Thursday, February 28, 2013

Creature of the Month: The Minotaur and Other Sacred Bulls by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart

Minotaur by OZ

Sacred Bulls

The sacred bull of the Hattians, whose elaborate standards were found at Alaca Höyük alongside those of the sacred stag, survived in the Hurrian and Hittite mythologies as Seri and Hurri (“Day” and “Night”)—the bulls who carried the weather god Teshub on their backs or in his chariot, and who grazed on the ruins of cities.1

Fig. 1. Womb and fallopian tubes as a bull-head.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the bull was regarded as a lunar creature, due to the crescent shape of its horns. The bucranium (“bull’s head”) was also symbolic of the womb and fallopian tubes, which were often inscribed upon its surface. (Fig. 1) Indeed, the Egyptian word for bull, ka, also means the life-force or soul. Bull skulls were prominently displayed in temples and on altars throughout the Near and Middle East—sometimes covered with clay in a semblance of flesh. Neolithic sanctuaries in Çatalhöyük in eastern Anatolia (Turkey), Crete, and Cyprus featured bull-horned stone altars, and masks made of bull skulls were worn in fertility rites. The legend of the Cretan Minotaur may very well have been inspired by these ritual costumes.

Fig. 2. Minotaur by Joe Butt.

      The Minotaur (Greek, “Bull of Minos”) was a ferocious monster with the body of a powerful man and the head of a carnivorous bull. His name was Asterion, and he was the hideous cannibalistic offspring of Crete’s Queen Pasiphaeë and a beautiful white bull from the sea that King Minos had refused to sacrifice to Zeus. The queen’s unnatural lust for the bull was inflicted as divine punishment for the offense. Minos kept Asterion in an underground maze called the Labyrinth designed by the brilliant architect Daedalus (best known for fabricating wax and feather wings for himself and his son, Icarus) specifically to imprison the beast. Minos fed Asterion on tributory sacrifices of Athenian youths (seven boys and seven girls every nine years) until the hero Theseus entered the Labyrinth (aided by princess Ariadne, who gave him a ball of thread to lay down as a trail) and slew the monster.

Fig. 3. Theseus killing the Minotaur. Greek vase painting.

      But even before he faced the fearsome bull-man, Theseus had to capture the ancient and sacred Marathonian Bull, 26 miles outside of Athens. And famous frescoes adorning the walls of Crete’s Knossos necropolis depict athletic youths of both sexes catapulting over charging bulls by grasping their horns. These appeared to have been funeral games, and fatalities were probably high.

Fig. 4. Bull-leaping fresco from Knossos.

Bulls of Heaven

      Crete was also the place where all-father Zeus, in the guise of a magnificent white bull, brought the Phoenician princess Europa, after arising from the sea and abducting her from her homeland across the waves. Their children became the Europeans, and the constellation of Taurus, the bull, commemorates this legend.

Fig. 5. The constellation of Taurus the bull.

      In the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Gugalana (or Gudanna) was Anu’s monstrous Bull of Heaven. Gugalana was the first husband of the Goddess of the Underworld, Ereshkigal, and his poisonous breath could kill 200 warriors. Anu sent him to plague the city of Uruk as punishment for King Gilgamesh having rejected the advances of his daughter, the goddess Inanna. Gilgamesh and his companion, Enkidu the wild man, fought and butchered him, but in retaliation, Anu caused Enkidu to sicken and die. This is another reference to the constellation Taurus, and the precession of the Equinoxes.

Fig. 6. Gilgamesh with the Bull of Heaven.

      A similar myth involving the slaying of the great Bull of Heaven (the constellation Taurus) forms the basis of Mithraism—a very widespread cult throughout the Roman Empire that was the primary competition with early Christianity in the 2nd-4th centuries ce. A representation of the tauroctony (“killing of the bull”) was depicted in every Mithraeum (temple). This is another reference to the precession of the equinoxes, referring to the transition of the vernal equinoctial sun from Taurus to Aries around 2300 bce.2  Some historians have suggested that the sport of bullfighting in Spain and southern France originated in this cult.

Fig. 7. Mithras slaying the Bull of Heaven

In the depiction [of the tauroctony], Mithras, wearing a Phrygian cap and pants, slays the bull from above while looking away. A serpent that symbolizes the earth and a dog seem to drink from the bull's open wound (which often spills blood but occasionally grain), and a scorpion (sign for autumn) attacks the bull's testicles sapping the bull for strength. Typically, a raven or crow is also present, and sometimes also a goblet and small lion. Cautes and Cautopates, the celestial twins of light and darkness, are torch-bearers, standing on either side with their legs crossed, Cautes with his brand pointing up and Cautopates with his turned down. Above Mithras, the symbols for Sol and Luna are present in the starry night sky.
The scene seems to be astrological in nature. It has been proposed by David Ulansey that the tauroctony is a symbolic representation of the constellations… the bull is Taurus, the snake Hydra, the dog Canis Major, the crow or raven Corvus, the goblet Crater, the lion Leo, and the wheat-blood for the [red] star Spica. The torch-bearers may represent the two equinoxes... Mithras himself could also be associated with Perseus, whose constellation is above that of the bull.3

Other Mythic Bulls

      Egyptian mythology includes several sacred bulls. Most important was certainly Apis (also Hap, or Greek, Epaphus), a gigantic black bull sacred to the creator-god Ptah. He was represented as bearing a solar disk between his horns, with a white square or triangle on his face, a Scarab under his tongue, and a white eagle upon his back. As the embodiment of Ptah and later of Osiris, Apis was represented in Memphis by a living bull who bore certain sacred markings, and whose mother had been struck by lightning. He was housed in the temple for his lifetime, and upon death, was mummified and entombed in a giant sarcophagus at Zaqqara, city of the dead.

Fig. 8. The Apis bull

      Another Egyptian sacred bull was Merwer (or Mnevis, Greek, Menius, or Bull of Meroe), herald and avatar of the sun-god Atum-Ra. Like Apis, he was represented at Heliopolis by a magnificent living bull that was mummified upon his death.

Buchis (Greek, “Bull;” also Bukhe, Bukhe See) was a great bull in Egyptian mythology, sacred to the god Menthu at his temple at Hermonthis. His hair grew backwards, and changed color every hour of the day.

Aatxe— A terrifying red bull in the Basque folklore of Spain. Dwelling among the canyons, caves and gorges of the Pyrenees Mountains, he comes out on stormy nights to harass travelers. His younger self was called Aatxegorri. He is the nemesis of all Unicorns in Peter Beagle’s fantasy novel and movie, The Last Unicorn (1968). His mate is Beigorri, a crimson cow.

Fig. 9. The Red Bull from the animated film, “The Last Unicorn.”

Apres— A Heraldic bull with a short tail like that of a bear.

Fig. 10. Apres

Donn of Cuálgne— (also Donn Tarbh, “Brown Bull”) The gigantic magickal bull of the Irish national epic, the Tain bó Cuáilgne (“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”). “50 youths engaged in games on his fine back, finding room every evening to play draughts and engage in riotous dancing.” He screened 100 warriors “from heat and cold under his shadow and shelter.” “His musical lowing every evening as he returned to his shed and byre was music enough and delight enough for a man in the north and south and in the west and in the middle of the cantered of Cooley.” His lowing alone was enough to put all the cows who heard him in calf.

Hadhayōsh— (also Hadhayāoshi or Sarsaok) A mighty ox in the Zoroastrian mythology of ancient Persia, who carried the first humans over the primal ocean. At the time of the Frashkart—the ending of all things—its fat will be used to create an elixir of immortality called haoma for the resurrection of the righteous.

Itherther A titanic primal buffalo in the mythology of the Kabyl people of Algeria, whose seed engendered all the wild animals of the Earth.

Kudan— A kind of inverted Minotaur, Kudan is a human-headed bull from Japanese folklore, with three eyes on each side of its body, and horns down its back. It always spoke truth, and was sought out as an oracle of things to come.

Fig. 11. Kudan

Kujata— The vast and mighty bull in Moslem myth who stands astride the cosmic fish Baharmut. Kujata bears a gigantic glowing ruby on his back, upon which stands the angel who carries the Earth on his shoulders. Kujata is said to have 4,000 eyes, 4,000 ears, 4,000 mouths, 4,000 nostrils, and 4,000 legs!

Nandi— A gigantic milk-white bull in Hindu mythology who is the steed of the god Shiva and leader of the Ganas. He is also the protector of all animals, and his consort is the cow Nandini.

Fig. 12. Nandi bull

And finally, we must include Babe—the giant ox companion of legendary logger Paul Bunyan. Originally Babe was a white ox, but turned blue under the snow of the Winter of Blue Snows. He was 93 hands high and his feet were so big that he is credited with creating the holes that became Lakes Michigan and Oregon. Babe’s favorite food was hay, baling wire intact! He died after eating all the pancakes in camp—including the burning stove they were being grilled on. The mound that Paul raised over his grave is the Dakota Badlands.

Fig. 13. Babe, Paul Bunyan’s giant blue ox.

Minotaurs in the Movies

Time Bandits (1981) Minotaur
Hercules in the Maze of the Minotaur (TV-1994) Minotaur
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Minotaur
Minotaur (2006) Minotaur


1.  Hawkes, Jacquetta, & Woolley, Leonard: Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization, v. 1, Harper & Row, 1963
2.  Santillana, Giorgio De, Hamlet’s Mill, Harvard University Press, 1969
3.  Wikipedia, “Mithraism,” (2007)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...