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.
Heracles fighting the Nemean Lion. White-ground lekythos, ca. 500-475 BC. ( Public Domain )
It has also been theorized that the practice was nothing more than a simple (yet dangerous) sport—perhaps even a test after which boys were considered men. Other scholars debate whether the images show an actual activity at all. J. Alexander MacGillivray has stated that the images may have a more mythological significance, tying the depictions to astronomy. He states in his article (2000), "Orion confronts Taurus…while Perseus somersaults…over the bull's back to rescue Andromeda." Described here are the constellations that still persist in the heavens (though they likely held different names for the Minoans), depicting the mythological hunter Orion confronting the astrological sign of the bull.
This writer postulates—based on MacGillivray's considerations—that by incorporating the demi-god Perseus' rescue of his mortal lover into the bull-leaping tradition may serve to join the various aspects of religion (mythology, star charts, etc.) with what the ancients believed was their factual history. Thus, perhaps MacGillivray's interpretation is intended to indicate the Minoans copied an image they saw in the stars, and ascribed a religious purpose to it based on their mythological "history". (Again, this is the author's hypothesis based on research including MacGillivray's article).
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Orion and Taurus. ( Public Domain )
Even if a Rosetta Stone specific to Linear A turned up, there is no certainty that it would clarify the Minoan tradition of bull-leaping. After all, one must consider the plethora of literature—both fragmented and complete—that survives from ancient Greece and Rome, yet still fails to provide a whole picture of numerous practices, beliefs, etc. from the classical world.
For now, scholars continue to theorize about the Minoans based on material and visual culture found on Crete, as well as through comparative studies with their trade contacts in the east Mediterranean. Bull-leaping did undoubtedly play some sort of significant role in Minoan culture, evidenced by the enormous amount of imagery surrounding the practice. Whether its importance lay as a popular artistic theme or genuine depiction of a Bronze Age activity remains to be seen.
Top Image: Detail of the famous Minoan bull leaping fresco. Source: CC BY SA 3.0
By Ryan Stone
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