The Festive Beverages of the Khans

The Festive Beverages of the Khans

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The Festive Beverages of the Khans

By Sarolta Tatar

Proceedings of the 46th Meeting of the Permanent International Altaistic Conference, PIAC. June 22-27, 2003. ed. Gülzemin Özrenk Aydin (Ankara, 2007)

Introduction: Festivities held with yearly regularity are a stable feature of nomadic life. Each nomad tribe seems to have had a ceremony connected with eating and drinking on which the leaders were present, but which also had a religious aspect expressed in for example the ritual of libation (Bleichsteiner 1951/52:208). Herodot is the first to mention horse milk as a drink of the Scythians, (Herodot, IV.) so we can assume that its social importance is very old. Cumis is a staple of mongolian religious ceremonies (Badamxatan 1996:125), and is a common festive drink on ceremonious occasions (Xorloo 1999:16-18, 24, 43, 59,99,103, 147, 150, 153). It was also the drink offered to their khan by the Kalmüks (Erdniev 1970:160). It is apparent from sources, that various nomad tribes always used alcoholic drinks as a staple of festivities, and liqueur distilled from animal milk, especially cumis, is a returning characteristic of a wide variety of tribes (Bleichsteiner 1951/52:181-208). From the 130. chapter of the Secret History of the Mongols we learn about the old and rigid customs determining that the guests should be served according to rank, a matter of no small diplomatic importance that was supervised by at least one Master of Ceremony. An appointed servant had to carry in the cumis and individually hand it to each guest. The early palace of Ögedei at Karakorum had a permanent solution to the storage problem of the festive drinks, as described by Juvaini: „And in the quarters of the cupbearers they place vats which could not be moved because of their weight and other utensils in like proportions…so that when a public feast was held they might lift up the various beverages. And all utensils were of gold and silver and studded with jewels.” (Juvaini I.1, chap. XXXIII).

This old traditional ritual and the beverages served on these occasions changed somewhat during the reign of Genghis Khan’s successors. According to Plano Carpini’s travel description from 1247, the cumis was the main drink of the Mongols. He also mentions a drink called “beer”, probably a beverage made from cereals ( Plano Carpini, chap. IX). This cereal drink must have been imported from another region, probably China. When reading the description of the Mongolian court by Wilhelmus Rubruc (In: Van den Wyngaert, 1929:276-277), one of the most attention- grabbing details is the description of Mengü Khan’s festive fountain decorated with multiple figurines, one of which even moved. As I have described in my paper “The Iconography of the Karakorum Fountain”, it was the work of a French-born goldsmith, Guillame Boucher, who drew on European and Byzantinian models and Christian literary sources for his masterpiece. It is in fact a variation on the subject of what we could call the ’tree of the powerful man’ that is described more than once in the Old Testament. The Khan was probably inspired to commission such a fountain by the example of Constantinus Porphyrogenitus the VII, emperor of Byzantium 945- 959, who had a tree with mechanical singing birds and moving lions next to his throne in the tenth century (Liudprand Cremoniensis, VI.5; 1998:147). His ’miracle’ had already been copied by al- Moktader, caliph of Baghdad before the Khan (Olschki, 1946:90).

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