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A bull-leaper somersaults over the horns of a charging bull. Scene from Wrath of the Gods.

bull-leaping. Acrobatic feats performed over the horns and back of a bull. From abundant archaeological evidence it is clear that some sport or ceremony involving acrobats and bulls was practiced in ancient Crete. And from the myth of Theseus, one might conclude that the acrobats were captives or sacrificial victims, whose athleticism and timing might have spelled the difference between gory death and popular adulation by the Knossos throngs.

Historians have long speculated on the scant likelihood of anyone grabbing the horns of a charging bull and vaulting up onto or over its back, even with the aid of a "catcher" standing by to steady the leap to the ground. It has been pointed out that bulls tend to make a sideways sweeping gesture with their horns, the force and speed of which impales anyone within reach.

But the long-horned Cretan bull of ancient times may have been a more sluggish creature, bred perhaps for the usefulness of this trait in ritual. Or the bulls may have been drugged for the sport. Still, it is not hard to see how a successful bull-leaper would have been treated like a celebrity in the halls of Knossos.