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A cup-bearer was historically an officer of high rank in royal courts, whose duty was to pour and serve the drinks at the royal table. On account of the constant fear of plots and intrigues (such as poisoning), a person had to be regarded as thoroughly trustworthy to hold the position. He would guard against poison in the king's cup, and was sometimes required to swallow some of the drink before serving it.[citation needed] His confidential relations with the king often gave him a position of great influence.[citation needed] The position of cup-bearer has been greatly valued[citation needed] and given only to a select few throughout history.

Egyptian hieroglyph for a cup-bearer

The cup-bearer as an honorific role, for example as the Egyptian hieroglyph for "cup-bearer," was used as late as 196 BC in the Rosetta Stone for the Kanephoros cup-bearer Areia, daughter of Diogenes; each Ptolemaic Decree starting with the Decree of Canopus honored a cup-bearer. A much older role was the appointment of Sargon of Akkad as cup-bearer in the 23rd century BC.

Cup-bearers in the Bible[edit]

Nehemiah as cup-bearer to Artaxerxes I of Persia; Illuminated Bible from the 1220s, National Library of Portugal

Cup-bearers are mentioned several times in the Bible.

The position is first mentioned in Genesis 40:1, although the Hebrew word (elsewhere translated as "cup-bearer") is here sometimes rendered as "butler". The phrase "chief of the butlers" (Genesis 40:2) accords with the fact that there were often a number of such officials under one as chief.[1] In the Post-exilic period, Nehemiah rose to the high ranking palace position of cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes, the sixth King of the Median / Persian Empire. The position placed his life on the line every day, but gave Nehemiah authority and high pay. He was held in high esteem by Artaxerxes, as the record shows. His financial ability[2] would indicate that the office was a lucrative one.

Cup-bearers are mentioned further in 1 Kings 10:5, and 2 Chronicles 9:4, where they, among other evidences of royal splendor, are stated to have impressed the Queen of Sheba with Solomon's glory. The title Rabshakeh (Isaiah 36:2), once thought to mean "chief of the cupbearers" is now given a different derivation and explained as "chief of the officers" or "princes".[3][full citation needed][4]

Cup-bearers in Greek myth[edit]

A cup-bearer depicted c. 460-450 BC

In Greek mythology, Hêbê, the goddess of youth, was the original cup-bearer to the Greek gods of Mount Olympus, serving them nectar and ambrosia. Hêbê is the daughter of Zeus and Hera and is described performing her duties as cup-bearer in the Iliad:

"The gods were seated near to Zeus in council,
upon a golden floor. Graciously Hêbê
served them nectar, as with cups of gold
they toasted one another, looking down
toward the stronghold of Ilion."
Homer. Iliad. 5.1–5.

Hêbê's role of cup bearer ended when she was then replaced by Ganymede. She then married the deified hero Heracles, who joined Hêbê among the gods and goddesses and started a family.

The Roman gods are also closely related to Greek mythology, with the Roman goddess of youth Juventas being the counterpart to Greek Hêbê.

Cup-bearers in Byzantium[edit]

Cup-bearers as palatine officers in Visigothic Spain[edit]

One of the palatine officers who was in the service of the Visigothic kings was called Comes Scanciorum, or "Count of the Cup-bearers." The count headed the scancia (singular scancium), which in English would be called cellars or buttery and in French échansonnerie, which is a cognate to the Latinized Gothic term used in Spain. The count would have poured the king's wine or drink personally while the other cup-bearers served other distinguished guests at the royal table.

Cup-bearers as a Great Office in the Holy Roman Empire[edit]

The King of Bohemia ranked as Arch-Cupbearer of the Holy Roman Empire. His duties were normally performed only during coronations. At other times, the Count of Limpurg and, after 1714, Count of Althann served as cupbearers for the Emperor.

Cup bearers in Anglo-Saxon England[edit]

The office of butler or cup-bearer (pincerna in Medieval Latin) in Anglo-Saxon England was occupied by aristocrats who were in charge of drinks at royal feasts. In the tenth and eleventh centuries they were appointed from among the thegns, the third rank of nobles, after the king and ealdormen.[5]

Cup-bearer in Shakespeare[edit]

Camillo in The Winter's Tale is cupbearer to Leontes, King of Sicily, and Polixenes, King of Bohemia. When Leontes becomes convinced of his wife Hermione's infidelity with Polixenes, he entreats Camillo to use his privileged position as his cupbearer to poison Polixenes:

Ay, and thou
his cupbearer, whom I from meaner form
have benched and reared to worship, who mayst see
plainly, as heaven sees earth sees heaven,
how I am gallèd, might bespice a cup
to give mine enemy a lasting wink
which draft to me were cordial.
Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale (1.2)

Cup-bearers in Ireland[edit]

Theobald Walter was the first Chief Butler of Ireland. Although the terms "cup-bearer" and "butler" are sometimes used interchangeably, they were two distinct roles at the coronation feast.[6]

Kingdom of Hungary[edit]

The pohárnokmester (Master of the Cupbearers), also called the főpohárnok, was the supervisor of the cupbearers at court and across the royal court system, a chief court officer/dignitary. The first mention of him dates from 1148.

Poland and Lithuania[edit]

The cup-bearer (Polish: cześnik) was a court office in Poland and Lithuania until the end of the 13th century. The holder was responsible for the wine-cellar of the King and for serving him cups with wine at banquets. Since the 14th century, it has been an honorary court title in the Crown of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

  • cześnik koronny – King's Cup-Bearer of the Crown
  • cześnik litewski – Grand Duke's Cup-Bearer of Lithuania
  • cześnik ziemski – District King's Cup-Bearer

According to the district office hierarchy in 1768, the position in the Crown was over Łowczy and under Podstoli; In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania over Horodniczy and under Podczaszy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ compare Xenophon. Hellenica. vii.1, 38.
  2. ^ Nehemiah. Book of Nehemiah. 5:8, 10, 14, 17.
  3. ^ see BDB under the word Rabshakeh.
  4. ^ See further on cupbearers:
  5. ^ Gautier, Alban (May 2017). "Butlers and Dish-Bearers in Anglo-Saxon Courts: Household Officers at the Royal Table" (PDF). Historical Research. 90 (248): 278–279. doi:10.1111/1468-2281.12181. ISSN 0950-3471. S2CID 159587154.
  6. ^ National archives

This entry incorporates text from the public domain International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, originally published in 1915.

External links[edit]