Monday, March 15, 2021

Hercules and the Cretan Bull

According to Jeremy McInerney, the iconography of the bull permeates Minoan culture. The cult of the bull was also prominent in southwestern Anatolia. Bernard Clive Dietrich notes that the most important animal in the Neolithic shrines at Çatalhöyük was the bull. The bull was a chthonic animal associated with fertility and vegetation. It figured in cave cults connected with rites for the dead.  

According to Greek myth, to confirm his right to rule, King Minos of Crete prayed to Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull as a sign. Poseidon sent Minos the bull, with the understanding that bull would be sacrificed to the god. Deciding that Poseidon's bull was too fine of a specimen to kill, Minos sent the bull to his herds and substituted another, inferior bull for sacrifice. Enraged, Poseidon had Aphrodite cause Pasiphaë, wife of Minos, to fall in love with the bull. She subsequently gave birth to the half-man, half-bull, Minotaur. Poseidon passed on his rage to the bull, causing him lay waste to the land.

As his seventh labor, Heracles was sent to capture the bull by Eurystheus.  Heracles sailed to Crete and King Minos gave Heracles permission to take the bull away as he had been wreaking havoc on Crete by uprooting crops and leveling orchard walls. Heracles captured the bull, and then shipped him to Eurystheus in Tiryns. The bull later broke loose and wandered into Marathon, becoming known as the "Marathonian Bull" who was later captured and sacrificed by Theseus.

McInerney observes that the story of Pasiphaë and the Cretan Bull was not written until after Crete had come under Greek control, however, and despite the fact that the palace at Knossos displays a number of murals depicting young men and women vaulting over a bull, scholars are divided as to whether or not this reflects an actual practice.  There is also no recorded evidence that has been recovered there of any Minoan legend of the famous Cretan Bull or the Minotaur either.

Hercules and the Cretan Bull at Schwerin Castle, Germany courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Jens Burkhardt-Plückhahn

Heracles fighting the Cretan bull, while a siren perches on a branch. Laconian black-figure kylix in the manner of the Arkesilas Painter, ca. 550 BCE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor ClaireH. (glare removed)

Ivory figure of Hercules capturing the Cretan bull, probably used to decorate a piece of furniture or a box, Roman 1st century CE, ivory, courtesy of the British Museum

Detail of the Mosaic with the Labors of Hercules (Seventh Labour: Cretan Bull), 3rd century AD, found in Llíria (Valencia), National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddatto

Heracles and the Cretan Bull - a metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, Greece courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Nicholas Hartmann

Detail of a Roman sarcophagus from Perge, Turkey depicting the capture of the Cretan Bull, 2nd century CE (?) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Mourad Ben Abdallah

Heracles binds the Cretan bull. Attic black-figure amphora in the manner of the Antimenes Painter, ca. 510 BCE From Vulci, Italy at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, Germany courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Architectural terracotta plaque (so-called Campana plaque) representing Hercules capturing the Cretan bull, 1st half of the 1st century CE, discovered in 1828 in Quadraro (Roma Vecchia), Gregorian Etruscan Museum, Vatican City, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Jean-Pol Grandmont


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