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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?

Wrong.

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, and it looks like a cow but has horns, it might be a bull. But it might also be a cow. That image at the top of this blog post is a cow with a suckling calf. 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 practically 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. I'm sure that says something about the archaeologists on a Freudian level. Or at least, it says something about their assumptions of what masculine and feminine traits must necessarily look like. But the "bull" labels (double entendre intended) have stuck. So we have to look more closely to make sure we're identifying these things correctly.

There are some obvious ways to tell the difference. I mean, look between their legs. 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. Here, for instance, is a lovely 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 Modern Minoan Paganism 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 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.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

Last modified on
Tagged in: bull cow Goddess horns Minoan
I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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