The bull in the ancient world

For thousands of years, the symbol of the bull has been surrounded with a mythical aura that spans not only eons of history, enduring to the present day, but also the vast range of cultures that have emerged in the Mediterranean world. The legends and cults woven around the bull and the integral part that this wondrous, almost divine, animal played in people’s lives is the subject of «The Bull in the Mediterranean World, Myths and Legends» at the Benaki Museum. An exhibition on antiquities from paleolithic to Christian times (objects have been loaned from the Louvre Museum, the British Museum, the Ashmoleon Museum, the Cyprus Museum and archaeological museums in Greece), it is jointly organized by the Museu d’Histoira de la Ciutat in Barcelona, where it was also originally shown, and is held in Athens under the auspices of the Cultural Olympiad. Broad in scope, the exhibition looks at images of the bull as a symbol of fertility and power, a divine entity and an object of both fear and veneration associated with ancient rites of passage, beliefs on the origins of the world and the afterlife, as well as with the life of a community. The exhibition contains a wealth of ideas, reflects the semiotics of myths, the cultural crossovers and values of all the different civilizations that developed in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean basin, from the Sumerian to the Italic, Iberian and Roman pre-Christian cultures, and throughout the regions of Cyprus, Palestine, Assyria-Babylonia, Persia, Anatolia and Egypt. As is often the case with exhibitions that cover such extensive ground, the display of antiquities at the Benaki Museum cannot fully unravel this web of ideas. This is why the exhibition revolves around selected general points and is structured in themed sections to facilitate the viewer’s understanding. The supplementary catalog provides further, in-depth analysis through specialists’ essays. Painted or engraved bulls on the walls of paleolithic caverns suggest that from prehistoric times, the bull was associated with cosmic energy and the forces of life and death. In Anatolia, the bull was worshiped as the son of the mother-goddess, and its horns, which supported the world, were seen as the pillars of the universe. This concept was probably the origin of horns as a mark of divinity. In Mesopotamia, for instance, gods occasionally had bulls’ ears and, with almost no exception, wore a diadem with bulls’ horns. Another example, included in the exhibition, is the Hellenistic head of Zeus-Amon, a new Egyptian deity that emerged with the cultural fusion that followed Egypt’s conquest by Alexander the Great. The bulls’ horns that sprout from the head is again an attribute of divinity. The Roman deity Jupiter was portrayed, like other celestial gods of Syria and Palestine, with one or two bulls. In one of the exhibition’s more unusual objects, a Roman emperor is portrayed with a bull’s head, a sign of the emperor’s divine nature. In Egypt, the bull was also worshiped as a divine animal, with sacred bulls in various cities kept in the greatest splendor. The Buchis bull embodied both Osiris and the sun god Re while the Mnevis bull was the sacred bull of Heliopolis. The Egyptians also revered the Apis bull, the incarnation of the god Ptah or of Osiris, the god of the kingdom of the dead. The Apis bull was usually identified with the pharaoh and was involved in intricate rites of passage. Statuettes, steles and votive offerings that represent the Egyptian divine bulls are included in the exhibition. There are also numerous cult objects in the form of bulls: zoomorphic libation vessels, pottery items, horns, oil lamps or tripods that were used by different Mediterranean civilizations over time during religious rites or as votive offerings. In Cyprus, Crete and Greece in particular, statuettes of bulls, bull-headed men or priests wearing bull’s masks were used as offerings to the gods. Hundreds of them have been excavated from ancient shrines and altars. A broad selection is included in the exhibition. As an animal that was a god incarnate, which symbolized the creation of the world, the cycle of nature and fertility, power, birth and destruction, the bull was of course also a prominent figure in mythology. According to Greek legend, Zeus, in the form of a white bull, abducted Europa, daughter of King Agenor (possibly king of Phoenicia). Their union gave Zeus three sons, among them Minos, the king of Crete, who had to fight the Minotaur, the same beast that challenged Heracles in his seventh labor. The exhibition has representations of the myth on Minoan coins that show the labyrinth of Daedalus and its resident Minotaur. There is also a Classical Greek cup attributed to the painter Apollodorus which shows the Athenian king Theseus’ victory over the Minotaur. Other finds illustrate the vital role that the bull played in the life of ancient Mediterranean communities. Apparently, taurine processions were practiced in various parts of the Mediterranean basin. Chariots displaying bulls passed through fields with the intention of revitalizing the land so that it bore a rich crop. Bulls were also associated with good fortune and protection. In Sumerian Mesopotamia, for example, foundation «nails» which sometimes bore the image of a bull were buried in the foundations of temples or palaces as a way of warding off evil spirits. These dagger-like objects are just some of the various finds that exemplify the countless ways in which the image of the bull dominated the life, beliefs, customs and collective imagination of ancient Mediterranean peoples. The exhibition at the Benaki Museum unravels some of this complexity and is a steppingstone to more knowledge about what is one of the most powerful, cultural symbols of the past. «The Bull in the Mediterranean World, Myths and Legends» at the Benaki Museum (1 Koubari, 210.367.1000) to June 7.