Taking the Bull by the Horns: The Perilous Minoan Practice of Bull-Leaping
If bull-leaping was a genuine practice in Bronze Age Minoan courts (estimated c.3200 BC-1100 BC), it was likely not nearly as fun as it appears in frescoes. Modern day professional matadors have enough trouble getting away unscathed after baiting bulls with their red capes… imagine leaping toward the bull instead, with the intention of using the fuming, ferocious beast as an acrobatic prop. Whether for religious purposes or not, that bull would have certainly put up a darn good fight against the athletes—after all, he had no religious or social considerations to uphold.
How Athletes Leapt Over Bulls
Minoan bull leaping (Greek: ταυροκαθάψια) is best imagined through the use of the famous fresco at Knossos Palace. Though the activity sounds simple, the language of the Minoans (Linear A) remains untranslated, so the nature of the practice is based almost solely on interpretations of surviving artistic works. These works do not only consist of frescos, but also of terracotta statues, stone seals, and even sarcophagi. It is because of the wealth of imagery with religious symbols that bull-leaping is most often believed to have been part of a ritual - further emphasized by the long-standing tradition of bull worship in the eastern Mediterranean.
Bronze group of a bull and acrobat. Minoan, 1550-1450 BC. Said to be from south west Crete. (Mike Peel/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Bull-leaping as a practice is rather straightforward in explanation, though likely not in execution. A man would literally leap over a bull, grasp the bull by the horns and then perform stunts or tricks from the momentum of the bull bucking under the acrobat's hold.
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Depictions of the exercise vary to a degree: there are three classifications of bull leaping that scholars have discovered. The first depicts the man approaching the bull from the front and executing a backflip by grasping the horns; the second has the man leaping over the bull entirely, using the bull's back as leverage instead of the horns; and the third depiction shows the man already directly above the bull, facing the same direction as the creature. All of these depictions emphasis the acrobatics of the male and the use of the bull as a mere prop.
The bull leaping athlete. Ivory. Minoan culture. ( Public Domain )
Why Would Anyone Leap Over a Bull?
The meaning of the bull-leaping tradition is shrouded in religious mystery— but there is no undeniable evidence that the tradition even was religious. This presumption is made based on the overwhelming amount of bull artifacts—from drinking rhyta to royal golden rings—and the belief that the Minoans worshipped the "Horns of Consecration" to honor their deities. Whether the Minoans worshipped a bull, a god or goddess who transforms into a bull, a god or goddess who rides or protects bulls, or a deity who incorporates all of the aforementioned traits, is unknown.
Minoan golden ring depicting a male leaping over a bull. Said to be from Archanes, Crete, 1450-1375 BC. Gold. Probably given by A. J. Evans. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
It is predominately due to the prominence of bull imagery that these Horns have become associated with Minoan religion. The sarcophagus from Hagia Triada, for example, is not only the best surviving Minoan sarcophagus but also one of the best depictions of bull sacrifice on Bronze Age Crete. The ritualistic killing of the bull is accompanied by a procession of singing and dancing women. It is because of similar images on Crete and in the territories of the Minoans' primary trade contacts that the act of bull-leaping as a religious sport has been so persistent.
One of the lateral faces of the "Agia Triada" sarcophagus, Crete, Greece. ( Public Domain )
The worship of bulls can be seen in the contemporary Bronze Age cultures of Anatolia (modern day Turkey), Mesopotamia, and Egypt. An article by Jeremy McInerney of the University of Pennsylvania highlights the "deep-rooted tension between the wildness of the bull and the need to master it" as a symbolic reason why bull worship and bull-leaping was valuable in Minoan culture. It is likely the same can be said for these other cultures as well.
The symbolism of "taming the wild" is not isolated to the Bronze Age alone; rather, Man's ability to conquer the natural world (whether Man is meant to or not) weighs heavily in various civilizations. The Attic Greeks exemplified this in the heroic deeds of Herakles through his defeat of the Nemean Lion, as well as in their numerous depictions of the "uncivilized" centaurs battling the Lapiths, as seen on the Parthenon. The Romans similarly imagined this defeat in the submission of the Gauls on Trajan's Column. It has even been interpreted that the Milesians' defeat of the Tuatha de Danann in ancient Irish literature symbolizes Man's success in overcoming the unconstrained magicks of the natural world.