Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bull Leaping in Minoan Crete: 1700 - 1450 BCE

If there is an ancient mystery that still begs to be solved in the 21st century, none can fire our imagination more than the secrets of the Bronze Age Minoan civilization.

Centred in Crete but living throughout the Aegean Sea, the Minoans lasted some 1500 years, from 2600 to 1100 BCE. These mysterious people have been linked to myths and legends that have been part of humankind’s collective fantasies for centuries, including the lost civilization of Atlantis and the legend of the Minotaur.

Although several major Minoan centres have been discovered, the reason so little is known about them is that their language has yet to be deciphered. This is not unlike the experience with the Mayans, whose hieroglyphs were not decoded until the last part of the 20th century.

The little knowledge available has been gleaned from archaeological discoveries, primarily frescoes, pottery, and jewelry. Much of this has come from the main palace centres in Crete, namely Phaestos, Malia, Zakros, and that of King Minos at Knossos.

The pinnacle of Minoan civilization was reached during the “second palace period” between about 1700 and 1450 BCE, a time when even Egypt was barely in its prime. During this period, religion, art, and architecture coalesced with the construction of beautiful palaces, works of art, and a fascinating mixture of symbols that still defies a complete explanation.

Some of the most interesting symbols and works of art depict what is known as bull leaping. This was a dangerous athletic activity practiced by both males and females, most appearing very youthful.

I have chosen to include this sport in the compilation of spectacles because it was both unique to the Minoans (although the Myceneans picked it up a bit later), and because it was supposedly practiced as either part of a larger religious/sporting event and as a regular public activity that would attract large portions of the population.

In 1900, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated a huge complex of palace buildings near the Cretan capital of Heraklion. It turned out to be the palace of Knossos, at 700,000 square metres more than three times the size of Buckingham Palace, and home to the legendary King Minos, from whom the Minoan civilization takes its name, and a central figure in the myth of the Minotaur.[1]

According to Mcinernery and Castleden, it was subsequently found that bulls were “ubiquitous” on Crete and that there was “evidence of a pervasive preoccupation” with them.[2][3] Some have argued that there was a bull cult, others a religion. Whatever the case, bull leaping was a distinctive part of this. The actual sport was practiced apparently by upper class youth and took place in a large central palace court such as has been found at Knossos, or as some argue, a separate compound close to the palace and designed specifically for it such as at Malia.[4]

We can imagine the scene… 

The lithe, tanned young athlete waited nervously at one end of the massive, tiled courtyard, just beneath the large horns of the sacred bull. He hopped from one foot to the other, trying to loosen his legs and arms. He was clad in high sandals, with a blue and red long loincloth and matching arm bracelets and anklets. His dark hair was tied in a topknot and several long strands hung in ringlets down his back.

The king and the entire city were cheering excitedly from the stands surrounding the courtyard. The magnificent palace of Knossos gleamed behind them in the afternoon sun, its red pillars standing out in counterpoint to its whitewashed walls. This was the culmination of the last week’s sacred games and his performance preceded the final sacrifices. He had to get it right. It was the will of the gods.

Suddenly, from the far end of the courtyard, a snort could be heard, followed by the shaking of the ground under his feet. The massive animal began its charge across the open space. Two girls with a similar appearance ran alongside the bull to try to keep him on course. The athlete started a slow run to meet them and with two skips leapt into the air just as he met the bull in the middle of the courtyard. He missed the bull’s deadly horns by inches but executed a perfect vault over them, landing with his arms on the charging animal’s back. In one swift push he was upright on the ground behind the beast and running to the safety of the surrounding fence as his companions guided the bull to its pen.

The entire crowd stood up and cheered him. His face shone as he bowed to the king. He knew what he had accomplished and its importance. The games were now concluded and the taurine gods happily appeased.

See Figure 1 for a depiction of bull leaping, taken from a fresco found in the palace of Knossos. Figure 2 shows the central outdoor court of the palace where the bull leaping may have occurred.


Figure 1: Bull leaping, from a fresco in the palace of Knossos 

Figure 2: Central court of the palace

Will we ever know if this was the exact sequence or if and why this event even took place? Maybe. For now, my imaginary “bull leap” must suffice.

The sequence I have described is the one that most scholars interpret happened, in other words a frontal “assault” and leap over the bull, essentially with the bull acting as a modern gymnastic vaulting box. However, another interpretation has been suggested and that is that the athlete might have grasped the horns of the animal and used the bull’s subsequent head movement to literally toss him into the air so he would land upright on the bull’s back. Arguments abound as to whether this would even be possible. It seems that more time is still needed to determine what really happened and why.

If there were any legacy to this particular celebration, it would have to be that it has drawn intense interest to the Minoan civilization, and from that we should eventually be able to learn about them. It is also possible, as mentioned by Sakellarakis, that the arena or compound set up for this event was the first in history to be so designed, that is specifically for a game. Indeed, this and other Minoan sports had an eventual influence on the Greek Olympics.

Notes and Further Reading 

[1] Hudson, C. (Oct. 23, 2004). Raging Bull. Daily Mail (London).
[2] Mcinerney, J. (2010). The Cattle of the Sun: Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[3] Castleden, R. (1990). The Knossos Labyrinth: A New View of the "Palace of Minos" at Knossos. London: Routledge.
[4] Sakellarakis, J. (2003). Sport in Crete and Mycenae. The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece: Ancient Olympia and The Olympic Games. Athens: Edotike Hellados S.A. pp. 15-24.


  1. The superb author, Mary Renault, wrote a wonderful, well-researched novel about this, called "The Bull from the Sea." I think she may have been a Classics specialist, but could be wrong. You would love her interpretation....

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