Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday June 8th 2023

Bull Leaping

Minoan lifestyle was the envy of the ancient world. Their merchant marine fleet traded throughout the Mediterranean, from the ports of Anatolia (modern Turkey) to the shores of Africa. Even the great Egyptian empire relied heavily on regular shipments of goods brought across the sea by Minoan ships.

All of this commercial activity produced great wealth for Crete, which went into massive building projects, art, and technological development. It also seems to have given rise to the first “leisure” society in existence, in which a large part of human activity focused on leisure activities, such as sports.

The Minoans were a sport-centered society. While sports often derive from religious rituals, by the time the Cretans were enjoying their palace civilization, sport may have become a recreational activity. This is a new phenomenon in the ancient world: sport for sport’s sake, and it parallels a number of other aspects of Minoan culture.

We know a lot about Cretan sports because they are a common subject of wall paintings and vase sculptures. In fact, the Minoans seem to have been as sports addicted as modern Americans. A slender, athletic physique was the cultural ideal (as it is in advertising images today), and sports champions were the heroes of every Minoan city.

However, the Minoan sports were not “civilized” games like tennis or baseball. The most popular sports in Crete were extremely violent and dangerous, and participants could be badly injured or worse.

Boxing was very popular, and children (both boys and girls) learned the sport from an early age. The fresco below shows two boys boxing. It also reveals a remarkable detail about boxing equipment: gloves. Cretans may have invented the use of boxing gloves. However, this piece of safety gear – which can prevent serious injury – vanished with the fall of the Minoans and did not come back again until modern times.

Boxing fresco from Akrotiri

Another fashionable sport was gymnastics, which was may have been a performance activity – something like modern gymnastics. However, gymnastics also had a more dangerous aspect when employed in the most popular sport of all: bull-jumping.

Bull-jumping did not involve killing the bull, rather it was a test of both courage and agility. A bull would run at a jumper or line of jumpers; when it was close enough, the jumper would grab the bull’s horns and either vault onto the bull’s back or vault over the bull in a somersault and land on his or her feet on the other side of the bull – as shown in the diagram below.

Diagram of bull leaping acrobatics

The difficulty of this vaulting is eloquently demonstrated in a Minoan vase: when you grab hold of a charging bull’s horns, it jerks its head up violently – that’s how it attacks with its horns. So the vaulter must get his or her momentum from this incredibly violent head jerk and use it to gracefully vault over the bull. Looking at some of the pictures, there may have been a “spotter” behind the bull to catch the jumper.

Ancient gold ring depicting bull leaper

The Minoan depictions of this event show a remarkably graceful and gymnastic sport that seems less about bravery and strength and more about grace and fluidity. Since the bull provides most of the momentum in the vault, it seems likely that the sport is more like gymnastics than bull-fighting. In keeping with the unique gender equality of Minoan culture, both young men and young women participated in the sport, although the women dressed in male clothes.

Restored “Bull Leaping” fresco   Courtesy: W. Sheppard Baird

This was not a sport for the squeamish, because the bull probably hurt or even killed some jumpers. Nevertheless, it was just as popular as professional sports in our time. Because their civilization was perhaps one the first to create time for sporting events, Minoans may have been the first sports fans in history.

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2 Comments for “Bull Leaping”

  • Neveah says:

    As a 9th grade teacher, I sometimes look for alternate ways to reach my students with information that is both engaging and easily understood. Thank you for this website. It is a great teaching and learning tool.

  • Josh says:

    This article was very good because it takes about the sports that they play and what their culture was based about

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