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Muehlbauer, M., 2019. The rhinoceros-horn beakers of Menelik II of Ethiopia: materiality, ritual and kingship. West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 26 (1): 61-79

Location: Museums
Subject: History
Species: African Rhino Species

Original text on this topic:
Three rhinoceros-horn beakers, now held in storage at the Smithsonian Institution, were the most valuable gifts among many given by Menelik II, emperor of Ethiopia (1889–1913), to the United States ambassador (Herman) Hoffman Philip between 1909 and 1910. Ethiopia, surrounded on all sides by colonial powers, sought the United States as an ally to uphold its independence, while the United States was interested in opening Ethiopian markets to manufactured cotton. This article reconstructs both the ideology and diplomatic intent of this encounter through the gifting of the horn beakers. Since rhinoceros horn was considered medicinal in Ethiopian pharmacology, the cups demonstrate both the emperor’s concerns with being poisoned and, by proxy, the symbolic health of the diplomatic encounter. The cups are also situated within the imperial banquet to serve honey wine. I hereby illustrate that the use and display of the beakers in this setting were allegories for Ethiopian imperialism and historicism, enacted through the mechanism of stacking and distributing the cups among the invited guests.

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