It may be that the cups were designed this way so as to cause the cups to resonate longer after being clinked. Not to mention the Jam-Danbolak or the design of the Tonbak, the Persian goblet drum as a clear sign of a connection between drinking and sound, but what about clinking?

So although the question is as of yet unanswered, 6,000 years of its history is revealed. Now, when I clink my glass to a cheers, I get a flash of all those years of history and a momentary connection with the past. The ritual has probably been repeated by millions since the very dawn of civilization. Its nice to know there was always revelry. It is nice to know that there was always someone, somewhere, getting pist.

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