Bull games in Minoan Crete: Social and symbolic dimensions
Nanno Marinatos Στο C. Renfrew, I. Morley & M. Boyd (eds) 2018. Ritual, Play and Belief, in Evolution and Early Human Societies, Cambridge: 237-249.
This chapter discusses various aspects of Minoan bull games: The nature of the sport, the gender and status of the participants, the role of the palace in the organisation and execution of the games and the deity to which the games were dedicated. The first part presents the iconographical evidence; the second investigates the sport in its cultic and comparative context with a glance at the civilisations neighbouring Crete in Anatolia and Syria. What are the bull games of Minoan Crete? The assumption here will be that this sport had rules and an end-goal, as well as ritual and ideological dimensions. There is no doubt that it was a very popular and spectacular performance to judge by the fact that it was represented in a variety of artistic media: Wall paintings, gold rings, seal stones, precious stone vessels. The games were performed in Crete during its palatial period, from about 2000 to 1375 BC, but they were not unique to this island since we find evidence (to be discussed later in this chapter) also from Syria, Anatolia and the Mycenaean mainland. This fact must be stressed because all too often the sport has been singled out as peculiar to Minoan civilisation (Kyle 2007, 45), whereas some scholars have attempted to associate it with the legend of the Minotaur. It will be argued here, by contrast, that Minoan Crete was a cosmopolitan culture with international contacts and therefore shared certain of its religious rituals and court ceremonies with its neighbours in the Near East. We shall return to this subject. A few words must be said about the occurrence of the sport on the Mycenaean mainland before the Minoan bull games are discussed. There is indeed evidence of bull games there – they are represented in the frescoes of Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos and on a sarcophagus from the area of Thebes (Immerwahr 1990). It is not entirely certain, however, that these Mycenaean representations reflect the actual practice of the sport, and it is possible that these kingdoms, smaller than Knossos, imitated the grand Cretan palace art for ideological reasons. This issue is beyond the scope of this chapter. My concern here will be the rules and symbolism of the games as practised during the palatial period of Crete until the fall of Knossos ca. 1400/1375 BC.