Sardinia and the ancient Cult of the Bull

Sardinia with its dramatic coastline of rose-pink granite and white limestone, azure and emerald coloured waters and sun kissed climate is one of the greatest jewels of the Mediterranean. It teems with wildlife that seek out its lagoons and saline marshlands, the dense green shrub that fringe the coastline, or the forests of the mountainous interior. Prickly pear figs grow by the roadside along with fragrant frangipani, and cork forests abound in the north. The Romans mined its salt and the Phoenicians exploited its minerals, but before they arrived the island already had a fully fledged and highly developed culture that had itself evolved from the Neolithic farming communities which arrived from the Levant during the sixth millennium B.C.E.

Volumetric goddess figurine

These people brought with them sheep, goats, pigs and most importantly, cattle, and they knew how to farm the land and harvest its natural abundance. Later known as the Bonuighinu culture, they made pottery decorated with plant and geometric motifs, and tools and ornaments from bones. They worshipped the Mother Goddess in her guise as bountiful giver of life and abundance, as the presence of volumetric statuettes attests. They also built small megalithic circles and used red ochre in burials to symbolise menstrual blood.

Hypogeum temple at Anghelu Ruhu

This culture developed into the Ozieri culture, famous for the building of large necropolis, known as domus de janas, or fairy houses, where elaborate underground tombs were hewn into the limestone and used to bury the dead. These hypogeum were carefully constructed and sometimes sculpted in relief, even painted, and many sacred objects have been found within including thinner and more planar goddess figurines. At Anghelu Ruhu, occupied between 3500 to 1800 B.C.E. there are numerous well preserved ‘fairy houses’ and an underground temple, or hypogeum, with two pillars one of which is carved with the image of bull horns. These bucranium, or bovine protomes as the archaeologists call them, is one of the most prolific, and enduring, symbol to be found on the island, continuing throughout the Chalcolithic, until well into the Bronze Age when bull’s horns are depicted in relief on Nuragic tombs.

Hall of Bulls, Lascaux

The depiction of bulls as sacred animals is extremely ancient and deeply ingrained in the collective unconscious. In around 15,000 B.C.E., aurochs (the ancestor of our contemporary bulls) were painted in exquisite relief in the caves at Lascaux, featured in the famous Hall of the Bulls. Though wild and fierce, the auroch migrated at certain times of the year when they could be hunted for meat more easily, and also provided prized horn and hide. 

Bucranium at Catal Huyuk

Later, in around 7,000 B.C.E. bull paintings were used to decorate the northern wall of houses in the Anatolian village of Catal Huyuk. Sometimes they are shown being born of the Goddess, emphasising that is She who is the matrix from which all things emerge, the primal creatrix who needs no consort. There were also numerous intact bucranium hanging from the walls, which could symbolise (because of their shape) the primal uterus that gives birth to everything, and to which all life will one day return. Later when cattle became fully domesticated during the Neolithic, and when humans developed the gene that could enable them to digest raw cow’s milk, they became the nourisher par excellence, with milk being one of the elixirs of life.

Bull leaping, Knossos

The bull cult spread throughout the Mediterranean during the late Chalcolithic age, presumably transmitted via seafarers on trade routes. Most notably, the sumptuous palace of Knossos in Crete was adorned with frescoes of bulls and depicted in detail the sacred rite of bull jumping. In Egypt during the Pyramid Age, the Apis bull was considered to be the embodiment of the god Ptah and so sacred it was allowed to roam freely in the palace. After its (sacrificial) death, it was embalmed and kept in the huge Serapeum in Saqqara, which can still be seen to this day.

Nuraghe Giant’s tomb, Coddu Vecchiu

With the dawn of the Bronze Age, the Nuragic civilisation of Sardinia inherited an aspect of the bull cult. They built the famous cyclopean towers dotted over the island, but they also buried their (important) dead in long gallery graves, adorned with a row of huge stellae at the front (giant’s tombs). These standing stones form a semi-circular shape, and it has been suggested that they are deliberately curved to resemble bull’s horns. Also, when viewed from above, the complex bears a distinct resemblance to a bucranium, which again could be symbolic of a primal uterus of birth and death. Furthermore, it is also possible that these giant’s tombs (e.g. Coddu Vecchio near Arzachena) were aligned to the Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. This would then add a whole new dimension to the meaning associated with the bovine protomes.

Orion the Hunter and Taurus

During the period 4000 to 2000 B.C.E, the sun rose on the Spring Equinox against the stellar background of Taurus, ‘blinding’ the constellation. We call this the astrological age of Taurus, and there is evidence that the Bronze Age cultures of the Mediterranean also shared this understanding. In the night sky, Taurus is adjacent to that of Orion the Hunter, and consists of a  U-shaped muzzle (the stars of the Hyades) and two ‘horns.’ The brightest star, Aldebaran, looks like an eye, and has been described in cosmic myths as the angry red eye of the bull looking at Orion. It is entirely feasible that the protomes, which just consist of a shout and horns, are also symbolic of the constellation of Taurus and therefore reflect an understanding of the precession of the ages.

Bull’s horns carving, Elephant Rock

None of these interpretations are exclusive; symbols are powerful precisely because they have dual, or multi layered meanings, and often function on many levels. And they change over time, as the religious beliefs of people evolve or adapt. The wild auroch was important to our ancestors as though it was fierce and wild, it could be hunted for precious meat, hide and horn. With domestication, the bull became a symbol of fertility and virility, but could also be easily tamed and was associated with farming and agriculture. On Sardinia, as in the wider Mediterranean milieu, the bucranium could have been a symbol of the Great Goddess, the matrix from which all things arose, including the fecundity and fertility of the Earth, which gifted them cattle and the nourishment in the form of meat and milk, the giver of life and primal uterus to which all things eventually returned. Then during the Bronze Age, when the sun rose in the constellation of Taurus at the Spring Equinox, the heavens mirrored what was happening below and the cult of the bull took on a broader stellar dimension now linked more to sacrifice and bloodshed, and reflecting the turmoil and trauma of that Age.

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