The Significance of the Bull in the Minoan Religion

The Minoans built the palace of Knossos whose ruins are on the island of Crete.
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The Minoans ruled on the island of Crete, south of the Greek mainland in the Mediterranean Sea, from 2000 to 1600 BCE. Their sophisticated culture thrived because of their powerful naval fleet. The Minoans, along with other ancient cultures, held the bull in high regard and worshiped it as an idol. The Hebrews constructed a golden calf destroyed by Moses. Marduk, a Babylonian god, can be translated to “bull of Utu,” and the Minoans associated the bull with the sun and the moon with a cow. The significance of the bull sheds light on the Minoan relationship with nature and indicates how their great civilization dwindled from the world stage.

1 The Labyrinth Myth

In the labyrinth myth, King Minos ruled the island of Crete, and to maintain supremacy, he requested a white bull from Poseidon to sacrifice to the god. When Minos changed his mind and kept the bull, Poseidon cursed King Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, who consummated a bestial union, resulting in the half-man-half beast Minotaur. King Minos imprisoned the monster in the labyrinth, and to satisfy the beast’s hunger, King Minos demanded a tribute of young Athenians every nine years. The Athenian prince, Theseus, disguised himself as a sacrifice and killed the Minotaur. According to Hermann Kern in "Through the Labyrinth: Designs and Meanings Over 5,000 Years,'' this myth most likely refers to the real Minoan cultural and political dominance and then the consequent rise of the Athenians once Minoan supremacy faded.

2 The Minotaur

It is possible that the Minotaur figure itself comes from a practice of dancers wearing bull’s masks depicted in coins and vases recovered on Crete. The Minotaur (which translated means “bull of Minos”) could be a literary demonization of Minoan political authority. The defeat of the Minotaur, who could be viewed as the prince of Minos — and Theseus’ taking of Ariadne away with him after the defeat of the Minotaur — signals a reversal of power with the fall of the Minoans and the rise of the Mycenaean Greeks. It's probable that Minoan power dwindled because of an ancient volcanic explosion that caused mass starvation.

3 Bull Leaping

The practice of bull leaping, which figures prominently in the frescoes found at the palace of Knossos in Crete, demonstrates the importance of the bull to Minoan civilization. According to Jeremy McInerney in “Bulls and Bull-leaping in the Minoan World,” the act of bull-leaping involved the tension between the bull's ferocity with man’s ability to overcome it. In the sport of bull-leaping, a leaper approaches the bull from the front, grasps the bull’s horns, then flipping over the bull’s head, turns a handstand on the animal’s back, landing safely on the ground.There is some debate as to whether this was an actual practice or a metaphor depicted in frescoes, but bull fighting could very well be derived from this ancient practice as well as the popular saying, “grabbing the bull by the horns.”

4 Bull Cults

Bull leaping, in addition to the myriad representations of the bull on frescoes, coins, and vases, was one of many practices in the Cretan bull cult. According to McInerney, since there is no written documentation of this cult, the exact details of the rituals are most likely lost even though a variety of ancient civilizations, including the Egyptians, participated in similar practices. According to McInerney, the bull cult emphasized the importance of man’s supremacy over nature, a fact that brings with it a bit of irony given the Minoan civilization’s fall through a series of natural catastrophes.

John Conway is a professor and writer who has been teaching for more than 15 years. He has written about a variety of subjects, including technology, science, literary theory, online education and culture. Conway holds an M.F.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D. in English.