As early as the Neolithic period, there waslarge-scale migration to and permanent settlement on Crete, the largest of the Aegean islands. The Britisharchaeologist Sir ArthurEvans (see “Pioneers of Aegean Archaeology,” opposite)named it Minoan after the legend of Minos, a king who had ruled from the capital, Knossos.
Minoan civilization remained very much a mystery until 1900 CE, when Sir Arthur Evans beganuncovering the buried ruins of thearchitectural complex at Knossos, on Crete’s northcoast, which had been occupied in the Neolithic period, then built over with a succession ofBronze Age structures. The discoveries made at the Tomb of Agamemnon and the Palace of Minosat Knossos on Crete provide evidence about the life and the physical activities ofthese ancient Greek civilizations. Much less is known about their nature and cultural significance. From stone seals to frescoes in relief, the image ofthe bull permeates the Minoan world. Furthermore, depictions of bulls and bull-leapingfigure prominently in the pictorial deck)The ration of Neopalatial Knossos. Major entrancesleading to the center of the palace complex were adorned with wall paintings of bulls andbull-leaping.
The bull-leaping fresco at the palace at Knossos dates from about 1450 BCE and depicts theacrobatics of two white female figures and a red male figure. A bull-leaping scene, vividlydepicting how the spectacular sport was performed. There are three participants, twowhite-skinned women, and a brown-skinned man. One of the female athletes is restraining the bull bythe horns to reduce its speed so that the leaper, performing the dangerous backward somersault,will not be gored.
The second female athlete, behind the bull, is waiting with outstretchedarms to catch the leaper as he lands. The fresco was found on the east side of the palace ofKnossos, along with fragments of others depicting different stages of the same sport. It ispossible that these figures represent performers providing entertainment for the royal court. A furtherexplanation is that the youths were engaged in a fertility ordeal or ritual. Ritual bullleaping was likely an activity that incorporated both a physical contest and religious ceremony likelater Greek athletic contests.For example, depictions of Minoan bull-leapinginvolving the killing of animals are rare, and it is possible that the point of the exercise was not tokill the animal but to demonstrate superiorskill. The organization of the course landaise alsoraises questions regarding bull-leaping as an institution. Senta Cernían has recently proposed thatMinoan bull-leaping should be seen as a performance carried out by young men of high status.
The famous Bull’s Head rhyton from the Little Palaceat Knossos was made from serpentinite.It has been reconstructed with inlays of shell, rockcrystal, and jasper in the muzzle and eyes.The gilt wooden horns have also been reconstructed.
This rhyton was dated to the Final Palaceperiod, ca. 1450-1400 BC. Almost certainly of ritualsignificance are a series of rhytons—vessels used for pouring liquids. As we have seen, bulls are arecurrent theme in Minoan art, and rhytons were also made in the form of a bull’shead. This rhyton was filled with liquid through a hole in the bull’s neck, and during rituallibations, fluid flowed out from its mouth (book) conclusionAs limited as our understanding of the place ofphysical activity in Minoan society is, even less is understood about these practices in the lives ofthe Mycenaeans. What is known is derived from archaeological evidence, particularly with bullimagery or bull worship by the Minoans.
Bull-leaping, in addition to the myriadrepresentations of the bull on frescoes, coins, and vases, was one of many practices in the Cretan bull cult. TheMinoans, along with other ancient cultures, held the bull in high regard and worshipedit as an idol. The significance of the bull sheds light on the Minoan relationship with nature andindicates how their great civilization dwindled from the world stage.