GREENWICH, N.Y. — This week’s Hansen’s History will attempt to dive into a mystery of history. The Minoan Civilization from the island of Crete has captivated archaeologists for centuries. Shrouded in mystery and colored by myth, this ancient civilization has been compared to the lost city of Atlantis. One of the civilization’s interesting facets is its infatuation with bulls and their practice of bull jumping.
The Minoan Civilization inhabited the island of Crete off the coast of present-day Greece from around 3000 B.C. to 1100 B.C. A precursor to the Ancient Greeks, the Minoan civilization is sometimes referred to as “the First European Civilization.” Much is still unknown about the Minoans because their written language, called Linear A, remains undeciphered. What is known or perceived about them comes from archaeological evidence and artwork that has been discovered.
One of the defining features of Minoan culture are large palace complexes which appear to have served administrative, religious, trade, and political functions. The most famous of these is the Palace of Knossos which was excavated by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans from 1900-1905. According to Greek mythology Knossos was the home of King Minos and the monstrous half-man, half-bull Minotaur which lived in a labyrinth beneath Minos’ palace. Smaller towns may have been connected to the larger, palace centered towns which were situated on the coasts.
The Minoans appear to have been seafarers and influential traders in the Mediterranean region. Minoan items and Minoan-influenced items have been found in other civilizations from the time like the Mycenaeans on mainland Greece and the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, the Egyptians, the Hittites in Anatolia, and other peoples in the Levant. While many of their goods came via trade, evidence suggests the Minoans raised cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and bees. They also grew wheat, barley, chickpeas, vetch, olives, grapes, pomegranates, and poppies using donkeys and oxen to help cultivate fields.
Art is also an important signifier of the Minoans. Intricate jewelry and metalworks have been discovered and beautifully painted frescos and pottery have been unearthed at Minoan sites. Many of these artworks feature landscapes, land and sea creatures, and scenes of everyday life. Minoan art is very different from the art of other Bronze Age cultures as it is more stylistic and complex featuring vibrant colors and shapely lines as opposed to the more stoic and rigid art of other civilizations at that time.
A common theme in Minoan art is the bull. Many paintings, sculptures, engravings, jewelry, pottery and more portray bulls or imitate bull features like the horns. For example, pottery has been found with a series of scenes showing an attempt to catch a bull with varying results. A particular subject in artwork is a feat known as bull jumping. The practice is often depicted with a jumper acrobatically suspended over a charging bull.
The most famous example of bull jumping is a fresco on a wall in the Palace of Knossos. Featuring a blue background, the painting shows three individuals engaged in the practice. One figure is in the act of jumping with his hands on the bull’s back. Another is at the bull’s rear in a stance that gives the impression of a finished jump or preparation to catch the incoming jumper. The third figure is at the front grabbing the bull’s horns.
There are differing theories as to how this feat was performed. Based on the Knossos fresco, archaeologist Arthur Evans believed the process involved a jumper grabbing a charging bull’s horns, then using the bull’s upward goring motion to vault. Somersaulting over the bull he would land feet first on the bull’s backside or on the ground. However, studies have cast doubt on this interpretation feeling that the mechanics involved to pull it off would have been unlikely to impossible even for trained athletes. American steer wrestlers have also chimed in saying that the force of a charging bull, which is 3x greater than that of the steers they wrestle, would have thrown the jumper off balance preventing them from getting upwardly airborne while also increasing the chances of the jumper getting gored.
Another theory puts forth that the horns were not meant to be touched but rather the jumper would leap over the charging bull with the goal of performing flips or handstands on the bull’s back. Another suggestion is that jumpers performed acrobatics across the bull’s back and not alongside it. Minoan bull jumping artifacts show performers in a wide variety of positions while jumping so it is possible that there was not one specific way jumping was performed.
Much like the question of how it was performed, the question of why bull jumping was performed remains under debate. The most common interpretation is that it was a part of the Minoan religion. Bulls were featured in the religions of civilizations that came before and were around at the same time as the Minoans like the Egyptians and Mesopotamians. Bulls were symbols of strength and fertility in various cultures, and they played a major role in Minoan culture along with their practical role in cattle production.
Bull jumping may have been part of a ritual or ceremony demonstrating the superiority of humans over nature or a coming-of-age ritual for young Minoan men (although women are depicted jumping too). In addition to bull jumping bull shaped rhytons have been discovered. These were large vessels designed to hold liquid. Judging by their size and high quality they likely were not used for everyday use but rather special occasion giving more credence to the idea that bulls were a part of Minoan religion.
Other theories suggest that bull jumping was a practice of the Minoan elite, or that it was simply a sport that people enjoyed like rodeo events today. Many palace complexes that have been unearthed on Crete feature a large courtyard area which gives the resemblance of an arena where public events or bull jumping may have taken place. Unfortunately, not enough evidence has been uncovered to support this claim so it remains conjecture. Some scholars believe bull jumping was never actually practiced contending that the imagery was symbolic of constellations and stories connected to them. However, given the quantity of bull jumping artifacts that exist and the variety of jumps depicted in these artifacts, most scholars believe that bull jumping was a real practice.
While much remains to be discovered about the Minoan civilization and bull jumping, the legacy of the practice lives on today. Bull jumping is a recognized sport in France and Spain. Called Course Landaise in France and Recorte in Spanish, bull jumpers are left alone in a ring with a bull and gain points based on the acrobatic moves they do in their jumps over the bulls or the kinds of dodges they deploy to avoid a bull’s charge. (Check out this video to see some modern day recortadors in action!) Bull riding, steer wrestling, and other rodeo sports also hearken to bull sports both ancient and contemporary. Scholars have pointed out that like the ancient Minoans’ bull sport these modern bull sports display the millennia old relationship between man and beast. In an enclosed space the bull’s inherent wild nature is brought out and through a mixture of daring, danger, and skill man attempts to tame it.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.