Bull-leaping (also taurokathapsia, from Greek ταυροκαθάψια) is a motif of Middle Bronze Age figurative art, notably of Minoan Crete, but also found in Hittite Anatolia, the Levant, Bactria and the Indus Valley. It is often interpreted as a depiction of a ritual performed in connection with bull worship. This ritual consists of an acrobatic leap over a bull; when the leaper grasps the bull's horns, the bull will violently jerk his neck upwards giving the leaper the momentum necessary to perform somersaults and other acrobatic tricks or stunts.
Younger (1995) classifies bull-leaping depictions as follows:
- Type I: the acrobat approaches the bull from the front, grabs the horns, and somersaults backwards
- Type II: the acrobat approaches the bull from the front, dives over the horns without touching them and pushes himself with his hands from the bull's back into a backward somersault
- Type III: the acrobat is depicted in mid-air over the bull's back, facing the same way as the animal
The Type III depictions are often found in Late Minoan IIIB artwork (14th to 13th centuries BC). Frescoes in Tell el-Dab'a (Avaris, Egypt) dating to the 18th dynasty (16th to 14th centuries BC) show similar designs besides genuinely Egyptian motifs, for which reason they have usually been ascribed to Minoan-taught Egyptian craftsmen (rather than to Minoan ones directly). They could also have been included as palace decorations because the palace was built for an Aegean princess diplomatically married to a Hyksos pharaoh.
Other examples of bull-leaping scenes have been found in Syria, such as a cylinder seal impression found in level VII at Alalakh (Old Babylonian period, 19th or 18th century BC) showing two acrobats performing handstands on the back of a bull, with an ankh sign placed between them, another seal belonging to a servant of Shamshi-Adad I (c. 1800 BC), besides other Syrian examples. Furthermore, a relief vase was discovered in Hüseyindede in 1997, dating to the Hittite Old Kingdom (18th to 15th centuries BC).
Bull-leaping is thought to have been a key ritual in the religion of the Minoan civilization in Bronze Age Crete. As in the case of other Mediterranean civilizations, the bull was the subject of veneration and worship. Representation of the Bull at the palace of Knossos is a widespread symbol in the art and decoration of this archaeological site.
The assumption, widely debated by scholars, is that the iconography represents a ritual sport and/or performance in which human athletes literally vaulted over bulls as part of a ceremonial rite.
Bull-leaping is still practiced in the south west of France, where it is traditionally known as the course landaise (although usually cows are used instead of bulls. These cows are the female stock of the fighting bulls bred for the corrida in Spain. However once a year bulls are used, instead of cows, in the Festival of Art and Courage). The town of Mont-de-Marsan in Gascony is renowned for its fine sauteurs or "leapers" and écarteurs ("dodgers") dressed in brocaded waistcoats. They compete in teams, attempting to use their wide repertoire of skillful evasions and acrobatic leaps to avoid the cow's charges.
The cow is typically guided by the use of a long rope attached to its horns, so that it runs directly at the performers and is restrained from trampling or goring them should they miss a trick. Although there is little to no risk to the cow in this form of contest, it is a highly dangerous sport for the human participants; a prominent Montois, Jean-Pierre Rachou, was killed in 2001 when he fell on his head after being hit by a cow.
In France the courses landaises are held from March to October on the occasion of festivals in many cities and villages, including Nogaro, Mont-de-Marsan, Dax, Castelnau-d'Auzan and many other places. There are also national championships.
A similar but even more dangerous tradition of non-violent bull-leaping, recortes, is practiced in some parts of Spain. Athletes, known as recortadores, compete at dodging and leaping over bulls without the use of the cape or sword. Some recortadores use a long pole to literally pole-vault over the charging animal, which is both larger than the type used in the French sport, and unrestrained by any guiding rope or similar safety device.
- The name of a ritual bull-fight held on occasion of a festival in Thessaly (scholion to Pindar, Pythian Odes 2.78), at Smyrna (CIG 3212) and at Sinope (CIG 4157).
- One argument for the association of Minoan Crete with the Bronze Age culture of the Indus Valley by H. Mode (Indische Frühkulturen und ihre Beziehungen zum Westen, Basel, 1944); since the 1940s, further bull-leaping motives have been discovered in 2nd millennium BC contexts in Bactria and northern Anatolia.
- Rohl, David, The Lords of Avaris, Random House, 2007.
- C. Michael Hogan, Knossos fieldnotes, Modern Antiquarian (2007)
- Collon, D., Bull-Leaping in Syria, Egypt and the Levant: International Journal for Egyptian Archaeology and Related Disciplines 4 (1994): 81–88.
- McInerney, J., "Bulls and Bull-leaping in the Minoan World", Expedition Magazine 53.3 (December 2011): n. pag.
- Marinatos, Nannó, The Export Significance of Minoan Bull-Leaping Scenes, Egypt and the Levant: International Journal for Egyptian Archaeology and Related Disciplines 4 (1994): 89–93.
- Marinatos, Nannó, Minoan Religion: Ritual, Image, and Symbol, Studies in Comparative Religion. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
- Shaw, Maria C., The bull-leaping fresco from below the Ramp House at Mycenae: a study in iconography and artistic transmission, ABSA 91 (1996).
- Sipahi, Tunç, New Evidence From Anatolia Regarding Bull Leaping Scenes in the Art of the Aegean and the Near East, Anatolica 27 (2001): 107–125.
- Younger, J., Bronze Age Representations of Aegean Bull-Games, III, Aegaeum 12 (1995): 507–46.