The Minoan Bull-Leaper is a bronze sculpture of a bull and leaper from 1600 – 1450 BC Crete. It is the only surviving largely complete three-dimensional sculpture depicting Minoan bull-leaping.
Although bull-leaping certainly took place in Crete at this time, the leap depicted is practically impossible, and it has therefore been speculated that the sculpture may be symbolic of a Minoan Bull Acrobatics ceremony.
The bronze was cast in a single mold using the lost-wax casting technique. The group’s unity was demonstrated by analyzing the composition of the bronze of bull and leaper.
Stylistically, the group is coherent, since the arched back of the leaper mirrors the flying gallop posture of the bull.
Bull leaping and bulls were an essential part of the Minoan culture. Excavations at Knossos have revealed several frescos depicting bull-leaping.
The bulls may have had some religious significance, and the exaggerated size of the bull may indicate the Minoan reverence for the power of the animals.
The bull-leaping iconography o the Minoan art was the basis for the reconstruction of the mechanics of the leap:
- the leaper grabs the bull’s horns,
- executes a backflip onto the bull’s back
- and then dismounts.
These steps have become part of bull-leaping in the popular imagination; however, few Minoan depictions show exactly this technic. The majority show the leaper diving over the bull’s horns onto the back.
The Bull-Leaping Fresco from Knossos Place, which is now at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, is one of a few surviving depictions of the act of jumping over bulls.
The bull is shown in what is called the “Mycenaean Flying Leap,” which means it is in a full gallop as in this bronze sculpture. The fresco also shows the bull’s body in an elongated form with extended legs to indicate movement.
The boy may be in a balancing position, rather than tumbling, as he holds the flanks of the bull with both hands.
The fresco composition may not show a chronological sequence, as the individuals are all different. Instead, the figures may be disconnected in time and space. They may have been superimposed to provide an overall impression of a scene.
The central figure of the Bull-Leaping Fresco
Modern attempts to recreate the leaping on modern cattle have resulted only in several deaths. The modern bull is too fast, powerful, and aggressive to allow the seizure of the horns, much less the neck toss for acrobatics.
It is possible to leap over small bulls without touching them, even as they charge, and such spectacles still practiced in France may be the ultimate source of the sculpture.
The same bull-leaping scene appears in miniature in “seal stones” from the Minoan culture.
Bull-leaping is a form of non-violent bull fighting based on an ancient ritual involving an acrobat leaping over the back of a charging bull.
The sport survives in modern France, usually with cows rather than bulls, in Spain, with bulls, and in Tamil Nadu, India with bulls.
Ritual leaping over bulls is a motif of Middle Bronze Age figurative art, notably of Minoan Crete, but also found in Hittite Anatolia, the Levant, Bactria, and the Indus Valley.
It is often interpreted as a depiction of a rite performed in connection with bull worship. Bull-leaping is thought to have been a key ritual in the religion of the Minoan civilization in Bronze Age Crete.
Representation of the Bull at the palace of Knossos is a widespread symbol in the art and decoration of this archaeological site.
The Symbolism of the Bull
Minoan horn-topped altars, called “Horns of Consecration,” are represented in seal impressions and have been found as far afield as Cyprus. Minoan sacred symbols included the bull and its horns of consecration.
Bull festivals must have been significant to the culture to have been depicted in Palace fresco and inscribed in miniature seals.
“Horns of Consecration” describes the symbol, ubiquitous in Minoan civilization, that represents the horns of the sacred bull.
The survival of bull sports into classical and modern times may offer clues from festival events similar to bull-dogging.
The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age Aegean civilization on the island of Crete and some other Aegean Islands, flourishing from c. about 3000 BC to a period of decline, ending around 1100 BC.
The Minoan civilization is considered the first advanced civilization in Europe, leaving behind massive building complexes, tools, artwork, writing systems, and a network of trade.
The civilization was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century through the work of British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans.
The name “Minoan” derived from the mythical King Minos and was coined by Evans, who identified the site at Knossos with the labyrinth and the Minotaur.
Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and has been called Europe’s oldest city.
Settled as early as the Neolithic period, the name Knossos survives from ancient Greek references. The palace of Knossos eventually became the ceremonial and political center of the Minoan civilization and culture.
In Greek mythology, King Minos dwelt in a palace at Knossos. He had Daedalus construct a labyrinth, a vast maze in which to retain his son, the Minotaur. The name “Knossos” was adopted for the site by English archaeologist Arthur Evans.
The reconstructed “Horns of Consecration” at Knossos
Arthur Evans (1851 – 1941) was an English archaeologist and pioneer in the study of Aegean civilization in the Bronze Age. He is most famous for unearthing the palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete.
Based on the structures and artifacts found there and throughout the eastern Mediterranean, Evans found that he needed to distinguish the Minoan civilization from Mycenaean Greece.
Evans was also the first to define Cretan scripts Linear A and Linear B, as well as earlier pictographic writing.
By 1903, most of the ruins of Knossos Palace were excavated, bringing to light an advanced city containing artwork and many examples of writing.
- Artifact: Minoan Bull-Leaper
- Date: 1600BC-1450BC
- Period: Late Minoan I
- Medium: Bronze; 96% copper; 1.5% tin; 1% zinc
- Dimensions: L: 15.5 cm (6.1 in); H: 11.4 cm (4.5 in); W: 4.7 cm (1.9 in)
- Fide site: Period/culture Late Minoan I
- Category: Historical Artifact and Art
- Museum: British Museum
Leaping Over Bulls Acrobatic
Minoan Intro: Bull Leaping
The Jaw-Dropping Art of Bull-Leaping
The origins of the Minotaur
“Minoan Civilisation is the first link in the European Chain.”
– Will Durant
Photo Credit: Photograph by Mike Peel (mikepeel.net). / CC BY-SA (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0); ArchaiOptix / CC BY-SA (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0); Heraklion Archaeological Museum / CC0; Wolfgang Sauber / CC BY-SA (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0); ArchaiOptix / CC BY-SA (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)