The ancient residents of Crete, an island to the southeast of mainland Greece, were full of bull. That is, at least when it came to worshipping bovines, depicting them everywhere from sarcophagi to frescoes, gold rings to figurines...and using them in sporting competition reminiscent of modern rodeo.
On frescoes, figurines, rings, and more, the Cretans showed themselves catapulting over bulls. This artistic motif spread as far as New Kingdom Egypt and the Indus Valley, but it seems that, if anyone did really do bull-vaulting, it was the Cretans. How did any young men, no matter how acrobatic, manage to jump over a bull?
Pictures of bull-leapers were set up near images of wrestlers and boxers, implying that this activity was a recreational sport that spectators enjoyed. The bull wasn't a prop; it was a worthy opponent to the leaper. Here, man competed not against another man, but against the forces of nature.
A modern reconstruction of a bull leaper's journey. Image via Michael Lahanas.
Scholars have debated the leapers' techniques. The guy who "discovered" Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans, thought there were four stages: approaching the bull, grabbing it by the horns, jumping over its back, and landing. Perhaps they grabbed the bull by the horns - quite literally - and vaulted over its back. That seems a bit implausible, however, considering how hard it would be to grasp the pointy horns of an angry, charging beast without getting hurt.
The Bull-Leaping Fresco, shown above, seems to portray a group of bull grapplers. The guy on the left had to "pad the horns, keep the bull's head low and the rest of its bull steady during the leap," noted Rodney Castledon in Minoan Life in Bronze Age Crete. In the middle stands the leaper, and on the right is the guy who'd catch the leaper. After the bull-leaping show was done, the animals were probably sacrificed to the gods.
Who were the guys jumping over animals? Were these elite males, involved in some sort of initiation ritual, or slaves? Or perhaps professional acrobats? There's no way to know, but perhaps the whole story of Theseus and the Minotaur stemmed from real-life bull leapers' adventures.
The legendary bull-man resided in the center of the infamous Labyrinth, where young men and women from Theseus's native Athens were served up to him as lunch. That stemmed from a time King Minos of Crete's son was killed by the Athenians and he defeated them in battle, exacting revenge in the form of human tribute to the Minotaur.
What if it wasn't really possible to jump a charging bull? That's equally feasible; perhaps these artistic depictions were ritual plays or manifestations. But some people still do vault over bulls today, making it possible, just possible, that the Minoans rode it like a rodeo.
Feature image via Penn Museum.