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