The Cretan Bull

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Bull Jumping on Crete in Minoan times

The Cretan Bull
Dedicated to Maggie
Written by Bertie

Hello, this is Bertie,

And I am on the Greek island of Crete. Perhaps you can hear the waves of the Mediterranean Sea lapping against the rocks behind me. I’m staying in a little cove called Lykos Bay which you can only reach by boat. Yesterday we drove across the white mountains of Crete along precarious little roads that led us up up into the clouds past rocks, goats and sheep. And earlier we paid a visit to the ruined palace of Knossos where King Minos lived over the labyrinth containing one of mythology’s most famous beasts, the Minotaur, who was half man and half bull.

Around 4000 years ago, a rich and vibrant people that we now call the Minoans lived here on Crete. The minoans were named after King Minos, and they left behind colourful mosaic pictures, statues, and painted pots that show us some of the ways they had fun - for instance young boys and girls performed acrobatic leaps over the backs of bulls, not a sport that I would recommend you to try. They left behind many statues of bulls and bull’s heads, some of them with golden horns - and their most powerful weapon was a two-headed axe which was probably used in sacrifices. For the most part they sacrificed animals, though there is some evidence of human sacrifices too. Their favourite colour was the light blue of the sea - and the sea was very important to them. They reportedly had a navy which they used to rule over most of the Greek islands. And they loved to draw pictures of octopuses, fish, and dolphins. You can see many fine examples of their art in the museum at Heraklion here in Crete.

axes from Minoan times

And this is a perfect place to see how history and mythology are entwined. Let me just remind you of two of the most famous myths set here on the island of Crete. You can hear them in full elsewhere on Storynory but I’ll just tell you briefly now. When King Minos ruled Crete, he was the most powerful king in Greece. Every year the cities that were under his rule, had to send human sacrifices to be fed to the ferocious minotaur, half man, half bull, who lurked in the giant maze beneath his palace. One year, Theseus, a young prince of Athens, volunteered himself as a sacrifice - though he hoped to survive the ordeal by killing the Minotaur.

Axes of Minos on Crete

When he arrived in the palace of King Minos - which we now believe to be Knossos - he worked his way into the affections of Minos’s daughter, princess Ariadne. Ariadne made up her mind to help Theseus. She warned him that if he ventured too far into the dark labyrinth he would never find his way out again, unless he did as she advised. She gave him a ball of golden thread and told him to unwind it as he advanced deeper into the maze. Theseus followed her instructions, he crept through the darkness, unwinding the thread as he went, and successfully killed the beast. He then retraced his steps through the gloom, following the thread, and escaped into the daylight.
Octopus jars
Now, the second story is about Daedalus - the brilliant architect who built the palace and the labyrinth for King Minos. When his work was complete, Minos refused to let him leave Crete. Daedalus decided to escape. He built wings made out of wax for himself and his son Icarus. Father and son took off from the roof of the palace and soared above the sparkling sea, but Icarus grew too confident and flew too close to the sun. His wings melted in the heat and the boy went tumbling down into the waves and drowned. It’s a very Greek story, a warning to do everything in moderation, and not to get above yourself, literarily.

So those are two legends of Crete- pretty stories which we don’t necessarily believe. But we can see from the archeology - that is the evidence that we find by digging into the past buried beneath the ground - that the stories have a basis in truth.

We have found an amazing palace on Crete - the palace of Knossos - that dates from very ancient times. It is so vast and complex that it does indeed look like a maze. And most striking of all, we can see from all those wonderful works of art that bulls were a very important part of Minoan life. On Crete today, the most common animals appear to be mountain sheep and goats, and we might never have known that there were once cows and bulls here, were it not for the ancient statues and pictures of bulls that archeologists have dug out of the ground.

At some point Minoan civilisation just vanished - and one explanation is that there was an earthquake. Perhaps there were shakings and rumblings that preceded this terrible ground-shattering event. Perhaps people thought that those scary sounds and tremblings were due to the bellowing of a bull-god.

And this brings us to what our historian, Herodotus has to tell us about Crete. He says that Daedalus fled, perhaps flew, all the way to the island of Sicily, which is now in Italy. King Minos was so distraught when his architect escaped, that he followed him all the way there. While the King was in Sicily he died or was killed in some way. The Cretans wanted revenge.They gathered all their young men into an army and sailed to Sicily. But the army failed to defeat the Sicilians, and never returned home, leaving Crete short of men. And later on, the Cretans had another foreign adventure, when they sent their men to join the other Greeks in the Trojan war. When they returned from Troy they brought a plague back with them, and many people on Crete died of sickness.

So those are ancient events. If they ever happened at all, they happened maybe 2000 years before the birth of Christ.

If we move forward to the time that Herodotus was alive, a mere 450 years before the birth of Christ, and events that were recorded by real history, not legend, most of the Greek cities joined together to fight invaders from the great empire of Persia, but the Cretans refused to take part. According to Herodotus they remembered those ancient stories of past expeditions, when they sent armies abroad, and no good came of it for Crete. As a result they told the other Greeks, sorry, this time we are going to sit this one out.

So those legends had the power to effect real history. Or as Oscar Wilde once said, life imitates art.

I hope you have enjoyed this special edition of Herodotus, which comes to you from the island of Crete.

And I am delighted to dedicate this episode to Maggie who is six and a half and whose family are supporting us on Patreon.

Maggie says "I love history, and stories, and so I love all the myths and legends from other countries and the Herodotus histories. I really enjoy discussing the questions you ask in each Herodotus story.

Well Maggie here is a quick question - Do you think that King Minos actually lived?

And I have to say I’m not really sure about the answer to that question, but I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on it.