Bull flight;The big picture

15th January 1999 at 00:00
In the ancient Greek legend, Theseus, prince of Athens, fell in love with Ariadne, daughter of King Minos. Minos was a tyrant but a great lawgiver, who exacted annual tribute of 12 youths and maidens from Athens. They were sacrificed to the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, who dwelt in an underground maze. Theseus smuggled himself into the labyrinth with a thread tied to his wrist from outside, slew the monster, and found his way out following his clew (from which the word clue derives).

In 1899 an Oxford scholar, Arthur Evans, bought a piece of land in Crete. He too was following a clue, a hunch that an ancient civilisation predating classical Greece by 1,000 years might have its origins in Crete. Within four years he had unearthed a vast palace, Knossos, with wonderful frescoes, jewellery, pottery and an elaborate plumbing system. Evans called the civilisation Minoan, after Minos. The palace was labyrinthine in layout - and everywhere there were images of bulls.

Evans went on to prove that Minoan civilisation (peaking 1600-1400 BC) had influenced the Mycenaean culture on mainland Greece, and that Crete had in turn been invaded by Mycenaeans until both fell to unknown enemies between 1300-1100 BC. It is thought that the events from these times are the subject of Homer's great poem, the "Iliad".

Evans explained this fresco (c1400 BC) by the Theseus legend. The young "toreadors" are dressed as boys, though two of them may be girls (it was a convention to show girls with pale skin, but Cretan girls are elsewhere shown with skirts and bare breasts). What they are doing and why is a mystery, since the only writing remaining from Minoan days is lists and inventories. There is no prayer to the bull-god Poseidon, no song of delight in the power and fecundity of the bull, nothing to explain the youths silently leaping, over the horns and away.

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