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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 must have been 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. His confidential relations with the king often gave him a position of great influence. The position of cup-bearer has been greatly valued and given only to a select few throughout history.
Qualifications for the job were not held lightly, but in high esteem. Holders of the position were valued for their beauty and even more for their modesty, industriousness, and courage.
|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 are mentioned several times in the Bible.
The position is first mentioned in Genesis 40:1, although the Hebrew word (elsewhere translated "cup-bearer") is sometimes rendered here 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 (compare Xen. Hellen. vii.1, 38). In the Post-exilic period, Nehemiah rose to the high ranking palace position of cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes, the sixth King of the Medio/Persian Empire. The position placed his life on the line every day, but gave Nehemiah authority and high pay, and was held in high esteem by him, as the record shows. His financial ability (Nehemiah 5:8,10,14,17) 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" (BDB under the word).
See further on cupbearers: Herod. iii.34; Xen. Cyrop. i.3, 8, 9; Josephus, Ant, XVI, viii, 1; Tobit 1:22.
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 shown performing her duties as cup-bearer in Homer's Iliad:
"The gods were seated near to Zeus in council, upon a golden floor. Graciously Hebe served them nectar, as with cups of gold they toasted one another, looking down toward the stronghold of Ilion." (Homer, Iliad 5.1-5)
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.
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 Limburg and, after 1714, Count of Althann served as cupbearers for the Emperor.
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:
Cze?nik (Polish: cup-bearer) 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.