Bull and Bull-Leaping Iconography: Knossos, Tell el-Dab’a, and Beyond

Photo: Reconstructed bull-leaping fresco from the Palatian Complex at Knossos, dated in the final Palatial period (1450-1400 BCE).

Bull and Bull-Leaping Iconography: Knossos, Tell el-Dab’a, and Beyond

By Anna Keneally


Since Arthur Evans’s discovery of the bull leaping mural at the Palatial Complex at Knossos in 1900, scholars have worked to understand the phenomenon of bull leaping, which has been documented widely, in some capacity, throughout the ancient Mediterranean basin. Through my research, I have identified patterns and parallels between many forms of bull leaping iconography, which suggests a greater interconnectivity and continuity of theme and style within these images. In this paper, I will focus on two instances of this iconography: The Knossos bull leaping mural, which dates to around 1400 BCE, and the Tell el-Dab’a Minoan frescoes, dating between 1479 and 1425 BCE. In doing so, I hope to shed light on the ancient custom of bull-leaping as well as the state of modern scholarship on this topic.

Bull cults emerged as a religious practice in the prehistoric Aegean. Archeological research has revealed that the bull was often connected to a fertility goddess. The cults were particularly important on the island of Crete.1 The earliest evidence of such a cult is believed to be from 7000 BCE in Anatolia. The shrine of this cult features wall-painting representations of bull-leaping, with skulls and horns from bulls placed alongside the wall paintings (fig. 1).2 A Hittite relief vase dating back to 1650 BCE depicts another instance of bull leaping, where a bull is being vaulted by an acrobat. To the left of this scene are other leapers, and on the other side are musicians, which seems to denote a ritualization of this practice (fig. 2). Bull leaping is also depicted in a group of Syrian seals dating between 1800 and 1700 BCE, which contain similar scenes (fig. 3). One of these seals depicts a bull trampling a fallen man. In these scenes, as well as others from Knossos, there are figures in specialized roles and also instances of trampling which allude to the dangers of the practice. The small size of the seals along with the everyday nature of their use suggests a high rate of iconographic dissemination, allowing the scene to be spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean. 

In the world of Mediterranean visual culture, bulls and lions represent power in different forms. A common artistic theme throughout the Near East is a lion attacking a bull. The most notable example of this is a carved relief at Persepolis, on the Apadana, which dates to around 500 BCE (fig. 4). The relief surrounds the exterior of the building and is used to depict the power of the Persian king. While the king is not portrayed as the lion, the image is thought to reference the power of the Persian empire, which was led by the king to overcome its enemies, thus the lion overtaking the bull. It has been suggested that the reliefs were tied to a New Years’ celebration occurring at the Apadana, with the procession bringing gifts from different domains under the empire to the king. While it is difficult to pinpoint the reliefs’ exact purpose, many interconnected ideas have been suggested. Some scholars believe the lion and bull represent the zodiac signs of leo and taurus. However, I and others believe it is more plausible to understand the lion and bull as characters in a ritualized “hunt,” often used to show royal authority and control, which would make sense in the context of the larger relief program.3 Lions were often used to represent the more regal and authoritative power that comes with being a ruler, while the bull represents the more administrative and political side of this power, which is necessary and the root of the reverence which a king receives.4 The lion attacking and biting the bull may emphasize the royal-divine connection between the Persian king and the gods. In any case, the depiction of bulls and their relationship to lions implies a level of religious and political significance to the event of bull leaping.

Modern archeological research has shifted its focus toward how bull leaping disseminated through the Mediterranean and concentrated itself in Crete, with some theories being formed through scientific discovery as opposed to iconographic reconstructions. Current DNA analysis suggests Minoan civilization began to emerge in 7000 BCE, when a large population of neolithic people migrated from Anatolia to the island of Crete.5 This theory fits well with the timeline of Anatolian bull iconography and its spread into the Aegean, where it attained its strongest footing. Crete’s island status makes it difficult for enemies to attack while enabling easy trade with the eastern and western Mediterranean. One early example of Knossian-style bull leaping is a bronze figure dating from between 1600 and 1450 BCE (fig. 5). The figure is small and thought to potentially have been used as a votive offering in a rural setting. The figure is a wax-cast bronze depicting a bull in a flying leap position with an acrobat propelling themselves over the front of the bull. A point of interest in this piece is its medium; bronze was found regularly in shipwrecks, most notably in the Uluburun shipwreck.6 This suggests a globalization of the material and the iconography because it was made in a highly shareable medium.7 

My first area of focus will be the Knossos “Palatial” complex, which dates to the Old Palatial period at around 1900 BCE but underwent continuous growth and rebuilding throughout the following centuries. The site’s purpose is a point of contention. Evans originally labeled it a palace due to his interpretation of the complex as the home of the mythical King Minos, as well as the wealth of goods and the royal iconography contained in the complex. This claim has recently been questioned and there is a stronger opinion that the complex was used as a religious center instead. Given the frequent interconnectedness of royalty and divinity, for the sake of my argument, I will assume that the complex was a place for both religious and political activity.8 During the Bronze Age, the site was redecorated many times due to either damage or change in taste. The bull leaping fresco dates to the Final Palatial Period from 1490-1360 BCE  (fig. 6).9 The piece, as seen today, is the product of extensive modern reconstruction efforts. The main fresco portrays three leapers and a bull. Two leapers are portrayed with white skin, one at the front of the bull and the other at the back. A figure portrayed with red skin is propelling themself over the bull, holding onto the animal’s midsection. The bull itself is in a flying leap position with its head lowered in a downward charge, its horns held by the white leaper closest to its head.

Scholars generally agree this scene depicts an important cultural or religious event due to the prevalence of the bull in ritualized sacrifice and its frequent placement as a sacred animal throughout the Mediterranean basin. Agreement generally ends there. Evans believed the act may have involved a form of ritual transvestigation. He came to this conclusion by making the assumption that figures with red skin are women and figures with white skin are men. This is a convention in Egyptian art, in which women are depicted with red pigmentation, but there is little evidence to suggest gender based on the forms of the figures in Knossos. Both the red and white figures wear only kilts or loincloths, neither of which are traditional clothing of women in rituals. Also, the red figures are only depicted with breasts in reconstruction sketches made by Evans’ team, never in the actual piece. This allows scholars who disagree to more confidently reject his claim.

Leapers are differentiated from each other in both Knossos and Tell el-Dab’a by color, relative size, and stance. In the depiction from Knossos, the white leapers are seen facing the bull directly, with one figure holding the bull by its horns while the bull is in a flying gallop towards him, and the other figure stretching its arms forward toward the leaper. While the act of actually leaping over the bull presents deadly challenges, the white figures’ stances seem to put them in more vulnerable positions in relation to the bull. When compared, the white figures are larger and have more defined muscular structures than their red counterparts. It has been suggested that this denotes age, maturity, or status as opposed to gender.10 The white leapers are also depicted in more elaborate costumes, with kilts and boots along with arm bands, in stark contrast to the plainer attire worn by the red figure. The white leapers also are generally depicted in Knossos in a facilitative position, rather than being directly involved in the acrobatics: they hold and stabilize the bull or stand off to the side with arms outstretched, as if directing the leaper through their motions. 

Red figures, in juxtaposition with the white figures, are smaller with less defined muscles and more often depicted in the actual act of leaping over the bull. They also wear simpler cod-pieces, sometimes with suspenders and without boots. They are never depicted facing the bull, unlike their white counterparts. Their most common positions include being in the process of vaulting the bull or reaching the ground after successfully leaping over it. In some cases, they can be seen falling after a failed attempt. The difference in size seems to suggest a difference in maturity level, with the red figures potentially being represented as younger than the white figures.11 Because I am treating the complex in which the mural is found as serving both a religious and political role, it is possible that the men depicted in the piece itself are members of the aristocracy, involved in the ritual being performed. With this, there is another potential theory that the bull leaping may have also symbolized a rite of passage for these younger members of the aristocracy. However, not enough research has been done on this subject to reach a final conclusion.

Also found at Knossos is a bull rhyton, which dates between 1550 and 1500 BCE and depicts the head and neck of a bull (fig. 7).12 Also found by Evans, its bull is both natural and somewhat stylized–natural in that it is easily recognizable as a bull that could be found in nature, but stylized in the smooth, curling hair on its neck and symmetrical composition. Measuring around 26 centimeters from the tip of its horns to the base of its neck, it is made primarily of steatite, shell, rock crystal, wood, and red jasper. The partially reconstructed rhyton is thought to have been used for libation practices within the palatial complex. Generally, libations would have been liquids like water, milk, wine, or honey for offerings to the gods. The rhyton would most likely have been used by pouring the libations into the neck and allowing the liquid to come out of its mouth. Some scholars have suggested that the object may have been used in blood sacrifice. Elizabeth Bermudes from Furman University suggests “the rhyton is a portrait of the sacrificed bull. The bull would be sacrificed and its meat distributed to the ritual attendees and the blood would be drained. The rhyton would be made to individually represent the sacrificed bull in his honor. The blood would then be poured through the portrait rhyton and into the ground as thanks.”13 This suggestion of a ritual sacrifice is plausible because of the frequency with which it occurred throughout the Mediterranean. The idea that the bull was sacrificed following the leaping also provides context for the performance. Thus, the act of leaping the bull shows man’s control over nature. The object of control is then offered as a sacrifice to the gods, who were believed to control the lives of men. 

My second area of focus is Tell el-Dab’a, which is located within the Nile Delta, an area well known for its participation in the exchange of cultures and goods, in particular its connection to Crete and Knossos. The complex found within Tell el-Dab’a probably dates to the reign of either Hatshepsut or Thutmose III, or between 1479 and 1425 BCE. The site was excavated by Manfrek Bietak in 1991 and is notably similar in style, medium, and iconography to the complex at Knossos. Similar to those in Crete, the bull leaping images on the walls have been heavily reconstructed by modern archaeologists, but prior to this they were less fragmentized than those at Knossos.14 The painting depicts a Minoan style image with a maze-like background and several bulls and leapers in different states of jumping (fig. 8). The maze pattern has been suggested to represent the pavement of the court in which the bull games occurred, but the pattern could also reference the maze-like palatial complex of Knossos.15 This Egyptian iteration is considered to be directly inspired by the painting in Knossos due to slightly later chronology and visible similarities. 

The Tell el-Dab’a wall painting was reconstructed based on fragments found on the ground of the complex. The original was made with painted lime plaster, an Aegean technique uncharacteristic of Egyptian art, which generally featured gypsum in wall paintings. Archaeologists also noted the piece did not last long because lime plaster is not as effective as gypsum when used on mud-brick walls. This may shed light on the nationality of the artist because it would be unusual for an Egyptian artist to use an Aegean technique, especially if it is ineffective on the medium to which it was being applied. Another point of interest is the use of the Minoan technique of outlining with string on wet plaster. Further, there is no evidence of the Egyptian grid technique or standard human scale. This complete lack of Egyptian techniques in the Tell el-Dab’a fresco suggests a deeper Aegean influence than would be possible from a mere exchange of ideas, which might allow for certain elements to be adapted but would probably not lead to a complete disregard for popular traditional techniques. This has led to the suggestion  that the piece was made by an Aegean artist rather than an Egyptian artist trained in Aegean practices. Furthermore, many of the pigments used in Tell el-Dab’a have also been found on Crete. For example, the blue and yellow grains that were used to make green have been identified at both Tell el-Dab’a and Knossos.16 Ann Brysbaert suggests the specific overlap of pigmentations was brought from the Aegean and eventually used for the Egyptian piece.17

On the far left side of the Tell el-Dab’a wall painting is a tan background, as opposed to the maze design that covers the rest. Depicted on this background is a bull lying in a submissive position, with one human figure holding its horns from beside it and another standing above it with their hands clenched in a position that seems to indicate smiting. This depiction seems to suggest a ritualized sacrifice of the bull following the leaping event. The tongue of the bull is sticking out in a sign of being subdued by the human figures restraining and towering over it, again as a show of man’s control over nature. The sacrifice of bulls was a regular practice within bull cults throughout the Mediterranean, with this being another potential instance of this practice alongside the main performance aspect of the event.18 The Tell el-Dab’a painting  and the bull-head libation rhyton mentioned above provide compelling evidence toward the claim that bull leaping was followed by a sacrificial ritual. Because bulls were large and expensive animals, scholars have also suggested that bull-leaping was reserved for the political elite and the aristocracy. The sacrificial scene is portrayed at a different relative scale than the rest of the painting, which could indicate more than one artist worked on the piece–a plausible idea due to the scale of the work. 

Research on bull leaping has slowed due to a lack of findings and questions about the accuracy of the renderings that researchers have relied on for so long. While many questions remain unanswered, a few preliminary conclusions can be drawn based on the available information. Based on similarities between the Knossos and Tell el-Dab’a bull leaping pieces, it is clear that there was a strong visual and cultural kione, a deep-rooted interconnectivity and exchange, between the Aegean and Egypt. Similarities in artistic style, medium, and method suggest a common artist and an interest in sharing artistic styles. Because there is little representation of Egyptian style in the Tell el-Dab’a piece, I believe the artist(s) actually came from the Aegean. Furthermore, despite the past identification of color with gender by Arthur Evans, I subscribe to the new suggestion that color instead depicts the role and age of the participants of the event. Because Evans’ claim stems from Egyptian practices, the fact that the piece does not seem to be inspired by Egyptian art makes this idea less plausible. Each figure depicted performs a specific role in the ritualized event, with the red figures acting as the leapers and the white figures acting as the facilitators of the event. This is especially clear in the Knossos piece.

As noted above, much of the work done on bull leaping is based on artistic reconstructions made over 100 years ago that have been questioned for their accuracy. This impacts the way that current research should be conducted, but, unfortunately, it is extremely difficult now to distinguish information based on reconstructions from that which is based on original findings. For example, hair styles and the potential presence of suspenders worn by the leapers appear consistently in scholarly literature but I feel there is not enough information to create a cohesive claim about what they mean because it is not clear whether these features are a product of reconstruction or the original piece. 


Anna Keneally (she/her) is a sophomore at Haverford College majoring in Classical and Near Eastern Archeology and English.



Anatolian bull leaping wall painting found in a bull cult shrine, surrounded by bull horns and skulls, dating back to around 7000 BCE.


Figure 2

A Hittite vase depicting bull leaping in a ritualized context with music, which dates back to around 1650 BCE.

Figure 3

One example of a Syrian seal that depicts a more stylized act of bull leaping, dating between 1800 and 1700 BCE. Many seals and rings were found depicting a similar phenomenon, with different states of leaping.

Figure 4

Relief piece found on the Apadana at Persepolis, depicting a lion attacking a bull. Both animals are somewhat stylized, while still staying true to many characterizing features. 


Figure 5

Bronze statue depicting a bull leaper and a bull, created through wax casting techniques. It was also found in Crete, dating between 1600 and 1450 BCE. Extremities of the figure are thought to have been lost during the casting process or due to time.


Figure 6

Minoan bull leaping fresco found in Knossos, depicting three human figures and a bull. Two white figures stand on either end of the bull, while a red figure vaults the bull. The depiction seen here has been reconstructed from fragments. 


Figure 7

Bull head rhyton dating between 1550-1500 BCE, measuring 26 centimeters from horns to the base of its neck. It is primarily made from black steatite, jasper, and mother of pearl. The piece is thought to have been involved in ritual libations. 


Figure 8

Bull leaping wall painting found in Tell el-Dab’a, which dates back to between 1479 and 1425 BCE. The piece is reconstructed from fragments and depicts different stages of bull leaping on a maze background. It also shows the submissive bull position that could potentially reference a ritualized sacrifice.



  1. “Bull cult,” Encyclopedia Britannica, last modified November 1, 2011, https://www.britannica.com/topic/bull-cult.
  2. Darci Clark, “Mediterranean bull cults,” Semiramis-Speaks.com.
  3. Rémy Boucharlat, Vijay Sathe, “the lion-bull motifs of Persepolis: The zoogeographic context,” Iranian Journal of Archeological Studies, no. 34-35-36 (2016): 75–85.
  4. Discussed by Professor Tasopoulou of Bryn Mawr College when I asked about the differences between the regality of lions and bulls.
  5. Stephanie Seiler, “DNA analysis unearths origins of Minoans, the first major European civilization,” UW News, May 14, 2013, https://www.washington.edu/news/2013/05/14/dna-analysis-unearths-origins-of-minoans-the-first-major-european-civilization/.
  6. Blue and Shapland, “The Beginning of Science and Literature (1500-700 BC): Minoan Bull Leaper,” A History of the World in 100 Objects, BBC, February 10, 2010, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b00qg5mf. 
  7. “Figure,” The British Museum, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1966-0328-1.
  8. Peter Hatch, “Knossos,” Archaeologies of the Greek Past, Brown University, last modified December 11, 2007, https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/greekpast/4796.html.
  9. Senta German, “Knossos,” Khan Academy, last modified August 25, 2020, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/aegean-art1/minoan/a/knossos.
  10. Manfred Bietak et al., Taureador scenes in tell el-dab’a (Avaris) and Knossos, (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, 2007).
  11. Maria C. Shaw and Machteld Mellink, “Bull Leaping Frescoes at Knossos and their Influence on the Tell el-Dabʿa Murals,” Austrian Academy of Sciences Press 5 (1995), https://www.jstor.org/stable/43498661.
  12. A rhyton is a ritual vessel usually used for libations in a ceremonial setting. Oftentimes, the rhytons depict stylized animals or other figures of religious significance.
  13. Elizabeth Bermudes, “Bull’s head Rhyton,” Scholar Exchange, Furman University, https://scholarexchange.furman.edu/art231/81/.
  14. In more modern research, the reconstructions of both Knossos and Tell el-Dab’a have been called into question for their accuracy. The most scrutiny has been directed towards Knossos. The bull depicted in the panel being described in this paper is now thought to be reconstructed incorrectly because it is too long and thin to fit the Minoan style of bull depictions. Often, the bulls are short and stocky as opposed to long and slender as is depicted in Knossos. This uncertainty brings into question the integrity of the entire piece. For the sake of this paper, I will base my assumptions off of the reconstruction provided, but I acknowledge room for error in my claims due to potential inaccuracies in the source material.
  15. John G. Younger, “The bull-leaping scenes from tell el-dab’a,” American Journal of Archaeology, no. 113 (2009): 479–480, doi:10.3764/aja.113.3.479.
  16. Sara Cole, “The Wall Paintings of Tell el-Dab’a: Potential Aegean Connections,” The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee, no. 1 (2010): 1, https://trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1006&context=pursuit.
  17. Ann Brysbaert, “Special Studies: A Technological Approach to the Painted Plaster of Tell el-Dab’a, Egypt: Microscopy and Scientific Analysis,” in Taureador Scenes in Tell el-Dab’a, ed. M. Bietak, N. Marinatos, C. Palivou, (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, 2007).
  18. Manfred Bietak et al., Taureador scenes in tell el-dab’a (Avaris) and Knossos, (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, 2007).



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Blue and Shapland, “The Beginning of Science and Literature (1500-700 BC): Minoan Bull Leaper.” A History of the World in 100 Objects, BBC, February 10, 2010. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b00qg5mf. 

Boucharlat, Rémy and Sathe, Vijay. “The lion-bull motifs of Persepolis: The zoogeographic context.” Iranian Journal of Archaeological Studies, no. 34-35-36 (2016): 75-85.

Brouwers, Josho. “Jumping the bull – the bull-leaping fresco from Knossos.” Ancient World Magazine. September 14, 2019. https://www.ancientworldmagazine.com/articles/jumping-bull-leaping-fresco-knossos/.

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Clark, Darci. “Mediterranean bull cults.” Semiramis-Speaks.com. https://semiramis-speaks.com/the-origins-and-evolution-of-the-bull-cult-in-the-ancient-mediterranean/.

Cole, Sara. “The Wall Paintings of Tell el-Dab’a: Potential Aegean Connections.” The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee 1, no. 1 (2010): 103-36. https://trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1006&context=pursuit.

Collon, Dominique. “Bull-Leaping in Syria.” Austrian Academy of Sciences Press 4, (1994): 81-88. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/43498164.pdf. 

“Figure.” The British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1966-0328-1.

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Shapland, Andrew. “Jumping to conclusions: Bull-leaping in Minoan Crete.” Animals and Society (2013). https://www.animalsandsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/shapland.pdf. 

Shaw, Maria C. “A bull-leaping fresco from the Nile Delta and a search for patrons and artists.” American Journal of Archaeology 113, no. 3 (2009): 471-77. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20627599.

Shaw, Maria C. and Machteld Mellink. “Bull Leaping Frescoes at Knossos and their Influence on the Tell el-Dabʿa Murals.” Austrian Academy of Sciences Press 5 (1995): 91-120. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43498661.

Younger, John G. “Bronze age representations of Aegean bull-leaping.” American Journal of Archaeology 80, no. 2 (1976): 125-37. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/503408.pdf. 

Younger, John G. “The bull-leaping scenes from tell el-dab’a.” American Journal of Archaeology 113, no. 3 (2009): 479-80. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20627600.pdf.