Bull-Leaping in Bronze Age Crete
By Marie Brennan
24 January 2005
One of the most memorable scenes in Stephen R. Lawhead's novel Taliesin comes near the midpoint of the story, on the doomed island of Atlantis. In it, the royal princess Charis takes part in one of the major rituals of her people: bull-leaping.
The idea of acrobats flinging themselves at and over charging bulls was not Lawhead's invention; he took it from Minoan-period Crete. The archaeological record contains many depictions of this activity, and the concept of it has enchanted many people since Sir Arthur Evans first carried out excavations in the palace at Knossos. Since then, however, many scholars have raised questions about it, ranging from the meaning of the activity, to the manner and location of its execution, to who engaged in it. The subject is muddied in part by Evans's own writings; his work at Knossos and elsewhere is the foundation of Minoan archaeology (he was the one to name the period Minoan, after the mythological figure of Minos), and his efforts are laudable, but he approached Crete and its ancient civilization with a romantic light in his eye, and it colored all that he saw. Because his work is the foundation upon which so much else is built, that romantic light has also tinted much later scholarship. Disentangling Evans's biases from his own work and that of others in order to form a clearer picture of this characteristically Minoan activity is not a simple task.
What is bull-leaping?
The most commonly cited representation of bull-leaping is a well-preserved member of the four-panel grouping known as the "Taureador" or "Bull-Leaping" frescoes found at Knossos. Large portions of the panel are missing, but it seems that many key parts are preserved. The fresco shows three individuals of debatable gender and a bull with its legs outstretched in the common artistic code for a full gallop. One figure, dark-skinned and apparently male, seems to be somersaulting over the bull's back; his legs are in the air and his arms stretch around the bull's sides. At the bull's head another figure stands and seems to grasp the bull's horns, perhaps preparatory to performing the kind of acrobatics the other is currently engaged in. The third figure stands behind the bull, arms outstretched, perhaps in an attitude of reverence, perhaps to catch or steady the individual doing the somersault. The other three panels are similar in composition, with the primary difference being that in two of them the third figure appears to be landing from a leap rather than reaching out to catch the other acrobat.
The Taureador Frescoes are far from the only representation of bull-leaping in Minoan wall art. Evans's personal count of their instances may be somewhat inflated; he was capable of looking at a fresco fragment showing the front leg of an animal, most likely a bull, and extrapolating from this an entire bull-leaping scene complete with acrobats. His restorers then obligingly provided him with all the missing pieces. And, unfortunately, reproductions of the frescoes often do not show where the fragments end and the reproductions begin, so that many readers are misled into thinking the entire thing is genuine. Elsewhere, Evans's extrapolations may be better founded, as in one fragment which shows not only the forelegs of a bull but also marks which seem to be locks of hair, which could indicate the presence of an acrobat. Nevertheless, when Evans calls bull-grappling a common motif in Minoan art, that designation must be taken with a grain of salt.
Still, the Taureador Frescoes are not alone. A fragment from what Evans called the "Deposit of High Reliefs" shows a man's left arm thrown over a bull's horn; the fist is clenched, but not around the horn itself, and curiously enough the arm is turned in such a direction that it implies the man is facing away from the bull, instead of toward it, as is the case in the Taureador Frescoes. There are, moreover, frescoes from other sites that show the same or similar scenes: Pylos and Tiryns both have bull-leaping frescoes, for example, less well-executed than the examples at Knossos. Bull-leaping scenes appear even so far away as Egypt, at Avaris. There, archaeologists have uncovered frescoes which show strong Minoan influence, and some of the fragments depict bulls and acrobats in a manner not all that dissimilar from those of Knossos. Their most interesting characteristic, however, is not their location, but their age; more than one scholar has suggested that they are older than the surviving frescoes from Crete, which may raise new questions regarding the origins of Minoan wall-painting.
Frescoes are far from the only medium in which bull-leaping is represented. Two rhyta (a type of vessel) from tombs at Messara show similar images. Another rhyton from Hagia Triada, sometimes called the Boxers' Rhyton, shows an individual who appears to be an acrobat caught on the horns of a charging bull. The Vapheio Cup A portrays a similar scene, although in this instance the scene appears to belong more to bull-hunting motifs than to bull-leaping.
More distinctly identifiable as a bull-leaper is the bronze statue from the Middle Minoan III period. It depicts an apparent acrobat on the back of a charging bull; the acrobat's feet are placed on the bull's hindquarters and his back is arched. His arms are stumped off; they have apparently already released the horns. The remaining connection to the bull (necessary for support) is formed by the boy's hair, which touches the bull's head. Also in the sculptural medium there is a badly decayed ivory figure from the Ivory Deposit at Knossos, which may have been paired with a now lost bull.
Representations in clay sealings are fairly common. The scenes they depict are far less detailed than the large, painted frescoes, but their general outline is clear. One from the Temple Repository at Knossos shows a bull, a human figure with arms around the bull's neck and legs in the air, and a third figure standing behind with one arm raised. Two from Zakros show a bull and the legs of an acrobat who seems to be descending to land on the hindquarters. Another example from Zakros shows a different posture: the acrobat is descending headfirst towards the bull's back with his arms outstretched, much like the central performer in the main Taureador Fresco. In one sealing from the Corridor of the Bays at Knossos the acrobat seems to be beginning another flip: his head is down toward the bull's hindquarters with his arms extended and his legs, from what is preserved of them, on their way to the ground behind the bull.
A few other examples of the motif come from other media. An agate intaglio shows a strange, circular design which includes two bulls galloping in opposite directions with their backs to one another, an acrobat in between the two (apparently in the midst of a somersault), and a second human to one side with arms outstretched. The intaglio, however, belonged to Evans's personal collection and had a very uncertain provenance; he bought it in Athens and claimed it had been found in the Peloponnese. Given the frequency of forgery in the archaeological world, such an item must automatically be suspect.
Other examples are more trustworthy. A signet ring from a chamber tomb at Arkhanes shows a single acrobat with his hands planted on the bull's back and his legs on their way to the ground, much like the Knossos sealing described above. Another signet ring, from Smyrna, shows what Evans took to be an acrobat or cowboy in apparent trouble; he lies on the ground underneath the bull's hindquarters and holds up his hands as if in distress, while the bull's head turns back as if in preparation for trampling him. If this is an example of the same motif, it is not the only one from outside Crete; the Avaris frescoes have been mentioned already, and a clay envelope from Cappadocia showing similar sports has, like the frescoes, been dated to before Minoan times. Even if bull-leaping did not originate outside of Crete, it certainly spread there, as a concept if not as a performed activity.
The mechanics of bull-leaping
The average individual could not possibly hope to take a flying leap at a charging bull and emerge in one piece on the other side. This does not mean, however, that specially trained athletes could not manage it. The gymnastics vault event is not so dissimilar in general principle: the gymnast runs full-speed at the vault "horse" and performs a somersault over it. Granted, the "horse" is not moving, and the gymnast has a springboard to help, but then again, the gymnast is also trained to do something more complicated than a simple somersault.
The exact mechanics of the supposed bull-leaping feat are open to debate. Evans sketched out a hypothetical sequence along the following lines:
- The leaper seizes the bull by the horns, near the tips.
- The bull raises its head in an attempt to throw him, which gives momentum to the leaper.
- The leaper releases the horns, turns a back-somersault, and lands on the bull's back near the tail.
- Finally, he makes his last leap from the bull's back to the ground.
This is a fairly literal interpretation of the depictions in the art, although interestingly enough it does not seem to entirely match what is shown in the Taureador Fresco; there, the acrobat's arms seem to be planted across the bull's back.
But how possible is such a feat? In all likelihood the acrobat would end up with a fate not dissimilar from that seen on, for example, the Boxers' Rhyton, which appears to show an unlucky bull-leaper being gored to death. Perhaps the images merely show the concept behind bull-leaping—the defeat of a powerful animal by human skill—and not the mechanics of how it was done.
Oddly enough, Evans acknowledged that in the opinion of some people, including a professional steer-wrestler, what the frescoes show is simply not possible. According to that unnamed individual, the acrobat would have no hope of obtaining his balance against a bull in full charge, and in particular would face the problem that a bull tends to sweep his head sideways for the purpose of goring anyone within reach—which would, presumably, make getting any kind of grip on the horns virtually impossible. In addition, there is also the issue that the relative momentum of the bull and the acrobat would almost certainly result in a landing not on the bull's back but on the ground behind it.
Evans sidestepped the issue repeatedly. He stated quite frankly at one point that the process he had sketched out was beyond the ability of a human to perform, by which he indicated not the somersault itself, but what a gymnast might term the "mount": the commencement of the endeavor, depicted in the art as involving grasping the bull's horns. Nevertheless, Evans still held to his sequence as described above, and showed more concern for questions such as where the waiting "assistant" would stand to catch the leaper than the still-unresolved issue of how the leap began in the first place. He suggested in passing that the bulls were trained for this activity, but this hardly eliminates all the doubts regarding the feasibility of this sequence. Nor do two other comments he made, one pointing out that other media such as seal impressions partially corroborate the image shown on the frescoes, the other holding up instances of bull-wrestling seen on gems as similarly superhuman feats.
But the approach Evans outlines is not the only one theorized. One variation suggests the bull-leaper somersaulted over the head of the bull (without touching the horns) and landed feet first on the bull's back; another would have the leaper diving over the bull's head and landing in a handstand on the back, before continuing to the ground. Alternatively, the acrobats may have vaulted sideways over the bull's back, with or without the grabbing a horn. Finally, one scenario, called the "diving leaper" approach, would have the acrobat come from an elevated position, diving down onto the bull's shoulders and then to the ground. Any or all of these possibilities may have constituted moves in a repertoire from which the acrobats could draw in the course of a performance, with the crowning move being Evans's pattern, seizing the horns and leaping over the back. That last notion is the one Lawhead drew on for his novel; it has the charm of both explaining the frequency of Evans's pattern's representation and allowing for its rarity and difficulty.
Who performed bull-leaping?
The Taureador Fresco depicts three individuals whose identities and even genders have been subject to a great deal of debate. By and large the Minoans followed the same artistic conventions as the Egyptians in coloring males red or brown and females white. When this pattern is applied to the Taureador Fresco, we find that the somersaulting figure is a male—an observation which harmonizes with his short and characteristically male kilt.
The other two figures, however, are more problematic. Both of them are colored white, which on the face of it would seem to suggest that they are women. Indeed, Evans assumed them to be so, and referred to them that way constantly; any fresco showing a white-skinned bull-leaper he classed as depicting a woman. In fact, he seemed to be quite taken with the notion of female acrobats, and saw them practically everywhere; he was capable of identifying the figure on the Vapheio Cup A as a girl based on her long hair and "a slight pectoral development"—a phrase which sounds suspiciously like Evans reaching for the characteristics he wished to see.
The acrobats in question are invariably shown with their upper bodies bare—that is, lacking the open-fronted jacket or shirt characteristic of Minoan women—and wearing the masculine costume of codpieces and phallus sheaths. Evans did not ignore the muscular appearance of the leapers, but neither did this make him question his assumption of female gender.
Certain practical considerations come to mind when the physique of these potentially female figures is evaluated. One is that large-breasted women would not be well suited to an acrobatic activity like cavorting with charging bulls. Another is that women who engage in strenuous athletic pursuits of this sort, particularly if they are trained to do so from a young age, often do not develop large breasts; one glance at Olympic gymnasts will demonstrate this principle in action. Minoan art, however, with its peculiar perspective combining profiles and full-face, its wasp-waisted men and coloring conventions, is hardly noted for its realism in the depiction of human figures. It would be surprising in the extreme if attention to this sort of physiological detail were responsible for female leapers being depicted as flat-chested.
Evans addresses the gender disparities directly. His comments convey his attitude toward the material more clearly than any paraphrase could:
A ceremonial feature, affecting all classes of the bull-sports, and which must be distinctly regarded as of a religious nature, is to be seen in the head-gear of the female performers. These, as may be gathered from their elaborate coiffure and the gay bandeaux that some of them wear, clearly occupied a good social position. Thus in the exquisite design of a leaping girl performer given in Fig. 11, her carefully curled locks are confined by a blue ribbon and she wears a beaded necklace. But the most notable feature in the costume of girl performers was of a very different kind. As participants in the feats of the taurokathapsia these trained girl athletes—who may be thought to represent the presiding Goddess in a superior degree—had to first undergo a kind of sexual transformation, by divesting themselves of all feminine dress except their head-gear and necklace, and by adopting the sporting costume of the male performers, including the universal exterior sign of the masculine sex, the Minoan version of the 'Libyan sheath.' (4: 21-22)
So he acknowledges up front that some manner of "sexual transformation" is taking place. His assumption, however, is that women are being transformed into men; his proofs for this are their white skin (as previously mentioned), their hair arrangements, and their necklaces, which stand in contrast with their bare upper bodies, their muscled torsos, their masculine sheaths, and their engagement in physical activity which must have required great strength of upper body.
He attributes the presence of girls among the performers to the link between these sorts of bull-sports and the Minoan Goddess. In his opinion,
It was no doubt the religious character of these sports—held under the immediate patronage of the Goddess, whose pillar shrine overlooked the arena—that made it possible and even proper for girls, apparently of high degree, to enter the ranks of these highly skilled performers. (3: 227)
No one doubts that the performers must have been highly skilled—otherwise they would have met a gruesome fate quite soon—and most seem to agree that the performers were of high rank, either by virtue of birth or because their engagement in this activity brought with it prestige. In Evans's opinion, in fact, the girl acrobats were of higher status than their male counterparts, based on the elaborate nature of their hairstyles, which sometimes included ribbons or other decorations.
The alternative, however, to assuming some leapers were female, is to assume that the color-coding scheme needs to be reexamined. Archaeologists and art historians must, from time to time, determine the gender of individuals not depicted in color, such as those seen on seals and pottery or metal vessels. In those instances, they turn to characteristics other than color to assign gender. By this count, every other detail of the images, from their physique to their clothing, identifies the leapers as male. Admittedly, Minoan women could not be expected to leap over bulls in their usual flounced skirts, but would they put on something as definitively masculine as a phallus sheath? Given these points, and given that Minoan ritual art rarely depicts men and women together, there seems a fair bit of evidence that the color scheme is off, and the leapers are male. So, why are some of the bull-leapers shown in white, with the hair and jewelry Evans sees as feminine?
One possibility returns to the question of rank. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, white color sometimes indicated high status (i.e. someone who did not work every day in the sun). It could also mean a young individual. Evans himself referred to the acrobats as "youthful." And there seems to be a noticeable pattern regarding which figures in the frescoes are painted which colors; those in mid-vault are always dark-skinned. The ones shown which appear to be preparing for a leap, landing from one, or waiting to catch another performer, are occasionally dark-skinned, but more often white-skinned.
Therefore, the white-skinned performers may not be female; they may be younger (which fits in with an initiation theory, described further below). They may also, or alternatively, be of higher status; this would account for the more elaborate dress which Evans cited as proof of the prestige of girls in this activity. A third explanation suggests that the color-coding is used to indicate the sequence of events taking place in the fresco, although this seems the least logical possibility, in the context of the rest of Minoan and Mediterranean art.
Other media than frescoes show virtually no sign of female leapers (part of the evidence against taking the color-coding at face value). The one possible exception comes from a seal where one of the figures has what appears to be a triangular marking in the region of the figure's groin, which might indicate a woman. However, the seal is Syrian in origin, and while it may depict Minoans (as such seals often do), this is not certain.
One final point worth raising in this debate is the fact that one of the white-skinned leapers wears a hair band only seen on Minoan women. Moreover, the white-skinned figures always have long hair, which is typical of women. On the other hand, sometimes the dark-skinned figures have long hair as well. Ultimately, the gender debate is still inconclusive, and opinions vary wildly from scholar to scholar.
Where was bull-leaping performed?
Up until now bull-leaping has been considered more or less in an isolated context, but in fact it forms a complex of activities with events that could more accurately be called bull-hunting or bull-capture. Scenes of those latter activities are more commonly shown out in the wild, as might be expected, but for bull-leaping itself the debate centers primarily on two possibilities: within the palaces, or in arenas outside.
The central court is a common feature of Cretan palaces, and in the three major palaces (Knossos, Malia, and Phaistos) the courts are so similar as to be nearly standardized. All three of them are oriented on a north-south axis and measure approximately 80 ft by 170 ft (24 m by 52 m). These may be likened to the Roman plazas used for gladiatorial combat, and could be the "bull-ring" in which the acrobatic displays took place.
Evans, on the basis of the Grandstand Fresco, envisioned a large amphitheater-like building as the bull-ring, but such buildings have not turned up in the archaeological record, which seriously undermines that possibility. Evans discounted the central court because the bulls could seemingly charge right into the audience, but at Knossos the boundaries of the area are very poorly preserved. When we look to Phaistos, on the other hand, we find evidence of doors protecting all openings to the central court. At Malia there are similar structures, in addition to something which may have been a balustrade along the eastern portico. Since the portico was at the level of the court, such a barrier would not have been needed to prevent falls, and the bars were far enough apart for a person to slip through; therefore, it may have been a structure to prevent bulls from getting into the portico from the court, just as concrete pylons or steel bars may be put in place to stop cars in modern times. There may also have been a similar structure at Phaistos. Because the bulls were not apparently tormented, as they are in the Spanish bullfights, a balustrade might be sufficient to stop them, but another possibility is that the barrier was to keep out rabble, not bulls.
The northwest corner of the court at Phaistos contains an odd structure consisting of a masonry block with an apparent step leading up to it. This is unlikely to be a staircase, although the stone is worn down as if from feet, because it leads nowhere in particular. One artifact from the period, a gem, shows a bull with its forelegs up on some kind of block while a man leaps onto its head. This could potentially be a gambit from the repertoire of a bull-leaper, matching the "diving leaper" pattern. On the other hand, it's difficult to make a bull charge into a corner, and furthermore, the artifacts found on top of the block when Phaistos was excavated suggest it was used as an altar, at least in its final phase, although it may have served a different purpose before.
There are other elements which argue in favor of the courts, such as the small rooms off the west side of the court at Phaistos, which might have been used as temporary stalls for the bulls, and a strange ramp near the court at Malia. Malia's court also contains a stone in the northwest corner which might have been used as a springboard for leaping at a bull, and a structure near the center which was used for burning something, possibly sacrificed bulls. Likewise at Gournia there is a slab in the northwest corner which could potentially have been for the slaughter of sacrificed bulls.
On the other hand, the anti-court evidence does not end with Evans's fear for the safety of the audience. The palace courts were all paved; this would hurt the hooves of the charging bulls, and any leaper who landed badly might also be injured. In a religious context (which bull-leaping almost certainly had) this would no doubt be perceived as a very bad omen. Moreover, many of the bull-leaping scenes either show no background context at all, or scattered bits of vegetation. On the basis of these objections, an outdoor area seems more appropriate, most likely near the palace but not in it, and probably fenced off for the duration of the event.
What was the significance of bull-leaping?
Virtually everyone who has addressed the matter of bull-leaping has admitted that it was most likely religious in character. One possibility for its origin is that it was an outgrowth of processes used in domestication; the skills developed to separate the bull from the herd then led to more stylized acrobatics.
Most scholars agree that one of the purposes of the event was to demonstrate human superiority and control over the wild power of a bull. Because of this power angle and the relation to hunting, some consider it even more likely that all of the leapers were male; female leapers might have been more plausible if the central message of the activity were sexual. There is, however, a distinction between hunting and acrobatics; the purpose of the former is to kill or capture, while the latter's is to show the triumph of human intelligence and skill, as tested (in this case) against the bull.
But what was the purpose of the test? An initiation or coming-of-age ritual seems fairly plausible. Adolescents are the best-suited for physical tests of this sort, and the acrobats are usually referred to in scholarly discussion as boys and girls or youths and maidens. The Avaris fresco shows a blue-headed acrobat; in Aegean artistic terms blue heads are interpreted as shaved, and shaved heads are indicative of preadolescents. If the performers are in fact aristocrats, as their elaborate dress would seem to indicate, and not slaves or professional entertainers, then the coming-of-age argument is even more plausible. Moreover, this could potentially explain the confusion of color in the frescoes; uninitiated (and therefore subadult) males might be considered more "female" and hence painted white.
Another possibility, not necessarily incompatible with the initiation scenario, is that bull-leaping was used to validate the Minoan elite. That the participants were elites is quite likely; as mentioned before, they wear elaborate jewelry and hairstyles, and this is true both of the acrobats and of the hunters. Moreover, bull-leaping is only depicted in elite art; we find evidence of it in palace frescoes, gold cups, signet rings, clay sealings, and well-executed bronze and ivory statues, not in crude, widely available art. Interestingly, although these motifs are known from elsewhere in the Aegean world, such as on mainland Greece, and even farther afield than that, the vast preponderance of bull-leaping art is from Knossos itself. Even elsewhere on Crete, we do not find the overwhelming and pervasive bull-imagery so noticeable at Knossos. Instances of such motifs from elsewhere may have been a nod to the power of that palace and its elite.
In this theory, the point of the activity is not merely to assert the power of humans over animals; it is to assert the power of Minoan elites over the wild strength of the bull, just as Near Eastern rulers hunted bulls, lions, or other dangerous animals. As mentioned before, this is not incompatible with the idea of initiation, provided the leapers are members of the aristocratic class themselves, and not slaves or professional entertainers; from Evans on this has been the popular view. The activity of bull-leaping served to validate the power of the Minoan elite, most especially at Knossos.
The decades since Evans excavated Knossos have seen a complication of bull-leaping, rather than a clarification of it. Whereas female performers were once accepted as a matter of course, now their presence is hotly debated. Details such as the manner of performance and the location have been gone over with a fine-toothed comb, without any truly solid conclusions. Nevertheless, the importance of bull-leaping to the palace culture of Knossos, and from there to the rest of the Aegean and Near Eastern world, cannot be overstated, even if that importance is not fully understood.
[Editor's Note: In attempting to locate appropriate images for this piece, we located a page of videos which show what appears to be a modern descendant of bull-leaping.]
Bibliography / Further Reading
Collon, D. "Bull-Leaping in Syria." Egypt and the Levant: International Journal for Egyptian Archaeology and Related Disciplines 4 (1996): 81-88.
Dickinson, Oliver. The Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Evans, Arthur, Sir. The Palace of Minos: a Comparative Account of the Successive Stages of the Early Cretan Civilization as Illustrated by the Discoveries at Knossos. 4 vols. London: Macmillan and Company, 1921.
Graham, J. Walter. The Palaces of Crete. Princeton Paperbacks. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Higgins, Reynold Alleyne. Minoan and Mycenaean Art, Revised Edition (The World of Art). London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Hood, Sinclair. The Arts in Prehistoric Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.
Immerwahr, Sara Anderson. Aegean Painting in the Bronze Age. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.
Lawhead, Stephen R. Taliesin. New York: Avon, 1995.
Marinatos, Nanno. "The Export Significance of Minoan Bull-Leaping Scenes." Egypt and the Levant: International Journal for Egyptian Archaeology and Related Disciplines 4 (1996): 89-93.
Marinatos, Nanno. Minoan Religion: Ritual, Image, and Symbol. Studies in Comparative Religion. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Preziosi, Donald and Louise A. Hitchcock. Aegean Art and Architecture. Oxford History of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Younger, J. "Bronze Age Representations of Aegean Bull-Games, III." Aegaeum 12 (1995): 507-46.
"Bull-Leaping in Bronze Age Crete," by Marie Brennan, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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