Ariadne's Tribe: Minoan Spirituality for the Modern World

Walk the sacred labyrinth with Ariadne, the Minotaur, the Great Mothers, Dionysus, and the rest of the Minoan family of deities. Ariadne's Tribe is an independent spiritual tradition that brings the deities of the ancient Minoans alive in the modern world. We're a revivalist tradition, not a reconstructionist one. We rely heavily on shared gnosis and the practical realities of Paganism in the modern world. Ariadne's thread reaches across the millennia to connect us with the divine. Will you follow where it leads?

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A Dilemma of Horns: Minoan Bulls and Cows

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

If it looks like a cow but it has horns, it must be a bull, right?


Did you know that, before the advent of modern industrial animal husbandry, all cattle (both cows and bulls) had horns? It was only when cattle began to be crammed into tight feedlot spaces that they were polled (had their horns removed) or bred not to have horns in the first place, in order to keep them from injuring each other.

So if you see an image from Minoan art that looks like a cow but that has horns, it might be a bull. But it might also be a cow. That image up top is a cow with a suckling calf on a faience plaque found at Knossos. Check out her awesome horns.

The Minoan pantheon includes both male and female bovine horned deities: the Minotaur and Zagreus, sure, but also Europa and her double/twin Pasiphae. It pays to look more closely. (And yes, there are horned cow goddesses in other pantheons as well: Hathor is an obvious example.)

It's unfortunate that the Victorian and Edwardian-era archaeologists who labeled a lot of the Minoan artifacts assumed that any depiction of cattle with horns must be bulls; they only relented and labeled the art as cows when the horned animals had suckling calves pulling at their udders. Of course, the archaeologists weren't farmers or ranchers, so they didn't know any better. But unfortunately, the "bull" labels (double entendre intended) have stuck. So we have to look more closely to make sure we're identifying the images in the art correctly.

There are some obvious ways to tell the difference. I mean, look between their legs. <cough> The famous Bull Leaper fresco shows the bull's genitalia, as does this bronze figurine:

Minoan Bronze Bull Leaper

("Minoan Bull-leaper" by Mike Peel is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 - Wikimedia Commons)

But what if it's not clear from "between the legs" whether the critter you're looking at is a cow or a bull? Among bovines, the two sexes have noticeably different body forms (phenotype). Bulls have really heavy necks and forequarters compared to cows, and their overall body shape and proportions are different. Here's a vintage graphic that shows what I mean:

The Cow and the Bull vintage print

Let's look at how these differences play out in the art. Here, for instance, is a lovely Minoan terracotta figurine that could as easily be a cow as a bull:

Minoan terracotta bovine figurine

(Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

But this one, from Pseira, is clearly a bull. The musculature is distinct:

Bull-shaped rhyton

("Bull-shaped rhyton" by zde is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 - Wikimedia Commons)

You can even tell the difference just from the head. Bovine head rhytons (libation pitchers) are a common Minoan artifact. Many of us who practice Tribe spirituality use our own modern versions for libations. So let's look at a couple of Minoan bovine head rhytons. Here's one that's clearly a bull:


Bull head rhyton

(Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain)

You can see the heavy neck muscle and folds of skin here, a signal of all the testosterone that's flowing through his system. (As an aside, I also love the curly hair on his head. I grew up on a farm, I love cattle, and I just want to scritch this guy right between the horns.)

Now compare the rhyton above to this one:

Bovine head rhyton

(Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain)

This one is clearly a cow. The muzzle is shaped differently and the neck/shoulder musculature is far slimmer. And she has lovely horns.

So yes, I know the tendency is to automatically assume that horns = bull. But you know what they say about assuming. ;-) Instead, look more closely and see if you can tell which it is. Because Europa deserves as much love as the Minotaur does, don't you think?

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Tagged in: bull cow Goddess horns Minoan
Laura Perry is a priestess and creator who works magic with words, paint, ink, music, textiles, and herbs. She's the founder and Temple Mom of Ariadne's Tribe, an inclusive Minoan spiritual tradition. When she's not busy drawing and writing, you can find her in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.


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