The custom of drinking a "health" to the prosperity, happiness, luck, or good health of another dates back into antiquity-and, perhaps, into prehistory.
It is impossible to point to the moment when the first crude vessel was raised in honor of an ancient god or to the health of a newborn baby. Nor do we have any idea when a parched traveler lifted his cup in thanks to the man or woman who gave him wine.
What we do know is that the custom of drinking to health permeated the ancient world. Ulysses drank to the health of Achilles in the Odyssey. An early Greek custom called for a pledge of three cups-one to Mercury, one to the Graces, and one to Zeus. In Rome, drinking to another's health became so important, the Senate decreed that all diners must drink to Augustus at every meal. Fabius Maximus declared that no man should eat or drink before he had prayed for him and drank to his health.
The ancient Hebrews, Persians, and Egyptians were toasters, as were the Saxons, Huns, and other tribes. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon tells of a feast among the Huns at which their leader Attila led no less than three rounds of toasts for each course during a dinner of many courses.
Over time the simple act of toasting became embellished and intertwined with other customs. (It would not be until the seventeenth century that the act was actually referred to as a toast. More on that shortly.) At some point along the way, for instance, the gesture of clinking glasses or cups became popular. It has long been believed that this began during the Christian era, as the original intention of the clink was to produce a bell-like noise so as to banish the devil, who is repelled by bells. Another legendary explanation for glass clinking is that all five senses should come into play to get the greatest pleasure from a drink. It is tasted, touched, seen, smelled, and-with the clink- heard.
An odd but essential custom was added to British tippling during the invasion by the Danes during the tenth century. This was the custom of pledging another's health in the most literal terms-that is, a friend stating the intention of guarding a drinker from harm while he tosses back a drink. This stemmed from the objectionable Danish habit of cutting the throats of Englishmen while they were drinking. Shakespeare's line from Timon of Athens, "Great men should drink with harness on their throats," is one of several old literary references to this murderous behavior.
Still another morbidly fascinating custom from northern Europe is that of drinking mead or ale from the skull of a fallen enemy. The Scots and Scandinavians both practiced this primitive form of recycling, and the Highland Scotch skiel (tub) and the Norse skoal (bowl) derive from it. The modern toast, skoal,in turn comes from the Old Norse term. This custom persisted through the eleventh century, after which only an occasional skull was converted into a drinking vessel. Lord Byron acquired a human skull, had it mounted as drinking vessel, and wrote an inscription for it that read:
Start not, nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
I lived, I loved, I quaff d like thee:
I died: let earth my bones resign:
Fill up-thou canst not injure me,
The worm hath fouler lips than thine.
Better to hold the sparkling grape,
Than nurse the earthworm's slimy brood;
And circle in the goblet's shape
The drink of gods, than reptile's food.
Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?
Quaff while thou canst, another race
When thou and thine, like me, are sped,
May rescue thee from earth's embrace,
And rhyme and revel with the dead.