Jumping the bull

The bull-leaping fresco from Knossos

We take a closer look at the bull-leaping fresco from Knossos (now in Iraklion), one of many depictions of ancient Minoan bull-sports.

Josho Brouwers

The bull played a central role in Minoan culture and is especially closely associated with Knossos. During his excavations at Knossos, Arthur Evans unearthed fragments of what he referred to as “Taureador Frescoes”, as detailed in the third volume of his Palace of Minos books (p. 209-232). Though fragmentary, the frescoes could be at least partially restored, and the most famous example has been used as this article’s featured image, above.

The fresco, dated to Late Minoan I (ca. 1500 BC) by Evans (1930, p. 210), but to Late Minoan II-IIIA by others (see Shaw 1996, p. 181 with n. 53 for references), depicts a large bull and three human figures. Two of the human figures have white skin, while the third human figure has a reddish brown skin. This is an artistic convention, perhaps borrowed from the Egyptians, to distinguish between male and female figures. Men are always shown with dark skin, while women are shown with light skin. This interpretation of the evidence has not gone unchallenged, with some pointing out that Egyptian conventions need not apply to Minoan art, and pointing out that the white figures in this fresco lack breasts and wear loin cloths with rigid cod pieces (Younger 1995, p. 515; Alberti 2002, pp. 103-107).

In any event, the white figure at the left seems to be holding the horns of the bull. This is a dangerous feat, especially considering that the bull seems to be charging at full gallop. Evans’s Palace of Minos suggests at first that the figure at far left is grabbing the bull’s horns so that the creature can fling her up and across his back, but this seems hardly likely. As Evans himself notes (p. 212):

Apart from this, certain features in the design have provoked the scepticism of experts acquainted with modern “Rodeo” performances. A veteran in “Steer-wrestling”, consulted by Professor Baldwin Brown, was of opinion that any one who had anything to do with that sport would pronounce the endeavour to seize the bull’s horns as a start for a somersault as quite impossible “for there is no chance of a human person being able to obtain a balance when the bull is charging full against him.” The bull, as he further remarked, has three times the strength of a steer, and when running, “raises his head sideways and gores any one in front of him.”

Is this participant instead trying to restrain the animal somehow? Or are they about to get seriously injured? Scenes involving bulls are common on Minoan objects, including sealings, rings, and gems, and some of them show the bull trampling hapless human figures. The other white figure, at the right, is gesticulating, perhaps in an attempt to attract the bull’s attention and confuse the animal, as in modern Spanish bull-fighting.

The red figure in the middle is depicted in the process of leaping across the bull’s back in a feat that almost defies belief. Almost, because this video on YouTube shows a Spanish toreador jumping repeatedly over the back of a bull. The video also shows how other toreadors in the arena try to distract and confuse the bull, allowing the Spanish bull-leaper to jump over the charging animal. A dangerous activity, to be sure, but one that’s clearly not impossible to perform by nimble individuals.

Various illustrations from the third volume of Arthur Evans’s The Palace of Minos (from left to right: figs. 149, 150, 152, and 153). They are all drawn after clay sealings, apart from the agate intaglio second from left. They all depict human figures leaping across bulls. The one at extreme left seems to have grabbed the bull’s neck; the second from the right shows what looks like a leaper landing hands first on the bull’s back.

What is the significance of this scene? Scenes of human figures leaping across bulls are found on a large number of objects, along with other scenes that involve chasing bulls into nets, attacking bulls with weapons, and so on; bull-leaping may have been one part of a larger ritual or ceremony involving bulls. In any event, bull-sports were clearly important in Minoan Crete, and are especially associated, to judge by the iconographic evidence, with Knossos (e.g. Younger 1983, p. 78; Shaw 1993).

The Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland would also adopt at least the iconographic conventions if perhaps (?) not the actual practice, with depictions of bull-leaping and associated bull-sports unearthed in Mycenae, Pylos, and elsewhere. A bull-leaping fresco, almost certainly made by Minoan artists, has even been discovered at Tell el-Dab’a (Avaris) in Egypt. Later Greeks would tell stories of Heracles and Theseus wrestling bulls, which are perhaps faint memories of ancient practices or inspired by contemporary bull-sports.

Finally, where did the Minoans perform their bull-leaping? Some believe that the activity took place in the Central Courts of the Minoan palaces, but limitations in space, the dangers posed to the audience, and the stone paving of the courts themselves (uncomfortable for the bull and potentially fatal for a leaper who misjudged a jump!) argue against this notion. (For a more detailed discussion, refer to Younger 1995, pp. 512-513.)

Instead, it seems likely that the bull-leaping was performed somewhere outside, on relatively soft soil. The final stage of the rituals associated with bull-leaping – the sacrifice and slaughter of the unfortunate bull – may have taken place in the Central Court (as per Lupack 2010, p. 256), perhaps after a procession during which the exhausted bull was led into the palace.