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Mediterranean Bull Cults

Ancient Mediterranean Project by Darci Clark

The Origins and Evolution of the Bull Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean

Ptolemaic Apis Bull

Gods came in all forms in the ancient Mediterranean. Many were anthropomorphic, or human formed, others manifested in animal form. The bull in particular was considered a divine animal throughout antiquity and was a symbol of the moon, fertility, rebirth, and even royal power. The earliest depictions in Paleolithic cave art and the enigmatic veneration of the bull in Anatolia would influence a variety of religious cults in antiquity. From bull jumping in Minoan Crete, to the worship of the Apis bull in Egypt, to the sacrificial portrayal in Roman Mithraism, the bull was an integral part of many diverse and important religious traditions.

Evidence of bull worship has been found in areas as varied as Europe, Africa and India. The bull was the subject of cult veneration beginning 15,000 years ago in the late Upper Paleolithic era. One of the greatest representations of the bull from the Upper Paleolithic is the cave painting at Altamira in northern Spain. The ceiling of the cave is covered with impressive paintings depicting a herd of extinct bison.

Bison Painting at Altamira Cave

Even though no evidence has been found indicating rituals centered on the bull took place at Altamira, it is interesting to note that initiation ceremonies from some later mystery religions in Asia Minor and Greece took place in caves. It is possible bull worship, which began with these cave paintings and evolved over thousands of years, influenced the roots of religious ritual to take place in caves or darkened temples.

In the Ancient Near East the earliest evidence of a bull cult was found at Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia around 7000 BCE. Bull paintings are featured on the northern walls of shrines which are like simulations of caves. There are even early representations of bull-games, specifically bull-leaping. The paintings depicts young acrobats jumping over the backs of bulls. Besides paintings, the shrines also include three-dimensional model bull heads made from plaster. Some bulls are depicted being born of the Goddess indicating a connection between bull and Mother Goddess worship. Actual bull skulls and horns were used to decorate the shrines as well.

Plaster Bull Heads from Çatal Hüyük

The imagery of the Goddess and the bull, as well as the vulture show the religious beliefs of the inhabitants of Çatal Hüyük were focused on death and rebirth. Paintings of huge vultures indicate the practice of excarnation, where bodies were left for scavenging birds to pick clean. The first stamp seals, which may have been used for body and textile decoration, were found at Çatal Hüyük. Seals bearing the image of the bull were especially common. Migrating people and traders from Çatal Hüyük may have brought their religious and ritualistic practices involving the bull to other areas over the next several thousand years.

In Mesopotamia, the bull was to become a symbol of divinity rather than just an object of cult veneration. For the early Sumerians the bull symbolized divinity and power. Their chief gods Enlil and Enki would be honored as the “Great Bull” in song and ritual, and bulls would occasionally be represented on stamp seals with the gods. Images of bull sacrifice has also been found engraved on Sumerian seals. The scenes depicting a bull being stabbed in the throat could be the first evidence of bull sacrificial rites in history. Representations of human-headed bulls as well as bull-headed humans have also been found. These hybrid representations may symbolize the dominance of man over wild animals or the power of intelligence over man’s animal instincts.

Sumerian Cylinder Seal Depicting Bulls

In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh the bull is represented as Gugalanna, the husband of Ereshkigal the Goddess of the Underworld. He is also called the “Bull of Heaven” and is sent by Anu to kill Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu after Gilgamesh refuses to marry the goddess Inanna. Gugalanna is represented as an actual bull in the lines “with his first snort cracks opened in the earth and a hundred young men fell down to death”. There is even a bull-games aspect in the passage; “Enkidu dodged aside and leapt on the Bull and seized it by the horns”. Gilgamesh then succeeds in slaying the bull by thrusting his sword in its neck. The Bull of Heaven was not killed in the sacrificial manner by slashing the jugular which may be symbolic of the killing of the Mother goddess, in the form of Innana. This could indicate the rejection of the connection with Goddess worship as found in Çatal Hüyük thousands of years before.

After this symbolic break with Mother Goddess worship, the bull evolved into a symbol of spring and regeneration. Many cults in the future would use the bull as the principal ritual sacrifice, especially those related to the sun, like Roman Mithraism. In later Mesopotamian cultures the bull took on additional symbolic meanings. The bull and lion would frequently be depicted together as winged creatures symbolizing royal power. For the Babylonians the bull’s horns signified the crescent moon.

One area where elements of Goddess and bull worship may have continued is Minoan Crete in the second millennium BCE. There is evidence that Crete was first inhabited by migrant peoples from Anatolia and possibly people from Çatal Hüyük. Walter Burkert in Greek Religion states “the finds from the Neolithic town of Çatal Hüyük now make it almost impossible to doubt that the horned symbol which Evans called ‘horns of consecration’ does indeed derive from real bull horns”. Arthur Evans discovered and restored the ‘Palace of Minos’ at Knossos on Crete. The ‘horns of consecration’ are large bull horns on the walls of Knossos that have to come to symbolize the bull-games Cretan culture is famous for. The ‘palatial buildings’ discovered by Evans may actually be religious temples rather than buildings of government administration or a king’s palace. Cretan religious practices may have its roots in the Goddess cult from Anatolia as the evidence suggests the establishment was predominantly female.

Besides the earliest depiction of bull-games at Çatal Hüyük, bull-leaping paintings have been found in Egypt at Tell el-Daba’a, the ancient city of Avaris. The culture synonymous with bull-games is undeniably Crete in the second millennium BCE. The earliest representation of bull-leaping on Crete is from a pottery figure dated to circa 2000 BCE which depicts small humans holding the bull’s horns. The wall decorations at Knossos show human figures, some women dressed as men, gracefully jumping and performing acrobatic feats over the backs of the bull. Other representations depict wrestling with the bull and images of unfortunate bull-leapers being thrown, trampled or gored by the bull’s horns.

Bull Leaping Fresco From Knossos

The bull-leaping representations have been broken down into three types: Evan’s Schema, the Diving Leaper Schema, and the Floating Leaper Schema. Evan’s Schema shows the leaper grabbing a running bull’s horns and somersaulting then landing on the bull’s hindquarters. The Diving Leaper Schema shows the jumper diving over the bull with a lowered head and performing a flip from the highest point of the bull’s back. The Floating Leaper Schema is different as it shows the leaper in a static position. The figure is shown floating horizontally over the bull with bent legs, grasping the bull’s horns or neck. Of all these types, the Diving Leaper Schema may best represent the true sport of bull-leaping. Evan’s Schema seems to dramatic and dangerous to be accurate, and the Floating Leaper Schema representations are dated to a later period and may only be an artist’s interpretation of the sport from memories of the past.

Even though the bull was clearly important to Cretan culture, there is no evidence it was worshipped as a god, like the Egyptian Apis bull, and may have been ritually sacrificed at the end of the bull-games. There is a sarcophagus at Aghia Triada on Crete which may depict a bull sacrifice. On one side of the sarcophagus the bull is shown lying on a table with its throat slashed while the blood is collected in a vase. The other side of the sarcophagus shows a woman pouring what is possibly the bull’s blood into another vase for an offering. This entire scene may show a ritual where the bull’s blood was used as a symbol of rebirth for the deceased.

In Greece some aspects of the bull-cult connected to Crete continued. The mythological stories of Theseus and the Minotaur and Zeus and Europa had roots in Cretan culture. In the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, the Athenians were required to periodically send young men and women as an offering to King Minos of Knossos where they would be sacrificed to the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Theseus travels to Knossos on Crete and slays the Minotaur freeing the Athenians. In the story of Europa, Zeus arrives in Crete in the form of a beautiful white bull, then transforms into his human form and fathers three sons on Europa, one of which was King Minos.

Europa and the Bull

The bull-cult rituals in Greek rural areas were sacrificial and were often held in caves. The bull would be identified with a god, usually Dionysos, Zeus or Poseidon, and the sacrifice of the animal would symbolize the god’s death and rebirth. Dionysos was also sometimes represented in man-bull form with horns and was honored at fertility festivals. A bull sacrifice was even included as part of the Eleusinian mystery cult of Demeter and Persephone.

In Egypt the bull-cult included a wide variety of aspects including sacrificial rites, identification with the gods, and the symbol of the king and royal power. It is the most important center for bull worship in antiquity. The earliest evidence of the bull-cult in Egypt is from the pre-Dynastic period and is found in a tomb at Hierakonopolis. Tomb 100, unfortunately destroyed and only preserved in drawings, consists of a grave where a bull, cow, and calf are buried together, covered with a makeshift canopy. Wild bulls are painted on the tomb walls as well as scenes of hunting and warfare.

When Narmer unified Upper and Lower Egypt the bull became a personification of the king and a symbol of royal power. The “Bull Palette” is associated with Narmer and each side depicts the king as a bull trampling or goring his enemies. The bull was also used as a funerary decoration during the First Dynasty. Tombs 3504 and 3507 discovered at Saqqara featured bulls’ heads surrounding the perimeter of the tomb. Tomb 3504 included about 300 of these heads. At each site the bull heads were made from clay but were finished with real bull horns, similar to the plaster heads found at Çatal Hüyük. Also at Saqqara, a genuine bull skull was found buried under an altar in the funerary complex of the Step Pyramid. The bull’s skull clearly had special meaning for the Egyptians of the First Dynasty.

Apis Bull from Twenty-First Dynasty Coffin

The cult of the Apis bull also originated at Saqqara in either the First or Second Dynasty. The Apis was worshipped as the embodiment of the powerful god Ptah. The Greek historian, Herodotus, describes the Apis in the Histories, “Now this Apis, or Epaphus, is the calf of a cow which is never afterwards able to bear young. The Egyptians say that fire comes down from heaven upon the cow, which thereupon conceives Apis. The calf which is so called has the following marks: He is black, with a square spot of white upon his forehead, and on his back the figure of an eagle; the hairs in his tail are double, and there is a beetle upon his tongue”. When an Apis Bull died the priests would find a young bull with these markings and it would become the new Apis. The new Apis would then be brought to Memphis where he would be kept in luxury by the priesthood. After their death, the Apis bulls were mummified and buried in the Serapeum at Saqqara.

In the Histories, Herodotus tells the story of Cambyses, the Persian king, who mortally wounded the new Apis bull by stabbing it in the thigh during a ceremony. After he commits this sacrilegious act, Cambyses mocked the Egyptians for having” gods of flesh and blood, and sensible to steel”. The Egyptians said Cambyses was “smitten with madness for this crime”. There may indeed have been divine retribution since Herodotus says of Cambyses’ death, “the button of his sword-sheath fell off, and the bared point entered his thigh, wounding him exactly where he had himself once wounded the Egyptian god Apis”.

Under the Ptolemies, the Greek line of pharaohs in the third century BCE, the Apis was integrated with Osiris, the god of the underworld, to form the Greek influenced anthropomorphic god Serapis. Serapis was worshipped until the fall of paganism in the fourth century CE.

Besides the Apis, there were two other bull-cults in Egypt. The Buchis bull was sacred to the god Montu and was worshipped at Thebes. There is evidence these sacred bulls were buried in the Bucheum as late as 340 CE. The Mnevis bull, sacred to Re, was worshipped at Heliopolis as the living bull. Even though the bull was clearly fundamental to many Egyptian religious practices, there is no depiction of a bull-headed god like the many other animal headed gods which are part of their pantheon.

In Rome, the bull was a sacrificial victim, but also a symbol of regeneration. Roman Mithraism may have had its roots in Persia and became very popular with Roman soldiers in the first century AD. It was a mystery cult centered on the bull-slaying god Mithras where believers participated in initiation rituals held in a mithraeum, a shrine reminiscent of a cave. The cave was an important aspect in Mithraism because the god had slayed the bull in a cave.Porphyry, a Neoplatonist philosopher, said of the roots of Mithraic rites in On the Cave of the Nymphs, “not only have they made the cave a symbol of the perceptible cosmos, but they also have used the cave as a symbol of all the unseen powers, since caves are dark, and that which is the essence of the powers is invisible.”

Mithras Slaying the Bull – Tauroctony

Very little is known of the cult’s actual rites. There may have been a re-enactment of Mithras slaying the bull, as a bull hide would cover the table where the initiates shared a feast. The act of slaying the bull, tauroctony, was depicted on reliefs found in every mithraeum and symbolized transformation. Manfred Clauss in The Roman Cult of Mithras The God and His Mysteries graphically describes the act on a relief; “beneath the arching roof of the cave, Mithras, with an easy grace and imbued with youthful vigour, forces the mighty beast to the ground, kneeling in triumph with his left knee on the animal’s back or flank, and constraining its rump with his almost fully extended right leg. Grasping the animal’s nostrils with his left hand and so pulling its head upwards to reduce its strength the god plunges the dagger into its neck with his right hand. The animal’s throat rattles, the tail jerks up: it dies.” In Mithraism, the bull represents the moon, a symbol of death and rebirth. Mithras represents Sol Invictus, the invincible sun, whose sacrifice of the bull brings light and creation.

The bull-cult was clearly an integral part of many religious practices in the ancient Mediterranean. The question is why the bull, above all other animals, remained such a powerful symbol for over 15,000 years. Michael Rice in The Power of the Bull says the psychologist Carl Jung “tended to see the bull as a metaphor for brute nature, operating at a lower state of consciousness than that of fully realized humanity. He considered bull sacrifices as devices for affecting the catharsis of the ancients’ sense of their animal nature”.

Apis Bull

Of all the aspects of the bull-cult, the sacrifice was the central event. Even in Egypt, where the Apis bull was treated like a god, sacrifice was common. The killing of the bull, a highly valued animal, was done with the expectation the gods would be pleased and in exchange would bring them prosperity. Spilling the blood of this supreme animal was a sacred act that would bring rebirth or salvation to the participants of the ritual.

The origins of the bull-cult began in the darkened caves of Paleolithic Europe. Cave paintings of the divine bull, like those in Altamira, would continue in a similar form in the shrines of Çatal Hüyük. Depictions of bull-games and bull-leaping first found at Çatal Hüyük would be discovered in Egypt, and become synonymous with the Minoan culture of Crete. The bull would gain prominence in the literary traditions of Mesopotamia in The Epic of Gilgamesh and in Greek mythology through the stories of Theseus and the Minotaur and Zeus and Europa.

Beginning in Sumeria, the bull would be associated with the gods and this practice would continue in Egyptian and Greek culture. In Egyptian culture the bull would reach the pinnacle of its veneration. From the similarities of bull-influenced tomb decorations to the shrines at Çatal Hüyük, to the worship of the Apis bull as the god Ptah, Egypt was the most important center of the bull-cult in the ancient Mediterranean. Bull sacrifice was practiced throughout antiquity and its symbolism was central to Roman Mithraism. The divine bull was a symbol of fertility, the moon, and the gods, but above all a symbol of rebirth and salvation.

Public Domain Photos Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Clauss, Manfred. The Roman Cult of Mithras The God and His Mysteries. Translated by Richard Gordon. New York: Routledge, 2000.
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