Yi Cup ‘true’ Rhyton

This jade vessel rarity is  heart shaped rhyta that expresses the original, ancient concept of liquid stored in the body of the vessel being poured through the mouth of a creature at one end of the body.  It has the form of a fantastic creature from which liquid is poured out through the mouth, but without the conical, horn-like shape of a  receptacle positioned vertically; the form that became and remains most common.

Proposed Attribution: Six Dynasties or earlier

Please see video of unique rhyton pouring function by scrolling down.



The following video features an incredibly rare, if not unique, variation of a ‘rhyton vessel’ in the original concept of a vessel with animal type creature, a protome, usually at the lower end. but in this case, the front  Many of the earliest rhyta had a  hole in the mouth or chest of the proteome through which a liquid was streamed for ritual purpose.   This vessel has a creature’s head with hole from inside the vessel’s body through the mouth, but does not have the conical, horn-like shape of a  receptacle positioned vertically; in the form that became and remains most common.   The conical type retained a semblance of the horn shape and a creature head at one end, but later lost the pouring hole that may have been inspired in the early ones by another of man’s oldest liquid receptacles, the wine-skin bag from which a liquid is streamed through a small hole at the bottom.  Both the naturally hollow animal horn and the animal skin bag were the antecedents of what is commonly called a rhyton cup or vessel.  This video will show exactly how the concept works with this ancient jade protome cup.  And if the concept of protome with pierced hole for pouring is ancient Persia, the bas relief decoration with Phoenix profile and tiger mask on front and feline tigers on back are certainly Chinese, exemplifying a unique example of East-West cultural hybridization.

Yi Cup 'true' Rhyton video of pouring

Protome with pouring hole in chest of Wildcat

Below is one other, quite famous, rhyton in China, but not Chinese, that is of banded agate stone rather than jade.  It is described as having ‘gold inlay over the nose and this functions as a ‘plug’, which one would assume can be removed to reveal a pouring hole.   This unique vessel combing a decorative and presumably practical use of gold with a beautifully multicolored hardstone carving has nothing that would indicate Chinese influence whatsoever.  The ultra realism of the animal head, with horn form body of the vessel unadorned with scrolls or other decorative intaglio or relief carving of Chinese motifs –  plus the touch of gold as plug for the ‘true rhyton’ pouring hole points unequivocally to Parthian or Sassanian or other Persian cultural origin and certainly an import to Xian, China where it was uncovered.  As evidenced by the Jade Rhyton from the Tomb of the King of Nanyue, Xianggangshan, Guangzhou and the similar piece in the Edwards & Bishop collection, the Persian rhyton vessel had been ‘sinicized’ since the W. Han period, even by then losing the animal head protome and pouring hole.

Another unique design feature of this collection’s vessel is that when viewed from above the body of this creature has the shape of a heart, leading one to ponder if it may have been used, as with other early cultures, in some kind of blood ritual.

The earliest rhyta vessels with animal mouth holes through which a contained liquid flowed when held at a downward angle and stopper removed, were Greek and Persian.  They were usually of conical, funnel shape, presumably derived from one of  the earliest drinking vessels made from hollow horns of animals.  Variations of these did not have animal heads with holes in the mouth and were drunk from as with a conical, non-freestanding,  cup.  And some extremely rare examples took the form of a creature in horizontal position with pouring hole in mouth and open at top, (animal’s back) .   As written above, this method of holding the vessel above the mouth and letting a stream of liquid flow by gravity into the mouth is the same as drinking from the most ancient wine-skins.  Finally, this horizontally resting, open at the top, rhyton has a foot or base that allows free standing, unlike those with conical, more pointed at one end and open at the other,  shape that require holding vertically in hand or placing in a holder or upon a support stand.  Some of the Chinese jade rhyta attributed to Ming and Qing, however, rather cleverly added horn protuberances to the monster head bases to allow free-standing.