National Geographic : 1944 Mar
Boy and Girl Grappling Bulls at Cnossus: Crete EXCAVATIONS during the last 50 years in the great Palace of Cnossus, near modern Candia in Crete, have gradually revealed the re mains of a remarkable ancient civili zation. Relics give a picture of a seafaring people who flourished more than a thousand years before the Parthenon at Athens was built. As the work of uncovering the Minoan palace went on, it became ap parent that bulls had occupied a place of honor in the customs of the ancient Cretans. Fresco paintings, bronzes, and carved gems illustrate one of the favorite sports-that of bull grap pling, or taurokathapsia. It was not a bullfight in the usually accepted sense, but resembled more a spectacular performance still found in southern France, where the object is not the death of the bull, but rather the dis play of agility and daring on the part of the men who skillfully avoid the charging animal. The Minoans, vase pictures prove, brought the sport to a high degree of acrobatic skill. They would seize the bull by the horns and vault, or turn a sort of handspring, over its back, landing adroitly behind it as it passed. Apparently several athletes might do this in turn. What is more surprising is that girls took part in this dangerous sport, and from the manner in which they are depicted by the Cretan artists, Sir Arthur Evans suggests that they were selected from among the best families of the country, and were not necessarily professionals. For these games they wore a costume similar to that of the men. Occasionally there were accidents, as we know by depictions on Cretan objects which have been found, and such a mishap is illustrated here. The youth has missed his hold and is being thrown, while the girl who was about to vault in her turn has al ready begun her leap. The games were held in front of a specially built grandstand. Some times they may have taken place in the great court of the Palace, as is shown here. Near the edge of the arena stand some of the "black guard," Ethiopians, officered by Cre tans. On the balcony of the Palace are groups of fashionably dressed ladies. At the left is a pillar shrine with a central column instead of a human or animal figure to represent deity. Horned altars are used as a decora tive as well as a religious motif above the cornice, and the stucco covering the rubble stone walls, which were strengthened with half-timbering to withstand earthquake shocks, is painted in such a way as to indicate the underlying construction. There also appears the character istic Cretan double ax, called labrys, from which the Labyrinth may have got its name. Anyone who has tried to find his way about the maze of rooms and zigzag passages in Cnossus has no difficulty in crediting the sug gestion that the Palace of King Minos was indeed the Labyrinth where Theseus slew the Minotaur. The exploits of Theseus were carved on the metopes of the Athe nian temple known by his name. On one of those metopes is a rep resentation of Theseus struggling with the Minotaur, the mythical monster, half man, half bull, whom he was said to have sought out in the Labyrinth of the Cretan king, Minos, when he went to deliver Athens from the yearly tribute of youths and maidens sent to be the victims of the monster.