Bull’s-Head Rhyton: Blood and a Second Sacrifice

Bull's-Head Rhyton, c. 1550-1450 BCE (Minoan). Steatite with shell, rock crystal, and red jasper. The gilt-wood horns are restorations. Height 12"

This past quarter, one of my ancient students did a research project on the Minoan rhyton of a bull’s head (found at the Archaeological Museum in Crete). This student found an article by Jeremy McInerny in the Winter 2011 edition of Penn Museum’s Expedition magazine  (.PDF link). This article, which is dedicated to the imagery of bulls and bull-leaping in the Minoan world, had some interesting information about this rhyton.

A rhyton is a type of vase or container which contains liquid that often is used in libation ceremonies. In the case of this bull, the rhyton is filled when liquid is poured into the bull’s neck. Then, during libation rituals, the bull’s head would be tilted forward so that liquid spew from the bull’s mouth. Although the liquid that filled rhytons is unknown (wine and water are some possibilities), I like another suggestion that McInerny mentions. He discusses how scholar Nanno Marinatos has argued that these containers actually held blood from sacrificial animals.1

McInerny explains further that these rhytons would have been like representations (or “portraits”) of the animals whose blood they contained. He writes, “The [rhytons of bulls’-heads] would have been the centerpiece of any gathering at which they were used. If such a gathering were the feast following a sacrifice at which the bull was consumed or its meat distributed, a formal libation from a vessel imitating the bull’s head would have constituted a ritual re-enactment of the bloodletting that began the sacrifice. The savagery of the animal’s slaughter was replaced with the formal dignity of the libation. The disposal of the rhyton after the ceremony amounted to a second killing.”2

The bull long fascinated ancient cultures, and I like this connection between the bull rhyton and animal sacrifices. I like to discuss with my students how this Minoan bull looks much more naturalistic than the representations of bulls which previously were created in the ancient Near East (such as the Sumerian bull’s head lyre). Given this argument about how rhytons were “portraits” of bulls that were symbolically slaughtered, I think that this emphasis on naturalism is quite appropriate. Perhaps the naturalism would have heightened not only the act of the “second” ritualistic killing, but also would have better represented and embodied the power of the bull itself.

1 Jeremy McInerny, “Bulls and Bull-Leaping in the Minoan World,” in Expedition 53, no. 3 (Spring 2011): 8. PDF of article available HERE

2 Ibid.

  • Nice post! I did enjoy your post even though I’m going to criticize McInerny’s article. And there are more detailed pix here: http://www.squinchpix.com/searchn.php?zoom_query=bull,rhyton&zoom_and=1

    I read Jeremy McInerney’s article and I would say that since we cannot read their texts any statement about the Minoans is likely to be extremely sketchy. He himself admits this. In particular, I don’t think that this kind of thing is going to work:

    “…Minoan bull-leaping gave expression to a tension that underlies man’s somewhat tenuous mastery of nature, reaffirmed each time human triumphs over animal.”

    I think that any tough Minoan farmer would be very surprised to learn that he had only a ‘tenuous mastery’ over his bulls.

    It’s more likely that bull-leaping was a profit-center for the priesthood and bull-sacrifice was a carefully regulated release of high-quality protein into part or all of the community. (Roy Rappoport, Pigs for the Ancestors, 1958, rep. 1984) But these, too, are guesses.

    What we need for the ancient world is not a tiresome and laborious re-hashing of commonly-accepted ideas. We don’t need an ever more nuanced interpretation of their myths. What we need is an anthropology .. a real anthropology … one that begins with a deep understanding of their agricultural year and how they related to their land. There IS such a thing as anthropology and it’s time that its insights made head-way in the areas of (en faut de meilleur) intellectual history .

    Did rhytons hold bull’s blood? Don’t know. Why would celebrants pour blood? Not sure. What would they pour it on? Don’t know that either. Did people leap over bulls? Yeah, pretty sure. Why would they do that? Maybe to impress girls? It’s, like, cosmological, man.

    And I suggest that McInerny re-think his idea that a wine vessel, weighing 6.6 lbs. when full, is too heavy to be a drinking vessel.

    They may not do that at the Dean’s soiree but any frat brother could clue him in.


  • Sorry. Roy Rappaport.

  • Hi Bob! Thanks for your thoughtful and witty comment. I agree that there is room for a lot of anthropological innovation when it comes to interpreting ancient societies, especially for the Minoans. The Minoans are tricky to analyze in many instances, since we can’t read their texts. (But the lack of written evidence hasn’t stopped anthropologists from reassessing prehistoric art in recent years; McCoid and McDermott came up with a ground-breaking argument regarding the prehistoric “Venus” figurines, in which they argue that these statuettes were made by women looking at their own bodies).

    I haven’t read the Roy Rappaport article, but I look forward to reading it. That argument about protein sounds interesting.

    I tend to like the argument that the bull is a representation of nature (and the power of nature). I really like the argument put forward by Vincent Scully put forward in his case study “The Great Goddess and the Palace Architecture of Crete” (in “Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany,” p.32-43). Scully finds that the so-called Knossos Palace, and other Minoan “palaces” too, were oriented along an axis with a double-peaked mountain. Scully finds that this double-peaked mountain imagery can be interpreted in many ways, including the horns of a bull. I think this is one way that the mountains (i.e. nature) were seen as embodiments of the bull and vice-versa. (Scully also thinks that the bull-leaping ceremonies would have taken place in the open courtyards of these palaces, so that participants would be on a physical axis with the horned mountain when symbolically-aligning themselves with nature.)

    Although I think that McInerney’s word choice of “somewhat tenuous mastery” might not be the best, I can see how one would believe that Minoans found themselves subordinate to or dependent upon the power that is embodied in nature. That being said, I am open to new interpretations that will come along. One reason I love Minoan art is that there is a lot of room for new interpretations and ideas.


  • Hi Albertis Window!
    A more, uh, nuanced view of my views on BA scholarship:

    best to you,

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.