The 7th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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The use of a human skull as a drinking cup in ritual use or as a trophy is reported in numerous sources throughout history and among various peoples, and among Western cultures is most often associated with the historically nomadic cultures of the Eurasian steppe.
The oldest record in the Chinese annals of the skull-cup tradition dates from the last years of the Spring and Autumn period, when the victors of the Battle of Jinyang in 453 BC made the skull of their enemy into a winecup.
According to the biography of the envoy Zhang Qian in Han shu the drinking cup made from the skull of the Yuezhi king was later used when the Xiongnu concluded a treaty with two Han ambassadors during the reign of Emperor Yuan (49-33 BCE).
Following his victories at the sieges of Odani and Ichijōdani Castles in 1573, he took the skulls of Azai Nagamasa, his father Hisamasa, and Asakura Yoshikage and had them prepared for display and for use as sake cups (o-choko).
Unlike skull cups of other cultures, which might resemble a bowl or a chalice in the finished form, the Japanese artisans excised a shallow, saucer-shaped portion from the top of the each skull, then lacquered the skulls, and covered them gold leaf,
and each cup was set in the aperture from which it had been cut, concave side up. Nobunaga then presented the three skulls to his vassals and drank sake from the cups, in order to demonstrate the fate of those who would oppose or betray him.
The three skulls were probably lost when Azuchi Castle was destroyed in 1582.