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Grabbing the bull by the horn – Taurokathapsia

Grabbing the bull by the horn – Taurokathapsia

There is something hard to describe about my people. Cretans have a lack of fear when it comes to facing death in the eye. It might be because of the 8.400 square km of land with 2/3 of it being mountainous that has had them trek hard to reach places and face their own fears while reaching impossible locations by doing so. The land itself can be harsh and unforgiving to the untrained visitor. Archaeologists claim that the island was full of forests and indigenous capra aegagrus (our Kri-Kri), bulls and vultures and even further back in time mammoths plodded the land. But I want to direct your attention to a sport they participated in that just might help us understand where “Grabbing the bull by the horn” comes from.

Bull leaping fresco from Knosos palace -Ταυροκαθάψια

We are now in the time of the reign of King Minos (approximately 1900 B.C) who had one of the most prestigious kingdoms, called Knossos, in the Mediterranean basin. This kingdom had its palace in the prefecture of Heraklion in Crete and when the English Archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans took on the gargantuan task of unearthing this city he re-wrote the island’s history. All the treasures he found deserve their own article but one that seemed so prevalent around the city was the presence of the bull. The story of the Minotaur, half man half bull comes from Knossos. The mural of an enormous bull adorns the walls of the palace making it a symbol of power. But one more mural that stands out has to be the fresco of a sport called Taurokathapsia = ταυροκαθάψια.

Clay fragment from Knosos depicting bull leaping on the second panel.

It depicts young men, and possibly women based on Sir Arthur Evan’s hypothesis, leaping on the back of bulls while in full charging motion based on the fresco! The blessed part to all this sporting event was the fact that the bull being sacred did not get killed as  thanks to the gods in the end of the sporting event. There is no evidence as to what happened to those who were unsuccessful with their leaps nor how many would end up injured. But it begs a question as to why would anybody do such a thing, has always been my wonder! It appears, at least by given evidence, that Minoan Crete never faced invaders. Did this give them time to focus on their development as people and sportsmen rather than just preparing themselves for war as other Greek races did in other Kingdoms of Greece? Scholars have so many hypotheses regarding what all this bull leaping might mean but they unanimously agree it was some sort of initiation, religious event in some way- thanking the gods maybe – that allowed the young people of the time to step from one phase of their life to another. Incredible way to prove you are something worthy in the eyes of others. And to think how we moan about a university exam these days and fold in two from stress…

Once I saw a man in my grandmother’s village when I was a child visiting Crete, who was walking down the road with his bull. We were sitting in a friend’s front yard when they both past. Being so young a child at the time and small in stature the beast appeared absolutely enormous in my eyes. I froze in my tracks behind my grandmother who instinctively put her hand around me and for some reason everybody stopped talking and stared as much as I did with the only difference my mouth was agape in astonishment. This man was as calm as can be, or appeared to be, and as he passed by I took courage to step out on the road to see where these two were going only to notice that everybody else had made as much way for them to pass as we did and the silence was deafening. Nobody was moving and everybody was staring… The bull eventually stopped and shook his head only for his master to grab

Bull leaping depicted on a ring

it by the horns and push it resolutely back on its track!! I remember freezing in fear and not felling my legs from the knees down!  To this day I wonder how this man kept the animal tame and more so having the courage and confidence to walk it through a village full of people. That’s one extraordinary pet in my opinion or this man knew that he had to convince the animal who was master. So being taught in school about the Minoans sporting activities with bulls, and more so having the courage and confidence to leap on their backs in order for them to be ordained in some new phase of their lives while in the presence of so many spectators makes Cretans an extraordinary race of people. I’m positive as people we understand deaths finality and maybe for this reason we dare ourselves to live life in its fullest form while facing fear and accepting that fear needs indeed to be faced in order be fully alive…

The Terra Creta explorer

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