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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Bull Dance (I)

Once upon a time, while surfing the web I came across this news article. Apparently a matador was arrested for fleeing from his bull in the ring. Now, I'm not really pro-bull fighting. When it comes down to it, it's a highly ritualized animal slaughter for the entertainment of those in the stands. Since, as a culture, we seem to frown on ANY kind of highly ritualized animal slaughter, even those for religious purposes (you'll notice that religions which require animal sacrifice have been forced to the fringe of society over the years), I'm not sure why we're still allowing bull fights. BUT, we do. And having recently reread and contemplated upon Mary Renault's opus on Theseus (please go read THE KING MUST DIE and THE BULL FROM THE SEA immediately -- but in truth, Theseus and Bronze Age Greece is never far from my mind), it occurred to me that this might be a remnant, passed down, warped, evolved, and inherited from the Minoan Bull Dance.

Have you ever watched a Matador? The way they move? The way they dance with the bull, leading it and drawing it out, this way and that? Making the bull practically spin on a dime? But of course, the Minoan Bull Dance was never about the slaughter. It wasn't about killing the bull at all-- and that's a huge difference to set aside even after 3000 years.

Knossos bull
From Wikicommons, a "reconstructed" fresco from Knossos, Crete.
See THIS POST for more info on the reconstruction which took place during the excavation of Knossos.
No, seriously. Check out that post. And watch the presentation from the Met. Totally Worth It.

Mary Renault paints the Minoan Bull Dance as a cooperative showcase in THE KING MUST DIE -- man and bull together in harmony. A team of men and women worked together to keep themselves alive in the ring while they leaped and allowed the bull itself to throw them into the air. The bull, after a time, would know the dance as well as the team. It was a performance of skill which required perfect timing and a relationship (I would even go so far as to say a relationship of TRUST) to the animal they worked with. There are no swords or spears featured in the information we have left of the Bull Dance, but there is plenty of evidence for acrobatics.

Historians suspect that the Minoan Bull Dance was an integral part of the religion of ancient Crete, but we honestly don't know why or what it was for, and it's all further complicated by the fact that the Minoans seemed to emphasize the worship of goddesses over male gods, though they had both. We know it was important because Bull Leaping iconography was everywhere and kind of a lot of it survived in frescoes, figurines, etc. But it could have just as easily been a rite of passage for youths, too, religious in nature or not.

(Side note: This is kind of where I think about how we have all these super hero action figures that will never decompose, and someday, someone is going to dig them up and think Superman was the center of our lives. But generally speaking, when there's this much evidence of something all these years later, before the days of mass production, it did figure pretty centrally in the culture, or so much work and sweat--not to mention resources--wouldn't have gone into it.)

I wish I could tell you more about Bull Leaping and Bull Dancing in Minoan Civilization, but in spite of the fact that I have at least 5 text books on ancient Greece and the Aegean Bronze Age at my fingertips, information on the Bull Dance itself is scarce. (Trust me, I just searched through all of them.) When it comes down to it, we just don't know. We have no real written records outside of linear a and b tablets from that time, and those weren't exactly treatises on religious rites or culture. The Bull Dance is very much still a mystery. Which of course makes it great sport for fiction.

In my next post, I'll discuss the much more probable (in my most humble opinion) descendant of the Minoan Bull Dance-- and it isn't the Spanish Bull Fight.

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