To speak of Crete is often to speak of bulls.
An ancient tale concerns a young woman named Europa,
who was so generous as to give her name to a continent. Europa was the
daughter of a king who ruled over what is now the Mediterranean coast of
Syria. When Zeus caught sight of beautiful Europa on the beach he fell
in love, assumed the form of a white bull and approached her. The maiden
caressed him, and climbed onto his back — at which moment he carried her
off to the island of Crete, where he revealed his true identity. As the
ancient Greek writers said: "There they mingled in love", and Europa
bore Zeus three sons. One of them was the legendary Minos. There is
another tale about Minos, who later became king of Crete. When Minos
refused to sacrifice a white bull sent to him by Poseidon, the sea-god
revenged himself by seducing Minos's wife Pasiphae. Driven mad by
strange desires, she is said to have hidden herself in a wooden cow.
Poseidon assumed the form of a bull, prevailed over the. cow and months
later Minos's wife gave birth to the Minotaur: a monster with the head
of a bull and the body of a man. Minos built a subterranean labyrinth,
in which he concealed the Minotaur. Yet, it was necessary to placate the
monster as he grew older; he demanded a tribute from the city of Athens:
they had no choice but to regularly send the Minotaur seven youths and
seven virgins — which the monster devoured.
Why did the bull play such an important role in
mythology? Many cultures venerated the bull as a divine animal; he was,
according to their myths, the first creature and a symbol of fertility.
He was also associated with cattle raising and the first human
settlements. The place where a bull stopped on its wanderings was
considered a good place to settle — in fact the borders of many ancient
settlements were marked by an ox drawing a plough. The bull also
provided a standard of value and an object of barter: Homer tells us
that a woman skilled at domestic work was worth four bulls, while a
beautiful slave was worth twenty.
The sport of bull-leaping was already known to Crete in
Minoan times: it was an exercise for youths to measure themselves
against the raw forces of nature and may also have had religious
significance. One of the earliest depictions of bull-leaping can be seen
in Knossos near Heraklion, where, since the beginning of the twentieth
century, a vast palace complex has been under excavation. It has been
suggested this magnificent structure belonged to King Minos and that its
nearly 1,200 rooms were the origin of the myth of the Labyrinth that
housed the Minotaur.