In the National Archaelogical Museum in Crete, a few frescoes from Minoan civilization survive. One is of two young women standing at either end of a bull and a young man (it seems) having grabbed the bull’s horns, vaulting over its back. Another metal sculpture is of a young man vaulting over the bull’s horns. No one knows the meaning of this adventure. But these two objects which survive from the late Minoan period, highlight a startling, egalitarian activity.
The bull is, interestingly, a symbol of the goddess or of a woman spirit guide between the worlds. Marija Gimbutas, who has written on the Civilization of the Goddess, has a striking Cretan image of a bull with a butterfly between its horns.
But clearly, young women and men engaged in the dangerous bull dancing together. They did not destroy the bull. That particular ritual of manhood, matador against bull (where rarely the matador is felled) was a 3400 year later Spanish ritual. If we consider the labyrinth at Knossus to be a cemetery, these images were meant to remind the dead of the practices of the living (see here).
But these Cretan practices have a resonance in Plato which has so far not been noticed among Plato or Greek scholars, In book 5 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates speaks of three proposals characteristic of the ideal city, the “city in speech.” Each is met, as if Odysseus opposed by Homer’s Poseidon, with a wave of ridicule. The first is that woman should be among the guardians, a sharp abridgment of Athenian patriarchy and reminiscent of Crete (actually, the women were the leaders, especially spiritually in Crete). The second is that women and men should wrestle naked together. The third is for a philosopher-king or tyrant, ruling without laws.
The second proposal is meant to evoke ridicule. Naked wrestling together suggests sex. Straussians like Allan Bloom in his Interpretation in his translation of the Republic think this proposal is simply comic and perhaps it is; he even foolishly suggests that the whole city in speech is designed to show the impossibility of the rule of the wise. Supposedly Plato is writing to counter Aristophanes, to outcomic the Clouds. Also a sexist, Strauss in the City and Man thinks the first two proposals are not serious but only the third one – for the philosopher-tyrant - is.
Bloom’s suggestion about Aristophanes, however, seems off the point. Aristophanes famously mocked the rule of women – though the sex strike against war in Lysistrata has also some seriousness to it – in Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae (Assemblywomen).
But Plato is a great reshaper of stories. And as Shakespeare says in the Tempest of a father in the sea: “nothing of him but doth change/into something rich and strange.” One must know the story Plato alters, to see the transformation in its richness and strangeness.
In his satire of women and men wrestling naked, however, Plato pretty clearly means to mock the practices of matriarchal Crete in which young women and men grabbed the bull by the horns – the practice probably gave rise to this English phrase – and vaulted over his back. This is nothing rich and strange, but instead, a kind of sniggering. Perhaps, however, Plato means something serious, too, even with this story. Perhaps, he seeks to emphasize some role for women among the guardians, like that of Diotima in the Symposium who teaches Socrates about love (she is the philosopher, Socrates the interlocutor), Still, strikingly, it is the Cretan practice itself, lost in Plato, which has the richness and strangeness of equality. Women, the leaders of all things in the Cycladic islands and Crete, took part in a ceremonial athletics with men (it is doubtful that this dangerous practice, in which many participants were probably gored, was simply athletic). More deeply, as in the Timeaus’s distortion of Atlantis (here), it is the earlier island civilization and the egalitarian rule of women which Plato’s satire distorts and pretty clearly, means to bury.