Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Bull Dance

Our Minnesota weather's been lushly Mediterranean of late, so naturally (such is the life of the wandering scholar) I've been thinking about bull-leaping.

I'm wondering if maybe—just maybe—the scholars have got it wrong.

Admittedly, my knowledge of the literature on the subject is not exhaustive. Still, on the basis of information available (to me, at any rate), I have the impression that much, if not most, current scholarship assumes that what we see depicted in Minoan art—what Mary Renault so charmingly calls the Bull Dance—is a sport, if perhaps a sport with religious overtones. Discussion tends to center on whether such a sport would actually have been physically possible or not.

I am given to understand that the scenes of bull-acrobatics that we see—on the golden ring-seal shown above, for example—are simply not possible; that bulls gore sideways rather than upwards, as the leaping scenes would imply. Contemporary athletes have been unable to duplicate the classical frontal bull-leap shown in Minoan art.

In fact, bull-games are live and well in our own day. In a form of bovine-leaping still practiced in southwest France, the cow (not bull) is tethered by the horns, and the leapers vault sideways across her back. In the Spanish bull-sport recortes, athletes dodge and leap an untethered bull with the aid of a vaulting pole.


But none of this is what Minoan art depicts. Apparently, even if that art represents something that actually took place, we must assume that we encounter in it at least a degree of stylization and artistic convention, not literal reality.

If not a literal sport, then what? It occurs to me to wonder whether what we see before us in Minoan glyptic art may not be a scene from mythology instead: a memorable episode from the life of some god or hero perhaps, the rest of the story now lost to us.

Years ago I heard Dianic priestess Z. Budapest remark, “We all have our bulls to leap.” Real or not, the Bull Dance certainly makes for pungent metaphor.

Archaeologist Nannó Marinatos concludes, along with so many scholars, that the central theme of the Bull Dance is dominance, representing human triumph over the animal world in the person of its most potent representative, the bull.

I'm not so sure. What we see here is nothing like the Spanish corrida. The bull is not killed; a hunting scene would better depict dominance. In one instance, it's actually the dancer that dies, speared on living horn.

I suspect that Z may be closer to the historic truth here. Sport or myth, it's metaphor; art can't help but be metaphor. Indeed we do all have our share of bulls to leap.

Well, may She of the Games grant us the grace to meet our bulls Minoan style: not with a death, but a dance.


You can see Minoanist Laura Perry's thoughts on the Bull-Dance here




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Wendilyn Emrys
    Wendilyn Emrys Tuesday, 07 July 2015

    The Bulls of today are far different from the ones on Kriti, even now and definitely then. Their horns were far larger and longer, even the females have such horns. I would not guess how they gored, and perhaps they were trained to it from infancy. It is comparing apples and onions to compare how the Minoans may have done it and how we might try it today. Bull's different, people and possible training different. Take 1000 years of history, breed up a specific kind of Bull, train it and train the leapers, and see what happens. Bull-leaping did not happen overnight.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Tuesday, 07 July 2015

    Steven, I love your thoughts on this subject. Having grown up on a farm, I can tell you, a bull calf that is used to being handled will grow up into an adult that is quite friendly (dangerously so, in some cases - being loved on by a full-grown Brahma bull can be quite intimidating, even if all he wants is a good scritch between the ears). I can totally believe that the Minoans had a few specially-selected bulls (the friendliest, most docile ones, specially bred for the situation) who were trained to allow athletes to do some sort of bull-leaping. The artwork all shows bulls in motion, as if they are running forward, towards the athletes who move in the opposite direction over the bull. However, I would be more likely to believe in a bull that has been trained to stand still, acting as a sort of living piece of gymnastic equipment, while people vault over him. I do have to wonder about the mythological significance of the images. They seem to indicate multiple people, both male and female (given the skin colors on the famed Bull Leaping fresco) taking part in the activity. We'll probably never know, but it can be pleasant to speculate.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Tuesday, 07 July 2015

    BTW some of my information comes from animal trainers whose bulls appear in movies and commercials. Bulls are quite trainable and will do practically anything for their favorite treat (bananas are apparently a favorite).

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 07 July 2015

    My thanks to you both: I was hoping to hear from people with more personal knowledge of the subject than this son of the suburbs can boast. I wondered what the Minoans would have used instead of bananas: dates, perhaps?

    The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that for such a strikingly unusual practice, the Minoans must have had some sort of etiological myth. That's just how pre-modern societies do things. While we may never know what it was, it seems to me perfectly reasonable to ask what form it may have taken. It also seems to me, Laura, that with the connection with Dionysos that you draw in your post, you're well on the way.

    An etiological myth seems all the more likely in the case of a sacral sport. It seems to me that one of the dysfunctions of modern team sports lies precisely in their profoundly unsacred character. That sports are (to some) a sort of pseudo-religion doesn't alter the matter.

    With one lone exception. The Canaanites had a myth for it. When the goddess Anat avenged her lover-brother Ba'al, she cut his murder's body up into pieces and, in her battle frenzy, kicked his head around the battlefield.

    And they still play soccer in that part of the world to this very day.;)

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Wednesday, 08 July 2015

    I'm totally with you about the need for a mythological basis for bull leaping. It must have been inspired by some portion of the mythology that permeated their society. I don't know whether we'll ever figure it out, but if we do, I'm sure it will be fascinating.

    FYI I'm pretty sure they didn't do the bull-leaping in the central courts of the temple-palace complexes like Sir Arthur Evans assumed, at least not after the buildings completely surrounded the courts (the early phases in some Minoan cities had the court open to the east with the structure only to the west and at the north and south ends - and really, the courts aren't that big). I have pretty strong memories from Malia of a separate wooden arena with pens attached, and possibly fenced fields beyond it, where the bull-leaping was done and where the animals were kept.

    As for mythology informing sports, soccer is awfully popular in Central America, where they used to play that ancient ball game involving the mythological main character's head/skull. And I find it interesting that the New Zealand soccer teams are effectively sacralizing the sport by practicing the Hongi before each match, thus turning it into a sacred battle.

  • Wendilyn Emrys
    Wendilyn Emrys Wednesday, 08 July 2015

    Europa; Minotaur; & Pasiphae's luring of the Bull are all possible mythological memories of the bull dance.

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