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The Classical Cult of the Bull

Updated on November 4, 2013

The Sacred Bull?


Minotaurs, Men Bulls and Mithraism

In a recent episode of Atlantis, the new Saturday mid-evening light entertainment drama on BBC 1, heroes Jason, Hercules and Pythagoras were bound, as punishment for misdemeanour, to take part in "bull jumping", that is, to leap acrobatically over a charging bull. Failure to do so brought its own horror; the delight of being gored to death by the bull. This being television, the heroes did not fail but achieved honour and glory. Ancient sculptures from Knossos on Crete, most notably the Minoan Bull-Leaper in the British Museum, indicate how old the sport is. Today, bull jumping or leaping survives in parts of Spain and the south of France. In certain versions of the game, the jumper uses a long pole to vault over the charging animal, and in other versions again, a young cow replaces the bull. Bull jumping is, of course, is only one game in the many forms of sport and worship in which man and bull struggle to triumph over one another.

The Mysteries of Mithras (or Mysteries of the Persians, or Roman Mithraism) were practised in the Roman Empire from about 1 to 300 AD. The word Mithraism came from Mithra, the name of a Persian god, and was adapted into Greek as Mithras. The popularity of Mithra is attested by the monuments which have been found all over the Roman Empire. The cult of Mithras centred on Rome, especially in the military and worshippers met in underground temples, many of which survive. Central to the rituals they carried out was the slaying of a bull. Artefacts survive showing Mithras being born from a rock, killing a bull and sharing a banquet with Sol, god of the sun. What was the significance of the bull in mythology?

Throughout the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean, the bull was revered, the animal being an exemplification of fertility and strength. Indeed, early hersdmen would have worshipped the bull. They would have invoked the power of the bull against the natural enemies of cattle; drought and predatory beasts. Among the collection of artefacts at New York's Metropolitan Museum is the Kneeling Man Bull. It is made of silver, dated about 3000 BC, a remnant of a flourishing Sumerian culture. Measuring 6.5 inches, the figurine depicts a bull kneeling in human fashion, clutching a drinking vessel between its outstretched front hooves. In her seminal work, Art Through the Ages, Helen Gardner describes the figurine as a handsome minotaur, an early example of a universal theme of Ancient Near-Eastern art, the man-animal monster.

Another Sumerian artefact c. 2,600 BC, is the sound box of a harp decorated with animal motifs, including a man wrestling with two dancing bulls. The same harp bears the ornament of a bull's head, finished in gold leaf and with a lapis lazuli beard. This beard foreshadowed the man-headed bulls that appeared in later Assyria including the Winged Human-Headed Bull, a limestone artefact over 13 feet in height, and dating from 720 BC. It adorned the royal citadel palace built by Sargon II at Khorsabad, and is now in the Louvre in Paris. According to Gardner: the virtues of Assyrian kingship are written large in these hybrid beasts. Ancient art repeatedly testifies to man's presiding fear and admiration of the great beasts that serve as metaphors for the powers of nature and for the gods themselves.

The cult of the bull filtered right down through the ages, spreading westwards into Greek mythology, and onto ancient Greek artefacts. A cup found in Attica and dating from c. 470 BC depicts Theseus gripping a minotaur or man bull's horn with one hand while he beheads the beast with a sword. According to Greek legend, Minos (ruler of Crete) asked Poseidon to send him a bull from the sea. Minos promised Poseidon that he would send it back into the waves as a sacrifice. Poseidon sent the bull but Minos did not keep his promise. The angry king set the bull mad but Pasiphae, wife of Minos, fell in love with the beast and conceived the minotaur or man bull. Her offspring had the head of a bull and the body of a man.

The Minotaur also had a voracious appetite for human flesh. Minos commissioned Daedalus to build a vast and confusing labyrinth to contain the Minotaur. Every year after that, Minos sent seven young Athenian men and seven young women to appease the beast. Ariadne, daughter of Minos, fell in love with Theseus and asked him to kill the Minotaur, the inspiration for the decorated Attic cup. He succeeded and in thanks, Ariadne went away with him, thinking that he would make her a great, Athenian queen - but he dumped her on the island of Naxos, sailed away and married Aegle. So much for love.

Eventually, the Romans picked up on the cult of the bull. We may think ritual bull-slaying weird today, but what about Spanish bullfighting? In spite of attempts to curb it, bullfighting persists in Spain and other parts of the world. The bull is still a symbol for virility, health and strength, and any man able to conquer nature by killing a bull achieves great fame and fortune. And the expression slaying sacred bulls lives on in our language.


Art Through the Ages by Helen Gardner, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, New York

The Complete World of Greek Mythology by Richard Buxton, Thames and Hudson, London 2004

Minoan Bull-Leaper in the British Museum


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