Exploring the Myths of Minoan Bull Leaping

Fletcher, History 111B Minoan Bull Leaping Throughout Ancient History, many different animals are glorified and made “sacred” by cultures, often for religious reasons. We see everything from the ritual burials of cats in Ancient Egypt to the worship of Ganesha, the Elephant goddess of wisdom in Hindu traditions. The Bull is one of these historically revered animals, its use as a sacred symbol seen as far back as the Stone Age. Because it is such a common and useful animal, it was seen again and again in everything from astrology to folklore. Eventually, historical texts show reverence of the Bull reaching into Minoa.
The Minoans were fascinated by the Bull, and created myths, symbols and religious ritual to give the Bull praise. One of the ways they did this was through “Bull Leaping”, a ritual in which an individual would stand head to head against a charging bull and proceed to vault over the animal using its own strength against it (Figure 1). Many researchers have attempted to decipher what the ritual meant in context, but ultimately the rituals cultural significance has been lost to the ages. Assumptions have had to been made, and ultimately what is presented might be closer to hypothesized fantasies.
To begin with, it is important to know why the Minoans became interested with the Bull in the first place. At the time, the Bull had been a sacred symbol for some 2300 years, and there are several possible explanations why the Bull continued to be so revered. One theory developed after examining the ancient mythologies and histories presented by Diodorus. Diodorus hypothesized that some animal worship, including that of the Bull was a result of religious myth in which the gods, being threatened by giants, disguised themselves as animals.

People then began to worship the animals that their god had transformed into, the Bull being one of these animals. Another theory deals with the religions of Minoa. The Minoans believed heavily in female goddesses, so much so as to referred to as a “matriarchal religion”. There was just one major male god represented in this society, known as the “earthshaker”. This god was astrological in nature, represented by a bull and the sun; He would die each autumn and reincarnate each spring. Through the astrological component of this theory, we can deduce that the Bull never stopped being revered since the finding of Taurus in the stars.
Still, we cannot be sure why exactly the Bull was worshipped. There are dozens of theories, but many hinge on Greek mythology that might be embellished. German historian Walter Burket’s constant warning is, “It is hazardous to project Greek tradition directly into the Bronze age. ” With no absolutely definitive answer to explain the Minoan’s interest in the Bull, the next logical question to ask is what the jump signified, and why the Minoans did it. Some scholars seem to think that the jump was a religious rite, while others believed it to be a mode of entertainment and a show of superiority.
The item in Figure 2 gives some context to both theories. Those supporting the religious motivation for Bull leaping cite the size of the bull, exaggeratedly large to show the Minoans’ respect for the power of the animals. Unfortunately, the same evidence works in arguments for the contrary. The exaggeration in size could be a display of how small the challenging human was compared to his counterpart, making the Bull leap an act of technical skill, displaying brains over mighty brawn. These two theories both fit, but ultimately the physical evidence discredits both of them. Both Figure 1 and Figure 2 display anatomically impossible vaults.
In Figure 1, the Bull charging at full speed would never offer such a stable platform to vault from. When bulls charge they also lower one horn, aiming to impale. In Figure 2, the jump itself is impossible. The figure in the picture is perpendicular to the bull, facing upwards, with arms stretched back. The physics of this vault are non-existent, and this clay piece was likely just an artist’s embellished portrayal. Bull Leaping, despite faulty evidences and no sure knowledge as to what it represented did occur in Minoan times. The actual event of bull leaping is still around today, in several European countries.
From this, we know that at least the physical jump was possible. We must assume the idea to Bull leap came from somewhere, and Minoa presents the earliest depictions of the even. Frescos (paintings) can be found throughout Minoa, including the palace of Knossos, a well preserved port city in Minoa. One fresco (Figure 3) clearly shows a man leaping over a bull. The idea that it is a man doing the leaping is determined by skin color, as the Minoans, as did many ancient cultures of the time, color-coated males and females. That being said, there are two females in the picture.
Scholars are perplexed as to what the women represent. They could indicate that women participated in the Bull leaping rite, or perhaps they symbolize some of the spectators. A personal suggestion is that the women are goddesses sent to protect the leaper. However, none of these hypotheses have any solid basis, and are all best-guess interpretations by scholars. In sum, there are many hypotheses to explain what Bull leaping was, what it meant in context and who participated in it. Many of these interpretations are loosely solidified in archeological evidence, but much of it is pure speculation.
One thing we can know for sure is that because of the significance of the Bull in ancient culture, specifically to the Minoans, the Bull Leap was a true event to see. It would have been done with some skill, and perhaps with the grace of an athlete. It might have been a show of superiority over a wild animal, or perhaps a religious right to prove oneself to a god. Ultimately the true meaning of the event may be lost. Without more evidence, Minoan Bull Leaping, a great spectacle once with a definitive reason behind it, may be reduced to just a few people jumping over bovines.
Works Cited “A History of the World in 100 Objects. ” BBC. 2010. http://www. bbc. co. uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/eU0DV7kOQ5inxmklD__YIw; (9/25/12) Brennan, Marie. “Bull-Leaping in Bronze Age Crete. ” 2005. http://www. strangehorizons. com/2005/20050124/bull-leaping-a. shtml; (9/25/12). Bull-Leaping Diagram. “University of Kentucky Archives” , ND http://as-houston. ad. uky. edu/archive/Classics/aegean/fresco/fresco-Pages/Image31. html; (9/26/12) Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. English Edition. Basil Blackwater Publishers. 1985 Lubbock, John.
The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man. Kessinger Publishing Company. Whitefish, Montana. 2005. Mlahanas. “Bull Mythology”. 2005. http://www. mlahanas. de/Greeks/Mythology/BullMythology. html; (9/26/12) Marinatos, Nanno. Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess: A Near Eastern Koine. NP. 1993. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Mlahanas 2005, par. 3 [ 2 ]. Lubbock 2005, 252 [ 3 ]. Marinatos 1993, 167 [ 4 ]. Burkert 1985, 24 [ 5 ]. “A History of the World in 100 Objects” 2010, par. 1 [ 6 ]. Brennan 2005, sec. 4 par. 1

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