Minoan bull-leaping—fact or fiction? (And does it really matter?)

One of the first things you’ll see if you study (or google) the Minoans is the “bull-leaping” fresco. You’ll see a guy somersaulting over a charging bull. Pretty neat. And, you would have thought, pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, academics have decided to debate the otherwise rather straightforward explanation and it is this phenomenon I’d like to discuss for a bit.

If you haven’t seen the iconic “bull-leaping” fresco already, have a look at my earlier post on why I called my book Ariadne. My point is rather simple, while there are a few details which don’t quite match up, it’s very clear it’s showing someone somersaulting over a bull. Some academics don’t think it’s so clear, however. Some say they couldn’t have done it in the central court at Knossos because the bull would crack the stone, to which I say maybe they just put a lot of dirt over it or did it somewhere else. Some say that the difference in skin colour means the bull-leaper was a man but had female assistants but others insist it’s meant to be the same person the whole way through. Interesting, but not a big problem until complications over understanding these minor differences lead some to argue that the bull-leaping scenes are fundamentally symbolic rather than actually depicting a real practice as it happened.

In an essay called “The Personality of Thucydides”, Glen Bowersock makes an interesting point in passing. He says, “Although it has occasionally been fashionable to deny it, Thucydides loathed Cleon.” He is saying something rather profound: some historians are more influenced by the prevailing opinion of their times rather than the facts themselves. I think that is at the heart of people claiming Minoan bull-leaping was just symbolic. Some people might call this fashion the PhD mindset: people needing to say something new to get qualified so they contest what is otherwise commonsense. I’m for diversity of opinions by all means but I’m still an empiricist at heart. At the end of the day, surely our diversity of opinions should be competing for the place of most likely based off the evidence. What is dangerous is when less empirically sound theories become the fashion for a generation because the people who wrote them then become the authorities.

Strong words, you might say. Why don’t you write a PhD yourself and counter them? “Empiricism vs Post-modernism, the value of commonsense”—maybe I will write it one of these days. But there is an even deeper point at play here. Historians contest everything all the time. In fact, I’m sure someone will disagree with that statement, thereby (I could argue) proving my point. But to get back to my very first blog, Why Write Historical Fiction?, I mentioned that it is what we fill that ambiguity with that matters most of all. And this is where things get delightfully ironic. In my opinion, not only is Minoan bull-leaping probably a historical reality but it’s also vastly more entertaining to put it into a story than keep it out. History and entertainment  are once again aligned rather than in opposition. And so (*spoilers*) I have bull-leaping as a part of Minoan life in my novel, and I’m not sorry.

As for those scholars who hold views about Minoan bull-leaping contrary to my own, I’m in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, I should academically refer you to exactly where they say such things but on the other, as I mentioned last week, I don’t want to be obviously overly critical of individuals in the modern world just trying to make a living, same as everyone else. I’ll compromise by saying, one way or another, if you’re interested in the Minoans, check out the following historians and feel free to make up your own mind: Nanno Marinatos,  Gae Callender, Wolfgang Helck, Keith Branigan, Andrew Shapland, James Thompson, the elusive J. Walter Graham and, I suppose,  Sir Arthur Evans…

(I’ve chosen to give you another bull-leaping fresco here rather than the most iconic one, which I already used in an earlier post. This one is from Tell el-Dab’a, known in ancient times as Avaris… photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

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