Barbarians and Bureaucrats: The Minoans

Bull Jumping


   The Minoans were a sport-centered society; while all sports ultimately derive from religious rituals, by the time the Cretans were enjoying their palace civilization, sport seemed to have passed over into a recreational activity. This is a new pheneomenon in the ancient world: sport for sport's sake, and parallels a number of other aspects of Minoan culture. We know a great deal about Cretan sports because they are a common subject of wall paintings and vase sculptures. The most popular sport subjects in Minoan painting and sculpture are two sports in particular: boxing and bull-jumping.

Bull Jumping   Bull-jumping did not involve killing the bull, rather it was a test of both courage and agility. A bull would run at a jumper or line of jumpers; when it was close enough, the jumper would grab the bull's horns and either vault onto the bull's back or vault over the bull in a somersault and land on his or her feet on the other side of the bull. The difficulty of this vaulting is eloquently demonstrated in a Minoan vase: when you grab hold of a charging bull's horns, it jerks its head up violently—that's how it attacks with its horns. So the vaulter must get his or her momentum from this incredibly violent head jerk and use it to gracefully mount or vault the bull (we're not sure which). The Minoan depictions of this event show a remarkably graceful and gymnastic sport that seems less about bravery and strength and more about grace and fluidity. Since the bull provides most of the momentum in the vault, it seems likely that the activity has more in common with gymnastics than bull-fighting. In keeping with the singular gender equality of Minoan culture, both young men and young women participated in the sport, although the young women dressed in male clothes.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-12-97