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Home / Impressions / Travel Stories / Dances with Bulls
Dances with Bulls

Who says bull contests are a Spanish tradition? In Minoan Crete bulls were not challenged by a piece of red cloth, but by skilled athletes who performed Tarzanic acts, somersaulting over a bull’s back. Not only did it take immense strength, speed, suppleness and a solid technique to achieve this but also a close bond between athlete and animal.

Spanish bullfighters, along with some scholars doubt this ever to be possible, but in circuses all over the world man performs amazing acrobatic acts with horses. And tigers don’t jump through burning hoops by themselves! The Minoan bulls may possibly have been tamed by man and were animals well-trained from an early age to be familiar with the athletes performing this specific act. Minoans loved games and contests and in that sense bull-leaping satisfied their appetite for both sports and spectacle.

Along with, for example snakes, bulls were sacred animals, often referred to in mythology. It is certain that there were Minoan cult-rituals in which bulls were involved, but the bull-leaping games are not believed to be related to any other ritual or event, neither to today’s Spanish bullfights where the ultimate victory is to kill the animal by ritual slaughter.

The first bull-leaping depictions go back as far as 2000 BC, where we see bulls playing a role in clay figures. That they are depictions with a mere symbolic meaning is rather unlikely as there are too many examples on frescoes and seal rings, the most famous one being undoubtedly the wall painting of the Palace of Knossos.

On the wall painting of the Palace of Knossos we see the whole procedure being performed in detail: A charging bull in front of which a young female athlete has grabbed the bull’s horns, ready to jump over it; on the bull’s back a male athlete in somersault, hands on the bull’s back; and behind the animal another female athlete who has landed on her feet, arms raised in victory. Whether fact or fiction, bull-leaping games remain one of the Minoans’ amazing mysteries to us that may have symbolized man’s triumph over the higher forces of nature.